Photo: Courtesy of Julie Malbogat
The night my kid came out as transgender was a night like all the others last summer. After a long cottage day spent climbing trees and doing daredevil jumps off the water trampoline, Zack (then still using his feminine birth name) informed us at bedtime, “I’m a boy.” Standing in his bedroom doorway, his beloved stuffed giraffe hanging from his fingers, it was as offhanded and unexpected as if he’d declared he flossed his teeth.
“OK,” I replied. I kissed him goodnight and went to my bedroom. “Zack’s a boy,” I said lightly to my husband, matching my tone to Zack’s. Josh matched his to mine. “OK.” Then, “Wanna watch a Killing Eve?”
It might sound like we were being dismissive, or perhaps that we were in denial. We certainly weren't yet educated enough to know that with strong parental support, suicide rates for trans youth plummet. It’s simply that we were taking our emotional cues from an eight-year-old, as we still are when it comes to Zack’s identity.
There is a chorus of voices cautioning against the instant and unconditional acceptance that Josh and I gave Zack. They’re concerned that young girls, influenced by social media to think they’re trans when they’re really just confused, are rushing into life-altering changes they’ll come to regret.
There has always been transphobia, but this particular moral panic is rooted, I believe, in a study published in 2018. An American researcher looking into kids who suddenly and without warning manifested symptoms of gender dysphoria blamed it mostly on social media and peer pressure: a trend, spreading among friends like a love of Doc Martens or Harry Styles. She named the phenomenon “rapid-onset gender dysphoria” (ROGD).
Despite biases in the research methods (the parents were recruited through websites known to amplify concerns about the rise in trans-identifying youth, and none of the kids in question were surveyed, only their parents), and despite a post-publication review of these biases, the study was picked up by both conservative and mainstream media. True or not, its key claim—that being trans is a social contagion—settled in the collective memory.
This past summer, ROGD was in the news again, with the release of a book warning of a “transgender craze seducing our daughters.” It doesn’t change my opinion of Zack but I wonder if it will change other people’s. I wonder if other parents like me are worrying, not just about whether our trans kids will be bullied, but whether they’ll be believed. It’s no surprise to me that some of us, when coming out to family and friends, mount offensive campaigns, proactively itemizing all the ways over all the years that our kids hinted at their true selves.
This was the approach taken by two Vancouver moms who co-host a podcast in which they share their experiences parenting their young, trans sons. In one of the episodes, they each read the coming out letters they wrote to family and friends. The letters seem written specifically to counter potential ROGD-based objections; they reference scientific studies, quote statistics and even include PDF attachments. One letter ends with the plea, “We ask you, from the bottom of our hearts, for your full support and unconditional love for [our].”
I resent the culture of fear and doubt that makes parents feel they have to be as strategic as those podcast hosts, submitting proof that our kids are who they say they are. I resent the implication, even though I know it’s false, that I’m causing my son harm by supporting his transition. I resent the energy I’m spending separating trans facts from transphobia.
So when it came time for my family’s own coming out, I chose not to write a pre-emptive letter. I chose not to ask the people I support and love to give their support and love to Zack. Just as Zack trusted his parents and his friends with his news, I chose to trust mine. The phrase “expect acceptance” echoed in my head, like a mantra. Assume people will be kind. Expect acceptance.
“Expect acceptance” was the theme of Angela Swan’s keynote when I heard her speak at an event in 2019. Swan told of her experience coming out as trans, and transitioning from male to female, while working at a downtown Toronto law firm during a time much less tolerant than today. She was frank about the challenges she faced, but overall she was hopeful. It feels better, she suggested, to expect acceptance than it does to brace for bigotry.
With Swan’s words as our north star, our family’s approach is to treat Zack’s transness like the non-issue it is. We address it when it comes up (the Rosh Hashanah Zoom call, Zack’s first session with his speech therapist after summer break), but it’s never our lead story. I try not to make it an open conversation that leaves room for questions. I try to model with my nonchalant telling of Zack’s news the nonchalant response I expect to receive. “By the way,” I find myself saying to other parents in the schoolyard, just as I said to Josh, “Zack is a boy.”
Still, people are curious. Or skeptical. I can’t tell which. Were there signs? they ask. When his sister, Charlie, took ballet, Zack opted for hip hop. He always preferred pants to dresses. And he likes skateboarding, video games and fart jokes. But so do lots of girls. Josh and I are urban, liberal and agnostic enough not to think there’s anything unusual—nothing gender nonconforming—about a girl who likes Lego and is good at puzzles.
Were there signs? Even when it’s well-intended and asked by people who have never heard of ROGD, this question activates my fight or flight reflexes. It feels like what they’re really saying is, “Are you sure it’s not just ROGD? If there weren’t any signs, then maybe he’s just confused. Maybe he’s just a lesbian. Maybe you shouldn’t rush into anything.” Frankly, it doesn’t matter to me whether there were signs. Why does there have to be a warning? Why do ROGD proponents believe trans identities have to be premeditated to be valid?
My kids’ hearts are fickle but true. After years of happily attending Charlie’s dance and art classes, there were no signs before Zack asked to try rock climbing. Yet we didn’t worry whether it was a true passion or a passing fancy, or if he’d get hurt. We simply enrolled him in a climbing program, bought him some hand chalk and sent him to the gym with our most sincere wish: darling boy, ascend.
What if it’s a phase? What if he changes his mind? Those are other questions people ask, although I think they’re more relevant for older kids whose transitions can include permanent medical interventions like hormone therapy and surgery. Zack’s not eligible for hormone therapy until he’s 12, not eligible for surgery until 16. By then, if his gender identity has been “insistent, persistent and consistent,” as his doctor and therapist have told us is key, then under their supervision, Josh and I will support whatever gender-confirming treatment Zack chooses. In the meantime, he’s free to dress, act and be however and whoever he wants. Notably, he doesn’t want to be anyone other than who he is.
What if it’s a phase? If it’s a phase, like his love for the DJ Marshmello, or for green peppers, we will let Zack guide us out, the same way he guided us in. Rock climbing, maybe, is also a phase. After two years at the climbing gym, and again without warning, Zack has told us he wants to learn to play drums: “It’s loud and it’s noisy and it seems fun.” I love that Zack is curious about new activities and exploring new aspects of his identity so I will sign him up for drum classes when registration opens this summer—if he’s still interested.
The question I had is for Zack, because I wanted to better understand his origin story, was how he even knew transgender was a thing he could be?
“From the Rainbow Alliance,” he replied. The Rainbow Alliance is a club at Zack’s elementary school, open to students in grades 4 to 6, that helps kids become advocates and allies for sexual and gender diversity. The students in the club have decorated the bulletin board outside Zack’s classroom: There are multi-coloured fists, pointing skyward as symbols of strength; hand-drawn letters, along with a computer-printed definition, for each word that forms the LGBTQ2SIA+ acronym; a pronoun primer; even tips for how to “degender your language.”
I’m grateful for the teacher who leads the Rainbow Alliance for giving Zack the word to name his feelings and his identity. I’m grateful for all the leaders making mirrors—TV shows, YouTube videos, books, bulletin boards—in which kids like mine can see themselves reflected. Seems to me that these educational and representational efforts—and not ROGD—may be the reason that more young people than ever are identifying as trans; according to a recent Gallup poll, almost half of trans Americans are aged 19 to 24. Mostly I’m grateful for Zack’s friends. They make him feel safe and supported, and they know, instinctively, that Zack is Zack, whatever pronouns or bathroom he uses.
After months of closure, the kids’ program at the climbing gym is re-opening soon. Zack, it turns out, is excited to get back on the rock wall. “Don’t you get scared,” I ask him, “being up so high?” Despite knowing the gym uses a belay system for safety, I certainly get scared sometimes, thinking of him hanging, 30 feet above the ground.
“I’m not scared at all,” is Zack’s confident reply. “I know that if I fall, I’m attached to a buddy.”