I just picked up my five and a half year old twins from their preschool summer camp for the last time. In a week, they will officially be “big kids” headed to kindergarten in public school. It was kind of a big moment. We took pictures in front of the Montessori where they have grown from tiny toddlers into smart, brave, and compassionate little people. We talked about the things we would all miss about the school, took a victory lap around the playground, and bid farewell to our favorite teachers. After showering them with praise for all they’ve learned, I scooped them up and off we went–onto the next Act! As I checked the rear-view, my heart sunk, and tears welled up behind my eyes. Three and a half years ago, I dropped my barely two year old son and daughter off here for their first day at preschool. Today, I left my son behind, and drove off for the last time–with my twin girls.
Just days before, Twins Mom and I had finished tussling with the public school about how Bryce, born male, would be registering for Kindergarten as female and should be treated as such. I was so deep in my advocacy that the emotional significance of all this transition had not sunk in. I was busy fighting for this child, as I have before and will no doubt have to do again. Yet, the simple act of leaving the preschool parking lot–a moment of accomplishment, of progress, of moving on–struck a deep cord. The thought replayed in my mind for hours: three years ago I brought my little boy to this school and today, I left him there. “He” is not coming with us to kindergarten. I’ve never been comfortable falling apart. But after I put the twins to bed, I did. I shed tears over the son that I fear I left behind, over the challenge of accepting this new reality, over the uncertain struggles that I know are still to come.
Since at least age three, Bryce has been exploring gender. It began with her stating a preference for wearing dresses. After a year of dress-up at home and often shocking our friends and family with the bold fashion sense of an exuberant little boy, dresses became the exclusive clothing choice. Not just any “girl” clothing would do. It always has to be a dress. I didn’t understand this at first. I tried to show Bryce that girls wear lots of different things, and that boys can wear those things too. Then I began to realize just how attuned Bryce is to other people’s perception of her gender. Especially when Bryce wears a dress, she makes a convincing little girl, and almost no one calls her a boy. One whole new wardrobe later, Bryce began saying “I want to be a girl.” At such a tender age, where affirmation and family support are absolutely critical, I responded the only way I could: “Bryce, Daddy loves you no matter who you are. And if you tell me you are a girl, then you are a girl.” Before long, “I wish…” became “I am.” Bryce began asserting to anyone who would listen that she is, in fact, a girl. And to those who would not listen, to those reluctant few who used the wrong pronouns (whether by habit or in protest), Bryce would get right in their faces and assert herself as a girl.
Like anything else, there are different schools of thought about how best to respond to gender non-conforming children. Some people believe that it is kinder to gently (or, in some cases, not-so-gently), push a child to conform to the gender norms that match their biological sex. Underlying this thinking is the idea that conformity is better for the child’s sake–because it is hard to be different, and because the child could change her mind (and perhaps her identity) again later. A lot of research, several specialists, and too many support groups later, we determined that pushing conformity was not the right choice. We learned that when a child is consistent about her identity, when that identity persists over time, and when a child is insistent upon being gendered correctly, the healthiest path is to follow that child’s lead. To send anything other than a supportive message–to refuse to gender Bryce correctly by using she/her/hers–suggests that there is something wrong with her identity. That would be a truly harmful message that could have long-lasting and damaging effects throughout her life. The simple fact is this: children, no matter their identity or struggle, will thrive when they live in an environment characterized by affirmation and unconditional support.
Despite all my advocacy, and the guttural instinct that we are doing the right thing by supporting Bryce in her social transition, I was still stunned by grief in that preschool parking lot. Images of Bryce’s infancy flooded my mind–from the big reveal that we were having “one of each,” to naming him after one of my favorite national parks, to how everyone commented on our likeness, to all the hopes I had for this little boy. It is a very strange breed of grief. Because I have not lost Bryce. Far from it. She is the same charismatic, exuberant, and endlessly curious child she has always been. Her personality has not changed. She remains a sensitive, compassionate 5-year-old with a considerable rebellious streak, who is always bounding with energy, who loves to be helpful, and who enjoys princesses and mechanical things of all kinds. I have the same child; perhaps even a more complete child who is now more comfortable in her own skin. Still, there is this profound sense of loss. I am sure that my grief is in some way rooted in how deeply we socialize gender (more on that later). The point, however, is that this grief is present. And I must do the added work of dealing with it so that Bryce does not get an inadvertent message that there is something wrong with her identity.
Even more difficult than the grief that struck me upon leaving preschool is the uncertainty that marks Bryce’s path. Right now, there are far more questions than answers: Is Bryce transgender? Will she “transition” physically? What would a transition involve and when? The truth is that at Bryce’s young age, we do not know the answers to these questions, and we will not fully understand them for years, probably not until she reaches puberty. It may be that Bryce’s identification as a girl will persist and she may want to change her body. She might decide not to undergo any psychical change, perhaps decide to identify as a boy, or maybe even choose a more androgynous identity altogether. All of this uncertainty brings an added level of stress to parenting. I worry about her being accepted, about her safety, and her self-esteem. As she starts kindergarten, I see her entering a world of “big kids,” and I remember that even the most well-intentions kids can be mean. I fear that she may suffer the kind of bullying that I did as a young, scared and closeted gay kid. Just the thought of her enduring the hateful or misunderstanding treatment of her peers breaks my heart. Having grown up as an unsure kid and having come out the other end as a self-assured gay man, I at least feel capable of carrying that stress. And, I am going to marry it with confidence: confidence that despite what the future brings, how Bryce identifies is fundamental to who she is. It is in her DNA. There is nothing that anyone can do to change it–nor should we try.
There is an almost comical undertone to this next Act of parenting–of life–that accompanies my grief and uncertainty. In a few weeks, I’ll be celebrating my 36th birthday. At my 30th, Twins Mom and I had great fun with our “big reveal” of the twins’ gender, asking party guests to sort themselves into groups: boys, girls, one of each. It’s funny what we think we know. At that time, I was just a few years into my marriage to a woman who helped me feel at home, and I thought we we were setting out to raise boy/girl twins. But, that was just Act 1. Within three years I was finally coming out, divorcing a lesbian, and learning to co-parent in this new nontraditional family. And now, it seems that was just Act 2. In what world do a queer man and woman find each other, and come together to create the safe space that facilitates their coming out? And in what world is a gender variant kid born to that couple? I’m sometimes struck with that sense of “is this really happening?” It is. And we’re about to start Act 3: Trans-Parenting.