There is always a before and after. Even if something seems unaffected, change happens; that’s how time works. That is how transition works, too. By definition, that is what transition means: change. But when it comes to gender identity, the concept of before and after means something different for everyone involved.
Before May 9, 2016 we had a daughter and two sons. After that date, in a small but very significant span of a day, male pronouns switched to female pronouns, and one of our sons became a second daughter.
Our child did not decide to become transgender in the time it takes for the sun to rise and set, nor did we force a label on her because we didn’t have anything else on the calendar for that day. Rather, that was the day we finally embraced the change we knew was coming.
I can’t speak to all of the inner workings of my daughter’s mind, but in the four years she has been alive, she has never verbally identified as the boy the obstetrician told us we were having or as the male gender marker given to both her and her twin brother at birth.
It’s important to note here that, because it is most relevant to our family, I am using phrases that define gender as binary, meaning one is either a boy or a girl. However, that is not the case. Gender is fluid and, for some individuals, gender is not defined by simply being male or female. Since she gained the ability to speak, Ryan has always told us she’s a girl.
Yet, when her pediatrician encouraged us to give her the freedom to live as a girl by switching from male to female pronouns, we all called it a social transition. It was as if we were introducing the world to a new and changed Ryan, a female version of our child, when in truth she didn’t change on May 9. We did.
Some people think that children are confused about their gender when they stray from what is considered to be normal attire, behavior, and language for boys and girls. But the truth is that kids’ gender identity is locked in by age three or four. If allowed to truly express the gender they identity with, there is little doubt. The confusion happens when parents and society challenge and deny the feelings of kids who don’t feel their biological sex matches their gender identity. Most of us are cisgender, meaning our sex (physical characteristics) matches our gender. For transgender individuals, this is not the case.
It is also important to note that kids who are gender nonconforming (boys who wear dresses or girls who prefer dump trucks, for example) are not necessarily, and are usually not, transgender. They are just badass little kids who know what they like and have the support of parents and teachers to explore any and all things that make them happy. There is not a guide on how to be a boy or girl, but every person has an internal compass that leads them home.
My child’s true north turned out to be female, even though she was assigned male at birth (AMAB). Looking back, it is easy to see that it always has been. In fact, it’s almost impossible now to see her as a boy. But during the time when my partner and I searched for answers on how to best acknowledge and validate Ryan’s feelings, it felt hard. Even though we knew better, we wondered if she was too young. Maybe she just wanted to be like her big sister. Maybe she thought she had to be a girl to wear the dresses she loved. We certainly wanted to do the right thing for our child, and we knew we would always allow her to live and express her true identity. But when was the right time? We always thought there were too many maybes.
I still don’t know when the right time should have been, but on the day we finally validated our child, the timing was not wrong.
After my partner and I left our appointment with Ryan’s pediatrician on that day in early May, we knew that Ryan being transgender was no longer something to just talk about privately with each other and close family members and friends. Ryan had been very clear with us for a long time. And because she was also showing clear signs of being unhappy when recognized as a boy, we knew it was time to change.
We needed to become parents who had two daughters instead of one. We needed to accept both the negative and positive reactions of being the parents of a transgender child. We needed to be the open advocates and fearless protectors of a child whose only real transition was in her happiness.
Later that evening, after Ryan confirmed she wanted us and everyone else to call her a girl, we transitioned. We began to use the correct pronouns when speaking to and about Ryan. With time and practice, her siblings, friends and family members did, too. Our anxiety increased as we scrambled to figure out how to enroll her in preschool and extracurricular activities as a gender that didn’t match her birth certificate. Our worries increased as we did everything in our power to make sure the outer layers of our life were as welcoming and supportive as the inner circles.
We stumbled sometimes when we saw people who asked how the boys were doing. We hesitated when strangers commented on how nice it was that we had a boy/girl set of twins. We gradually became more confident that the world was seeing Ryan as the girl she has always been. Strangers had actually been assuming Ryan was a girl before we switched pronouns. Her barrettes, skirts, and sparkles were staples before and after we thought we had a son.
Because of her age and our early acceptance of the clothing she preferred and her desire for long hair, Ryan didn’t go through a lengthy or noticeable transition when she began to live life as the girl she knew herself to be. As a parent, I have felt the changes of transition, though. I still worry about the way the world will treat her, and I know we will face new challenges and big decisions as she gets older, but love works a lot like time. It changes us. Ryan is my compass. And where her happiness leads, I will follow.