Names and identifying details have been changed.
Olivia was a quiet and reserved as a little girl. She was thoughtful and sensitive even as a young child. I always tried to raise her in a way that let her know she didn’t need to be constrained by sex stereotypes. I made sure to buy her gender-neutral toys, for example, and I let her choose her own clothes always. I have never paid much attention to looking feminine – that just wasn’t a value in our house. I have always worked in a male dominated field, so I felt I provided a good role model for her. Nevertheless, she went through a range of “typical” girl interests – horses, ballet, dolls. She preferred quiet play with other girls.
Olivia’s dad was never in the picture, so I raised her solo, and we were always close. When Liv was 12, I got married to David, and Liv and I moved in with him and Carl, his 16-year-old son. That was a hard transition for Olivia. In hindsight, early adolescence and middle school was probably the worst possible time to expect Olivia to adjust to having a step dad and step brother. Carl was having behavioral problems that created a lot of stress in the house, and I see now that Liv began to retreat around that time.
Her eighth-grade year was very hard for her. Since we had changed school districts when we moved, Liv wasn’t with her old friends. All the kids in the new school already had their cliques, and weren’t open to her, but there was one group that was willing to welcome newcomers, and that was the Queer-Straight Alliance kids. They were nice, smart kids, who were all a little quirky, and I was grateful that they were welcoming of Liv, but I noticed that they all seem to have created these micro-identities. For example, one girl called herself a demi-boy aromantic. They all seemed preoccupied with identity and presentation. Shortly after becoming friends with them, Liv cut her hair and dyed it pink. I saw this as normal teen exploration at this point. I was uneasy about how preoccupied she and her friends were with these issues.
Other than these new friends, she was isolated, and I was busy with work and managing the demands of a new marriage and a step son who was really going off the rails, having become addicted to internet porn. Liv had always been a dancer, but now she begged to stop, and I let her. She spent her free time on her smart phone or her computer.
Liv started spending more time alone, always on the computer. Because of Carl’s issues with porn, we had parental controls on all devices, so I could see where Liv was spending her time online. I still remember the night that I decided to check her internet history.
She and I had had a tough time – she was getting more distant and defiant. Her friends had been over, and after they left, she seemed especially hostile towards me. Some alarm bell sounded for me, and I spent a few hours that night after she went to bed pouring over her texts and internet history. It was clear that she had recently begun spending massive amounts of time on online trans sites, including watching hours of YouTube transition videos.
Within the previous two weeks, she had conducted searches such as “testosterone FtM” and “mastectomy FtM.” There were also searches for “gender neutral names,” “I need a binder but can’t tell my parents” and other similar items. I was able to see what she had been posting on Tumblr: “I’ve been reading here for a couple of weeks now, and I think I am starting to realize that I’m not really a girl, or maybe I’m only partly a girl. I’ve tried out using male pronouns just in my head, and it feels kinda great. I’m thinking I might be trans.”
It was very clear to me that these thoughts about gender were normal teen experimentation in the context of peer and social media influence. It was also immediately evident to me that she had just begun to indoctrinate herself into a belief that she was really a boy. In graduate school, I had done a research project on social contagion and anorexia in adolescents, so I was well aware of the impact that peers and pro-ana sites can have on an impressionable young person. It was immediately obvious to me that we were dealing with a similar phenomenon here. Because I work in a medical field, I was already aware of how easy it is for young people to access medical transition services – something that I think many adults don’t know. I knew that I needed to act quickly.
The next day, I confronted her. I told her that I understood the desire to experiment with identity, but that she was female, and would never be otherwise. I assured her that she would always be free to play around with presentation, but that identifying as transgender was a non-starter. Then I made sure to block Tumblr and YouTube on her phone and computer, and to put stricter controls on internet use overall.
Liv was depressed and mopey for a few days after this. I think it became more difficult for her to socialize with her new friends because, as I found out later, several of them were beginning to identify as trans and seek social and medical transition. But the school year was almost over. I was able to get Olivia involved in a bunch of other activities over the summer where she could be around other kids. I just made sure to keep her really busy with good activities.
That was at the end of her eighth-grade year. We had been choosing between a couple of options for high school. One option would have been a small progressive private school, and the other was the large public high school. When I did my research, I found out that the progressive private school had seven students in various stages of transition. School administrators also told me that the QSA was the most active club.
Since there were only about 80 kids in the school, it was very obvious to me that seven kids in transition represented an extraordinary percentage of kids, and that there was significant social contagion going on there. I elected to send Liv to the public high school, where there were lots of different kinds of kids. The public school also had lots and lots of extracurricular activities.
Olivia is now 16, and will be a junior next year. She had a few rough weeks after I shut down her trans experimentation, but mostly that related to her having difficulty with her peer group, who were all obsessing over this stuff. Once she got busy with other things, she moved on quickly.
In high school, she started dancing again, and became the principle choreographer for student productions. She also fell in love with photography, and became very involved in that. She did well in her classes, and I saw her become more confident. She made new friends who were also doing well in school, and liked some of the same activities.
During her brief immersion in the world of gender and identity, Liv seemed withdrawn, depressed, and anxious. Some of that, no doubt, was due to family turmoil, but it seems a chicken or egg problem. Was Liv drawn to adopt an identity to fit in because she was feeling shaky at home, or did spending time obsessing about gender foster psychological fragility? Maybe it was a little of both.
In the time since, Liv has grown much more confident and happy. I have seen her become more resilient and better at managing difficult emotions. This summer, she will be going to a six-week choreography intensive to which she won a scholarship.
The other day, Liv and I ran into Alexa, one of her old friends from middle school. This was a girl who had had a beautiful singing voice and a great sense of humor. She had started testosterone at 14, and now had facial hair and bad acne. “He” still had the same slight 5’2” frame. We wouldn’t have recognized Alexa – now Alex -- but he was with his mother, who stopped us to talk.
Alex seemed anxious and withdrawn. Liv tried to engage him in conversation, but he didn’t seem to have much to say. Alex’s mom explained that he had been homeschooled for the past year due to problems with anxiety and depression.
I feel grateful that I had the instincts I did. I think intervening early and decisively made all the difference. I feel confident we dodged a bullet.