Children are a distinct, purposeful focus in my life. I’m the parent of a brilliant six-year-old and have many close friends with delightful kids as well. I work as a substitute para-educator, a job that sends me to a plethora of classrooms, K-12, throughout my city.
I’m also a transgender woman.
People often connect children with trans issues, but outside the occasional fluff piece about a sweet trans seven-year-old with loving, supportive parents, the public’s connection with transness and children is usually one of fear. Transgender people, particularly transgender women, are often painted as dangerous and predatory — perverts who may well abuse a child, or who, at best, will confuse and corrupt children by exposing them to our deviance.
As an educator — and, even more so, as a parent — these attitudes are obviously a problem for me. One of the ways my trans visibility makes me vulnerable is the potential concern over my interactions with children, to say nothing of the reactions of children themselves.
I am fortunate to have a co-parent who supports my gender and my presence in our child’s life, and I am equally fortunate that no one, parent or staff, has raised any objection to my working in schools. On the other hand, I do have several relatives who are deeply concerned about my transition and its supposed effect on my daughter’s development. And I endure the usual gamut of misgendering and other microaggressions on the job, including the intense scrutiny and curiosity of students.
So, I have a wealth of experience in talking to kids about trans identity and experience. When societal expectations render me a walking, involuntary gender studies class, I have little choice but to develop that skill.
Transitioning While Parenting
My “training” in this field began as soon as I began to transition. I had no closeted phase. As soon as I realized I had a non-normative gender experience, I lived publicly and boldly first as a genderqueer femme, then soon thereafter as a trans woman. I don’t feel I was particularly brave in being “out”; I just didn’t know any other way to start living my truth after years of inertia.
My daughter was four at the time. I was recently separated from her other parent, who was working on forging an amicable co-parenting relationship with me and was generally supportive of my stated gender. My daughter’s conservative Christian grandparents, however, were not.
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My ex’s parents refused to be in my presence for several months, even to drop my daughter off for play dates. My mother had no desire to shun me, but refused to accept who I am. Within this landscape, I began fielding questions about why “Daddy” wears a lot of dresses now.
My initial answer was simply that anyone can wear any kind of clothing they feel good in. As my identity as a woman solidified, however, I had to be more direct: “When babies are born, their parents and doctors guess whether they’re a boy or a girl. A lot of times, that guess is right! But sometimes, the guess is wrong. That’s what happened to me. A doctor guessed that I was a boy, but it turned out he was wrong, and I’m actually a girl.”
My daughter accepted this unquestioningly, requiring only the assurance that I was the same loving parent I had always been. And while she went through a brief period of pushback, challenging my gender with statements put into her head by her grandmother, that soon got ironed out. Two years later, she still happily accepts that she’s the child of two women, even once defending me to other children on the playground who were misgendering me.
Countering Transphobia on the (Workplace) Playground
My next challenge came not from my own kid, but from other children on other such playgrounds when I began the aforementioned para-educator job late last year. A different job assignment every day means dozens of first impressions and precious little opportunity to build rapport or set personal boundaries for respectful behavior. Any students I interact with are in my life for a brief time, under rushed circumstances, and possibly never to be seen again.
So I’ve learned to think quickly. If a child questions or comments on my gender, I don’t have the luxury of a mindful, patient conversation. Often, I have time to say just one thing before the current carries both of us on our way. Sometimes, I don’t even get that opportunity; students stare, point, giggle, and otherwise mark me out as strange and alien without engaging directly or giving me a chance to put my humanity forward.
When they do address me directly, the most frequent question by far is, “Why do you sound like a boy?” I find this both irritating and strangely validating. It’s frustrating and embarrassing for a physical trait I’m sensitive about and have had great difficulty modifying to be constantly called out and scrutinized. It’s also comforting to think that the rest of my appearance and presentation so lines up with students’ expectations of womanhood that my voice is the only incongruous element.
My answer to this question is usually, “Oh? Strange, I thought I just sounded like me.” Alternately, “Well, girls have lots of different kinds of voices, and so do boys.” If I’m feeling particularly feisty, I might throw the question back at them: “Hmm, what does a ‘boy’s voice’ sound like?” I don’t seem to have opened too many eyes with that one, though; the response is usually a blunt “like that,” with no sign of doubt or introspection.
Sometimes, my interactions go beyond confusion or curiosity. Some students are visibly agitated by my very presence, whether or not they say anything directly. Sometimes, they obsess over my incongruence, continuing to insist that I look or sound like a man. Again, I have little time to establish boundaries or engage in thoughtful, open-hearted dialogue, but I do my best to assert my right to dignity and respect, and I ask kids to stop saying things that are hurtful. Sometimes, they listen, and sometimes, they don’t.
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At the same time, some of the children I meet seem delighted at my presence. They greet me warmly, compliment me, and even stand up to others who are ridiculing me. A girl on the playground recently told a boy who was repeating that I have a man’s voice that “it hurts her feelings when you say that.” I nodded and added that it especially hurts my feelings when I hear it over and over, day in and day out.
What I’ve learned from all these experiences is hard to encapsulate. People have a lot of preconceptions about children, often contradictory ones. “Kids are so much more open and accepting” is a cultural dogma that exists alongside “Kids are so cruel!”
My take is, children are very intense. They feel and think the full range of things adults do, only more vibrantly and overwhelmingly. They haven’t necessarily learned the tools for managing these feelings, or the social etiquette for expressing them, and the institutions that pervade their lives do not prepare them well for this. Furthermore, they have a very vulnerable psychic immune system and soak up the preconceptions and attitudes of adults in their lives.
So my policy when talking to children about transgender issues is the same as my policy with every other topic: speak honestly and simply, so as to circumvent the elaborate philosophical scaffolding adults construct around our experience, and put my truth forward. Make “I” statements, and foreground compassion and empathy. Hold space for whatever the child is feeling, without invalidating or shaming it, while owning how I feel as well.
I’ve noticed I never use the “T” word when speaking with kids, whether my own or others. Reflecting on this, I’ve concluded that this has a lot to do with the way “transgender” is a culturally required qualifier for my womanhood and my resentment of that fact. While I think it might be high time my daughter learns some words to help her navigate the experience of having a parent like me, with other children I revel in the power to simply tell them I’m a girl, without having to append “trans” to the label.
It’s obvious that kids are not free of the transphobic baggage of the culture at large, but it is true that the poison hasn’t taken as firm a root. When a child is able to fight free of transphobia’s hold and accept me as I am, it is the most precious gift.
Just to be clear, though, it is a fight, every day, for me and for them. Sometimes, I come home positively soaring from my delight in my students’ open-heartedness. Some days, I am so weary from their tactlessness, from patiently enduring a bigotry that isn’t even fully their own.
It’s not easy being a walking gender studies class, but if my presence can gently assist a kid in undoing the hate society has placed in them for people like me, or even help them work out their own gender issues, it is a duty I will shoulder gladly.
[Feature image: The photograph features an adult and a child looking at each other. The adult is on the left with an arm around the child on the right. The adult is wearing a long-sleeved brown and white striped shirt and has short brown hair and light skin. The child has shoulder-length brown hair, light skin, and an open-mouthed smile.]