Like the Other Kids

On the last hot day of the summer, I met up with three of my best friends at a nearby playground. Our kids hadn’t seen each other in a while, and we had so much to talk about. Of course, we talked in spurts between our kids’ interruptions, as parents do. As the day got hotter, the kids moved to the splash pad area of the playground. I’m kind of an asshole when it comes to leaving the house prepared, so of course my kid didn’t have a bathing suit.

“Just get wet in your clothes!” I yell to my kid.

“But it will be uncomfortable! Can I take my shirt off like the other kids? Please?”

“No, because those kids are boys, and you are a girl,” I reply in a hushed tone.

“THAT’S SEXIST!” my child rightfully replies, and crumples to the ground.

And here I have come to another parenting crossroads: here I am, enforcing a patriarchal gender binary. Here I am, saying something I would never say to a cisgender girl. But my child is transgender, and I want to to protect her.

All of my friends gathered here were straight, and most of the kids were cisgender boys, with one cisgender girl. They held back offering any opinions because they’re truly lovely and trust my parenting, but I could tell they were shocked. And honestly, so was I. I’m super queer, and my co-parent is a trans woman, and here I am, sounding like some 1950s health class video.

My child came out as transgender when she was in preschool. She’s nine now. During that time, I’ve done my best to help her feel empowered and keep her safe, failing miserably from time to time. I’ve watched her introduce herself with internalized cissexism. “I look like a boy, but I’m really a girl.” She easily passes as a girl, with long hair and the tackiest, glitter- and kitten-covered clothes any one can find; but she’s not sure other people see her as she sees herself in her heart. It breaks my heart to watch her, with her little child voice, preemptively advocate for herself.

As she got older, I saw the gender binary boxes get shored up by the kids around her. Gender roles were much more entrenched in second and third grade. When she told her preschool classmates during her transition, “People thought I was a boy, but in my heart, I’m a girl,” it was met with a shrug. Because she’s really into science, sometimes she would explain her identity as “I’m a girl and I have a y chromosome,” to which the other kids might respond, “I’m a boy and I have an Xbox!” Then they’d run off together to track dragons.

Now, I see children making all sorts of attacks on cisgender kids for not being good at their gender performance. If a cis girl hears “you’re not girly enough,” then that’s really shitty and should be stopped. But if a trans girl hears that, it means something even more awful for her. You’re not really a girl. You’re bad at being a girl. You’re a fake girl. You’re a boy.

On top of how hard it is to be transgender in a cissexist world, it’s also really hard to be a child. It can be hard to have two moms in a heterosexist world. It can be hard to have a transgender mom. Put that all together, and I’m just one giant ball of anxiety who is frequently at a loss for the perfect way to help my child navigate the world. Oh, and I’m a target for heterosexist bullshit, too.

Shitty people “blame” bad parenting for kids being trans all the time, and straight cis parents have to deal with that horribleness, too. But we’ve even had kind of cool people “blame” us for our kid being trans. Obviously, the reasoning goes, we were too proud and weren’t considering what kind of influence we were having on our child, and now she’s forced to be trans. She was never allowed to “explore” if she’s cis. She’s mimicking her trans mama, because we’re way too focused on queer politics to properly raise a cis kid. Of course, these statements could be completely flipped to explain how hard it is to be a queer kid in a homophobic household, and the double standard is offensive enough. But underlying this statement is the implication that we did something bad to our kid; that being trans is bad. Straight parents are told this all the time, that they did something bad and hurt their kids by making them trans. But we in specific are being told our identities are bad, and it’s our identities that hurt our kid.

My child is standing on the shoulders of Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Jazz Jennings, and everyone else that has fought so hard for a world where a preschooler can realize she is transgender, be supported by her school’s policies, and have the resources she needs. However, for so many of us, we realized we were LGBTQ after we are already homophobic, heterosexist, and cissexist. It’s a weird thing to go through, to have to rekindle a love for ourselves while living in a world that hates us, especially after we participated in that hate once, too. We’re doing our best to help our child avoid that particular internalization, but her parents didn’t.

I’ve mostly vanquished that voice in my head that says I’m not good enough because I’m not straight, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone. I call her Brenda, after Katya Zamolodchikova’s negative voice. When I talk about my child’s gender to people in her life, Brenda is there with me. As I’m arming her for the world, I’m fighting both cissexism and Brenda. Straight parents need to be just as strong and aware as queer parents when raising a trans child, and they will have to unlearn and grow as a straight and cis ally, but they don’t necessarily have to fight their own internalized hatred of themselves. This experience is even more intense for my co-parent, because she shares a transgender identity with our child.

When my child started kindergarten at her public school, the staff there were really excited to implement their new professional development. They were eager to give my child interventions, such as an in-school therapist. They used all the proper language. They were committed to welcoming my child. And they were all straight as fuck. They were honestly so into themselves and how prepared they were to be an ally to my child that it was hard for me to point out just how wrong they were.

During a talk with the principal, she casually said “All kids mimic their parents, and that’s fine.” Ice ran down my spine; I knew she was revealing that she thinks my kid is only trans because her mama is. I wanted to say “Yeah, by turning a banana into a phone and pretending to make dinner plans with their friends, not by adopting their gender!” But there was Brenda, whispering in the back of my mind that if I counter what the principal thinks, she’ll take away the interventions. The principal isn’t a queer weirdo like me, so I should just let her say whatever she wants.

When I met my child’s first grade teacher, she said that she thinks it’s best to just let my child “be gender neutral” — why make her choose? She went on to explain that she didn’t think such labels were “helpful for childhood development.” My head swirled with this casual condemnation of my parenting and my child’s gender. This teacher had clearly never heard about the struggles agender and genderqueer people go through, either. But instead, I stayed quiet, convinced by Brenda’s voice telling me look! Even my child’s teacher is more radical about gender than me! She knows that I pushed my queer lifestyle onto my child and didn’t work hard enough to let my child feel free. I bit my tongue and didn’t point out just how completely cissexist she was being.

But in the straight, cis echo chamber of my child’s school, this became a progressive idea. I began to hear it from the principal, an administrator, and the other first grade teacher. Now I had to push back on the bullshit that I had allowed to go unchecked. At the next check-in meeting with my child’s teacher, therapist, and administrators, I had to lay out that the idea that transgender kids are “forced to choose” a gender is ridiculous. No one is questioning whether the cis kids are being forced to choose. Additionally, my child’s gender is not a label; it’s an identity. This identity has been forged by badass transgender people before her, and she continues to create her own relationship to her identity as she desires. When people with privilege refer to marginalized identities as “labels,” they are ignoring that these identities are sites of community and struggle for liberation. As an ally, it is their job to accept what queer and transgender people say, not to embellish on it. And THAT is what I should have said from the beginning, right after I told Brenda to shut the hell up.

Like all parents, I have no idea what I’m doing. We all have baggage we’re hopefully working through, and that can get in the way of trusting our parenting choices. I have no clue if I’m making the correct choices. For our family, sometimes gender-neutral parenting can seem like gender-derisive parenting. For our family, when my child says she does something because she is a girl, it’s not appropriate for us to sit down for a talk about breaking down the gender binary. When she says “I wear dresses because I’m a girl,” she’s speaking about her own experiences as a transgender child. “Boys can wear dresses, too, honey,” could seem like I’m saying that wearing dresses isn’t enough for her to be considered a girl. If a cisgender girl says something about her appearance, it can be harmful to continue to focus on that. I really don’t think I would comment on a cisgender girl’s appearance when she points out her clothes. But when my child, who thinks she “looks like a boy,” twirls in her dress, I tell her she looks beautiful. And because I know that my baby’s heart breaks when she is called a boy by other kids on the playground, my daughter wears a shirt in the splash pad.

Catherine Kelly is a social justice organizer, parent, and a queer/bi femme. When not writing, parenting, or bartending, she's usually riding her bike somewhere to eat.

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