*Names and identifying details have been changed.
After a long day seeing patients, I returned home to find my daughter gone and a note left in her place: “Dear Moms, I’m trans. I’m not the child you thought you had…” Signed, “Your Son, Dylon.”
The letter struck like a thunderbolt out of the blue. We are both highly educated, liberal-leaning professionals, but neither of us would have expected this! There was nothing in our daughter’s demeanor or history that would have predicted it.
Until she was 14, she was a happy girl who enjoyed dancing, hanging out with her girlfriends, wearing make-up, and looking forward to getting her ears pierced. She enjoyed a fairly privileged lifestyle and an extraordinary education at an elite, all-girls private school.
Initially, we were empathic and sensitive to our daughter’s feelings. We wanted to encourage her wish to be different and to make a bold statement about her identity. Oddly, this only made her angrier, more defensive, and more withdrawn. The more we obliged her requests, the more distant and aggressive she became. Conversely, when we gave her our honest impressions, she seemed more calm and relaxed.
When we asked what made her believe that she was a boy, all she could say was that she didn’t feel comfortable in her body, didn’t like her breasts, and felt different from the other girls. As her parents, we saw these feelings as perfectly normal for a child experiencing the changes brought on by puberty. We could not understand how they had led her to conclude that she was a boy.
When we questioned her, she reacted with venom and emotion, but her answers were devoid of critical thought. Like a mantra, she just repeated the same phrases over and over: This is who I am. It’s my true self. You can’t question how I feel. It’s not a phase. I won’t grow out of this.
Why was she holding on to this belief so tightly?
We looked for a therapist for our daughter, but most therapists we called told us that if our child identified as transgender, then it must be true. It was a foregone conclusion. None of them were willing to consider the possibility that something else was amiss.
In theory, therapists are trained to look for unseen causes of behavior, to help their clients consider their motivations, and to understand the context of their feelings and decisions. They are also trained to consider the developmental level of their client, and use it to inform their treatment approach. They know that trying on and experimenting with new identities is a necessary and important part of adolescence.
As adults, we know this, too. We can look back on our own adolescence and remember how strongly we held on to beliefs, tastes or ideas that we were certain would last forever, only to cast them aside when the next big thing came along.
But when it comes to a trans-identifying teenager, all of this suddenly does not apply. We are told their identity is permanent, fixed and unchanging. The word of the child is immutable.
The therapists we called instructed us to ignore our instincts and our daughter’s history and simply accept her identity-du-jour. At first, she was a lesbian, then she was “gender fluid”, then she was a boy. We had the feeling that if we were not fully supportive of it all, they would label us “transphobic”.
But that was just the beginning.
At school and at church, well-meaning but misguided educators told us we had to respect our daughter’s wishes. Against our explicit instructions, they called her by her new boy’s name and used male pronouns. Even though they may have had doubts of their own, none of them felt it was polite to question her, so they did as she asked. This is far too much power for any teenager to hold!
Because of the implicit support and encouragement she received from the adults around her, our daughter became more and more entrenched in her new identity. This created intense conflict between us. We were the enemies; uneducated, narrow-minded, archaic, and completely wrong. The rest of the world was right.
We felt completely alone, as though we were trying to push back a tidal wave. Had the world gone completely mad? Were we the only ones who didn’t buy it? We wanted to shout, “The emperor has no clothes! The emperor has no clothes!”
We found ourselves constantly walking on eggshells around out daughter, trying to find common ground, mend differences, cool resentments and reconcile hostilities. We were exhausted, isolated and without support. It felt like the world had turned against us, and sided with our 15-year-old’s self-declaration. Our foundation of common sense had somehow, suddenly been ripped out from under us.
We finally found one therapist who was willing to work with our daughter and consider an alternative approach, but in order to establish rapport and build trust, the therapist obligingly used our daughter’s preferred name. She interpreted this as support for her new identity. Each time she left the therapist’s office, she was more defensive and angrier than when she went in. She put on a manly swagger for hours afterwards and was reclusive and emotionally detached.
It has been two years since she wrote that letter.
She had dreams of becoming a professional dancer and she had the talent to do it. Now, she has traded hours of dance training for hours of seclusion, roaming the internet for “friends” who know more about her “authentic self” than her parents do. She has exchanged her pointe shoes for a chest binder, her ballerina bun for a buzz cut. She has sacrificed real relationships for virtual ones.
Two years of lost time.
The powerlessness is the worst part of this nightmare. I work and work and think and think. I have run out of words and ideas and theories and angles. There is nothing left but a paralyzing powerlessness. Nothing left to do or say. Just sit and feel. The feelings are overwhelming. The kind of feeling that overtakes your whole being, body and soul. Sometimes I do nothing but sit. Sometimes I cry. I cry a lot. I go through life feeling catatonic. My words and plans help to detach a bit from my feeling, but then they abandon me. Just raw feeling. That’s the trauma. Feeling frozen in time. No story, no meaning, no purpose. Only a deep visceral sense that something—everything—is terribly wrong.
Images of her as a boy torture me. All I see is darkness. My happy little girl swallowed up by some malevolent dark force that ensnared and brainwashed her.
This morning I told her that I was scared to death of her going off to college still wanting to pass as a boy. I cried. She cried. I told her that it’s unsafe to dorm with men or use their restroom. I’m not sure she believed me.
In these days of binge-watching entire seasons of television shows over the course of a weekend, living this agonizing drama one episode at a time over years is unbearable.
Eventually, the real world caught up with our daughter. She was fired from her first acting job for acting like a boy when she was expressly told not to by her director. I found myself dancing with glee. Finally, she was held accountable. Her choices weren’t justified as part of her transgender identity.
It’s insanity to live in a world where a child’s feelings have the power to override her parent’s directives, while we, the parents, are disparaged by the rest of society for lacking compassion and understanding.
To those inclined to look down on us, I say this:
You don’t understand.
You haven’t lived with the constant lies and deceit, the rages, the depression, the incongruity and the isolation of our daughter in her newfound identity. You haven’t watched her go from a happy 14-year-old girl eager to wear high heels, make-up, pointe shoes and a tutu to a sullen, deceitful, unfocused, angry and withdrawn 15-year-old—all because some stranger on the internet told her that being uncomfortable in her developing body meant she must be a boy.
Young women with anorexia work hard to rid their emaciated bodies of every ounce of “fat”. Professionals work to help them change their body image. If a therapist were to “affirm” a patient in her distorted body image and encourage liposuction to ease the distress, they would be severely disciplined and likely lose their license. But gender-affirming therapists do this with impunity, reinforcing beliefs about being in the wrong body and encouraging patients to cut off healthy, necessary body parts.
And so, we sit by and watch in agony, hoping against hope that our child has the discretion to wait until her brain has fully developed at 25 or 26 before making any decision to begin medical transition, and to use her time in therapy to truly examine how her feelings, thoughts and experiences led her to believe that a healthy, happy 14-year-old girl was really a boy.