Raising a Transgender Child
Two local moms open up about parenting a transgender child — and what they’ve learned about loving your children for exactly who they are
Note: To protect the identities of these families, we are using only first names and have changed the children's names.
The first big sign came when Connie and her family were on a vacation house swap. The vacation home had plenty of tutu skirts, dolls and dress-up clothes for the kids to play with, but no typical boy toys. The couple’s middle child, 3-year-old Sarah, was thrilled. James, their 5-year-old son was, too.
“James said, ‘I want to wear this tutu around,’” Connie says. “I think in my mind I was just sort of like, hey, this is a phase.”
As time passed and James’s preference for feminine play increased, Connie admits it gave her some anxiety.
“I was concerned about people judging me and judging my child. James would get looks from people.” Eventually, James said, “I don’t want to wear these dress-up tutus. Will you buy me some real dresses? I don’t have to wear them outside of the house.”
That James recognized a preference for feminine clothes as unconventional was the turning point.
“That’s when we realized this was not just a phase; when we realized that James was happier when we were allowing her to express herself this way,” Connie says. “James has always been a really overly sensitive, sweet, gentle, but very happy kid. For her to think that it wasn’t OK for her to be herself, wherever, broke my heart. It made me take a good hard look in the mirror at myself,” she says.
It also launched Connie and her family on a journey to help their young child explore gender identity and navigate unchartered territory, while making sure their child can grow up happy, healthy and feeling loved.
Answering the Question: Is my Child Transgender?
For Ashley, another Charlotte mom of two, Connie’s experience is very familiar. Her youngest child, Taylor, was 4 years old when Ashley started to notice that he had a preference for very feminine pretend play.
“Then ‘Frozen’ came along,” she laughs. “Taylor was obsessed with Elsa! She wanted an Elsa dress, so we bought her the ‘Frozen’ dress. And then we bought her the ‘Frozen’ wig, too, with the braid. That thing did not come off her head for a month straight.”
Of course, there’s more to being transgender than dress-up preferences and playing with dolls. Individuals whose biological sex, gender expression, and gender identity neatly align, often are referred to as “cisgender.” Transgender can describe anyone whose identity or behavior falls outside of stereotypical gender norms.
More narrowly defined, transgender refers to an individual whose gender identity does not match his or her assigned birth gender. Being transgender does not imply any specific sexual orientation (attraction to people of a specific gender). Therefore, transgender people may additionally identify with a variety of other sexual identities as well.
“Gender identity is a deep sense of who you are. And that’s in your brain,” Ashley says. “My child, Taylor, gets up in the morning, and she sees herself in the mirror as much as a girl as the rest of us, even though she was born with a different part. It’s not that there’s something wrong with you. It’s not a mental disorder. It’s the way you’re born.”
But getting an official diagnosis of gender dysphoria —the transgender spectrum — can be tricky. Pediatricians aren’t always equipped to offer advice. Many therapists who specialize in gender don’t treat children. This is all complicated by the fact that gender identity is on a spectrum.
“It could be your child identifies as male but may express himself as female. All the way to the other end: Your child could be transgender,” Ashley says. “Taylor was so young; you kind of live in this gray area. That period of time was difficult for us. We didn’t know where we were on that spectrum. You’re just going to kind of let your child lead.”
Navigating the Transition
Connie and Ashley both took the wait-and-see approach, letting their children’s comfort level and preferences guide them. It took about a year, but both Taylor and James inched closer and closer to transitioning fully from male to female.
Ashley and Connie shared similar experiences: explaining the situation to close friends and family, using female pronouns (which are also used throughout this story to respect the girls’ preferences). They watched their daughters emerge.
“We got to the point where [Taylor] was going to school presenting male, but as soon as she would get home, the school clothes would come off and the girl clothes would come on,” Ashley says. “I think she was really getting comfortable with herself and being able to express who she really was. One day we had to go run an errand and she was in her girl clothes, and she decided to just wear it.”
That’s not to say, however, that these transitions were easy — for the girls or for their parents.
“Sometimes it was a hard pill to swallow. The real, full-on journey began when it was just the two of us in the car one day,” Ashley says. “[Taylor] was looking out the window and I looked back, and she just looked so sad, almost like she was going to cry. I turned around and said, ‘Buddy, what’s wrong?’ And she said, ‘Mom, I just wish I was a girl. I want to be a girl.’
That’s when everything clicked. So I said, at that moment, ‘You know, if that is who you are, that’s fine. We love you no matter what.’”
Taylor made a full transition right after first grade.
“That whole first grade year was really tricky because we were a girl sometimes and we were a boy sometimes. It’s hard because you always want them to be their authentic self. As a parent, there’s a lot of fear that comes with raising a transgender child. You see all the stuff that’s in the news, and it’s so hurtful,” she says. “And it’s tough. I have two daughters. One is cisgender and one is transgender. My cisgender child … she is afforded all the rights and protections. Where my transgender child doesn’t get those same rights and protections.”
James has also made a full transition to female, but Connie says she is terrified of her child being bullied.
“Overall my experience with the community has been overwhelmingly positive. There was a long time before I was ready to put it out there or talk about it. I think when I realized how happy my child was, I was ready to be like, ‘This is us, and this is what’s going on.’ James’s happiness is our gauge in all of this,” Connie says. “And seeing James in school, engaging, really happy, tons of friends, we realize we must be doing something right.”
“The suicide statistics for kids that are not supported by their families are so high,” Connie says. “It’s incredibly depressing that these kids that don’t have support are 54 percent more likely to try to take their own life or start using drugs and alcohol,” she says.
Living the Day-to-Day Experience
Connie and Ashley live the busy family lives most parents recognize: the weekday school-and-work scramble, sports activities for the kids, weekends full of birthday parties and family adventures. For both women, that constant activity now has an added layer of complexity. Connie often feels compelled to make introductory phone calls before enrolling her kids in sports or other extracurricular activities, to gauge the ability for James to be a fully accepted participant.
“This summer, I wanted my children to continue to be able to enjoy extracurricular activities. So for all the activities that I was interested in enrolling James, I called the directors myself,” she says. “I need to make sure that my child is going to be OK; that my child’s not going to be in a situation where she can be bullied. They were all so supportive, so accepting.”
Connie and Ashley recall the feeling of isolation that accompanied their early experiences trying to gather information on how to help their children navigate such a huge — and important time.
Connie and Ashley offer the following advice for parents whose wonder if their child may be on the transgender spectrum.
Seek out professionals you can trust. If you suspect your child is transgender, gender-expansive or gender-creative, whichever term you prefer, it’s important to seek out medical and mental health resources, such as a pediatrician and therapist, whose approach to caring for a transgender child aligns with your own preferences.
“One of the first things I did was find a pediatrician that is affirming and understanding of the needs of transgender children,” Ashley says.
Find your village. Groups like PFLAG of Charlotte can connect you with support groups and local families whose experiences are similar to yours.
“I think the most important thing is having a supportive group of friends around,” Connie says. “For our kids, to be like, ‘You’re accepted, you’re loved by all of these people. You can be yourself and all these people love you just the way you are.’ It’s really important for your kid not to feel isolated.”
Ashley agrees. She started the group Transparents through PFLAG of Charlotte to help connect with other local parents of young transgender kids.
“When you’re first starting this journey, you kind of feel like you’re in a boat in the ocean all alone,” she says. “I needed to be with other parents and be with people who were experiencing the same things I was.”
Think and plan ahead. Although James and Taylor are happy and healthy now, Ashley and Connie are aware of the future challenges that face their daughters.
“We’re in a really good space right now. Our daughter is thriving,” Ashley says. “Is that going to be forever? No. Puberty is going to come along, and there will obviously be even more issues then. Have I prepared for it? Yes.”
Gain some perspective and balance. Connie emphasizes the importance of seeking out some normalcy in your life, for yourself as a parent, and for your kids.
“I feel like every parent is going through something with their kid. Yes, this is challenging. This is crazy,” Connie says. “But my child is not in the hospital battling cancer. If this is my cross to bear, if this is my challenge to find a way to get through, I’m lucky.”
Ashley and Connie ultimately want what every parent wants for their child: a healthy life filled with friends and happiness.
“I think a lot of people are scared or want to ask me questions about Taylor —what does this mean, and what is transgender,” Ashley says. “If there’s something I could tell the parents out there: Please ask us. Every parent of a transgender child wants nothing more than to educate you and to help you understand.”
Aleigh Acerni is a mother to an almost-3-year-old daughter who, like Taylor, also has—surprise!—a slight obsession with “Frozen.”