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A Gender-Ideology True Believer, Mugged by Reality

When my first son claimed he was trans, I eagerly ‘affirmed’ him. When his three-year-old brother decided he wanted to be trans, too, I realized I’d made a terrible mistake.

· 8 min read
A Gender-Ideology True Believer, Mugged by Reality
Alexander Grey on Unsplash

I was a social-justice organizer and facilitator before social justice took over the progressive world. I was at the nascent movement’s forefront, introducing the concept of intersectionality to organizations and asking people to share their pronouns.

My friends and I felt like we were the cool kids, on the vanguard of the revolutionary wave that would change the world. We were going to achieve what people in that milieu call “collective liberation.”

Within this context, I came out as a lesbian and identified as queer. I also fell in love, entered a committed relationship, and gave birth to a son. Two years later, my spouse gave birth to our second son.

Having children, and experiencing the love and devotion I felt toward them, was a game changer for me. I began to experience internal tensions. My thinking was split between what I felt instinctively as a mother; and what I “should” be feeling and doing as a white anti-racist social-justice parent.

Because I’d felt victimized by my parents’ rejection of my sexuality, I wanted to make sure to honor my own children’s “authentic” selves. In particular, I was primed to look for any clues that might suggest they could be transgender.

My spouse and I raised our sons with gender-neutral clothes, toys, and language. While we used he/him pronouns, and others called them boys, we did not call them boys, or even tell them that they were boys.

In our everyday reading of books or descriptions of people in our lives, we did not say “man” or “woman”; we said “people.” We thought we were doing the right thing, both for them and for the world.

Even when our first son was still young, he already struck us as different from other boys—being both extremely gifted and unusually sensitive. By age three or so, he started to orient more toward the females in his life than the males. “I like the mamas,” he would say.

We started to attribute some of this difference to the possibility that he was transgender. Instead of orienting him toward the reality of his biological sex by telling him he was a boy, we wanted him to tell us if he felt he was a boy or a girl. As true believers, we thought that we should “follow his lead” to determine his true identity.

At the same time, I was taking a deep dive into the field of attachment and child development. This made me understand that attachment is hierarchical; and that parents, not children, are meant to be in the lead. This obviously conflicted with my insistence on letting my child decide his gender. Sadly, it was the latter impulse that won the day.

At around age four, my son began to ask me if he was a boy or a girl. I told him he could choose. I didn’t use those words—I imagined that I was taking a more sophisticated approach. I told him, “When babies are born with a penis, they are called boys, and when babies are born with a vagina, they are called girls. But some babies who are born with a penis can be girls, and some babies born with a vagina can be boys. It all depends on what you feel deep inside.”

He continued to ask me what he was, and I continued to repeat these lines. I’d resolved my inner conflict by “leading” my son with this framework. Or so I told myself.

His question, and my response to it, would come back to haunt me. In fact, I remain haunted to this day. To the extent I was “leading” my son anywhere, it was down a path of lies—an on-ramp to psychological damage and irreversible medical interventions. All in the name of love, acceptance, and liberation.

About six months later, he told my spouse that he was a girl and wanted to be called “sister” and “she/her.” I received a text message about this at work. On the way home that night, I resolved to put all my own feelings away and support my transgender child. And that is what I did.

We told him he could be a girl. He jumped up and down on the bed, happily saying, “I’m a girl, I’m a girl!” We—not our son—initiated changing his name. We socially transitioned him and enforced this transition with his younger brother, who was then only two years old and could barely pronounce his older brother’s real name.

When I look back at this, it is almost too much to write about. How could a mother do this to her child? To her children?

Once we made this decision, we received resounding praise and affirmation from most of our peers. One of my friends, who’d also socially transitioned her young child, assured me that this was a healthy, neutral way to allow children to “explore” their gender identity before puberty, when decisions would have to be made about puberty blockers and hormones.

We sought out support groups for parents of transgender children, so that we could find out if we’d done the “right thing.” It hadn’t escaped my notice that our son hadn’t exhibited any signs of actual gender dysphoria. Was he actually transgender?

At these support groups, we were told, again, what good parents we were. We were also told that kids on the autism spectrum (which our son likely is) are gender savants who simply know they are transgender earlier than other kids.

At one of the support groups we attended, we were also told that transgender identity takes a few years to develop in children. The gender therapist running things told us that during this period, it’s important to protect the child’s transgender self-conception—which meant eliminating all contact with family or friends who didn’t support the idea that our son was a girl. I believed her.

Looking back, I now see her comments in a shockingly different light: this was part of an intentional process of concretizing transgender identity in children who are much too young to know themselves in any definitive way. (One set of parents attending the group had a child who was just three years old.) When identity is “affirmed” in this manner, children will grow up believing they are actually the opposite sex.

The therapist endorsed the same approach that many adolescents use on their parents, who are urged to write letters to grandparents, aunts, and uncles to announce the child’s transgender identity. In these letters, the conditions of continued social engagement are made clear: Recipients must use the new name and new pronouns, and embrace the new identity, or they will be denied contact with the child.

After about a year of social transition for our older son, our younger son, who was by now only three years old, began to say he was a girl, too. This came as a complete shock to us. None of the things that made our older son “different” applied to our younger son. He was more of a stereotypical boy, and didn’t show the same affinity for the feminine side of things that his older brother did.

The urge for “sameness” is a primal attachment drive in many family members. We felt that our younger son’s assertion of being a girl likely reflected his desire to be like his older sibling, in order to feel connected to him.

His claim to be a girl became more insistent when both brothers went to school part-time, because their program included pronoun sharing. Why could the older sibling be a “she” when the younger sibling couldn’t? Our younger son became more insistent, and we became more distressed.

We made an appointment to see the gender therapist whom we’d met at the support group. We truly believed that she would be able to help us sort out who, if anyone, was actually transgender.

To our shock, the therapist immediately began referring to our younger son as “she,” stating that whatever pronouns a young child wants to use are the pronouns that must be used.

She patronizingly assured us that it might take us more time to adjust, since parents have a hard time with this sort of thing. She added that it was transphobic to believe there was anything wrong with our younger son wanting to be like his older transgender sibling.

When I pushed back and asserted that I wasn’t yet convinced our younger son was in fact transgender, she told me that if I failed to change his pronouns and honor his newly announced identity, he could develop an attachment disorder.

We were unconvinced. But, again, we wanted to do what was right for our son and for the world. We decided to tell him he could be a girl. And that night at dinner, we told him that we would call him “she/her.”

Right after dinner, I went to play an imaginary game with him, and I wanted to be affirming. So I put a big, warm smile on my face and said, “Hi, my girl!”

At this, my younger son stopped, looked at me, and said, “No, mama. Don’t call me that.” His reaction pierced me to my core. I didn’t turn back after that.

For the next two years, my partner and I dug deeper, agonized, and then continued digging again. Everything we thought we knew or believed that had led us to socially transition our older son began to unravel.

I continued to study the attachment-based developmental approach to parenting, and learned more about autism and hypersensitivity. We decided not to socially transition our younger son. Not only was he not transgender, we now realized, but our older son probably wasn’t either.

He was just a highly sensitive, likely autistic boy who saw a girl identity as a form of psychic protection. It also provided him a way of attaching to me through sameness.

My spouse and I decided that since we’d been the ones who’d led him down this path, we were the ones who needed to lead him off of it.

A year ago, just before our older son’s eighth birthday, we did just that. And while the initial change was hard—incredibly hard—the strongest emotion exhibited by our son turned out to be relief.

In the days following my first conversation with him about going back to his birth name and pronouns, during which I told him that males cannot be females and that we were wrong to tell him he could choose to be a girl, he got very mad at me, then sad. Then, the next day, I felt my son rest. I felt him release a burden, an adult burden that he, as a child, was never meant to carry.

Since that time, we’ve all been healing. My son is now happy and thriving. We’ve watched him come to a deeper peace with himself as a boy.

Our younger son is also thriving. Once his older brother became his older brother again, he happily, and almost immediately, settled into his identity as a boy.

I feel like someone who’s escaped a cult—a cult whose belief system is supported by our mainstream culture, the Internet, and even the state.

I fear for the future—the future of sensitive, feminine, socially awkward boys. I fear what the world will tell them about who they are.

But no matter what the future holds, I will never ever stop fighting to protect my sons. I am no longer a true believer.

Adapted, with permission, from Parents with Inconvenient Truths About Trans: Tales from the Home Front in the Fight to Save Our Kids. Edited by Josie A. and Dina S. Published by Pitchstone Publishing. Copyright © 2023 by Parents with Inconvenient Truths about Trans.

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