What should you do if you child tells you they feel they were born as the wrong gender? Do you force them to conform to their born gender or do you support their feeling of being born into the wrong body? We talk to the parent and the doctor of a transgender child to sort through the confusion and discover what science says about gender transitions and how one family navigated the issues associated with having a child you suddenly don’t fully understand.
- Dr. Michele Angello, a therapist and gender specialist
- Alisa Bowman, journalist, author, and mother of a transgender child
Links for more information:
Raising A Transgender Child
Gary Price: It’s often said that the bond between a mother and her child is among the strongest bonds in the world. So what happens when a woman must come to terms with the fact that the child she thought she was raising may actually be someone else entirely? For mothers of transgender children, this story is a familiar one.
Alisa Bowman: When I gave birth my doctor told my husband and I that we had a girl and we were excited and very happy. And for at least a couple years I thought I was raising a girl and got very into raising a girl, buying frilly dresses and trying to do all the girly things that we stereotypically do.
Price: That’s Alisa Bowman, co-author of the book, “Raising the Transgender Child: A Complete Guide for Parents, Families, And Caregivers” and mother of a transgender son. She says it was early in her child’s life that she noticed gender norms weren’t taking root.
Bowman: Probably starting around age two I was already noticing that this child that I thought was a girl was behaving in ways that didn’t seem vey feminine. I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but I knew that I was raising a child that would not let me put a dress on, I’ll say “her,” for now, not to confuse the listeners. Really, I mean, seriously could not get a dress on this kid. I thought, okay fine, this kid doesn’t like dresses. But it went on and on and on to would not wear pink would not wear polka dots, would not do anything with sparkles, wanted just about everything that you would stereotypically think of as masculine for a boy child. For instance, very into power rangers very into super heroes very into knocking things down in Legos and all of my child’s friends were boys almost to a point of exclusion of girls.
Price: But Bowman says the time she really noticed something was different in her child was when a preschool graduation ceremony went awry. For the ceremony, each student was supposed to wear a gender-identifying gown: the boys were to wear blue and the girls were to wear yellow.
Bowman: At that time my child was already shopping in the boys department and wearing boys underwear and somehow those two things didn’t quite click and make me think there was something unusual, but it was this fight over what color gown that was going to be worn that made realize there was more going on here than just having a kid who was pretty masculine. My child totally didn’t understand why yellow was the right color and why I would ever want the girl’s gown on, I’m going to say, his body. That was the only gown I had, so I had to force the issue. It was either that or not wear a gown at all. So we got through that experience, but there were more and more moments of, this isn’t just about liking masculine things, this is about an identity.
Price: And eventually, Bowman says these incidents began to pile up, prompting a visit to gender specialist, Dr. Michelle Angello.
Bowman: What was really helpful is she showed us the science. I’m a health and science writer and once I understood the science of how the brain works everything fell into place for me. I think my husband, he needed to hear it from somebody who wasn’t me. Therapy really helped that, too. So we slowly moved forward at that point. I’d love to say that it only took Michelle telling us what to do once for us to do the right thing. It didn’t. It took us actually a few more years before we fully transitioned our child to live fully and completely as a boy. But it was absolutely the right decision.
Price: Dr. Angello, who has since become Bowman’s co-author on “Raising the Transgender Child,” says that though there hasn’t been as much research done on what makes a person transgender, there is science to suggest the root cause is biological.
Dr. Michelle Angello: The science that we have shows that while in utero the fetus is flooded with at various critical times of development with hormones, both with androgen and with estrogen. This is the part where it’s still fuzzy and we’re still working on this. We’re doing a study with SMRIs we see a little more science on this but when they look at that part of the hypothalamus that directs the gender identity, they see that in people who are trans, for example Alissa’s child who was assigned female at first, but is a boy, that though he likely has excess chromosomes which would mean the anatomy would develop as feminine, that part of the brain in the hypothalamus that actually gives him his gender identity was flooded with a lot more androgen than estrogen. So his gender identity developed as male.
Price: Angello says most of the parents who come to see her about their children have similar questions and concerns. One of the questions she gets most often is, “did we as the parents do something to cause this?”
Angello: The very simple but very hard to believe answer is no you didn’t. There’s nothing you can do to cause an individual to be transgender. Just like there’s nothing you can do to cause an individual to be gay or to be non- transgender. We talk a little bit about that first. There’s no fault here. This is not anything where we should be playing the blame game.
Price: Bowman says after a time she and her husband decided it would be best for them to accept their child’s decision.
Bowman: There’s a psychological shift that has to happen. You give birth to this child and you think that your child is one gender and you raise your child as that gender for a period of time. All of your hopes and dreams are wrapped around your child being that gender whether you are aware of it or not they are. Suddenly you find out that wait, there’s been a mistake, you’re wrong. Your child’s gender is really a different gender. On this one level you accept that and I could say, okay I understand that I’m raising a boy, but there’s a big part of me that mourned the loss of this child that I never had, but that I thought I was raising. So it took me a really long time to not, for instance, walk through the girl’s area of the department store and not almost break down in tears. I know it sounds almost trivial, but it was triggers like that.
Price: And while Bowman and her husband were learning to live with their new reality, she says they also had some moments of real struggle when it came to telling family and friends about their son.
Bowman: There’s so many people that you end up having to tell and you don’t always think about when is the best time. We had preferred to tell people in person, but you can’t always do that. We had waited a little bit too long to tell some people and they understandably got very annoyed with us and felt like we didn’t trust them. So this e-mail came out of that. Rather than asking us questions that I think loving people would, it was accusing me particularly of doing all of the wrong things. Particularly it was quoting who was a now debunked medical professional whose advice is still all over the Internet saying that this is just a phase, more than 80 percent of these kids grow out of it and encouraging us to force our child to be a girl. I already knew that wouldn’t work. Believe me I had tried to force my child to be a girl and I had read as much as you could possibly read about the topic at that point. Our relationships were very strained for a while with certain people.
Price: Still, transgender issues are ultimately about the individual transitioning. Bowman says though it wasn’t always second nature, she learned how to accept her son for who he is.
Bowman: You’ve been calling your child a name for a period of years and suddenly you’re using a different name, or you’ve been using a certain set of pronouns and suddenly you’re using different pronouns. All of those things take time and they require a deep mental shift. At some point you get to the other side. I’m at that side now where it would feel disconcerting now for me to use the wrong pronouns or the wrong name. I really don’t often even think about the girl that I thought I was raising as much as I see this awesome boy and how much I’m so proud of this kid and who he is and who he is becoming.
Price: When a person transitions genders, he or she often will change their name and ask their friends and family to adopt different pronouns than before. For a long time, these were referred to as “preferred pronouns.” But Angello says that phrase is outdated.
Angello: It implies that, you know I prefer if you use it, but if you don’t no big deal. I stick with encouraging people to say what’s your pronoun, or what pronoun do I use for you? Taking a step back, those of us who take our gender for granted probably don’t think a whole lot about our pronouns, but for somebody who is transitioning or who is considering transitioning, the pronoun really is the beginning of feeling affirmed and validated and so as a first gender person or somebody who takes her gender for granted I have a hard time even putting myself in the situation, but I can only imagine that if I were walking around the world and people who were saying to me, hey, sir or man or he/him on a regular basis, eventually that would be taxing and that would be frustrating, and would at some point probably become incredibly challenging to hear each time it came out of someone’s mouth.
Price: Still it’s clear not everyone is ready to accept transitions, especially in children.
Bowman: I think the main thing that I would say is just to keep an open mind before you pass judgment and before you decide that you know what’s best for someone else. Instead keep an open mind and seek out more knowledge and ask people about their experiences. It’s counterintuitive, the science of gender, and it’s not necessarily what we were raised always to think, but when you listen to the experiences of real humans and really sincerely listen what we’re now understanding is the science of gender makes complete sense.
Price: Dr. Michelle Angello and Alisa Bowman’s book “Raising the Transgender Child: A Complete Guide for Parents, Families, and Caregivers” is available now. For more information about all of our guests, visit our site at viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.