Affirming Leah

*All names and identifying details have been removed.

My young daughter, Leah, suddenly identified as “gender non-binary” at the young, vulnerable age of 10 years old, after a rough school year of cold teachers, extreme social isolation, being told of her autism diagnosis, hormonal changes, and lots of online research.

In my daughter’s case, she is highly intellectually mature, but not emotionally or socially, and has been addicted to online chat rooms as source of support. She is quirky, socially awkward without any friends, suffers from anxiety, and is diagnosed with high-functioning Aspergers, which is on the autistic spectrum. She also longs for peer acceptance, to be thought of as “normal” and will do anything to fit in.

She longs for peer acceptance, to be thought of as “normal” and will do anything to fit in.

 

Growing up, Leah was a happy, very feminine girl, obsessed with princesses, melodically belting out lyrics to “Let It Go” from Frozen, loved dressing up, identified as a radical feminist, and hung out with mostly other girls. When I briefly mentioned the concept of trans identity to her at age 7 after she had heard the word on TV, she expressed disgust at the idea and declared that “girls and boys are born girls and boys, that’s as complicated as it will ever be.” At age 8, her pediatrician informed us that she had small “breast buds” and was developing very very light pubic hair. Rather than reacting with anxiety, she was incredibly excited about her bodily changes and was proud of becoming, as she put it “a real, grown woman!” She was in an inclusion program for kids with high functioning autism, and was thriving academically. Her grades were grade level or above except for social development. She had made amazing friends at school with both Aspergers and general education kids.

At age 8 ½, her wonderful teachers advised me to tell Leah she was autistic due to her resistance to group speech therapy and constant questioning as to why she was a part of the special program. She had a hard time with it. She cried for weeks about wanting to be a “normal” kid and once tore her books and trashed her room out of the anger. It changed her profoundly. Soon after, she started researching the internet on autism, and discovered an online autistic community. She was able to accept her diagnosis by joining the “neurodiversity” movement. I ignorantly thought this was a positive development. At Leah’s encouragement, I blindly supported her on this, attending ASAN (Autistic Self-Advocacy Network) protests at Autism Speaks walks by my daughter’s side as she belched out phrases like “We’re people not puzzles” and “Autistic rights are human rights”, throwing a party for “weirdness, autism pride, introvert status, being creative, clumsy, and amazing” as we called it, designing t-shirts and tote bags like “I’m sorry you’re so normal” and “it’s okay, some of my close friends are neurotypical.”

 

When Leah learned she was autistic, she cried for weeks about wanting to be a “normal” kid.

 

Leah’s worst year was last year, the fourth grade. Her teachers were cold and uninspiring. The four general education girls ignored or teased her.  She started the year on the wrong foot with her teachers, writing a well written essay questioning the whole special ed program. Instead of appreciating its merits at all, her teachers were upset. It set the tone for the year. She was in turmoil. Mid-year Leah was suddenly falling asleep in class. We received weeks of calls telling us to pick her up. We took her to a neurologist who said nothing was wrong from a brain/neurological viewpoint. It took our perceptive, beloved nanny to discover that she was up on social media at all hours of night, which explained the school fatigue. She had discovered Tumblr and Wattpad which included a blog community of autistic teens and adults and became a regular, widely followed contributor. We discovered her surprisingly mature essays/poems and online interactions with strangers on the spectrum. In making the initial discovery, we noticed she had spent significant time reading LGB(“T”) articles, and trans/non-binary ideology related stuff, which raised a red flag to us that she may be caught up in this.

The summer after fourth grade, Leah, after an emotional discussion about puberty and the approaching of her period, suddenly announced she was non-binary, that she hated being a girl, that she had trouble showering because she didn’t want to see her breasts and vagina, and that she wanted puberty blockers, to bind her breasts, and to eventually take testosterone and get chest surgery. She said all this in a rote and robotic way, as if she had been forced or prompted to say this. She announced that she was changing to her middle name Marlo, which she considered “gender neutral”, and that she wanted to use “they” pronouns.

 

Leah suddenly announced she was non-binary, hated being a girl and wanted puberty blockers, to bind her breasts, to take testosterone and get chest surgery.  She said all this in a robotic way, as if prompted.

 

I remember that first conversation we had, I had asked Leah “You were extremely girly and loved being female your whole life, so why would you suddenly believe you are not? It just doesn’t line up.” To this she replied “It’s not sudden. I just had internalized transphobia and didn’t know you could be that way because everyone was making me be a girl, so I was masking my authentic self. You can’t understand because you’re a binary cis woman, anyway. I don’t like binary cis women.” She was unable to give me a logical and scientifically sound answer as to why she felt this way. All she could say was “I know it inside”. Then I patiently explained the differences between belief and knowledge, gently told her she was still in exploration mode, and urged her to be cautious with this and to not tell anyone at her new middle school. She replied in tears “you’re transphobic if you want me to be closeted. I can’t mask anymore. This is me. I was born this way. I finally came out to you because I trusted you. Now I can’t trust you anymore.” The discussion ended with her calling me a bigot and telling me to check my cis privilege.

I spoke with Leah’s trusted psychotherapist, who she has been seeing since 3 years old to address autism and anxiety issues, about this, and found out that she and Leah had been talking about this a month before she “came out” to me, and she had blindly affirmed and encouraged her to purchase solely unisex clothing at malls, request gender neutral bathrooms, and change her name to Marlo. When I suggested that she approach this a bit differently, she claimed that conversion therapy was wrong, and though she understood that “the coming-out process” could be incredibly hard and heartbreaking for parents, and that I was doing the best I could as a mother, I should work towards accepting my “gender variant” kid as they are, and she could help me with that. I blindly thanked her for the advice, assuming she was the expert.

 

Leah’s long-time therapist had been affirming and encouraging her for months before she “came out”.

 

A few weeks after, our in-laws visited. To my shock, they let Marlo cut her hair into a boy-short mess, without my consent or knowledge. Her psychotherapist was on board with this, and told me I needed to do a better job of supporting my kid through the “social transitioning” process and the grandparents had done a brilliant job “affirming” her.

Deferring to the therapist once again, I decided to make some effort in my own acceptance process. I eagerly participated in joint talk therapy sessions with Marlo. I willingly discussed gender topics with her and listened to her feelings with an open mind. I made efforts to use her pronouns, and embraced her new name. (I still refer to her most of the time using her preferred name. It is PART of the name we gave her at birth, and it IS technically on her birth certificate.) I researched and learned from trans-identifying individuals, especially autistics, most part of the “neurodiversity” movement, who told me to “affirm/accept” Marlo’s identity and let her live as her “authentic gender self”. I helped her pick out clothes that felt comfortable to her and matched her unisex style. I covered the mirror when she showered so she wouldn’t have to see her body, at the suggestion of her therapist. My daughter was seemingly happier, her anxiety level had decreased, and she was able to trust me and have a close, loving relationship with me again. I decided that maybe the therapist was right: this radical “acceptance” really was key to improving our mother-daughter relationship (or was it mother-child relationship now??).

 

I decided that maybe the therapist was right: this radical “acceptance” really was key to improving our relationship

 

But internally, I had many doubts. I worried constantly about my little girl’s future, and continued to think of her as simply a confused autistic girl. I cried every night, mourning the loss of my perfectly female daughter. I coped with it by staying up until 4 every night, drawing and posting to Facebook. I was jealous of my husband, who seemed to have completely accepted her trans identity. I struggled.

The second day of school, Marlo’s principal called to notify me that Marlo had come up to her and asked her for a nonbinary bathroom because she would be too “dysphoric” if she had to use the girls’ restroom. Rather than questioning her on this or giving her the harsh reality, she hopped on board right away, letting my daughter use an unmarked teacher restroom without my knowledge. Her school affirmed her right away. When she publicly “came out” to the entire school, they cheered and applauded her, and she became one of the “cool kids”. She had realized that in today’s modern society, this was what she needed to do in order to be accepted by her peers and fit in. Heck, it didn’t matter if you were weird, nerdy, or awkward. It didn’t even matter if you had autism! Join the trans cult and you’d be instantly popular and widely accepted.

 

When she publicly “came out” to the entire school, they cheered and applauded her, and she became one of the “cool kids”.

 

As the weeks went by, Marlo became noticeably depressed and anxious. She began to tell her trusted school advisor that “life is not worth living”. Out of the blue, in a taxi one day, she proclaimed with a tear in her eye “I believe in the afterlife. It’s a better place.” We are non-believers and super non-religious Jews, so discussion of the afterlife and saying it was a better place was very concerning. She had frequent meltdowns and depressive episodes, and completely isolated herself socially from all “cis-hets” and “allistics” (her reverse-ableist slur for the non-autistic) alike, viewing herself as an “other” and discounting meaningful opportunities for social interaction. She became cold and detached to her 3.5 year-old sister, found everything we said to her “infantilizing” and condescending, and refused to speak to us (or anybody, really) about anything outside the realms of gender self-identity and autism.

We stupidly came to the conclusion that this depression, anxiety, and isolation was due to the fact that we weren’t affirming her enough. But it seemed that the more we affirmed her identity, the more depressed she became, and focused on the next aspect of transition. Every day she became more fixated on the idea of puberty blockers. She started yelling at me every day, calling me a transphobic child abuser because I refused to let her get a permanent mastectomy and take testosterone at age 10. When I explained that she was too young to make such a drastic decision, and that her body was perfect as it was and didn’t need to be chemically castrated, she threw a fit and threatened to run away from home and “pay for my own gender affirming surgery if you’re too transphobic to support me”. Her search history was loaded with terms like “nonbinary passing”, “nonbinary surgery”, “nonbinary binding”, “nonbinary packing”, “nonbinary affirmative care”, and “nonbinary dysphoria coping mechanisms”. Her body dysmorphia worsened, and there was nothing I could do to help her. At this point, I had already decided I didn’t want to affirm. But at the same time, I hated seeing my little girl so upset about her body, and was willing to do anything I could to get her back.

 

She talked of suicide, had frequent meltdowns and depressive episodes, completely isolated herself from all “cis-hets” and “allistics” and refused to speak to anybody about anything outside the realms of gender self-identity and autism

 

I decided I desperately needed support. But I lived in a state, where “conversion” was soon to be banned, and the only available support was trans-affirmative “support”. That’s when I made two big mistakes.

I told my psychiatrist about this, and she referred me to two gender clinics. One offered parent as well as child, tween and teenager support groups, and the other clinic offered mental health professionals well versed in autism and gender issues, as well as “gender-affirming” psychiatric evaluations and therapy for “gender-nonconforming youth”.

On the first day of my parent support group, we were instructed to share our names, preferred pronouns, and the ages of our children. I shared my name and my daughter’s age, but refuse to say my “preferred pronouns”. “It’s obvious I’m a woman”, I said. “Why do we need to language-police and fret about politically correct speech when my sex is obvious just by looking at me? I’m here to help my daughter escape this and replace her beliefs with the knowledge she is female, not reinforce her behavior.” The other parents just stared at me strangely. Then, after an awkward silence, one spoke: “I feel your pain”, she said. “It is awfully difficult to raise a gender expansive child in this society. But it is society’s behaviors that must be changed, not our children’s. Here, we support, accept, and love our children for who they are and say they are. If you have a problem with that, then maybe you should join some other group.” After a few monthly sessions, I quit the group. I was no longer welcomed there. Everyone offered the same advice: “It’s 2018. Just evolve and accept you kid for who they say they are already. A happy ‘genderqueer’ child is better than a dead daughter.” Neither her age nor neurological condition was taken into consideration. All the parents resented me, and called me horrific slurs like “transphobe”, “child abuser”, and “TERF”. One even went as far as to say that my daughter was unsafe in my care and she would call Child Protection Services (CPS) on me.

 

By then, I was growing skeptical of gender-affirmative care.  The other parents in the support group resented me.  They called me horrific slurs like “transphobe”, “child abuser”, and “TERF”. One even went as far as to say that my daughter was unsafe in my care and she would call CPS on me.

 

 By then, I was a little skeptical of gender-affirmative care, but, like my daughter, was encouraged and pushed to embrace it. I participated in the gender-affirming psychiatric evaluation, and reluctantly allowed my daughter to stay in her tween support group. Because of her autistic sensitivity and rigid thinking, I cannot have a calm conversation with her about this without her yelling at me, calling me a bigoted transphobe.

However, I will not give up on my brilliant daughter. I will continue to fight, and do whatever I can to help her realize that she is a female and while this is an illogical belief of hers, it is not rooted in fact. She is too intelligent to be falling down this trap. I will support her (but NOT her identity), provide her with the social acceptance she needs, and I WILL get my daughter back.