My child is now ten. He transitioned at the age of five. By eighteen months I knew that this child, my fourth daughter, was different from the first three. In particular, she was very boyish, a characteristic which I had never thought about much before. Until Izzy, there were a lot of things I never thought about.
One of Izzy's first sentences, even before she was two, was, "Me a boy, Mama." I thought her confusion was cute. By the age of three, I discussed the issue with our pediatrician. By age five, I was in the doctor's office again, and consulting a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist, who came with great credentials and was the head of the pediatric psych association here in Oregon, had no clue how to handle the situation. Our final meeting with him concluded with him stating: "For God's sake, just let her be a lesbian." Of course by this time I knew that gender and sexual identity were two different things. I was upset that there was so little help for children like mine, nor did I know of any other children like mine.
I then went to an endocrinologist, who drew some blood from Izzy for lab work. When discussing the results, we found that my child had been making both sets of hormones, estrogen and testosterone, in equal parts. We learned that in a child so young, however, hormones can ebb and flow, and that this was not conclusive to anything. So what could we think? The endocrinologist said our child was transgender, but that we should not let a lab test alter our path. In short, we should continue to do what is right for Izzy.
So what was right for Izzy? I had no idea. I consulted the Internet and found a gender therapist, who in turn recommended a child specialist. This specialist, Cat Pivetti, has been and continues to be our lifesaver, helping us navigate life with an intersexed, transgender child. As a result, Izzy feels loved and confident about who he is.
My parents and siblings were great through the whole thing. My current husband, Izzy's step dad, was on board before me, and his parents have been supportive as well. The only person who had great difficulty with the transition was my ex-husband. In part due to our differences around supporting Izzy's gender expression, a terrible custody battle ensued. I am happy to say that I gained full custody. My ex spent several years in therapy himself, and, after almost six years, was able to accept Izzy completely. Their relationship has grown as a result. I realize that it is not very often when a custody battle involving a transgender child goes as well as mine did. Luckily, I utilized a great lawyer, a therapist, and a parent coordinator, all who worked very hard. It definitely paid off for Izzy, and for our entire family.
In some ways, and to many observers, my child's transition seemed to have happened overnight. But Izzy has always been a boy dressed like a girl. Kindergarten was the beginning of the transition, and it really hit home when we realized he was having difficulty navigating bathrooms there. In fact, he would rather have peed his pants than use the girls' restroom. At one point we were told Izzy wanted to be a boy because he saw this as strength and power. I knew in my heart Izzy did not want to be a boy, he was a boy--a boy trapped in a girl's body.
By Christmas time of that first school year, my child was extremely depressed. He never played with other kids at school, because he didn't fit in with the girls or the boys. In fact, most kids had a hard time telling what Izzy was: a boy dressed like a girl or a very boyish girl.
Around this time, Izzy would lay in bed every night and tell me he was a boy. He'd say, "God made a mistake," or ask, "Why does God hate me?" He also asked questions like "Why won't my penis pop out, it hurts up there" and even, "Am I going to be an abominable snow man?" (This last question stemmed from Izzy unfortunately overhearing a conversation in which one of the church ladies stated that Izzy was "an abomination of God.") I had no idea how to answer all of his questions.
I knew the therapy we had originally tried was failing, because my child was more and more unhappy, and, in retrospect, possibly suicidal. And then one Sunday it happened. We are not churchgoers, but my ex-husband attends a church that is not exactly "welcoming." The kids were with my ex, who was trying to put a dress on Izzy to get ready for church. After tantrums from both my ex-husband and Izzy, Tyfany, Izzy's older sister, found Izzy standing in the middle of a somewhat busy street. When she asked him what he was doing, he said he would rather die than be a girl. I realized then that I had a suicidal five-year-old child who needed help.
So, I started letting Izzy be a boy at home, wearing what- ever clothes he wanted, and playing with whatever toys he chose. Most of these things had previously been removed from our home after some really bad advice from ill-informed "experts." We had been trying for a while to have everything be "female" around the house, and we even created a special "girls' club." I think Izzy would have loved to have been a girl just so this terrible nightmare would end. In fact, he really tried to act like a girl for a while to appease us, yet would always say things like, "See I could make a cute girl if I wanted to, but I'm really a boy." It took a while for us to really get that message.
One day my husband, Izzy's stepdad Buzz, was having a hard time getting Izzy ready for school. He decided to just let Izzy wear the boys' shirt with the car on it that day. His message on my phone went something like, "Honey don't be mad, I know we said not to let Izzy wear boys' clothes out of the house, but I had to get the kid to school." Later there was another message: "You're not going to believe this, but Izzy is playing with other kids! It's amazing. I can't believe it." Izzy never played with other kids; he never had friends. Not a girl and not a "real" boy, Izzy never fit in and usually felt isolated and depressed. It seemed as though this were about to change.
When I asked Izzy later if he was teased that day for wearing boys' clothes, he replied that only one kid had said anything, and it was only to tell him he was wearing a boys' shirt. No teasing ever ensued. By that spring Izzy had transitioned, and later that summer, we used only male pronouns when referring to him. Izzy was so happy, and we had a huge birthday party of all his friends from school. This was the turning point. Many of the kids' parents who attended did not have a clue about Izzy's gender, and some people were upset by this. Was Izzy a boy or a girl? I have had many conversations like this along the way.
I knew I would have a rough road ahead, particularly when it came to school and my ex-husband. And I did have moments of really missing my daughter Isabelle, who in reality was never there. I always had the same child. Where was my mind? How could I miss a little girl who was never a little girl?
Now, my kids and I are so close. The whole experience has bonded us as a family. I learned so much about myself and how strong "just a mom" can be. When facing folks like school directors, I go in with my head held high and tell them what my child needs, instead of them telling me. I have consulted with transgender experts and have worked hard at Izzy's school educating administrators and parents about what transgender means, about my child's legal rights and what is and is not OK to ask or say.
This hasn't been easy, but I have stayed strong, kept my guard up, and continued to intervene before any problem ever touches my child. My child is unaware of the many meetings it takes to keep his life safe.
It has been almost six years since my child began his transition at school. He continues to use the boys' restroom, he plays on an all-boys' basketball team, and he is completely recognized as a boy. There has never been teasing, nor bullying.
We live in a small town, and at one point, everyone was aware of my child being "different." I know this is very challenging for many parents of trans children. But if you are a nice person, and let people know that this sort of thing happens, and that you are doing what the experts say is in the best interest of your child, they tend to shut up. I don't ask people what's between their child's legs, and they don't ask me about Izzy.
This last fall, Izzy had an implant placed, which will last for a year, to stop puberty. We plan on letting Izzy call the shots when it comes to hormones and all that. Izzy checks in with his very supportive therapist once a month and I believe it's still very important for Izzy to talk regularly to a professional whom he has known for years.
I also want Izzy to know he is not alone, so he has frequent play dates with other children like him, and we always go to gender conferences. I also use two web groups to help me through the experience.
I think parents of trans kids are the best parents ever. They unconditionally love their children, even when they don't completely understand what their child is going through. So, my advice to other parents is really just to love their child, no matter what, and to stay strong. This is not about you or your religion and beliefs; it's about your child. And get a great therapist, and an even better lawyer. Never let anyone question you. If your child is happy and a nice person, then you are doing the right thing.
Tracie Stratton was raised in Oregon with religious beliefs that are nondenominational, but include a touch of Catholic and New Age spirituality. Her childhood was good. She has very tolerant parents, who never spanked her, and tried to be as nonjudgmental as they could be. This helped her to accept all her children and love them in an unconditional way.
This piece is excerpted with permission from Transitions of the Heart: Stories of Love, Struggle, and Acceptance by Mothers of Transgender and Gender Variant Children, collected and edited by Rachel Pepper (Cleis Press)