In the fall of 2015, my transgender daughter Ally*, who was born biologically male, entered the third grade at an LAUSD elementary school in Mar Vista identifying as female. She had declared earlier that summer that she wanted to be known as “a she, a her and a sister.” The upcoming school year, she felt, would be a good time to let the world know who she truly was.
Ever since age 2, Ally has preferred all things stereotypically "girl": pink and purple instead of blue, dresses and skirts instead of jeans and shorts, and dolls and fairies instead of trucks and army men. At the beginning of each school year, Ally would choose a "girl"-themed backpack and school supplies: Hello Kitty, Rainbows, Kittens, Dogs or Sparkles.
Even more telling, all of Ally's self-portraits, from the time she was able to draw stick figures, have had long hair, dresses, and often earrings, bows, high-heels and makeup. She "identified" with what in "our society" is recognized as a "female appearance."
The first year or so that Ally exhibited these behaviors and tendencies, we thought, as most parents probably do, that it must be a phase. All kids go through experimental phases, right? They role play as the opposite gender when they're young.
What we eventually learned is that yes, this behavior is quite typical for young children, and often this sort of behavior is a phase. But if a child identifies as the opposite gender consistently, insistently and persistently, year after year, the behavior shifts to being associated with either gender-fluid or transgender children. From about age three or four, we began to realize that Ally's behavior was quite consistent and persistent in terms of self-identity and self-expression.
Throughout Ally's youngest years, we truly hoped that we did not have a gender-fluid or transgender child. Not at all because we would be ashamed of her, embarrassed, or love her any less, but out of sheer fear for her future and her safety.
Once my husband and I realized, I mean truly realized that we likely had a gender-fluid or transgender child, we experienced a wide range of emotions and became research gurus on the topic. We bought every possible book on gender, joined a support group at the Children's Hospital of Los Angeles called Transforming Families, sought the advice of gender psychologists. We also cried and worried and cried and worried, and I'll speak for myself here – I prayed.
One of the earliest times that Ally was courageous enough to start verbalizing feelings about her gender was at age 4. I was pretending Ally was a little baby, cradling my child in my arms, sharing how exciting my pregnancy had been. “When the doctor called and told me I was having a boy, I was so happy and even cried happy tears!"
In an instant, I sensed that Ally's demeanor had changed. I glanced down at my child, lip curled, tears welling up. "What's wrong sweetheart?” I asked. “What did I say?"
Through tears Ally told me: "I wanted to be a girl one, Mama."
My heart sank, and although my own tears were beginning to fall, I put on a brave face and said very tenderly, but with conviction: "Listen, you can do and be whoever you want to be, no matter if you are a girl or a boy. There is nothing in this life you can't do. So you don't worry about that. You are perfect just the way you are, and don't ever think anything different, OK?"
She nodded her head yes and said, "OK, Mama."
I closed my eyes and held her tight, knowing wholeheartedly that I just lied to my 4-year-old child. The truth is, my gender-fluid or transgender child will not be treated equally and fairly. According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, she will be more than two times more likely to be bullied in school, more than six times more likely to be seriously depressed, more than eight times more likely to attempt suicide, more than three times more likely to abuse illegal drugs and more than three times more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior.
These are frightening statistics, and for me and my husband, this was not acceptable. With all we learned about the importance of supporting a gender-fluid child, we decided to do our best to support Ally in her gender expression. Gender-fluid children who do not receive support at home suffer devastating consequences, and are typically those that make up the drug and suicide statistics above. So while we mourned the loss of the boy we thought we had, we supported Ally unconditionally and dedicated ourselves to smoothing her path.
While we knew we could love and support Ally at home, treatment at school remained a big concern. The first time Ally wore a dress to school was at a disco-themed school dance at the end of second grade. While she was nervous at first, her friends accepted her, and that gave her the courage to start the next school year identifying as a girl.
A few weeks prior to Ally’s first day in third grade, my husband and I requested a meeting with the elementary school principal to discuss our unique situation. The principal, new to the school that year, was not familiar with our child, who identified as male for the three years prior.
Thankfully, the principal was genuinely sensitive to our situation, and was eager to support us in every way possible. We discussed putting together a transition plan including an LAUSD training on diversity and acceptance for the entire staff. We discussed creating a list of Ally’s “safe people” on campus that she could turn to should she encounter any challenges resulting from her transition, namely bullying or other forms of harassment. She also gave Ally a choice to use either the nurse’s bathroom or the girl’s restroom, wherever she felt most comfortable.
We decided to share Ally’s transition plan with our friends at the elementary school in the surrounding community. We took time to share articles and links with the most up-to-date information on gender, and how its definition and understanding have changed and broadened over the years. Our friends and neighbors opened their minds, welcomed the information and cared enough to educate their own children on what it means to be accepting and loving toward everyone, regardless of their differences.
Within two weeks of Ally entering third grade, there was an LAUSD Diversity and Acceptance training set up for the school staff. The training went well, and quite a few faculty members personally approached us to express their support for Ally and our family. Everything seemed to be going smoothly until “the note” arrived.
A few weeks into the school year, Ally found an anonymous letter stuffed in her backpack that read (in children’s writing), “You are a boy, not a girl, get that thru your head.” This was very hurtful and upsetting to Ally. She tore up the note and cried, not understanding why someone would want to be so mean.
I explained to Ally that the person who wrote this letter must be incredibly sad and insecure, so much so, that he or she had to take the time to bully someone else to feel stronger and more powerful. She seemed to understand, but I could tell her heart was hurt.
Ally’s teacher used the letter as a platform to discuss bullying and cowardice – all good lessons for children to learn. The teacher emphasized that bullying would not be tolerated. Since then, Ally, now 9, has not been teased or bullied about being transgender – at least not that we are aware of. Transgender kids are extremely protective of those who accept them, and often do not share their challenges or experiences with those closest to them. They do not want to make their loved ones sad or upset.
If Ally were being bullied, she may not share this information with me, my husband or other family or friends. This is why it is so critical that schools receive the proper training on how to recognize the signs of children being bullied or harassed, and that they act early if they suspect that a child is in danger, physically or emotionally.
We still worry about the middle school and the teen years that lie ahead. At this point, Ally is planning to receive puberty blockers at the onset of puberty. This will prevent her from going through a biological male puberty. So she will not experience the growth spurt that other biological males experience, her voice will not change and she will not grow facial hair. Puberty blockers are completely reversible and have no known long-term side effects.
Puberty is a difficult time for all children, let alone those considered “different.” Bullying tends to happen more often and becomes more intense in middle school. We worry about her safety and hope that she is open and honest about what she experiences at school. We also plan to coordinate LAUSD training at the local middle school in preparation for her arrival, which is critical. Our experience so far gives us hope.
I thank God every day that our school principal, LAUSD and the local community surrounded our family with understanding, acceptance and support during what could have been an incredibly challenging and scary situation. Unfortunately, this is not often the case with kids transitioning in other parts of the country, or even other parts of Los Angeles.
I know of far too many families that have had to pull their children out of school and homeschool in order to keep them safe. Ideally, every school would have diversity and acceptance training for all staff members that includes protocol for supporting LGBTQ students at the beginning of every school year. And every school leader would work with parents and teachers to create a safe haven for kids.
We need to become proactive with the bullying epidemic instead of reactive. The district and the legislature also should take the lead in developing and mandating a social-emotional curriculum that teaches acceptance and diversity to all kids at the start of each year. This type of curriculum would serve as a preventative measure to discourage bullying.
The key, we believe, is fostering the acceptance of others’ differences. Live and let live. Be kind and respectful. Raise good humans and cherish every moment in life.
At the end of the day, all children are precious souls that just happen to arrive in different-looking packages. But each child craves the basic human needs of love and acceptance, and each deserves a chance to live as their authentic selves.
– *This piece was written by a mom at an LAUSD elementary school in Mar Vista, and a pseudonym was used for her daughter to protect her privacy. To learn more about gender identity and expression, please visit genderspectrum.org.