The author describes her son, C.J., as “gender creative.” (Photo: Lori Duron)
I still remember the day when I sat in my 7-year-old son’s bedroom and told him that his 9-year-old friend Samuel was no longer a boy, but was now a girl named Sophia.
My son, C.J., didn’t say much at first. Which is how most people react when they hear news that they weren’t expecting.
Months later, I sat in the same spot and told him that his 8-year-old friend Riley was no longer a boy, but was now a girl named Anna.
About three years ago, Sophia’s mother and, then, Anna’s mother found the blog I write about raising my gender nonconforming son, and they wanted their sons to meet and know another boy who was a girl at heart. C.J. loves his boy body and thinks it’s the perfect house for his girl heart and girl brain. He knows what it means to be transgender (when a person’s sex and gender are at odds) and what it means to be cisgender (when a person’s sex and gender align) and he says he’s neither. That makes him gender creative.
We quickly met Sophia and Anna and their families and started going on playdates, celebrating special occasions together and confiding in each other to ease the isolating effects of raising a child who is different and has unique needs.
C.J., Anna, and Sophia are close friends. Anna and Sophie are transgender; C.J. is not. (Photo: Lori Duron)
Back then, our kids were all boys who liked “girl things” and who wanted to be treated like girls. The three of them bonded over being mermaids in water and princesses on land. They painted their nails and put on fashion shows together. That’s when they were three boys, not two girls and one boy.
During the time of Sophia and Anna’s transitions (and since), I’ve had emotional talks with their moms. We always knew that — statistically speaking — our children could be trans; but, being aware that something could happen and having it happen feels vastly different.
With every ounce of my being, I tried to keep the focus on Sophia, Anna and their families during our talks and time together as the kids transitioned. Then, I’d hang up the phone or walk away and wonder what their transitions would mean for my son and my family.
Sophia’s transition was especially confusing and emotional for my son because it was the first he witnessed and prompted him to ask questions.
“Am I supposed to call her by her girl name?” he asked.
I explained that, yes, when someone tells you the name they want to be called, you call them by that name. I also helped him understand that when a transgender person transitions, it’s really important to use the pronouns they prefer. Both Sophia and Anna prefer female pronouns so now we use “she” and “her” when talking to or about them.
“Do I have to treat her differently? Can we still be friends?”
I assured my son that Sophia (and later Anna) was exactly the same person on the inside and that she needed a good friend now more than ever.
“Not only can he still be friends with his transitioning friend, but he can be even better friends because now his friend will know that he likes her for the person she truly is and that will be a relief to her,” said my friend Jessica Herthel, director of The Stonewall National Education Project and co-author of I Am Jazz.
“Does this mean I’m transgender, too?”
I told C.J. that everybody has their own gender and you can’t catch someone else’s gender like you catch a cold. Gender is like a fingerprint; no two people’s genders are exactly the same. Everyone’s gender is unique and awesome.
I used myself as an example; my sex is female and my gender is female, but I’m not super feminine compared to some other moms and by society’s standards. I only wear makeup on the days I work; I’m more comfortable in ripped jeans than a dress; I never cry at movies; and if a lizard gets in the house my kids come to me before they go to my husband. I’m not a “girly girl.” On the other hand, there are plenty of things that make me more feminine than some women. No one in the world shares my – or my son’s — same exact combination of masculine and feminine.
I promised C.J. that nobody else could make him transgender; that it was something only he could determine and define.
“Kids need the space to personalize their own gender, regardless of the label they use to describe it,” Joel Baum, Gender Spectrum’s senior director of Professional Development and Family Services, said.
“Do Sophia and Anna still have their boy private parts? Will they have their penises cut off?!” My son has asked this one on more than one occasion.
I always reply by telling him that other people’s private parts are their private business. Just like we don’t want people talking or thinking about our genitalia, we shouldn’t talk and think about theirs. I explained that there are medicines and surgeries that help transgender people get their bodies to match the gender that is in their hearts and brains. Some transgender people take medicine and/or have surgery, and some don’t. Every transgender person gets to make those decisions for themselves.
“When they think about a person transitioning, kids sometimes get hung up on the body parts. Remind them that private parts are private,” said Darlene Tando, a licensed clinical social worker and our gender therapist. “If they continue to ask questions and seek answers, I suggest not talking about present day body parts. Instead, explain that when their friend was a baby the doctor looked at her body and said that she was boy. Once the friend could talk and could explain that she had been a girl all along, she told her family and now is transitioning so that everybody will know that she is really a girl.”
“What if they get teased or bullied? What if people aren’t nice to them?” my son has asked with concern.
As I’ve told him too many times to count, you can’t let the possibility of people teasing you scare you and stop you from being who you really are. You have to be true to yourself. Some people may ask questions or say things, but most people probably won’t. He knows that if he feels like it’s safe, he can stick up for his friend. If that feels scary or dangerous, he can always ask an adult for help. If he’d want his friend to defend him, he should return the favor.
“Simple responses to teasing and bullying can go a long way,” Tando said. “Responding with a smile and something like ‘any way they are is okay with me,’ ‘I like their style,’ and ‘It’s okay to be different,’ is often enough to diffuse the situation and show support.”
As my son has adjusted to having not one but two transgender friends, the questions have subsided. Except one.
“Which one of my friends is going to be transgender next?” he asks every once in awhile, making it clear that he doesn’t assume any of his boy friends will remain boys or girl friends will remain girls.
I tell him that I don’t know, because for that question, I have no answer.