When I was growing up, transgender women were no more than punchlines, and transgender men nearly unheard of. I was a happy enough androgynous little kid, but when I hit puberty everything changed. I became depressed, self-harmed, had poor hygiene, and wore careless, sloppy, baggy clothes. Neither my folks nor I were aware of gender dysphoria, or the ways that it can manifest, and I don’t blame anyone for not having it on their radar at the time. But as I struggled with depression, with weight and eating issues, and with difficult relationships, the bond I had with my folks became strained, even broken at times.
It was never that they didn’t care. To the contrary, they did everything they could think of to help me through difficult times. As a teen in the mid-’90s, they brought me to a succession of therapists. Many diagnoses were tossed around, but none of them stuck. I did have one hopeful stretch, starting in my senior year of high school and lasting through college, a time when I was wearing exclusively men’s clothing and even shaved my head. Neither my therapists nor my parents asked me about this gender nonconformity, much less expressed their support for it—and no one linked it to my improved mood or my newfound success at school. I think they were embarrassed, and they may have seen it as a sign of continuing instability, rebellion, or perhaps low self-esteem. They often told me how feminine my features were, and every Christmas and birthday my gifts included jewelry, accessories, or women’s clothing. After I graduated college I tried harder to conform to the expectations for what a woman should be, believing this was the only sensible, mature choice. As soon as I began dressing as a woman, my mental health cratered. A diet became an eating disorder. I struggled through the rest of my 20s—angry, self-destructive, anxious, and afraid. This was also when my relationship with my folks was at its worst.
I started wearing men’s clothes again in my early 30s, and when I did my life began to steadily improve. Slowly, I came to understand that the constant discomfort I’d felt was gender dysphoria, and that men’s clothing helped a little but transitioning would help a lot. I came out as a transgender man at 38. That was two and a half years ago. After some initial skepticism, my mom and dad are now supportive of this change. More than simply happy for me, I know how relieved they are that their sad, angry, hopeless child has finally found joy and success in adult life.
But, after so much time, they struggle to use the right words. The name they gave me—a lovely girl’s name that I keenly remember feeling intense discomfort with as far back as elementary school—often slips out in place of my new legal name. Remembering to say “he” instead of “she” is even harder—the wrong pronouns have been worn so deeply into their brains that I’m learning to accept that they may never call me “he.” When we visit, I brace for the awkwardness of their referring to me as “she” in front of strangers—waiters or cabbies who then look visibly confused, because I read as male. As it often is with families, we do our best, but I can’t help thinking how much richer my relationship with them might have been if they’d had the benefit of raising me in a time when gender nonconformity, gender exploration, and trans identity were better understood. As much love as they feel, as hard as they try, they may never know me—really know me—more as their successful son than the hapless, unhappy daughter they thought they had.
If only my parents could have known and embraced me for who I am 20-something years ago. Small things could have made such a big difference: If they’d given me the option of choosing menswear for holidays, or given me gifts of ties and button-up men’s shirts, they could have sent a signal that it was okay to be myself, whomever I turned out to be. I believe my parents would have embraced having a trans child if they’d had some way of knowing that was what they had. But, because it was 1998 instead of 2018, their best efforts wound up obscuring my truest self, creating vast gulfs of misunderstanding and hurt between them and me.
This is why The Atlantic’s cover story this month caused me such concern, because today there’s so much more information out there about what gender nonconforming kids need, for parents who are willing to learn. But I fear they won’t find that information in this story; they’re more likely, it seems to me, to leave the piece questioning whether their child is really trans, especially if, like me, their child didn’t experience gender dysphoria until adolescence, or if, like me, their gender nonconformity co-exists with depression, anxiety, or other mental-illness symptoms. Kids today don’t need to go through what I went through. To start out, they must accept the possibility that their child might be trans, and that they can’t wish them out of being trans if they are, and nothing will turn them trans if they are not. Then, they can support experiments with new clothing, names, or pronouns, joining in the journey of self-exploration alongside their child, rather than trying to stop it or waiting for it to pass. Parents can let their child know they will be just as loved if they’re a boy, a girl, or neither of those two. Instead of obsessing about the risks of a wrong medical choice, they can help their child understand the risks and benefits to every option, slowing them down if necessary, but all the while guiding them toward well-informed decisions.
The amazing secret is that there are no downsides to that approach. A child who knows they will be loved and affirmed, no matter what, is a child who can change course, if necessary, without fear or regret. So often, the stories we read about gender-nonconforming youth focus either on the fears parents have about medical transition, or on the risks to trans youth of not having an affirming home. But there are subtler, longer-term risks that parents are rarely encouraged to think about. The relationship between parent and child will break down if some possibilities of who a child may grow up to be remain unspeakable, off-limits, and misunderstood. Trusting a young person enough to support them through a journey of self-exploration might feel scary, but a greater fear should be of what can happen when that process breaks down. My parents lacked the knowledge and the tools to affirm my gender difference when I was a teen. We can’t go back and redo those years, but parents today can learn from our experience, and choose a brighter path.