When Sons Become Daughters, Part III: Parents of Transitioning Boys Speak Out on Their Own Suffering

When Sons Become Daughters, Part III: Parents of Transitioning Boys Speak Out on Their Own Suffering

Angus Fox
Angus Fox

What follows is the third instalment of When Sons Become Daughters, a multi-part Quillette series that explores how parents react when a son announces he wants to be a girl—and explains why so many of these mothers and fathers believe they can’t discuss their fears and concerns with their own children, therapists, doctors, friends, and relatives. To find out more about how the author collected and reported information, please refer to his introductory essay in this series.

 

Coral’s story starts earlier than those of the other parents I’ve profiled, even if it contains familiar themes. While her prodigiously intelligent, literal-minded son wanted to talk about the science of black holes, his friends were still playing with Lego. Once he hit age 12, things got rough: All his friends left his school in one hit; the remaining kids took to bullying him; a close family member died. He was just beginning to realize how different he was, but not how he was different. He’d also just been given his first computer.

The first declaration that he was trans got to Coral by text message. She suspected right away that this was a consequence of the bullying, insecurity, and loneliness her son had experienced, as well as his sudden immersion in the Internet amid this isolation. She took the computer away from her son. For the next two years, he said nothing else about it.

But then came a new round of bullying, this time featuring nasty pictures shared online. He fell out with his best friend, and never reconciled. When the boys called him “sissy” and “girly,” the easiest way for him to process the insult was the most literal way, as a genuine assessment of deficient masculinity. He couldn’t perceive his bullies’ cruelty for what it was: Part of the crude sorting mechanism built into teenage male power hierarchies. To him, the most logical explanation was that he was a female in a male body, an interpretation that had the benefit of being the most generous to everyone, and which was approvingly centred in school curricula. Everything he saw on the Internet only reinforced this theory. What’s more, all this was happening just as his body was beginning to change in ways he didn’t like.

There’s a lot more to say about how Coral’s son came to see himself as female, and about the input of counsellors, anime culture, and social media. But I’m going to cut that story short so I can focus on Coral herself, who originally started the Zoom group for boys’ parents that I’ve been permitted to observe, and which led me to create this series of articles. Coral’s mind is now a Rolodex of information on specialists, theories, laws, and policies. She couldn’t find a support group where she could speak candidly to others in her position, so she made one herself. The project is an extension of her personality: This is the kind of woman, it strikes me, who could survive six months in the Amazon basin on her own wits.

Institutionally, the Zoom group emerged as a component of a larger volunteer-run network, Parents of ROGD Kids, which now has more than 2,000 members, most of them North American. The first video call took place in 2020. But the eight parents who took part had already been helping one another online for some time. Coral remembers how scared they all seemed at first.

A spreadsheet of the parents was drawn up, listing real names and aliases, email addresses, phone numbers, boys’ ages and comorbidities. The group began to blossom, as parents from further afield signed up. A limit was placed on the number of Zoom callers—12—which meant that parents had to rotate their attendance as interest grew. A second weekly call was added. On some days, these calls featured guest speakers—typically psychotherapists or other specialists.

Coral was so inundated with requests to join that she handed the vetting over to Parents of ROGD Kids, whose stringent intake procedures—and I mean stringent—protect the group from bad-faith participants. So far, the system has worked. But everyone involved knows that a security breach could lead to participants being doxed, trolled, or worse by radical activists who regard the group’s “gender-critical” orientation as dangerous and hateful.

In some cases, the women who participate in these calls also have to avoid scrutiny from members of their own household. One mother stands whispering in a shower cubicle; another hunkers down among stacks of paper towels and oil cans in an unheated garage, her breath condensing against the phone as she speaks. Many parents can be seen sitting in parked cars, or taking long dog walks. A woman in San Francisco attends from a laundromat, dipping in and out of the building to avoid being overheard. “Hold on a minute,” one mother says, “I just gotta…”—and then she walks into a closet, shuts the door, and sits cross-legged on a pile of t-shirts. “It’s been a good week,” she tells us. “He’s not obsessing about his leg hair as much.” When it was time for me to introduce myself to the group, I couldn’t help mentioning that at least one parent was literally “in the closet.”

At first, Coral spoke from the back end of her garden. But she now stays inside and programs her Roomba—a disc-shaped vacuum-cleaner robot—to clean the foyer outside her study, so she doesn’t have to lower her voice. It’s all so surreally cloak-and-dagger that, even amidst wrenching discussions of the family traumas that brought the participants to this group in the first place, the parents sometimes end up laughing.

The group has three goals: to bring parents of trans-identified boys together; to compile and share relevant information from academic papers, news articles, and informal scuttlebutt; and, in some cases, to organize as activists. The latter involves sub-teams, with parents encouraged to “pick your poison,” as Coral puts it. Some parents organize letter-writing campaigns; others are investigating the idea of bringing class-action litigation against a negligent gender clinic. But putting aside these more specific objectives, many participate simply so they can feel supported. A lot of these parents had no idea until very recently that so many young men were affected by this trend, either because they hadn’t heard of ROGD (rapid onset gender dysphoria) or because they thought the phenomenon was confined to girls. Even when parents are enduring a real crisis—a young man turns 18, and orders the oestrogen he’s obsessed about for years—the simple business of talking seems to be greatly cathartic.

Coral believes that the parents of trans-presenting boys face special challenges, even aside from the fact that boys are often ignored when it comes to the public conversation about ROGD. Girls can play with sex stereotypes relatively freely; clipped male haircuts and lumberjack shirts haven’t been seen as particularly edgy for many years. But if a boy wears a skirt, that’s something different. Unlike girls, they typically can’t get away with timid forays into the domain of the opposite sex—so their presentation can be more of an all-or-nothing affair. Sometimes, these overlooked sex differences can be painful for the boys’ parents. They don’t want to detract from the contributions of feminist campaigners in pushing back against the new gender orthodoxy; but some of these campaigners, in these parents’ views, don’t adequately appreciate the challenges faced by boys.

Like other critics of the aggressive movement to “affirm” uncritically the self-diagnoses of trans-presenting youth, Coral worries about the fact that so many schools allow trans-identifying boys into girls’ spaces. But her focus isn’t just on the safety of girls: She also thinks it’s the wrong policy for her young son, who is far from a predator. This leads us onto the topic of AGP, or autogynaephilia, defined as the propensity of some males to be sexually aroused by the thought of themselves as female. (This is a subject that is treated as taboo among many gender activists, as it conflicts with the idea of gender identity as a sort of soul state that is entirely unrelated to sexuality.) But her views on this subject, too, are nuanced, and she doesn’t treat AGP as a catch-all. “Are some of these young men stealing their mothers’ panties for sexual purposes? Maybe,” she tells me. “But these boys are 16, 17, 18—sexually and socially, going on 12. Accusations of AGP resolve nothing.”

Coral is known in the group as a connector whose work has benefited others. When I ask her what setting up the Zoom group has done for her, she tells me that “it’s given me an outlet.” Instead of simply getting into angry arguments about the problem on Facebook, “I’m doing something about it.”

“Hold on a second,” she adds. She can’t hear the Roomba anymore, and has to duck out to reset it. When she gets back, she tells me that “the foyer is really clean.”

 

A Father Among Mothers

Like most of the parents who’ve been in touch with me, Coral is a mother, not a father. Fathers often seem absent from this debate: Occasionally, messages on parent support fora even assume that the other users are all mothers.

One explanation for the dearth of men in my sample seems obvious: In most families, women do the bulk of the child rearing. But I also wonder whether other factors might be at work. So when James got in touch with me to talk about his son Rob, I was keen to hear his take.

James recognizes many of his own teenage traits in Rob, such as Rob’s aversion to background noises and his difficulty in maintaining concentration on schoolwork. He describes his own adolescence as a period of huge internal volatility, much of which he still finds inexplicable.

Like Ellen’s son, Sam, whom I described in an earlier instalment, Rob used written messages to communicate to his parents the changes he felt he was going through. James’s wife got her note first, and James’s didn’t come until a month later. There were differences between the two. Rob told his mother that he didn’t want James to know he was transgender, as he suspected that James wasn’t “tolerant of LGBT people” (although nothing at all about our conversation leads me to believe that). The note left for James, on the other hand, contained specific claims about gender dysphoria that were absent in the version sent to his mother—perhaps because James has a background in psychology, and so Rob wanted to appeal to his father on a more clinical level.

James speaks with a Mississippi drawl, which makes me wonder if the more conservative social values of the American South may provide him with a stronger negotiating hand. But he sets me straight: The movement to affirm a child’s professed gender identity immediately, he believes, is ascendant “in all 50 states now.” More generally, James tells me, kids are taught to start from the basic premise that their parents’ generation is outdated in its values and riddled with prejudice, a belief that gets more anachronistic with every passing year. James himself came of age in the 1980s, and hardly seems like a conservative firebrand.

When I ask James whether he thinks fathers are just less interested than mothers when it comes to trans issues, he tells me he’s wary of sweeping statements in this area. He points out that support fora for parents have many “lurkers”—parents who say little or nothing but absorb a lot. Many of these individuals, he thinks, are fathers.

Rob’s story, perhaps more than any other, shows how truly rapid rapid onset gender disorder can be. As a younger child, Rob was a stereotypical boy, obsessed with first person shooter video games and adventure movies. He was restless, like many boys, and eventually was diagnosed with ADHD. Rob’s gender typicality—perhaps even hyper-typicality—was so glaring that James at first wondered if the notes his son wrote were some kind of practical joke. There had never been the faintest suggestion of femininity, much less full-on dysphoria, right through pre-pubescence and into early adolescence. Nonetheless, once Rob decided he was a girl, he was all in. As soon as he turned 18, Rob announced he would one day move to Scotland, where cross-sex hormones and sexual reassignment surgery are funded by the state. He had a new name, and corresponding female pronouns. He was “Ace,” meaning asexual. His romantic life had yet to begin—and apparently it never would.

Many trans-identifying young men in two-parent households seem to have one parent who takes a hard line, viewing any capitulation to new names or pronouns as the first step down a slippery slope; and another parent who is more willing to bargain, or who thinks that the child is simply going through a phase (or both). From what I have observed, the former (hard-line) parent is usually the mother, and the latter (more indulgent) parent is usually the father. Many of the mothers I’ve spoken to say that men simply can’t—or won’t—grapple with the crisis playing out in their families, so take a laissez-faire approach while the mother deals with the problem in a more head-on manner. But in James’s marriage, this pattern is flipped. Rob’s mother has agreed to the new name, arguing that it’s really just a nickname like any other; James takes the opposite view. He doesn’t want to encourage his son to take his first steps down a road toward complex medical challenges whose risks a young teenager can’t fully appreciate.

As in Christine’s story, described in a previous instalment, the institutional capture of many therapists’ services helps explain Rob’s journey. As with Christine and her son Max, James and Rob sat in front of a therapist who refused to accept that deeper motivations could help explain the child’s sudden gender epiphany. Suicide statistics came thick and fast during the meeting, and the therapist wasn’t much interested in hearing all the ways in which Rob’s anxieties mirrored those that James had experienced during his own childhood. Nor did the therapist seem interested in James’s own research, despite the fact he had informed himself extensively about the issue. Since then, James has taken to keeping his thoughts on transgenderism to himself: It’s become clear to him that dissenting opinions will simply be swept aside, or even weaponized as evidence of transphobia.

When James was young, he recalls, everyone went through a process of finding their tribe—from macho types who loved muscle cars and hunting, to science and fantasy-fiction nerds, to music obsessives (who themselves sub-divided according to musical genre). But his son’s tribal milieu is based more on sexuality, gender, and the manner by which these characteristics are presented online. And while James has become the “bad cop” on issues connected to gender, he says that he might have followed the same path as his tribe-seeking son if he’d been born 30 years later. He isn’t the first parent to tell me that.

I always ask the same question: “How has this affected you?” James’s reply suggests to me that he’s just as upset and deeply affected as the mothers I’ve interviewed. The issue occupies his thoughts every day, and causes him to replay the past in his mind, wondering which decisions—if any—he could have made differently. James would like to talk honestly to Rob, but finds it harder and harder to know how to do so without making the situation worse.

He mourns Rob’s former resilience, wishing that his son could stop fetishizing the sense of fragility and victimhood that now infuses trans subcultures on the Internet. James got past his adolescent awkwardness, learning to overcome feelings of discomfort within his own skin. Now he’s watching helplessly as his son surrenders to those same feelings—all with the encouragement of the educators and therapists who are supposed to help him stay strong.

 

The Wrong Kind of LGBT

So far, I’ve been describing parents who hadn’t reported much in the way of stereotypical gender non-conforming behaviour in their sons prior to their announcement that they were transgender. This is one reason why, when explaining their situations to family or friends, my interviewees are often met with disbelief.

But this example, which takes us to a placid suburb in California’s Bay Area, is different. Four years ago, Miranda’s 14-year-old son Seth came out to her as gay, via text message. It didn’t come as a surprise to either parent: they’d really been waiting for Seth to work it out himself. I ask Miranda when she first had a sense her son might be gay, and she answers that it was when he was about three. He got on better with girls; his playtime was more sedentary, more constructive, and less combative. Seth was always uncomfortable with the pushing and shoving that went on among the other boys. He just wanted to play house. As he aged, his friendship groups remained overwhelmingly female; and he had no interest in sports whatsoever. Everyone is different, of course. But many gay men reading this will hear bells ringing when they see such descriptions.

“We love you no matter who you are,” Miranda told Seth, “and we’ll always support you.” After that conversation, Seth didn’t really want to talk much about it. And that was fine by Miranda: there was no boyfriend on the scene, nor any particular signs of distress on Seth’s part. He was doing well in school, and seemed to have a good bunch of friends. So she gave her son time to process his sexuality in his own time.

Within a few months, however, Miranda was noticing a few strange things. Seth was coming home from friends’ homes with his nails painted, and wanted to grow his hair long; he wanted his mom to buy him a young-adult novel about being transgender. So Miranda asked him if he was confused in any way about his gender, and whether he wanted to talk about it. Immediately, Seth seemed defensive. Within a month, he was telling her—this time in a letter—that he thought he’d been born in the wrong body. At this point, Seth’s story (and Miranda’s) follows the same pathway as that of many other families: Once he’d made his announcement, Seth was adamant that he would have hormones and surgery, and didn’t want to discuss it with Miranda further.

For Miranda, those conversations are now a bit of a blur. But she remembers pointing out to her son that it was not unusual for gay people to feel like outsiders in their adolescent years. She told him about gay men of her own age who say that their homosexuality might have been mistaken for transgenderism if they’d grown up today. This fell on deaf ears. Seth now said that he wasn’t gay at all, because he was actually a straight girl.

Miranda discovered that her son had been seeing the school counsellor, sometimes multiple times per day, without her knowledge. A meeting at the school resulted in a fruitless exchange: the counsellor didn’t want to be diverted by Miranda’s research or parental instincts. Instead, the counsellor taught Seth about Jazz Jennings, a young superstar of the trans world, presenting Jazz as a sort of role model.

Miranda found a new school for Seth. But that didn’t help: The next school counsellor was equally unwilling to discuss the possibility that Seth was simply a gay boy who’d developed the fixed idea that he was a straight girl.

The mood became calmer in the house after Miranda and her husband found their son a therapist whom they describe as excellent. Miranda is waiting for Seth to realize that gay men face social difficulties of their own, and that it’s perfectly reasonable to have an anxious or otherwise negative reaction to this realization.

But four years since it all began, Seth is adopting an increasingly feminine character. He’s started wearing fake breasts when he goes out with friends; he is insistent that he’ll get real ones through surgical means. Meanwhile, he doesn’t seem interested in starting a relationship with anyone (a pattern of sexlessness that is remarkably common in these narratives). For Miranda, the cruel irony is that the Bay Area has historically been a singularly hospitable place for gay men. Yet that doesn’t seem to have made it easier for Seth to accept his homosexuality.

More and more older gay men are speaking out about the misreading of homosexuality as transgenderism—or “transing the gay away,” as this phenomenon sometimes is called. But I will emphasize that most of the parents I speak to don’t have sons who say they’re gay. When these boys describe themselves as something other than straight, it’s usually as bisexual, a label that some parents find difficult to take seriously given that these boys typically haven’t yet been physical with anyone of either sex.

* * *

In Louisiana, two time zones ahead of Miranda and Seth, Maya joins me for a call from her office in a small town. Like Miranda, Maya always had an instinct that her 14-year-old son Phoenix might be gay. As he aged, his friendship groups were small, and exclusively populated by girls and nerdy boys. Maya and her husband resigned themselves to the knowledge that he’d never find his real tribe until college.

But when Maya got the expected “coming out” letter, it wasn’t the type she’d imagined. Phoenix wrote that his mother was probably expecting him to say that he was gay, but that he was actually trans. This declaration was followed by many expositional paragraphs educating Maya about different forms of dysphoria—all of which he had—and an action plan of how he and she could progress to the next stage of discussions. (I’m detailing the didactic, somewhat condescending nature of the boy’s messaging not in the spirit of mockery, but to highlight the extent to which many of these parents are ambushed by Internet-supplied scripts full of absolutist statements and maximalist demands. Indeed, one of the reasons why many parents are so unsettled by these sudden revelations is that this new language their sons are speaking doesn’t sound like them at all.)

Maya found the note troubling for another reason, too: It seemed Phoenix had decided that his new identity would be a means of addressing, or at least compartmentalizing, the bullying he’d faced because of his personality. This, too, is a theme that comes up over and over: Everything will be fine now because I’m trans.

While Phoenix was at school one day, Maya decided to have a look through his social media accounts, to work out exactly where he was getting these pre-packaged ideas. What she found was terrifying. He’d been posting messages on Reddit feeds about being trans, about how miserable he was, and about how he wanted to engage in self-harm. Anonymous users responded by validating his self-destructive thoughts. One encouraged him to cut himself, since it might make him “feel better.” This person turned out to be a male-to-female trans Reddit user who invited Phoenix into private video chats. “I can get you away from your parents,” the individual told Phoenix via direct chat. The user in question turned out to be an adult, aged 24.

In his diary, Phoenix wrote that he thought guys were hot, and that this fact confused him—in part because he didn’t want to prove all the bullies right by admitting that he had been a “faggot” all along. Learning this put Maya in a difficult situation: She had to stop her son from being groomed by strangers, but couldn’t let on that she knew he was gay without him feeling that his trust had been violated.

Phoenix started to paint his nails; and began shaving his legs. Maya caught him putting staples into his arm. In the tearful moment of clarity that followed, he admitted that the bullying was probably what got him into the “crappy gender stuff” in the first place.

There’s an added complexity for Maya. Her work (whose nature I can’t detail without giving clues about who she is) has brought her into contact with other trans-identifying youth. The young people she works with nearly all have special needs, from autism and ASD to depression and anxiety, and so she understands how comorbidities and gender dysphoria can interact.

Maya now speaks openly with colleagues and friends about ROGD, and has become active online. She’s increasingly vocal about the erosion of parental rights, whether in the healthcare system or in schools. She worries that she must sound like a conspiracy theorist when she explains what’s happening in clinics and classrooms and chatrooms, but she doesn’t care. “I’m done being scared,” she says. “Now I’m pissed.”

Gay men and women fought long and hard to be accepted for who they are, often battling reactionary bigotry in the process. And yet, just six years after the United States Supreme Court ensured that gay men and women in all 50 states have the right to marry one another, a new form of homophobia, this one masked as progressive gender ideology, is being used to instil doubt in the hearts of vulnerable gay teens. Thankfully, as I will describe in the next part of this series, some members of the gay community have started to fight back.

 

Angus Fox (a pseudonym) is an academic working in an unrelated field of study. He can be contacted at gcri@protonmail.com.

 

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