This Is What Happened After My Transgender Son Heard Transphobic Comments At School

by Rachel Q. Lyons
A wavy-haired transgender boy in a grey sweater in a basketball field looking left
Annie Otzen / Getty Images

“She’s not really a boy, you know,” one of my son’s friends says at the fifth-grade lunch table, pointing to the laughing, popular boy at the next table. “Last year and the years before that, she was a girl.”

“My mom says she’s mentally ill,” another girl chimes in.

“Jack’s a trannie,” my son’s best friend says.

“He’s transgender,” my son interjects. “That means he’s really a boy — with a boy brain, in a girl’s body.”

“You don’t know anything,” the ringleader says. “You weren’t even here last year, when she was a girl.”

“Well, I know Jack. He’s my friend. He’s a boy. He’s transgender,” my son insists.

Here’s what they don’t know:

My son is transgender too.

My son didn’t want to stay at the school where he transitioned. He wanted to go to a new school in the district. A place where people wouldn’t use his birth name or misgender him on purpose. He wanted to be stealth, or non-disclosing. The district cooperated, though they made their opinion clear: Keep him at the school where he has friends, support. It will be difficult. He’s entering midyear. He’ll have trouble adjusting. He may be outed at the new school anyway.

We let our son decide, and his choice was to switch schools.

After that recess discussion, my son didn’t make it through the rest of the day. He called me to come pick him up, too angry and depressed to concentrate on schoolwork. These were kids he considered friends. Kids he liked. Kids he’d thought would accept him if they knew.

“Mom, you said the school did a program last year where they talked to kids and parents about what transgender is when Jack transitioned. They were supposed to learn about it.”

I know, buddy. I know.

So we had a discussion about ignorance, and I told him a story about a homophobic teenager raised in a very Catholic home in the ’80s.

“You were a homophobe? But you have a gay brother!” he yelped.

“Yeah, but I didn’t know that when I was 16 and my brother was a little kid. I was lucky. I had a coach in my life — my friend Ann. She was a college graduate, a great athlete, someone a hundred times more worldly and a thousand times more accepting than I was. She let me know in a gentle, kind, funny way that my ideas about gay people (changing in locker rooms with lesbians, scary!) were silly and prejudiced. If she had shamed me or mocked me or gotten angry with me, I might not have respected her viewpoint and opened my mind.”

“I wanted to tell them how I knew they were wrong,” my son said, staring down at his hands while we sat in the driveway with the car off.

I held my breath.

They’re not safe to tell. They’re not safe to tell. Please, please tell me you didn’t out yourself…

“But I didn’t. And then I felt disloyal to Jack.”

“I don’t think you were disloyal to your friend,” I told him. “You defended him. You did exactly right.”

“But it wasn’t enough.”

We live in a progressive state, in an affluent community with award-winning schools. The parents are left-leaning or at least socially liberal. But until we live in a world where a parent is as offended by their child using a transphobic slur like “trannie” as they would be if their child used a racist slur, it won’t be enough. Not nearly enough.

But here’s what will be:

That happy, well-adjusted kid, Jack, at the next table? He’s the one who shows his peers what being transgender really is. And so does my son, the places where he is out — in our neighborhood, at his dojo, with our families. And people like my friend and mentor Ann? There are so many advocates like Ann now that most high schools have a club for LGBTQIA+ kids and advocates called the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA).

My generation’s ignorance and prejudice, even anti-LGBTQ religious dogma, doesn’t stand a chance against our children’s peers.