I understand that it life isn’t easy for My Kid. Since she was very little, she has had to navigate two separate households with very different family structures and values. Whether this complicated setup gave rise to the complicated person she has become, or whether she happened to be a complicated person and was going to be complicated no matter what, I can only speculate. I would guess though, that navigating two households and dealing with parents that, at best, have a strained relationship, has had an impact on her personality. She hangs back and observes. She tries and often succeeds in working the angles to get what she wants. Her love of power and money combined with her fierce opposition to any kind of manual labor gives me hope that she will one day be a fine politician.
Here are key moments that, for me, define My Kid:
1) When she was born, she did not cry immediately. She looked around, not even completely birthed yet, and I could see in her eyes a look of deep, deep annoyance. The world was clearly too cold, too bright, and too much hassle. That look has never really gone away.
2) She was never physically affectionate, even as a toddler. She always wanted someone nearby in case the urge to be affectionate arose, but hugs and kisses were never well received.
3) When she was 7, I walked into her room to find her reading while listening to headphones. When she took them off I caught the sound of narration.
“Are you listening to an audiobook?” I asked.
“Yeah.” She answered. Obviously.
“…the same audiobook that you’re reading?”
“No.” That same look of annoyance I recognized at her birth was plastered all over her face, with a slightly new twist that seemed to ask, “Why the hell would I do that?”
About a year after I discovered My Kid reading a book while listening to a different audiobook, she tested for placement in a different elementary school. She was accepted, and she currently attends a public magnet school for children that score in the 99th percentile for the TAG (Talented and Gifted) Program. It was a welcome relief as she had just made a friend who I caught saying things like, “We don’t like math. Let’s do our nails.” I gave said friend a “pass” on the “we” bit once I realized she was a twin and had literally never been alone. But all the same I was glad to see My Kid move on to a school where kids were more excited about learning and less excited about mani/pedis.
One of the interesting things about TAG learners is that they often have complicated social and identity issues that accompany their book smarts. I have met kids at her school that I honestly believe are geniuses. Not in the sense that they are presenting time machines at the science fair, but in the sense that they think so deeply in one area (usually math) that normal people like myself have a hard time understanding them and probably always will. This is where our story unfolds.
At the start of 5th grade this year, My Kid switched friend groups at school, after the ringleader of her previous friend group started “going out with” a boy in their class. What “going out with” means in 5th grade is murky at best, but the lesson My Kid learned was crystal clear: in life, you will inevitably have friends that hook up with someone romantically, and in doing so transform into someone incredibly boring to be around.
As a result of having lost her friend to a romantic relationship, The Kid then hitched her wagon to another group, a group that those of us who hail from the 90’s might call the “alternative” kids. This group was united by a deep love of being outsiders, which, in 5th grade terms, means dying your hair neon colors, doing illegal flips on the bars when the recess monitors aren’t looking, and constantly declaring your undying love of the ubiquitous cultural phenomenon (of this year, at least), Hamilton, the musical. (While I could stand to go the rest of my life without hearing another off-key rendition of Wait for It, it is not lost on me that a play about righteous rebellion would be so appealing to a group of kids who identify as outsiders.) As the 20th century philosopher Alan Watts said, “School is the place we send our children to be taught by other children.”
My approach to interacting with children is to respect them as individuals who have limited vocabularies and experience. They are small humans with unique experiences and perspectives. When dealing with them, I try to keep that in the forefront of my mind. That said, from the time My Kid was born I respected her and wanted to shield her from the deluge of gender stereotypes that surround us all. I always pushed for gender neutral stuff so as to not try to influence My Kid into defined gender roles. In regards to clothing, animal prints in yellow and green were the order of the day, and anything pink, sparkly or princess-related were purchased by request only, or they were gifted by my parents and promptly taken back from whence they came. Yet, despite my best efforts, My Kid liked the items targeted “for girlie girls.” Pink and sparkles, princesses and cupcakes won out over the more gender-neutral stuff, and since The Kid was very tiny that has been the style of choice. Who could blame her, everything was so shiny…
My Kid’s mother and I had even gone so far to pick out a gender neutral name for The Kid, but the gender neutral choice lost out, in part because, ironically, both my ex-wife and I have gender neutral names. If this were a book, that event would be called “foreshadowing.”
Jumping back to the start of My Kid’s fifth grade year and the new chosen social circle of rebel kids, I soon met the ringleader for this new group, Bos (an acronym of his initials, pronounced “bozz”). As a parent, I had heard of Bos because he is transgender, which is, in general, rare (0.3% of the population of the USA is transgender according to a study done by The Williams Institute of Law at UCLA). Out of that 0.3% of the population, it is even more rare to publically identify as transgender in elementary school. So, Bos stands out. Bos is biologically female, but identified as male. I say “identified” because they* (the gender-neutral singular pronoun) have since shifted gender identification from male to gender-neutral and adopted the difficult-for-my-old-ass-to-remember “They/Them/Theirs” pronouns. For clarity, I will place an asterisk next to they/them/their when used as a singular pronoun for the remainder of the article.
Bos’s parents are 100% on board, and to be transparent, I love them (here, I’m referring to Bos’s parents. I like the kid okay, but I love Bos’s parents). For reasons I have yet to figure out, I have found it somewhat difficult to make friends with other parents. Maybe it’s because the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and I myself am an outsider. I’ve never really fit in neatly with any group. I was always too old, too young, too punk, too metal, too artsy, too practical, too…you get the idea. It could also be because I had my daughter when I was 25, and a lot of My Kid’s peers seem to have parents that chose to get their life together before they started reproducing. Maybe I’m just picky and I carefully curate my friends. At any rate, the fact is the majority of my friends have chosen not to have kids. I really have no good explanation for this.
So, when I found a set of parents that I connected with, I was super happy. We had some interesting commonalities. Bos’s Mom stopped being a lawyer to get a doctorate in Chinese medicine– I quit a lucrative gig as a graphic designer at a litigation firm to become a teacher. Bos’s Dad is a heavily tattooed Buddhist who rides motorcycles and listens to post-rock– I too am a tattooed Buddhist who listens to post-rock. Connecting with these parents was a true breath of fresh air in my life.
The first occasion I spent any time with them was on Halloween, last year. Bos went as a very convincing “Eleven” from “Stranger Things” (down to an Eggo box to collect candy which I thought was a very nice touch). My Kid, dressed for the third Halloween in a row as Hermione Granger, trick-or-treated with Bos, so I had the pleasure of chaperoning in the company of Bos’s most excellent parents. That night, I discovered a new kind of parent-crush. We talked about our kids, and naturally the topic of Bos’s transgenderism came up. I was prepared for this but I wasn’t sure how their* parents were going to talk to me about it. Would Bos’s parents have some kind of obnoxiously PC stance? Happily, I was surprised when they were very down to earth when talking to me about Bos’s gender identity.
Their* mom explained, “Bos has always been very much himself (they* were identifying male at the time). I’ve been around kids. You met Marie, (their older daughter) and she was not like Bos. Bos was just always so self-possessed, and so…himself, clear about who he is. So much so, that when he told me he was a boy, I was like…okay, if you say so, I guess you’re a boy.”
Not only was this a pragmatic explanation that seemed to align with my notions of respecting kids’ experience, it also put My Kid’s friendship with them* in context. As much as I have tried to instill the value of leadership and making strong decisions outside the influence of others, My Kid is not a leader. This is okay. I love people for who they are, not what I want them to be and my children are no exception.
So, My Kid is not a leader, but, My Kid isn’t exactly a follower, either. My Kid is more like the puppet master, watching from afar, navigating social situations to observe as much as she can to leverage things to her advantage. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that out of all the characters in Harry Potter, the one she latched onto was Snape. I told you, she’s complicated.
Just before spring break, I got a tearful phone call from My Kid. She (she identified as female at that point) was having some sort of issue with her mom. This was neither unusual nor unexpected. I called her mom and asked if I could come over and maybe walk around the neighborhood with My Kid to try and calm things down. As I mentioned earlier, my ex-wife and I have a tense relationship, and so, after the usual amount of distrustful runaround, I was eventually granted permission to come over.
My Kid and I walked around the neighborhood on that chilly night. I mostly listened as My Kid ranted about the “Unfairness Of It All.” From what I could glean by hearing out both my child and my ex-wife, My Kid had decided that she was now going to use They/Them/Their* pronouns because they* had decided they* were something called “bi-gendered,” and because they* were embarrassed to tell their* mom about it, they* asked a friend to do it. The friend carried out My Kid’s request, most likely with zero tact because these are 5th graders we are dealing with here. My Kid’s mom was upset by this declaration because she felt like gender identity was a serious issue that was none of this other friend’s beeswax.
So, while on our walk, I told My Kid how they* identify or who they* love is inconsequential to how I feel about them*. They* are my kid, and I love them* as much as I can possibly love someone, and that is not going to change if they* identify as a boy, a girl, or something in between. By the time we returned from our walk, both My Kid and their* Mom were considerably calmer. However, it should be noted that this was not the first talk we had about gender and sexuality.
We had already broached gender and sexuality talks about a month prior to this gender identity declaration-by-proxy. I had come home to find My Kid reading “Openly Straight,” by Bill Konigsberg. I asked what it was about and she (still identifying as female at the time) gave me the almost-breathlessly long-winded, rapid-fire synopsis that enthusiastic kids give about books they like. Essentially, it’s about a gay kid being proud of who he is beyond being gay and not letting his sexuality define how he sees and values himself.
“That’s great.” I said. Then, almost as an afterthought because my eleven-year-old daughter was reading Young Adult fiction about gay teenagers, I added, “Are you gay?”
“Yeah,” she said with the exact same tone I would expect to hear if I asked her to do a pleasant task.
“Hey, wanna walk the dog with me and maybe go to the park?”
“Yeah.” That kind of “yeah.”
And even still, the gender identity quandary continues to evolve. Fast forward to the most recent of tearful nights, which came as my wife and I were reading my two-year-old son bedtime stories. My Kid came upstairs, lurked awkwardly in the corner of the room for 5 minutes before blurting out, “I IDENTIFY AS A BOY!” then ran downstairs and slammed the door to their* (now His) room.
“That doesn’t mean you can’t read your brother a story,” my wife called behind him.
No response. We looked at each other with the “here we go again” look that is coming to define our time as the parents of an adolescent. I finished “Goodnight Moon,” and put my 2-year-old to bed before I proceeded to My Kid’s room for the requisite heart-to-heart.
The details were similar to the previous tearful-outpouring-of-emotions-on-the-heels-of-a-gender-identity-issue talk. Here is the condensed version: I loved him no matter what, and everything was cool with me.
The day after “The Great Coming Out,” I was eating breakfast, and James (My Kid chose the name James for himself. Not a name I would have chosen for him– but that is beside the point) came prancing out of his room, fluttering about and literally bouncing from here to there. He finally landed across from me. He was wearing mostly pink and no small amount of sparkly things in his pink hair.
“Oh my God, so you know how I, like, looooove Hamilton, right?”
“Well, I was listening to the Hamilton station on Spotify this morning and one of the songs from Wicked came up, so I started listening to that, and OH MY GOD, it is SO GOOD! Broadway is just so amazing! I mean…” and on and on it went for the remainder of my breakfast. At that point, it occurred to me that if my child was indeed a boy in a biological girl’s body, he would be, in fact, among the most effeminately gay boys that ever walked the face of the earth. This again, would not change how I feel about him, but it would be an inescapable characteristic. Brown eyes, stocky build, oddly short thumbs, super gay.
The only reversion back to My Kid’s biological gender came as a practical solution to provide everyone with a smoother visit when my parents came to see us. During this time, we switched back to female pronouns and My Kid used his middle name instead of his chosen name, “James.” Before you judge me and my handling of this visit, I want to say this; my parents are well meaning, but, if they didn’t understand why I wanted to have long hair in high school, they sure as hell weren’t going to get this. I am not a sadist. I have no desire to watch my dad ridicule and harass my child to the point of tears the way he did when I was in middle school and tried to become a vegetarian. I want My Kid to be able to continue to have a good relationship with my parents. The route we took was the path of least resistance. I told James that he can have that conversation with my folks when he is ready.
We got through the visit and life moved on. James went back to being James and, as I have been living with My Kid and his ever-evolving gender-identity, here is where my thoughts on the subject have landed (so far). In James’s case, I don’t really buy it. Not completely. I think that it’s statistically unlikely that My Kid is truly transgender. It is way more likely that My Kid is really a girl whose very charismatic best friend has identified as a boy and as gender-neutral, and that My Kid is following his/their* lead.
I can’t possibly speculate about the legitimacy of Bos’s gender identity. First, it is really none of my business. I take their* identity at face value. All I know about Bos is that they* play roller derby, are allergic to peanuts, and when they* stay the night, they* like to eat Ben and Jerry’s Half Baked ice-cream as their* sleep-over treat. Yes, Bos and My Kid have sleepovers. It raises some interesting questions about sleepover politics, and whether I would allow a biological boy to stay the night and let My Kid and said biological boy sleep on the same air mattress in the media room. I wouldn’t. Interesting, huh? Opine as you wish. We, the parents in this story, have decided that we are making the rules up as we go and that it’s fine. Most importantly, Bos makes James very happy. I’m pragmatic that way.
It is this very same pragmatism that makes me ultimately believe that My Kid is not truly a person who is transgender. I think it’s a phase My Kid is going through. I know, “a phase” is not something one is supposed to say when talking about gender-bendy issues, but how can I not? She was a girl, then she was a lesbian, then she was bi-gendered, then they* identified as male. If there is a better name for these shifts than “phases,” I’m open to hearing it, but personally, I don’t think that “phase” is a dirty word. I suppose it may sound dismissive, but, to me it means that something is in the process of changing and evolving, which, last time I checked, is how life works. My Kid’s entire development is broken out into phases, whether or not he is really a boy trapped in a girl’s body. I’m not transphobic. If my kid is genuinely a part of the 0.3%, then I am glad we identified it early and My Kid can grow up knowing he’s supported and loved. Support and love are the only things he will get from me.
I also have to think that My Kid is a child who, like most children, is assaulted on all sides by gender-specific media, which paints a very clear picture of what it looks like and what it means to be a “girl” at every stage of development. I think it’s more likely that My Kid looks at the stuff that surrounds him and on some level understands that this does not represent him.
According to child psychologist and educational theorist, Jean Piaget, children between the ages of ten and eleven are just starting to possess logical thinking. Developmentally, this is the point at which kids start to feel the need to engage in the more complex aspects of the world, where they start to peel off the layers of childhood simplicity and try to see the world as a more nuanced place. The problem being, of course, is they have no clue how to go about doing so. Many adults don’t understand the complexity of the world and choose to see matters in black and white terms because it is easier or more convenient for them, so who can blame the confusion these tweens are going through? I think it’s a distinct possibility that My Kid’s thinking goes like this: These pieces of media represent what a girl is supposed to be. I am not like that. Therefore I am not a girl. Since I am not a girl, maybe I’m gender-neutral or bi-gender, which is something I have heard of and know about. But that’s really complicated, so maybe I’m a boy, because I know that happens sometimes.
This generation has a lot to sort out as far as Identity goes. Insert the old man voice here: “Back in my day…” we defined ourselves through cliques, which were largely defined by music, fashion, and, of course, socioeconomic class. These days, with the exception of socioeconomic class, the aforementioned categories are no longer the main components of tween tribal identity. There is no key identifier anymore. And 5th graders are at an age when they want to start building an identity for themselves. I am this, and definitely not that. It’s human nature to want to belong to something bigger, to belong to a tribe. By defining who they are by knowing who they are not, gives them a welcome reprieve from the option-paralysis of the post-internet world. But even defining themselves by identifying what they are not can still be confusing and overwhelming.
My Kid’s way of navigating these uncharted waters appears to be playing both sides of an identity and by giving off the air of confidence in himself, gains just enough trust from his caregivers to be left alone to do as he sees fit. My Kid’s story is certainly not the only one of its kind. I have heard of a dozen or so other girls around this age in Portland and Eugene saying that they are really boys. I hear this outpouring of transgender girls and I think…nope. Sorry. I don’t think so. Some of them could truly be part of the 0.3% of the population that is transgender, sure– but they all just happen to be concentrated in Portland? It seems very unlikely.
Hate on it all you want. Like I said, I’m a realist. Cultural evolution happens way faster than biological evolution. Our identities are complex and we all certainly embody masculine and feminine traits no matter what our biology says about it. I don’t think that My Kid is transgender. I think He/They*/She is trying to figure out who He/They*/She is, which is what He/They*/She* should be doing at this age last time I checked.
If he stays a boy, that’s fine. If he is not a boy, then my hope is that this experience teaches him to have compassion for those who are in a position of otherness, be it racially, ethnically, culturally, or sexually. Hopefully he and the kids of his generation will have a more integrated understanding of identity as a moving target, and the human experience as a shifting spectrum rather than a static binary. I am not proposing any kind of solution. This is not my generation’s issue to sort out, and honestly, I’m excited to see what the kids come up with. I think it’s going to get a little weird, but is that such a bad thing? I’m with the early 20th century Dadaists– look at where “normal” has gotten us. It’s a mess!
In a sense, all children belong to us, and with that in mind, I extend my offer of love and acceptance to everyone in the next generation, no matter how weird it gets. All they will get from me is love and acceptance, as they are.
That seems like a good lesson for all of us.
Kelly Raine is an artist, writer, and educator. He teaches children and likes the idea that he is pitching in to make the world slightly better. He wears a lot of black and wakes up very, very early.