I write openly and candidly about being a queer parent of a transgender child. As an advocate for her, myself, and all LGBTQIA+ folks, I get a lot of private messages through email and my social media pages. Not all of them are nice, but many of the notes I get are ones of appreciation. I balance the hateful and ignorant messages with the appreciative ones from other parents of transgender children. I know I am doing good work when strangers thank me for helping them learn while they find ways to support family and friends who are transitioning.
I get a lot of questions too. One of the most common questions from parents is this: How do I know if my kid is transgender?
The inquiry is always asked from a place of love. The parents who want help and advice are the ones who are trying to find the best way to support their child. Parents try to describe a specific scenario or a set of examples which are causing confusion, worry, or fear. This happens when a child expresses themself outside of society’s accepted gender stereotypes. My son likes to wear dresses. My daughter says she is a boy. When we are at home, my son wants me to call him Sophia and not Max. My daughter got her period and is depressed and says she hates her body. Does this mean my child is transgender?
I may not be able to answer questions that are specific to you and your child, but I can give you ways to help you both figure it out.
First of all, let’s be clear about some basics.
Biological sex relates to our body parts and DNA. We are assigned gender at birth based on biological sex. But those two are not always the same. Simply put: If one’s gender assignment at birth does not align with their gender identity, then they are transgender. Someone who is nonbinary or gender-fluid often describes themself as transgender, though we are specific about our transness because we don’t fall into the binary of being either male or female.
Sexuality or sexual orientation is how we fall in love; it usually describes who we fall in love with.
Gender expression is how we show the world who we are through clothing, hair, makeup, names, and pronouns.
Thanks (not really) to media, movies, books, advertisements, etc., we are accustomed to people falling (mostly) in line with certain gender roles and stereotypes. And because most folks believe gender is the same as sex and that gender is binary, when kids express themselves beyond what are considered acceptable gender boundaries or expressions, some parents see this as a red flag. Others see this as a Pride flag and want to know what colors of the rainbow they should be handing their child in order to show them unconditional love and support.
Follow Their Lead
My first suggestion is to breathe. Besides loving your child with affirming words that support their self-exploration and potential identity, you might not need to do anything right away. The best advice I received when my daughter, who was assigned male at birth, started expressing her desire to wear her big sister’s clothing was this: Follow her lead.
I didn’t make too much of her outfit choices. Perhaps I had a son who liked pink, purple, and dresses. Totally fine. There is no wrong way to be a particular gender, so I let her wear what she wanted. Nor do certain clothes determine your sexual orientation. When my daughter started to identify herself as a girl and not the boy we thought she was, my former partner and I continued to pay close attention to where she was going. Did my daughter think she had to be a girl to like “girl” things? Or did this mean she was a girl?
Listen And Show, But Don’t Label
Because my daughter was pretty young when she said she was a girl and not her assigned gender, I wanted to be sure she had ways to express herself without me putting words into her mouth. While I sensed her urgency to be understood and was actively trying to understand, it wasn’t my right to put a label on her until she could find one of her own. The focus was on listening to what she wanted and to provide options. I did this through clothing, toys, and books.
I made sure to stock the house with books that showed diverse gender expressions, gender identities, and families. I wanted to provide representation of who she knew she was (even without words) so that she could see herself and point to herself in a positive and confident way. She saw herself in the book called I Am Jazz, a book written by transgender woman and activist Jazz Jennings and Jessica Herthel. The book is written for kids ages 3-5 and tells the story of a young Jazz during her early transition. With the help of this book, my daughter made her identity clear: She wasn’t a boy who liked dresses. She was a girl who liked dresses.
Most parents of transgender kids, mental health providers, and doctors will tell you that the ultimate rule when it comes to determining if a child is transgender is if they are consistent, insistent, and persistent about their gender identity. This is when you should seek guidance from medical professionals who can help you and your child feel understood and supported. They can help you make a plan.
If your child repeatedly and enthusiastically insists they are not the gender they were assigned at birth, then there is a good chance they are transgender. Along with this insistence may be anxiety, depression, or body dysphoria, which is a sense of feeling uncomfortable in their body because it doesn’t match their identity.
While we don’t want to label our kids too soon, we do want to validate them. Once my child expressed all of the above, we talked to doctors and therapists to be sure we knew how best to support her. That came in the form of language. We asked our daughter if she would like us to use she/her pronouns for her. Was it okay to call her our daughter? Can we introduce her as a girl? Does the whole world get to see she is a strong, smart, and wonderful girl?
She said yes to all of these questions and has been happier ever since. She knew the labels she wanted, and we used them. We watched, listened, and validated. We knew we had a transgender child, and she knew we supported and loved her.
It was hard at times to not have all of the answers. And while it’s important for parents to support their child, we don’t want to stunt their individual process.
There were a lot of gray areas during my daughter’s journey. And there may be for your child too. But I trusted that she knew herself best. I am happy to wave the transgender flag in her honor; she waves it for herself too. My child never saw herself as transgender because she was too young to have that language. She always knew she was a girl. But how did I know?
I let her show me.