This past summer, we enrolled Alex in a local parks and rec summer day camp program. As a girl.
While this may seem for many to be either follow a natural course or even maybe not be a very big deal, it represented a big leap for her and for our family. It meant that she was ready for the world to acknowledge her as a girl. With female pronouns and a (relatively) female name. She was ready to emerge and blossom into the girl she was born to be. But what did that really look like? What did that mean? We knew that although this is her journey, as her support system, we understood that it would probably mean choppy waters ahead at least for us.
Several months before the first day of camp, I had contacted the camp director to discuss our situation. I explained that at Alex’s school, she uses a nurse’s bathroom. I also explained that while she used her birth name and some kids at the program might know her by that name and the male pronoun, Alex wanted people to use her new pronoun (“she” and “her”) and her affirmed name (i.e. Alex). The camp director was very agreeable and assured us they could accommodate us. The thought that kept running through my head was: This is too easy. Could this be too good to be true?
Indeed. It could. Indeed, it was.
The first sign of faltering started within the first week. Rather the first day. Since it was a local program, there were, naturally, children in attendance who also went to her school. These kids were confused by the new name and insisted on calling her by her birth name. When we learned about this situation, we coached her through the dialogue. We roll-played being bullies calling her by her birth name as if it were a dirty word. We taught her how to politely navigate those conversations and to simply say “I prefer to be called Alex, thank you.”
The bathroom arrangement at the camp was that Alex would use the restroom located in the preschool-aged day camp. I had agreed to this based on the school arrangement the previous year, not even realizing that now that Alex was “out” it might not mean that the same sort of arrangement would be acceptable to her. And indeed it wasn’t. Sometime within the first week of camp, Alex had made some friends (girls) and started using the female restroom that all her friends were also using.
Well, this information found its way back to some parents who knew Alex from school, and apparently they found it their civic duty to inform the camp directors that “Alex is really a boy.”
I’ll never forget the sensation of the hair standing up on the back of my neck when the counselor called me to ask how she should handle this situation with the parent. Too many thoughts raced through my mind at the same time, but by the time I had sifted through every profane word in every language I knew, I arrived at the place of “Ok, these are people who just need to be educated. I can help.” That is, my outlook on the situation was still relatively positive. I felt like it could have been a minor scuffle with a single, ignorant person. The camp and the directors were open to guidance, so I obliged them. The end result of this situation was that I spoke with Alex and explained that she had to follow our pre-arranged plan of using the preschool bathroom, and on swim days, she could use the female restroom and changing room, but only after the other girls had used and exited.
Although it was starting to sound kind of not ok-ish to me, I agreed because it seemed that Alex was otherwise pretty happy there. And as hoped, once we had this incident behind us, the summer continued along very smoothly. By the time summer was over, I breathed a huge sigh of relief that we had survived it. Until a stark realization occurred to me: Alex was Girl Alex all summer. What would happen with school? Would she be ok going back to her birth name and gender? It seemed awkward and counterintuitive to do that, so I asked her.
“Alex, you seem like you’ve been pretty comfortable this summer with people calling you by your name Alex and referring to you as a girl. What about school? What do you want to do?”
“I want to be (birth name) and a girl,” she replied.
“Um, but sweetie. (Birth name) is a very masculine name. I don’t know any girls that go by that name. And since everyone at school once knew you as a boy, that transition might be hard,” I reasoned. “People will still refer to you as a boy if you keep your name.”
“I don’t care. I want to be (birth name),” she said.
While this dialogue confused me, I have been practicing the art of knowing when to step back and let her lead and when she required parental guidance.
Since this concerned her identity and how she wanted to present herself to the world, my initial thought was: Oh, we need to let her guide us on this one.
So it was, that a week before school started, I met with the principal and informed her that Alex “wants people to use female pronouns; however, she wants to keep her birth name.” As the consummate diplomat, our principal acknowledged the request and said she would let the teachers and staff know. It was clear to me that she understood the part of the 1.5 hour training that they agreed to two years ago, which stated that by law the school must acknowledge a student’s gender preference with regard to pronoun usage. And then I dropped the bomb.
“And she’d like to use the female bathroom,” I said nervously.
“I see. Well, I will need to run that by the District office and see how other schools in our district have handled this situation,” she replied.
This answer haunted me and I knew that it did not bode well for a positive outcome for Alex. I recalled a conversation I had with Kim Pearson, President of TransYouth Family Allies a few weeks prior to my meeting with the principal in which she said, “When school administrators default to what the law says, it usually is an uphill battle in trying to get policy in place to allow transyouth access to their preferred bathroom.” With this conversation, I finally understood what the “bathroom issue” was all about. It wasn’t an internal dilemma as I had thought… no, this was about how will the community respond to it.
That was my first “a ha” moment about what the real issue that we were dealing with was, which is to say that it was not about ALEX, per se. It was about the community. That is, it’s all well and good that we should have a transgender child, but as soon as the community is pressed to interact with Alex in the way that she demands, the issue suddenly becomes theirs. Suddenly, transgenderism becomes personal. And suddenly, it becomes Alex’s personal cross to bear – helping the world and each individual who meets her and gets to know her through their own journeys of acceptance of her. As if childhood isn’t hard enough without that extra little task item.
The day before school started, as I and Alex were in the middle of the chaos of all the other parents waiting for the lists of classes and teachers to post, I took a call from the principal on my cell.
“Well, I have an update for you,” she said. I knew by her tone it was not good news. I felt the bile in my stomach churning. My palms got clammy and I started to shake.
“The District thinks that the arrangement we had last year is perfectly suitable for Alex to continue using.”
“But… but… but…” I struggled to get words out through a throat was near fully swollen shut. “But Alex is a GIRL! She wants to be treated like a girl. She wants to use the restroom just like all her friends. She doesn’t want to be treated any differently than her peers!”
“I’m sorry,” she said in a disappointed voice.
“Ok, well I have to believe that if this decision were yours, you would have not gone this way,” I said mustering some courage. “And you also have to know that I will take this as far as I need to for the sake of my child.”
“I understand,” she replied.
As I hung up, I felt all the blood run from my face. My body started trembling in huge spastic motions. Visions raced in my mind about where our path was taking us. I wasn’t going to give up. If this is what Alex wanted, I had no choice but to rage on ahead and demand her equality.
In the hours and days that followed, I contacted every professional I knew, including Kim Pearson (who took my call at 12:30 am in her time zone—the woman is a SAINT, I tell you!) and lawyers at the Transgender Law Center. I researched policy that schools had adopted to protect both themselves and transgender youth. I looked into what it would take to change the gender marker on Alex’s school records so that they had no choice but to allow her access. I posted updates about our situation to the parent listserv forum asking what others had done in this situation.
Finally, the light at the end of the tunnel came when the parent of another transgirl connected me to her attorney at the ACLU. She said she had spoken about my situation and the attorney wanted to talk to me. I called. We talked. And I began to feel hopeful once again.
A few days ago, Alex gave me her business card that she made on her manual typewriter. When I read it, my eyes filled with tears. Tears of pride, of relief, of joy, of resolution.
No matter how anyone wants to perceive my child, what counts the most is how she sees herself. No one can take that from her—not parents who call her out or administrators who refuse to let her use the restroom. Alex is a girl of truth.