“Maybe it’s just a phase.”
I said it to my wife while we were alone. I knew it was wrong, but I was feeling it so intensely that I had to let it out. I was feeling it because I really, really wanted it to be true.
Our middle child had recently come out as transgender. I wasn’t supposed to feel the way I was feeling. I was woke. I mean, I was “hella woke,” as we say here in Nor Cal.
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area so I’ve been around LGBTQ people my entire life. In fact, if my child had said they were gay it would have been easy. I know how to move through that world. While growing up, my mom had gay friends who came over to our house. I’ve had gay friends almost my whole life. I’ve volunteered at Pride events and even played for a gay rugby team. Homosexuality would be easy to accept as natural because I could relate on some level. I have felt attraction. I have been in love. But I’ve always been very sure of my identity. As a man, as a person of color, as a cisgender heterosexual person, none of these identities have ever been questioned by me or anyone else. I think it was hard for me to accept the identities of trans people because I had never been forced to confront or question my own.
Also, my experience with transgender people has been quite limited. I’ve taught some trans students. They were the first ones I think I really knew as more than a loose acquaintance. I learned a lot just by having them in class. I thought of myself as a trans ally with a capital “A,” but even with that background I wasn’t ready for a transgender child.
Being trans harder on them or you?
So there I was: “Maybe it’s just a phase.”
I winced just hearing it from my own mouth. My wife gave me a look at once both disapproving and sympathetic.
At the moment, I wanted it to be true. I thought, “What if we just ignore it? What if we move on as if they hadn’t told us?”
I justified this by saying I was afraid for my child. I wanted their life to be easy. Being trans isn’t easy. It’s hard and I didn’t want my kid to suffer.
It made sense, but it was only a half-truth. What I really wanted was for life to be easier for me.
Parenting a transgender child, or at least the idea I had of it in that moment, isn’t easy either. I didn’t want to carry the burden. I didn’t want to do the work. I didn’t want to be called to defend them or to soothe their pain when I couldn’t. It felt like too much. It was a selfish thought.
My next thought may have been worse.
I began flipping through a mental Rolodex of things to blame.
It was the school’s fault. They had been so welcoming and accepting of that other transgender kid. They had made it seem cool!
It was our church’s fault. It had a re-naming ceremony for a transgender child in the congregation. That was what had made it OK for my kid to try this on!
I blamed Taylor Mac’s fabulous stage show, which my wife had taken our child to see.
The liberal media was to blame. So was the open political climate in our hometown and the entire Bay Area. They had all influenced my kid to be trans!
Yes. I know exactly how this sounds.
It’s not easy to admit these feelings. I carried them around for at least a week before expressing them to my wife. When we talked about it, I already knew how ridiculous every single one of these thoughts were.
These people and places and institutions didn’t make my kid transgender; they gave my kid the space and freedom to tell us they were trans. My kid isn’t trans because of their environment; they are open and happy because of their environment. The best parenting decision we made apparently happened two years before my kid came out: we moved to a community where they could feel accepted.
Non-acceptance of transgender child runs risks
Some well-meaning people have also said to me, “Maybe it’s just a phase.” Maybe, but what are the odds? More important, what’s the risk?
I thought back to an article I read that said you shouldn’t pigeonhole your child’s identity too early. Don’t make them the smart one or the funny one or the clumsy one because – whether it’s true or not – it will influence how they move through the world and how they see themselves forever. Once you have a role, it’s hard to break out of it.
So maybe the risk is that my kid one day decides they aren’t trans, but they are ashamed to admit it or embarrassed – thinking that they’d put us through all this for nothing – so they keep living as a trans person even though they didn’t want to. Honestly, this line of reasoning seems highly unlikely. Possible, but not plausible. Being trans isn’t easy so I doubt anyone would fake it for very long. There’s no ROI.
What if it’s not a phase? What’s the risk in treating it like it might be? A transgender child or adult tends to be at an extremely high risk of depression, anxiety and suicide, often as a result of oppression and abuse of their identities.
I’ve been around the LGBTQ community long enough to have heard more times than I can count the phrase, “I always knew who I was. Since I was a child, I always knew.” My friends always knew who they were. My child has expressed similar thoughts. If this is who my child is and if I don’t support them completely, then I’m the one doing them harm. I don’t want my kid to echo the other phrase I’ve heard from many of my LGBTQ friends, “My family never accepted me so I’m not really close with them anymore.”
I’m going to do all I can in my parenting to make sure that my transgender child feels accepted for who they are. The risk of anything less than total buy-in is a child at a greater risk for anxiety, depression and suicide.
So I’m in — outwardly at least. I still harbor doubts and selfishness and hope that things will change. Those thoughts are pushed to the background more and more, but they are there. I strive to keep them inside, or at least away from my children.
Pronoun predicaments of the gender-fluid
A lot has happened in the months since my child’s announcement. First, they decided they weren’t a boy, but they were not a girl either. They chose they/them as pronouns for a while. That gave us some cute moments from our 3-year-old trying to get used to the new pronouns like, “Mommy, they/them said a bad word.”
Later, my child decided that they/them didn’t always fit either. They settled on “gender fluid” as an identity. Now, they wake up each morning and select a sticky note from a selection my wife ordered. Each one has “he/him,” “she/her” or “they/them” printed on it. The kid picks which one fits that day and puts it on the whiteboard in the kitchen so we all know what to call them that day. Some days they just go by their name, no pronouns. As a dad, I’m tempted to make silly puns based on the day’s pronouns, but I don’t because I don’t want my kid ever feel like I’m making fun of them for who they are.
So far parenting a transgender child hasn’t been as hard as I’d feared. It hasn’t been difficult for either of us, really. School and church were ready for this. Living in this area made it easier than it would have been in other places. I haven’t had to defend them, not once
We’ve had some interesting conversations, though, like when they asked why no one ever assumes they’re a boy. We talked about gender presentation and societal assumptions around dress. The kid hasn’t changed their style at all other than mixing in more blue. They still wear leggings as pants, dresses, sparkles and feminine-style earrings. They got a shorter haircut, but it still isn’t a traditional boy’s style. Once at the grocery store, they were assumed to be a boy at a deli counter. We shared a smile and a giggle of achievement at that.
What I’ve come to realize is that I don’t have to be perfect in my thoughts or feelings to be the perfect parent for my transgender child’s needs. As long as I’m open and loving and willing to learn, I can consider what I’m going through “just a phase.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Roberto Santiago could never decide on a job so he endeavors to have all of them. He is a writer, teacher, sign language interpreter, rugby referee and stay-at-home dad. He writes about the intersections of family, sports and culture at An Interdisciplinary Life.