Not 'Him' Or 'Her': Accepting And Loving My Non-Binary Child
Yesterday morning, I had to take my daughter to the orthodontist to pick up her new retainer and make sure it was a good fit. Her original one was replaced for free as a courtesy because our old lady dog at the time — who was usually sleeping — summoned enough energy to take up counter-surfing for the first time ever. We found out the hard way that, for dogs, dental retainers are delicacies.
My daughter burst into tears when she found the shards of chewed-up, mangled plastic. She was devastated. She had been so responsible with her retainer. She always wrapped it in a napkin during meals and put it out of reach. She never once lost or misplaced it. So the first replacement was a freebie. The replacement retainer lived a while, but eventually broke in half. So, we had to pay for a new one — a third retainer for one child.
As I was checking out, I realized it was almost July, and our dentist had said at least a year ago that we needed to go ahead and make an appointment for Charlie, who (just like our other two children) would certainly need braces sooner rather than later. So after I received my payment receipt, almost as an afterthought, I said, “Oh, I need to set up an initial appointment for my youngest.”
“Sure, no problem,” the receptionist said. “Your child’s name?”
“Charlie,” I said, “same last name.”
I no longer give Charlie’s birth name of Charles, because lately, Charlie has been thrilled to have been mistaken as a girl. The server in a restaurant who said, “Is your daughter having something to drink?” while pointing to Charlie went over surprisingly well. Even when we’ve asked Charlie, “What do you want us to do when people call you a girl, since your pronouns are they/them?” Charlie says, “Just roll with. I don’t mind it if they think I’m a girl.” But Charlie is still pretty vocal about not wanting to transition or be a girl.
It’s a complicated thing because this whole notion of gender is deeply personal while at the same time…not. We live in a city where we run into people we’ve known for years. From birth through fifth grade, Charlie used he/him/his pronouns. No one ever mistook Charlie for a girl. Then in fifth grade, Charlie began presenting like a girl. Growing their hair out long, wearing all “girls” stuff from the tween girls’ clothing store, Justice. From their headband adorned with giant hot pink flowers, down to their glittery pink and purple Twinkle Toe Sketchers, and everything in between, including “girls” wittily captioned T-shirts, sparkly jackets and coats, tight jeggings, and neon peach sweatpants, for instance, Charlie looked like a girl. But Charlie was still a boy, and Charlie still went by he/him/his/my son.
I’ve always said it’s kind of impossible for a child to be private about their gender. For one thing, they can’t just pick up, move to a different state, and start a new life like an adult might be able to do if they want to be completely anonymous. But it’s kind of impossible also because other kids don’t know the distinction between sex assigned at birth and gender. Heck, most adults don’t know the distinction either. Invariably, if it’s not obvious, kids will bluntly ask, “Are you a boy or a girl?” But adults have a little more tact in those situations.
So it’s just harder with young kids. Unless they’re incredibly enlightened or proactively planning, elementary school teachers are engaging in gender-segregated practices daily: “Girls line up here, boys line up there.” “I like the way the girls are working quietly. Boys, you’re getting rowdy over there.” “At lunch today, you are to sit boy/girl/boy/girl.” We’re going to play a game, boys against girls.” “If you’re a girl who needs a bathroom break, raise your hand.” “Who’s the main character in the story? Is the main character a boy or a girl?” For non-binary, or enby kids, those moments in school are constant, brutal reminders that their gender identity doesn’t matter — or worse — doesn’t exist.
Then the receptionist asked, “When’s his birthday?”
She said “his.” I bit my lip and realized what I needed to do next. My daughter, who hates having attention drawn her way for any reason unless she specifically requests it — and even then it’s questionable — sensed what was about to happen and said, “Mom, can I please go wait in the car?” Earlier, while chatting with the orthodontic tech and then paying the bill, I had answered “no” to this request. I didn’t want her sitting alone in the car even though she does have her learner’s permit and can safely sit 10 feet away from me in the car with the doors locked. This time I quickly handed her the keys and said, “Yes.”
I leaned in a little and lowered my voice to almost a whisper. “So…” I started. “Charlie is not ‘he.’ Charlie is non-binary and goes by ‘they/them.'” She tilted her head to the side like my puppy does when confused and looked over her glasses at me, one eyebrow raised. “I know this is an awkward conversation to have,” I continued, “so I appreciate your willingness to help out however you can with regards to your record-keeping.”
She nodded as if to assure me, “Okay, I got you,” and then fixated on her computer screen. I suppose she was weighing the options she was presented with, and then with a little polite hesitation said, “Sooo…shall we refer to Charlie as ‘she?’” I leaned in a little closer. “No. I’m sorry,” I said. “I know this is difficult to understand and possibly even weird, but my child is not male or female. My child is non-binary. My child is gender nonconforming.” She still wasn’t understanding. I went on a little longer than I would with a stranger because it seemed this appointment was not going to get settled until the pronouns were settled.
“Charlie was assigned male at birth,” I continued, “but Charlie expresses and presents like a girl. However, Charlie is not ready or does not want to transition to become a girl. So we’re in this kind of hard-to-understand area where Charlie feels like just a person instead of a boy or a girl.” By now she was starting to look concerned over my degree of sanity. Meanwhile, I noticed that the other lady behind the desk with her back turned to us previously, now had her head turned to the side in our direction and was obviously listening.
Clearly, this was new territory for them. I decided to level the conversation a bit, speak a language I felt could be understood. “Charlie may or may not be transgender. Charlie’s only 11.” This, they both understood. The other receptionist began nodding her head to show she understood, and the main receptionist suddenly went from concerned to consoling. “Oh,” she said out loud with a frown (subtext: You poor thing). I quickly clarified with a smile, “I’m just trying to be a supportive parent.” She then perked up following my lead and confessed in a hushed tone, “Well, we have had kids as patients here who were transitioning, but they’ve always been firm about boy or girl pronouns. So that’s why I’m a little confused. I don’t know that we’ve had any patients yet who go by ‘they.’” I halfheartedly smiled and joked, “Well, now you do! What prize do we get for being the first?”
We still hadn’t settled the pronoun thing though. Without saying the words, I could infer what she was trying to tell me was that there was no option for “they/them,” or “enby,” or “other” out of the gender pull-down list on her computer screen. In my anxiousness, I needed to fill the awkward silence. Between my hunger for peace and hatred of asking people to do extra work, I said more than I needed to. “So, yeah, Charlie may or may not transition. Or Charlie may stay non-binary forever…it’s just…Charlie’s 11. I don’t think we’re at a place where we’re ready to make big decisions…” I said more, but not really anything much different.
By then, both ladies were giving me their full attention. Both the receptionist in front of me and the one behind her looking sideways were nodding in validation and approval for something I was not actually trying to say. I immediately realized I came across as if I was implying Charlie is too young to have a sex change — which is not at all what I wanted to imply since all of that is inaccurate information. I had just unwittingly perpetuated the whole kids being “too young to know their gender” false narrative, and the “sex change” outdated terminology and myth that genital surgeries occur before adulthood by reputable doctors in this country.
Both of them were nodding and commiserating. Receptionist No. 2 said, “That’s right. I get it. I know it’s a struggle — those big decisions.” Main receptionist said, “I can’t imagine what that confusion must be like for a child.” I then started trying to backpedal a bit: “Well, it’s not confusion. It’s just —” But she cut me off saying, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean confusion. I don’t know what I meant. I guess I just imagine you have to go everywhere all the time not knowing how other people will react or what people might say.” She chuckled a tiny bit before saying, “And you just wanted to schedule an appointment!” I laughed and said, “Yeah. We never know who might be accepting or not.” She said, in all seriousness, “It shouldn’t be that way.”
After thinking a minute, she said, “I’m just going to put a personal note in here that I’ll share with the orthodontist and anyone working with Charlie. Let me read this back to you to make sure I’m getting it right.”
She got it right.
After going through the insurance info and other stuff, I had to settle for the only appointment I could get since summer fills up at warp speed and I had dragged my heels on this one. I entered the date into my phone and told them how much I appreciated their willingness to have this conversation, to listen, and to help us out in any way possible. They ended up thanking me. I turned and walked out thinking, I totally should’ve found a TGNC-friendly orthodontist for Charlie. I mean, I do have a list (albeit small) of trans-friendly practitioners. Okay, maybe the closest orthodontist would’ve been like an hour away, but why the hell didn’t I just use that? Wow, I really suck at this. Then I thought, Oh well, at least it should be easier for the next person who has to go through this.
I glanced at the clock on my phone just before entering the car. Thirty-two minutes had passed from the time my daughter asked one last time if she could go out to the car and wait and I said yes, because I knew she didn’t want to make a scene. And I had promised her this would be a “quick, in-and-out appointment.” This, after having woken her up at the crack of dawn on her summer break, after a restless night where she didn’t fall asleep until 2 a.m. I had to wake her up after she’d had only a few hours of sleep because I forgot to remind her to set her alarm or even to tell her that we had this appointment in the first place.
“Wow, that took forever,” she exclaimed, not looking up from her Snapchat story. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her I spent 30 minutes negotiating pronouns — something that the older teens of her generation just ‘get’ without having to ask too many questions. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that I’d unintentionally sabotaged her “quick, in-and-out” appointment to deal with the pronoun thing at all. So I just said, “Yeah. They were pretty booked. It was hard to find something that worked for everyone.” Because that was the truth.
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