It Takes A Tribe

What It's Like to Raise (or Be) a Transgender Child

Magazine Issue
March/April 2016
A young child holds hands with two adults

None of us is really prepared for our children. When they’re born, we have no way of knowing what we’re getting—what kind of temperament, passions, behavioral quirks, lovable qualities, and special talents for driving us crazy. Many parents find it especially difficult to adapt to the ways in which their child is different from them. But if your child is someone who not just differs from you, but shatters one of the fundamental tenets of our culture—that a child is born either a boy or a girl and will stay that way—parenting can be shot through with a particular depth of bewilderment, loss, fear, and loneliness.

In the stories that follow, parents (and one trans teen) talk about these struggles and how they’re moving through them. All participate in the Ackerman Institute’s groundbreaking Gender & Family Project, which offers a range of gender-affirmative services to parents and children, from therapy and coaching to an array of ongoing support groups. The individuals who speak here by no means represent all families grappling with gender fluidity, since they enjoy high-quality support and live in progressive-leaning New York City. Nonetheless, all have grappled with massive shock, confusion, fear for their child, and profound isolation. At the outset of their journeys, many had never even heard of the word transgender, much less cisgender, social transitioning, or (deep breath) vaginoplasty. Beyond learning a brand new language, they’ve begun to develop new strengths and deepened connections, both with their child and a larger community that validates and supports them. Challenges remain, but isolation is largely a thing of the past.

As therapists well know, loneliness can drive much else that goes wrong in a person’s life. The good news is that trans kids and their parents are increasingly discovering that they’re not alone—and not just in New York City. The 2015 book Becoming Nicole, which traces the journey of a young transgender girl and her middle-class family in a small town in Maine, has become a New York Times bestseller, snapped up by parents and teens nationwide as a source of resilience and hope. The book is about many things, but one of them is the evolution of Nicole’s father—an avid hunter, Air Force vet, and generally conservative guy—from angry withdrawal to full-hearted acceptance of his new daughter and a new role as political advocate on behalf of the entire Maine transgender community.

The importance of books like Becoming Nicole, programs like the Gender & Family Project, the burgeoning online trans community, and the attuned work of therapists everywhere, lies in the shift from isolation to community. Once parents get the chance to know other people like them and hear their stories, they gather understanding and become more able to open their hearts to their “different” children. Meanwhile, kids are meeting others like them, youngsters who are trans, gender-expansive, genderqueer, or as Gender & Family Project director Jean Malpas puts it, simply “gender-fabulous.” This widening net of loving acceptance increases the chance that gender-nonconforming children and teens will thrive, rather than wilt in despair, even in a society that continues to misunderstand and resist them. Such is the power of a tribe.

Not the Only One
By Ana, mother of Zee, Age 10

Assigned female at birth, Zee was a happy, strong-willed child. At around age 3, he began to express a strong preference for boyish types of clothes and toys. At first, it just seemed that he wanted to be like his boy cousins and, since most of the women in my family were considered “tomboys” anyway, no one paid much attention to these preferences. It wasn’t until he started public school in kindergarten, where the activities of boys and girls began to be so segregated, that he had to encounter the question of where he fit in. I’d pick him up in tears because the boys wouldn’t let him play with them since they considered him a girl, and the girls wouldn’t let him play them either because he liked boys’ toys and never had a doll with him.

On his own, Zee decided that he was going to show the boys that he could do anything they could. He was a very athletic kid, and soon gained acceptance in the circle of boys. At the same time, among the girls, he became a kind of prince in the group of the princesses. Whenever they played with him, he was always the male figure. Bouncing around playing as both a boy and as a girl, by first grade he came up with his own term for what he was—an “in between.”

At first, my husband and I thought Zee was just going through a stage of some kind. Some days he’d tell me, “I’m Max today” or “I’m Jordan.” Two or three days later he’d be Caroline, his legal female name. My husband thought that by accepting the various names he used, I was encouraging some confusion. But it wasn’t just different names. Some days his body language was very identifiable as a male; some days it was very female, like the way he walked and the tone of his voice. Neither of us could really understand what was happening. We’d never encountered the terms transgender or gender nonconforming.

We began to get more worried when Zee started getting intensely upset by people’s confusion about his gender. For example, the crossing guards on our way to school would often, in a friendly way, say things to him like, “Good morning, Princess. You look so beautiful today.” or “Such a pretty haircut. It really fits your face.” Over time, that became more disturbing for Zee. He’d have tantrums that might last for 30 minutes and cry, “I don’t want him to tell me I’m a princess! I’m not a princess!” Sometimes on the subway, he’d cover himself because he didn’t want people to look at or talk to him.

I started to realize that there was more happening than Zee just not wanting to behave or look like a girl. It was something else I didn’t understand. About that time, I starting going up on the Internet to try to get some information about how to help him. But in that pre–Caitlin Jenner era, I didn’t know the right search terms and couldn’t find any useful information. At first, my husband didn’t even agree that was a good thing to do. He said, “You’re just analyzing too much. Don’t do that.”

Fortunately, I found a group of young men in our Brooklyn neighborhood who were part of the Campaign for Human Rights to legalize gay marriage. They took my contact information and within half an hour I got a bunch of links to Gender Spectrum and other support groups. From there, I found out about the Ackerman Institute’s Gender & Family Project. I went up to their website and saw a videotape by therapist Jean Malpas about transgender kids. For the first time, it was as if somebody understood my child and what we were going through. One moment I felt we were the only family in the world going through this, and then suddenly I discovered there was a whole community out there to support us.

We began by going to the monthly support group for parents, and then a few months later Zee joined the kids’ support group for gender nonconforming and transgender kids. In the group, his voice grew louder and louder. Little by little he started understanding that you could choose the pronoun you wanted to use to refer to yourself and how you could define who you are. For a while, he was the “in between” kid. Sometimes he’d go by “he,” then he’d go by “she.” But by the end of second grade, he started to identify only as a male.

By then, I was talking more and more to the school about what we were going through. Zee was still using his female name, Caroline, and being considered a girl at school. But as he indicated more and more that he experienced himself as a boy, I went to the school and said, “Next year, during third grade, you’re gonna have a transgender boy on your hands. So let’s make a plan.”

Initially, there was a little bit of resistance. The school insisted that it couldn’t make changes for only one child. After all, they had too many special situations to deal with. So I changed my approach and decided to talk to the other parents in the Parents Association. I invited Jean Malpas to talk with us about gender nonconforming kids. The principal and some of the teachers also came. All the information that Jean provided gave them a good idea about what it means to be a transgender child who’s transitioning at school.

As usually happens with transgender kids in school, the most immediate question became what bathroom he could use. In the beginning, the school wasn’t willing to let him use the boys’ room, but then they decided that if he really needed to use a different facility, he could go to the pre-K bathroom. But that left him feeling uncomfortable at being so set apart. So he came up with his own solution. He talked to all the boys in his class and just started going to the boys’ bathroom.

Both my husband and I have had our struggles in understanding how to best support Zee. At first, it was hard for my husband to accept what was happening with him. But hearing the other fathers at Ackerman talk about their own experiences gave him the space to understand what was going on. He changed from asking me not to encourage Zee in his transition to discovering how to embrace him more as a little boy. I also went through a crisis when Zee started saying that he didn’t want to have breasts. I knew that might happen, but I didn’t know how much it was going to affect me. In my mind, I’d always imagined that my daughter would one day have a baby. When Zee came to me and said, “I don’t want breasts,” it really put me on my knees. It took several months for me to come out of that. And it’s my husband who turned out to be the most help. He said, “That’s his life. If we had a son, you wouldn’t be thinking about this thing. So get over it.”

Right now Zee is in fourth grade. While the kids in his grade really accept him, sometimes it’s not so easy with the kids in the other grades. A couple months ago, an older kid in the fifth grade used his female name and Zee got very upset. Over the summer, he met a few kids he got close to and he actually told them about being transgender. Most of the time he wants to protect his male identity and doesn’t want to share that information.

My hope is that he’ll grow up not being at war with the body he has. He’s approaching adolescence and we just went for a consultation about puberty blockers to give him more time and more maturity to make the decisions he’ll need to make about his physical development. We hope he’ll continue to grow up in a world with enough acceptance to support him in choosing to be who he is with the body that he has.

Whatever happens, Ackerman has become a lifeline for us, a place where we can share our journey with other families. It’s important for all of us to see older, gender-noncon­forming kids who are happy and secure in who they are. And Zee gets to meet other kids who are like him. He now knows that he’s not the only one. Realizing that gives him a strength and a voice he wouldn’t otherwise have.

A Double Life
By Ariel,Transgender teen, Age 14

I’ve always felt that I was a girl inside: like my body didn’t match with my brain. It’s never really been about figuring out my identity—I was never confused about that. When I was 2 or 3, I remember getting a box filled with princess dresses. When I put on those dresses, I felt alive and really happy in a new way. It might be hard for other people to understand, but I just thought, “Well, I’m a girl. I’m just in the wrong body.”

The first time I remember getting a negative reaction about feeling like a girl inside was when I was 4 and dressed up for Halloween as Rapunzel. The other kids said some mean things, and I remember crying and wondering why they were treating me so badly. As I got older, I remember feeling upset that I couldn’t be myself in public, that I couldn’t wear the same things as my other female friends, that I couldn’t go into the girls’ bathroom. From the beginning, I gravitated toward girly things, and all my friends were girls who were really supportive of me and just thought of me as one of them. So when I had to go in the boys’ bathroom, it just felt weird. It was almost like leading a double life: at home I wore dresses and could do whatever I wanted, but in public, it was different. I didn’t fully understand why at that point.

The good thing is that I didn’t have to deal with a lot of bullying because I was lucky enough to have a good group of friends who really accepted me. Maybe that’s why, even though I had to lead a double life, I wasn’t terribly unhappy. I always had a loving and accepting family. That could be why I didn’t have a need to transition that early. But it did get harder as I got older.

In particular, I remember Moving Up Day in fifth grade, a ceremony having to do with entering middle school. At the end of the ceremony, we had to do this dance involving a boys’ line and a girls’ line. When I tried to sneak into the girls’ line, my friends, who were usually very accepting, said, “Oh, come on, Ian.”—that was my boy’s name—“Get in the boys’ line.” That was really painful for me. I felt like there was always going to be a divide between me and my friends because they’d never really understand how much that kind of thing hurt me.

After a while, there were more and more occurrences like that where boys and girls were being separated in some way and, for me, that was the worst part about school. In particular, I just hated everything about the boys’ bathroom. I wasn’t really ostracized or anything like that—I was in a good place and had good friends—but I knew there’d always be a divide I couldn’t cross because I wouldn’t be accepted.

I can’t even remember when I first heard of the word transgender or how I found out about it. But my mom always wanted to let me know that I wasn’t alone in the world and that there were other kids like me. At first, I didn’t really understand that; there was no one really like me in my school. It wasn’t until I was 8 and the Ackerman Institute opened up its group for transgender kids that I started to see it was true: there were other kids out there like me. And that gave me a new experience and a different sense of being connected than I’d ever felt before.

I transitioned after the fifth grade. I left my old school on a good note, with all my friends knowing about me being transgender. And I entered a new school as a girl with a fresh start as Ariel. It wasn’t like I was trying to be stealth or anything; I just wanted my friends at my new school to see me as a person, not a transgender person. Then later on, it would be up to me to tell them myself.

When I first came to the new school, I used to change for gym in the bathroom. But as I developed a closer relationship with my friends, they started finding it weird that I was changing apart from them. They began wondering, “Why does she always do that?” So I finally decided to change with the rest of them, but I used to hide myself, maybe put a shirt over me while I was changing or I’d face the wall. Then one day I was putting on a really tight pair of leggings and as I was putting them on, it was really noticeable what was different about my body. My friends started questioning me and I got really riled up and flustered. I didn’t know what to say. It was a very upsetting experience. Everybody heard about it. Finally, the guidance counselor spoke with me, and it all worked out well in the end, because afterward all the parents found out and everyone accepted me anyway. My friends have been amazing ever since.

I guess the most important thing I’ve learned about being transgender is that there are always places and resources you can find for help. It’s important to keep fighting for what you believe in, because that’s what this whole journey is about. You just need to find people who are going to love you and accept you and surround you with positivity.

Jumping the Waves
By Melanie, Mother of E, Age 12

Raising a transgender kid is a lot like jumping the ocean waves. Most of the time, it’s an experience of extreme joy and happiness. You rise up and float down, and it’s all a blast. Sometimes you turn your back, bear the impact, and then let the laughter explode as those waves unfold behind you and you realize you’re still swimming. It is, in the true sense of the word, awesome.

And then sometimes you get pulled under and you can’t see what’s in front of you and you don’t really know where you are. Fear takes over as the sand swirls in front of your face. You struggle to get your bearings. You’re lost.

Most of the time, we live in the joy. E is such a happy kid and is so loved and accepted. Our community supports us, as does our family. E hasn’t lost one friend over his trans identity, and his world has only grown with the love and respect people feel for him. We’re carried by this positive energy.

A few weeks ago, I attended an amazing event: Gender Conference East in Baltimore. Families like ours gathered together, kids were meeting other kids like them. Parents too—their heads were close together as they shared their stories. Before they even went into detail, we knew. We live it too. We listened anyway and eagerly, as it’s a gentle release to know others who walk our paths.

There were a lot of friends made that weekend—and a lot of information to take in. I got to meet with a legal advisor about the steps needed to change E’s name. Dads convened to unpack what this experience is like from their perspective. There were sessions on working with your school, balancing out your faith journey, talking to your gender nonconforming teens about sex. It’s one thing to sit at your computer, googling this stuff, bleary-eyed and cyber-connected, late at night. But it’s an elevated experience to have the flesh-and-blood experts sitting in front of you, answering your questions, along with other parents with the same concerns.

The focus for me was on medical stuff. It’s an area that I know the least about, beyond exactly where we are with E. One session I attended was on surgeries for transgender individuals. Of course, not all trans people want to surgically change their bodies, and that doesn’t make them any less connected to their identity than those who choose surgical interventions. E is still young, and while he doesn’t know for sure what the future holds for his body, he knows that surgeries are a possibility, so I wanted to learn.

Two talented surgeons stood before us, sharing stories and images of the surgeries they perform and the way it makes them feel to help trans people achieve the bodies they want. The medical terms and the surgical options they were describing were so big and magical you could almost see the words floating around the room. Vaginoplasty. Phalloplasty. Metoidioplasty. Orchiectomy. They went through it all: male to female, female to male, top, bottom.

A pause here to acknowledge that those terms—male to female, female to male, top and bottom—make me squirm. They seem to reinforce a limiting gender binary and dissect people into body parts—people with beating hearts and complex, nuanced feelings.

Anyway, one thing I learned is that all these surgeries are incredibly difficult and complicated. There’s a lot that can go wrong. It’s hard to qualify what success is in this arena, but it seems that people looking to align their bodies to a female identity are able to achieve that outcome pretty well. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not an easy cut, snip, flip, and there’s your vagina! But it seems to work out pretty well. For people like E, aligning a body with a male identity is a whole other thing. There are no good answers. There are answers that are, for lack of a better word, okay. And okay kind of sucks.

That’s my honest reaction. I think E imagines that when he’s older he has the option of having surgery, resulting in a male body, a “typical” male body. But here’s the part where I start to question things. E is male, so doesn’t that mean his body, whatever it is, is male? Can’t there be variations on the male body that feel good and right? Can these surgeries get trans men to a place where they’re happily connected: identity, body, and soul? Do they even need surgery to achieve that? Is it enough? Is it too much?

This is the undertow—that crazy, scary twist where you can’t find the ground to place your feet. So I was happy for the lunch break, to eat and just tread water for a while.

The last session of the day that I chose to attend was on fertility, which I was glad to hear is an area of medicine that’s progressing at breakneck speed, because currently, our options are, like surgeries, not very good. Kids like E would have to get to Tanner Stage 4 in their pubertal development in order to have viable reproductive material. Google Tanner Stage 4 for females. When I did and showed E, he raised one side of his furrowed brow and said, “No way!”

Without mature eggs, fertility discussions are very sketchy and very expensive—medical procedures and tens of thousands of dollars to cryopreserve immature cells that may or may not ever be viable for a person who may or may not ever want to use them.

Once again, the waves are overhead. I tried to push through and orient myself, but for the entire drive home I was twisted up in the water and sand. If I could just find the sun, I knew I could swim toward it. And then, when I pulled into my driveway, E ran out to greet me. There it was—my son, my sun.




Photo © Ed Andrieski/AP/Corbis

Marian Sandmaier

Marian Sandmaier is the author of two nonfiction books, Original Kin: The Search for Connection Among Adult Sisters and Brothers (Dutton-Penguin) and The Invisible Alcoholics: Women and Alcohol Abuse in America (McGraw-Hill). She is Features Editor at Psychotherapy Networker and has written for the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, and other publications. Sandmaier has discussed her work on the Oprah Winfrey Show, the Today Show, and NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “Fresh Air.” On several occasions, she has received recognition from the American Society of Journalists and Authors for magazine articles on psychology and behavior. Most recently, she won the ASJA first-person essay award for her article “Hanging Out with Dick Van Dyke” on her inconvenient attack of shyness while interviewing. You can learn more about her work at