Identity

'Do You Want a Happy Little Girl or a Dead Little Boy?': My Choice as a Mother

My trans daughter was discriminated against by her elementary school, forcing me to realize that if I didn't protect her—no one would.

by DeShanna Neal
Apr 13 2017, 6:00pm

All Screengrabs via Youth, Interrupted

"Youth, Interrupted" is a series on trans teens in the United States whose lives have been dramatically disrupted by anti-trans "bathroom bills" and other political battles. Watch and read more from the series here.

"It's a boy!"

When I was pregnant with my first child, I wasn't sure if I was right for the job. I put myself down during my pregnancy, and that only increased once my first-born came into my life. I struggled with my own identity as a new mother, especially after giving birth again 17 months later with a son. As most new parents experience, I was given sage advice from family and friends. Advice I often didn't take, which cast me as an outsider of sorts.

And yet, I managed just fine for those first few years. Here I had been thinking I would be the worst kind of parent and yet somehow, I found my ability to be an actual mom. I felt invincible; I had leveled up in adulthood and was doing great. For me, there was nothing that I couldn't handle or understand. If the concept was new, I simply researched and, suddenly, I was an expert.

But life certainly has a way of bringing you down to reality when you least expect it.

And in my case, it came in the form of my oldest child, who was sent home from preschool with a letter from the teacher that simply read: "You need to tell your child HE is NOT a GIRL! Thank you."

I struggled to understand: Why would my three-year-old child no longer identify as a boy? Unfortunately, seeing how this was the year 2007, there weren't many resources on transgender children that I could rely on for help. In fact, every article and website I found focused on teens and adults. There was nothing.

My world became a cloud of unknowns. But most importantly, my young child began to withdraw. At home, my husband and I didn't limit what either of our children played with. The toys and clothing for dress-up she used to play with no longer brought her joy. Everything changed, and she stopped being happy.

She simply stopped being.

For the preschool, "Individualized Education Program" meetings no longer focused on the academic goals she needed to meet. Instead, the program psychologist drove home the importance on "fixing" our child's "gender confusion." The teacher expressed her own concern over the sudden isolation, withdrawal, and apparent depression now being experienced by my three-and-a-half-year-old. Both looked to me for answers I didn't have, and all I could think of was to finally speak to experts.

To say the first therapist we saw was unhelpful is an extreme understatement. I left in tears after he stared at my husband and me and said, "Your child is this way because he's with his mother too much and you, sir, aren't doing manly-enough things with him."

My husband was quick to add that our second born was not displaying any of the same issues, but all I heard was that this was my fault. Everything I had believed when pregnant for the first time—that I'd be the worst kind of mother—had come to pass. I needed to help my child so things could be "normal" for us once again, but I didn't know how.

And "normal"—or the type of normalcy dictated by our therapist and the school— never came for our child. Instead, I watched her die inside. She stopped responding to her birth name. She began destroying her clothing and bed sheets.

I finally came to the frustrating realization that if I didn't start fighting for her, no one else would. In the back of my mind, I couldn't fathom the idea of a child being transgender, but as I read through online testimonies, I saw that many adults had known since childhood

"Do you want a happy little girl or a dead little boy?" This was the question, posed by a therapist who specialized in the transgender community, that would change everything for our family. Following this session, my husband and I rushed to the store to buy a new wardrobe for our child. I didn't know how I was going to explain this to extended family, but that was for the future. This was now, and she was coming home from school in an hour. I needed to be ready, mentally and emotionally. I needed to show her that I finally listened with my heart. I heard her.

Thank you for saving me, mom.

On our way home, my husband asked what we'd call her. We certainly couldn't keep referring to her by her birth name. I pondered on that question and it dawned on me: I had given her the name before she was born. The name she was meant to go by. I said, "We'll call her by her middle name. We'll call her Trinity." As time shank, I carefully placed every outfit atop her Spiderman sheets, delicate in how I handled them. This was all I had left. My last chance to bring my child back to me.

That was a day I'll never forget. Even now, a decade later, I can still feel the fear—the hope and the doubt— I had as I waited for my four-year-old daughter to step out of her bedroom. But most of all, I recall, so very vividly, the brilliant smile that was spread across her face the moment she did appear. She wore the pink and brown dress I had picked for her and she thanked us both, her father and I, for finally believing in her.

"Thank you for saving me, mom," Trinity told me. She still thanks me every day. Sometimes with words but usually simply by waking and thriving. Trinity says that I saved her life, but I know that what I did was just being a parent and giving my child the unconditional love she deserves. All that really matters is that she's here. She's amazing. She's my happy little girl.