I live in Seattle, a large, liberal city in a very blue state. Is that why my child is trans?
According to supporters of the raft of proposed laws targeting trans youth in state legislatures around the country, the answer is emphatically yes: Transgender children are a liberal American fad.
Are they right? Is the Family Research Council, a powerful right-wing organization that supports many of these bills, correct when it claims that children like mine are the result of “a resurgence of postmodern thinking”? Is it true, as a best-selling book has argued, that my daughter is part of a “transgender craze” sweeping America’s youth?
The evidence in my inbox suggests otherwise. I write a blog and host a podcast about parenting my trans daughter, and as a result I receive emails from parents of transgender children every day. I can assure you they are not all writing to me from San Francisco, New York City and Seattle. I can also assure you that my child was not channeling postmodern ideology almost a decade ago when she told me, at age 3, that she was not the boy we all believed her to be.
“My heart is a girl heart,” she said.
Soon after her announcement, I stumbled into the loving arms of a fledgling support group full of parents like me as we grappled with raising gender-diverse children in a world that had yet to hear the name Laverne Cox. I don’t know how I would have managed without them. And I wondered — and worried — about how parents like me were faring elsewhere. Because everything I learned tells me that children like mine must exist everywhere.
I learned that while many transgender people do not transition until adolescence or adulthood, significant numbers of young children are aware of their gender identity from a very young age. Dr. Kristina Olson, a psychologist at Princeton University who studies gender development in children, says, “Research shows that there are a set of trans people who first identify with their gender by the toddler or preschool years and continue to do so throughout their lives.”
I learned that children like this are not new. In her book, “Histories of the Transgender Child,” the historian Jules Gill-Peterson documents the existence of transgender children in the United States dating back to the early 20th century. “As far back as historians like me have found evidence of transgender people,” she recently wrote in The Times, “we have found transgender children.” I read about the long history of people living outside the gender binary in cultures around the planet, including the hijra of South Asia, the fa’afafine of Samoa and the “Two Spirit” people in Native American cultures.
After I started my blog, I began to receive emails from parents who said they had children just like mine. At first, the messages came mostly from the United States, including many from the Midwest and the South. But then I began to hear from parents farther afield. “I am the mom of a gender fluid kid who seems to be the only one in the whole country,” wrote a woman from Italy. The father of a 6-year-old in Argentina wrote to share research he’d found on transgender issues. Groups on Facebook connected me with more parents from around the globe. We shared stories in lengthy emails and in hourslong video chats, meeting each other’s children and laughing and crying like old friends.
Some of them let me interview them for a radio documentary produced for the BBC World Service. I was struck by how remarkably similar their stories were to the ones I had heard for years at my local support group in Seattle.
In Johannesburg, South Africa, a 6-year-old wanted to know why God had forgotten to give him a penis.
On the outskirts of Paris, a mother knew something was amiss when her 5-year-old grew distraught at the idea of one day having “a beard like Papa.”
In Gurugram, India, a father was baffled by his child’s deep depression and frightening incidents of self-harm.
A mother from Kyushu, Japan, told me that she had never heard the word “transgender” when her child came out to her as nonbinary. She described a Japanese legend about people who come down to earth from the moon. “And that’s how I felt,” she said. “It was as if my child had said, ‘I’m actually from the moon.’”
Like this mother (and like me), nearly all of these parents were bewildered and terrified when they first learned their child was trans. But their children’s suffering was too real to ignore. When the father in India finally discovered the source of his child’s depression — she told him that she could no longer bear living as a boy — she asked her father if he was going to throw her out on the streets.
He did not. Instead, he founded a group that supports transgender people in India. The mother in Japan did the same. A mother from Bogotá, Colombia, joined a similar group after consulting three priests and informing them that if she had to choose between her religion and her transgender son, she would walk away from a lifetime in the Catholic Church. All three priests told her that humans may judge, but God loved her son. She stayed.
These children, their parents told me, are now thriving, living in the genders that match their hearts — in some cases thanks to medical care that still remains inaccessible to many trans people around the world. But if transgender children are a global phenomenon, so are their struggles. Just as in the United States, parents who have spoken publicly are often harassed and threatened. (For safety reasons, I am not naming them.) Nearly all saw relationships with friends and family members disintegrate when their children came out as trans. Several families immigrated to countries that felt safer for their children. “When my daughter is older,” said one mother who left Mexico for the United States, “I’ll tell her the real reason we left.”
These kinds of moves are likely to become more common, as courts and legislatures around the United States and in other countries chip away at transgender rights, restricting access to gender-affirming (and lifesaving) medical care for children like mine. On my social media feed, parents around the world are asking one another: Where can we go now? Where will my child be safe?
It is not always easy to stay hopeful while raising a transgender child in a world that so rarely chooses to welcome her. I wonder what I would do if my own state passed a law making her medical care illegal. I worry about where she will be able to live and travel safely when she is older. I worry about the children who live in places where being transgender remains a crime.
Yet I am hopeful, because I have witnessed the ferocious, protective love of parents around the world. And that is not a liberal Western fad.
Marlo Mack (@girlpodcast) writes under a pseudonym about parenting a transgender daughter, in order to protect her child’s safety. Her memoir, “How to Be a Girl,” is based on her podcast of the same name.
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