I’m genderqueer. I identify as a nonbinary trans person, and genderqueer is the term that encapsulates my experience of gender the best. I’m sort of both masculine and feminine. I’m also sort of neither. I’m both on the binary and off it. Some genderqueer people and/or nonbinary people don’t identify as trans, but I do identify as trans, in large part because my experience with gender transition and gender dysphoria so strongly pushed me away from the gender I was assigned at birth.
I came out at 28, shortly after I had my kid. In retrospect, it was all very clear. As a child, I had an alter-ego person with no gender, and as an adult I had a distinctively non-conforming presence and style. I don’t think the revelation was revelatory to anyone but me. My childhood was, like those of many other gender nonconforming people, pretty rough. My parents forced dresses on me. They refused to let me get short haircuts. My mom and dad had conversation after conversation with me about how I had to look, act, and be a certain way in order to be palatable to boys because of course I was a girl (and a straight one at that). Day in and day out, I drank in this socialization. And that was just at home.
It left scars. My memory of my childhood is one long series of escalating fights. The closeness I had with my parents frayed and splintered over the years, and by the time I scraped together enough scholarships to go to college out of state, there was no looking back. To say that all of those fights were about gender would be reductive, but gender was a big part of it. My transness — this great unexplored aspect of my identity — was a lurking, raging thing, like a broken bone trying to heal up without ever getting set properly. It ached constantly, in weird, unexplainable ways. When I figured out, finally, that I was genderqueer, it was after my father died. I was barely on speaking terms with my mother. I don’t think I even told her directly — I believe she found out through a Facebook announcement I’d made. I remember that it didn’t occur to me that it was sad that she and I were estranged until my partner pointed it out. My mother and I were estranged for many, many reasons. She handled my gender transition surprisingly well, all things considered, but it was 20 years too late.
My baby had already been assigned a gender, even before the moment of their birth, but I knew it might not be the one that they carried with them the rest of their life. I knew it could happen, because it had happened to me.
No matter what, transgender people have existed. We came out anyway — survived the socialization, broke through it like bright macaws pecking through brittle eggshells. Came out as transgender, genderqueer, agender, and what have you. We always have. But it is a battle. Visibility for people like me has always been a risk. Our bodies aren’t easy to live in. Rejection by others (family, friends, employers) makes it hard to think we’re worthwhile. So, so many transgender people attempt suicide, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. We are often impoverished; we are often forced into terrible situations, and the most marginalized among us (queer trans women of color) are among the highest at risk for murder in the country, according to statistics from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs in a report featured in TIME magazine. We have always been an endangered species.
It was my partner Jon who really wanted to have a kid. I was neutral on the matter. It seemed like it could be pretty cool if it happened, but I wouldn’t be heartbroken if we never had one. But he was so in love with the idea, and had been for so long. I was in my last year and a half of a Ph.D. program. My dissertation was more or less written. I had decent health insurance through my grad program. It was, frankly, a good time to have a kid if we were serious about the having-a-kid thing. “Are we serious?” I asked. “Yeah, I am,” he said. “Do you want to?” I thought about it, looked at our lives, and the people we’d become, and I couldn’t really think of a reason not to be a parent. All I could think of were reasons to do it. We’d try hard. We’d come at it arms wide open. He had models of what to do; I had models of what not to do. We listened to each other. The world could use more joy in it. So we left the door open to the possibility. But it didn’t take long before I got pregnant and possibility became reality.
Everyone had declared me a girl. And they were wrong.
As I stared down at the scrunched, perfect face of my one-month-old baby, I knew, in my heart, there was a chance that this little kid might be transgender, just like me. It was possible. My baby had already been assigned a gender, even before the moment of their birth, but I knew it might not be the one that they carried with them the rest of their life. I knew it could happen, because it had happened to me. My mom had held me in her arms. Everyone had declared me a girl. And they were wrong. It had taken me nearly 30 years to untangle that presumptuous mistake.
My kid, at 4 years old, announced himself very firmly a boy regardless of how he was assigned at birth. He’s a trans boy.
They say that, as a parent, what you try to do is correct the mistakes your parents made with you. You try to give more than they did. You have a kid, this fragile little creature so utterly dependent on you, and the world is so large and scary, and all you want to do is protect them. You know you can’t, but you know you have to try. If you’re like me, a scarred and pragmatic kind of person, you’ll look at your tiny newborn, and you’ll start triaging the horrors that await your baby. Picking battles before they loom too close. I picked the possibility that my kid might be transgender. And if my kid was transgender, I wanted them to have an easier time navigating it than I had. I didn’t want it to take them 28 goddamn years to figure it out, to pick pronouns, to have a father die before it happened. To have a father die not actually knowing who his kid really was.
This felt like something that I could actually do. I had insight my parents didn’t have. I could make space for my kid that my parents couldn’t and wouldn’t make for me. I knew, firsthand, the lingering harm it does when you are forced to fit into a box that isn’t you, when you are a square peg and your sharp edges are shaved off over and over so that you go into that round hole. Every parent has blind spots. I know I have mine. But this wasn’t one of them. Turns out that all my anxious triaging and planning was a good call. My kid, at 4 years old, announced himself very firmly a boy regardless of how he was assigned at birth. He’s a trans boy.
I asked him how he knew he was a boy. “Because I love you and Mama and Aunt Mandy and Daddy,” he said. Because. Just because. It was simple. And then he told me his old name didn’t fit anymore, and that he wanted a new one. I told him how I knew I was an in-between (genderqueer) and that when I figured that out, I had picked a new name, too.
Arthur’s trans identity is something that brings him just a little bit closer to me in strange ways.
The editor of this piece asked if I felt comfortable sharing his name. I asked him if he was cool with it, and he is. He chose the name Arthur. I asked him if it was OK that I wrote this article, because the other Big Parenting Thing we do is make sure he knows he is in charge of his body and his life. He made me read it out loud to him. He said this is kind of boring, but if it means people understand that he is a boy, and I am a “baba” (how he understands me to be genderqueer), then I should tell everyone. He knows if people are touching him in a way he doesn’t like that he can and should yell “bodily autonomy!” and run away. He knows that the adults in the house have to abide by the same rules that he does. Weaving choice and consent through his childhood and respecting his gender identity are, to me, two sides of the same coin. What message would it send him if I respected the way he is shaping himself as a person in all things but this? Yes, Arthur, you can decide what fruit you want to eat, and what shirt you want to wear, but not something as real and important as your gender.
Arthur’s trans identity is something that brings him just a little bit closer to me in strange ways. Arthur, like me, has bouts of gender dysphoria. Talking through gender dysphoria with a 5 year old is tricky. You don’t want to put words in his mouth, but you have to find a way to check to see if that complicated thing is what he’s going through. Arthur and I have the same sense of loss and anger when we are “deadnamed” — very occasionally at his school his birth name shows up on a document, and he is frustrated or saddened by it. And I get it. I am so glad he can grow up with someone who has felt these things, lived this way, who can tell him that he is not wrong, that he is allowed to be frustrated and sad when things like this happen. That it’s OK. That he’s OK.
And his other parents sort of get it. Both of my partners (I have more than one) are cisgender. It’s different for them than it is for me. His other parents can watch, and they can sympathize, and they can listen. They can liken the experience to their lives, but they haven’t lived it. Mostly they trust that when he gets misgendered or deadnamed, it hurts him. They worry, sometimes, that being trans will make his life harder than it would have been otherwise. I tell them that, no, being trans will make his life exactly what it always was going to be. Whether it’s hard or not mostly depends on how society treats trans people. There was never any struggle for acceptance — they both love him fiercely, and advocate for him without blinking — but sometimes what is obvious to me is not obvious to them.
His childhood does not revolve around his transness.
I’m so glad Arthur was born now rather than 30 years ago, like me. The conversations we’re having now, as a culture, are not as inclusive as I’d like them to be, but they’ve come miles from where they were when I was growing up. Kids like Coy Mathis — a beautiful trans girl so supported by her parents — are visible and present in local and national news outlets. Mathis actually lives in my state, in my child’s state. There was nothing and no one like her in East Texas when I was growing up. Now, there is.
He knows he’s a boy, that’s settled, but he’s still working out what kind of boy he is. And it’s great that he feels safe enough to explore that around us.
I am so glad that my personal experiences and my identity allow me to parent my son differently than I was parented. Things are already so different for him than for me at his age with regard to his gender. We let him pick out his clothes — something I didn’t get to do until I was in middle school, at least. We let him tell us when he wants his hair cut, and how. He’s in preschool, one where we have advocated for his evolving gender identity. We worked with them to switch his name when he settled on a new one. Sometimes, the other kids get confused. “Don’t assign him a gender,” we’ve told the staff and the teachers. “Just ask him, and he’ll tell you.” They do. They defer to him, and he lets them know. The other kids accept it, and then they run off and play. It’s wonderful.
What’s actually the very best about the system we’ve got for my lovely little trans boy is that his childhood does not revolve around his transness. We’ve accepted it, and we advocate for him and intercede on his behalf when needed (usually when it comes to social institutions like school and medicine) but otherwise, he’s allowed to just be him. My childhood, in contrast, really did revolve around controlling my gender — no, you have to be this way. Why aren’t you doing this? There’s no jockeying for control over his budding identity, and that makes our family and our home a safe space for him to explore the iterations of his boyness. And his boyness runs the gamut daily from a very feminine kind of boy to a very traditionally masculine kind of boy. He knows he’s a boy, that’s settled, but he’s still working out what kind of boy he is. And it’s great that he feels safe enough to explore that around us.
Happy childhoods are safe ones. The world is never safe — and though it’s grown more accepting of us trans folk, it’s still not safe for us. The best I can do for my little trans boy is give him what I didn’t get: a safe place. A family to loves his transness, to see it and treasure it, to create room for it as part of him. It validates this part of him, which is something so many of us in the transgender and gender-variant community never get from our natal families.
I want one small part of his life — childhood, adolescence, adulthood — to be free of struggle. The only part of his life I can control is our home, how trans-friendly and trans-inclusive it is. Right now, when I ask him if he is a happy boy, he says “yes,” and my heart sings.