Transforming Parenthood By Heather Hewett
Transgender children are in the news. This is, at best, a mixed state of affairs. A recent spate of documentaries, including the 2020 HBO film, Transhood, aims to provide less sensationalistic and more nuanced storytelling than previous mainstream media coverage, with trans youth sometimes acting as authors or co-creators. But increased visibility in both traditional and social media has met with backlash. Conservative pundits and state lawmakers across the US have targeted trans and non-binary children in a record number of bills seeking to end access to gender-affirming medical care for minors (puberty blockers and hormones) and policing youth sports (preventing trans kids from playing on teams aligned with their gender).
Bobbing in this sea of headlines is a growing number of memoirs written by parents of transgender kids. Five years ago, when one of my children told me that he was transgender, there were only five published memoirs about raising a trans child; today, this number has more than doubled. They are all written by heterosexual cisgender parents, most of whom are white (four are writers of color). In nearly all cases, they did not know what “transgender” meant or even how to understand what their child was telling them. But all of them—nearly— come around to believe their child, accept them, and embark on the social and emotional journey of raising a trans child. (Calling these books “parent” memoirs is a bit of a fiction; they are all primarily written by mothers, either because the labor of parenting remains gendered female, or because even when parenting itself is shared more equally, writing about it remains gendered female.) The latest of these is among the best—Marlo Mack’s How to Be a Girl: A Mother’s Memoir of Raising her Transgender Daughter, which starts when Mack’s three-year-old child frantically begs her to “put me back” in her tummy so that “I can come out again as a girl.”
Mack is a talented multimedia storyteller. “Gendermom,” her blog, began when she could only find a “handful of blogs about feminine boys like the one in the My Princess Boy picture book my child had hurled across the room.” She subsequently launched a podcast in 2014, a collaborative effort featuring smart, honest narration about raising a trans daughter as a divorced mom and the lisping, animated voice of her daughter “M.” Mack approached her storytelling with vulnerability and a sense of wonder, and the podcast feels intimate— when I listen, I imagine Mack perched at her kitchen table at the end of a day of work, as she shares her worries and weaves other people’s perspectives into conversations with her daughter. At the same time, the podcast maintains both high production values and a clear line around her daughter’s privacy (all names, including her own, are pseudonyms).
The longer format of a book allows the author to explore more fully the first year after her daughter announced her gender, a confusing time only alluded to in her podcast and now covered in the first two chapters. In the written memoir, oral elements of the podcast and Audible version are replaced by sidebars with snippets of dialogue, text boxes with excerpts of articles and medical research, M.’s childhood drawings, and her mother’s whimsical cartoons. It’s like Mack is trying to nudge the memoir form outwards in order to capture her daughter’s spirit and bring in some of the voices that have informed their journey. These additions give the chronological, private drama of memoir a larger context. Mack’s storytelling is sprinkled with the kind of helpful explanations one might find in a parenting advice book, a common feature of these memoirs. While a few of the books get bogged down by the incorporation of expert advice, Mack’s touch is light, like a friend making a wholehearted suggestion over coffee. Consider the book’s “how to” chapter titles: some provide excellent advice for all parents (“Take a deep breath,” “Let go”); some are particularly important for cis parents of trans kids (“Question everything,” “Find a role model”); some give an accurate appraisal of what’s necessary for the job (“Secure the perimeter,” “Fight back”).
Mack is not alone in writing a memoir with the goal of educating others; it’s a necessary part of parenting a trans kid, and one of the reasons why so many of these moms write about their experiences in memoir (along with blogs, YouTube, and Medium, all of which launched several of them on their writerly projects). But not everyone writes as well as Mack. Her prose is accessible and smart, by turns witty and searching, with memorable phrases scattered throughout: her daughter “shrugged off boyhood like a scratchy sweater”; extended family and adult friends “slowly succumb ... to the new name and pronouns” because M. is “slowly wearing them all down, like the drip-drip-drip of water against a rock.” She covers territory familiar to many readers (what is gender?) and specific to raising a trans child: Is the best approach full disclosure with other parents, or following the dictum that it is nobody’s business because “private parts should remain private”? (After being shamed by a fellow preschool parent, Mack wonders: “Had it been a mistake not to formally announce, and account for, the presence of a penis? Was that my job? Was that that my child’s job? Would it always be?”) And what do you do when your kid wants to share her “secret” with her best friends, but then the friendships change, and some of the kids tell? What message are you sending to your own child with the word “secret,” anyway?
No one can answer Mack’s questions. The “child experts” around her (principals, teachers, school counselors) know nothing “about a kid like mine” and expect her and her ex-husband to tell them what to do; and some of the parenting advice they receive in the beginning turns out to be wrong, as when a psychologist who is “an expert on kids and gender” tells them that the majority of transgender kids stop identifying as trans when they are older. (Mack subsequently learns that this statistic is based on flawed research.) Ultimately, it is not other “experts” but her child’s experience that convinces her they are on the right path:
Whether I was up against skeptical relatives, psychologists with fancy titles and mommy issues, or random readers of my blog, at the end of the day, my best evidence was my seven-year-old herself—and the fact that she was happy in the completest possible sense: content, unworried, playful, loving, curious and excited about the possibilities of each new day. And so were the other young transgender children I had met, once they were heard and seen for who they said they were.
Memoirs like How to Be a Girl combine the incontrovertible evidence of experience, accurate information, and solidarity for families struggling to understand their children. They counter the misinformation and bigotry that casts trans identity as a radical ideology parents impose on their kids or a superficial fad. Part of the labor of these books is “proving” that our trans children are real.
Histories of the Transgender Child, Jules Gill-Peterson’s research in the medical archive, presents evidence of trans youth in the early twentieth century. But if trans children have always been with us (albeit under the radar) other things have changed: the language we use to conceptualize and name gender identity; the psychological diagnoses we use to understand transgender experience; the existence of gender clinics for trans youth; the idea that parenting is an intensive, child-centered endeavor. Contemporary memoirs about raising trans kids document a first generation, but only of sorts: trans children whose parents supported them, often when very young, not only privately but also publicly; who have had access to medical care and interventions; whose parents advocated for their acceptance; and whose lives have caught the interest of publishing companies, media outlets, and audiences. This is a relatively small segment of trans children and families. These memoirs do not chart the lives of children who cannot gain access to clinics, or perhaps choose not to; who express their gender identities in spaces not controlled by caregiving adults and medical professionals; whose lives (along with their parents’) might be too complicated to fit neatly into the space afforded by memoir, or are simply not ready for the scrutiny of media, for any of the reasons why a young person might not be.
Collectively, nearly all of these memoirs are rooted in cisgender expectations—there would be no story without normative social expectations about gender. The conflict begins with a gender mismatch and the ensuing confusion, and the resolution comes with some combination of acceptance, understanding, and love. If the parents were fully accepting of their trans child from the beginning—excited, even, to discover that their child was transgender—these memoirs would be very different. As readers, we know that parents will accept their children, but the trajectory can sometimes feel slow, even painful. In Found in Transition, Paria Hassouri—a pediatrician who tells her thirteen-year-old that people “don’t just suddenly realize that they are trans”—suffers so many bouts of tears that I grew impatient. Hassouri later deeply laments the year she spends refusing to believe her child. “This response will remain one of my biggest regrets in life,” she writes, and by book’s end, I had to respect her brutal honesty.
Hassouri’s book is one of three most recently published memoirs (including Mack’s) that chart the experience of raising transgender girls, but most are about transgender boys. Only one—Julie Tarney’s My Son Wears Heels— narrates the experience of raising a nonbinary, “gender creative” child. (Lori Duron’s Raising My Rainbow also uses “gender creative” to describe her son.) In other words, the vast majority of these memoirs chart the movement of transgender youth in one of two directions—from male to female, or female to male—as opposed to those who do not conform to binary gender, or who move in more than one direction. Somewhere, I trust, a parent (perhaps even a dad) is working on this book.
As the repetition of certain words in the subtitles suggest—journey, transformation, evolution—it is the mothers here who change, perhaps even more than the children who are simply telling the adults around them who they are. (Their male partners also change, some of them more slowly, and some of them—Mack’s ex—more quickly.) These transformations involve individual variations. For example, in What We Will Become, Mimi Lemay deftly interweaves chapters about her own Ultra-Orthodox Jewish childhood with the struggle to understand her two-year-old. The resulting narrative, part memoir and also (in her words) “a mystery, a ghost story, and a love story,” is richly layered. While the trajectory of resistance followed by acceptance is familiar, the meaning Lemay derives from her experience is uniquely hers. It was her own break from Orthodox Judaism, she concludes, “that brought this child to me, not as a punishment but as a most sacred gift.”
The memoirs chart the authors’ moves from ignorance to allyship and activism (and for a few, add a plank in their professional platforms). Marsha Aizumi cannot deny the urge to “change the world” once her college son has transitioned, even though she is more comfortable being nonconfrontational. She chronicles her reluctant journey to activism in the second half of Two Spirits, One Heart. At an LGBTQ march in D.C., far out of her comfort zone, she worries about what her Japanese ancestors might think; but then she realizes, “What my conservative ancestors may have thought, I needed to cast aside. I was here to march with my son.” Aizumi writes about how she and her son must navigate how to do activism on the same issues, but separately—after all, he is the one who is transgender—and eventually she focuses on LGBTQ issues in the Asian-American / Pacific Islander community in California and across the US. Similarly, Jodie Patterson explores the connections and fissures between the Black community and trans identity in The Bold World—a memoir with a recently released companion volume for preschoolers, the picture book Born Ready: The True Story of a Boy Named Penelope. Patterson is now a speaker and a prominent activist with national LGBTQ organizations.
Mack’s memoir details the fight against a bathroom bill in Washington state, part of the first wave of anti-transgender legislation. She also writes about collaborating with adult trans activists, something that not all cisgender parents manage to do. Readers who wish to understand the impact of politics on transgender youth should read Rebekah Robertson’s About a Girl, which recounts the fight against an Australian precedent that gave the family court system the authority to make decisions concerning medical interventions for trans minors. Robertson is clear about how a process meant to “protect” youth did exactly the opposite: “Georgie had no agency over her body. As her parents, we had no power either,” Robertson writes. Their judicial appeals, combined with a nationwide media advocacy campaign, ultimately lead to legal reform— but the fight also leaves them personally exhausted and traumatized.
One cannot deny the parallels with the current deluge of bills in the US, many of them using the language of “protection” to take away the ability of trans youth, their families, and their doctors to make decisions about their bodies. Robertson’s memoir sounds a warning bell about the harms that barriers like these will undoubtedly inflict on kids.
What power does a memoir have at a moment like ours? Can it counter conservative political narratives about trans youth? Can it nudge open the space of possibility to make room for more stories, more representations, more understanding? Halfway through her memoir, in a lovely chapter titled “Learn,” Mack describes her desire to better understand what her child might be going through. She begins to read memoirs authored by trans female writers. But when she talks with her friends, none of them have heard of any trans women, even those who had written bestselling books or had been in the headlines in the past. “It seemed that each generation had to rediscover transgender people afresh,” Mack writes, shocked to discover a “veil of near-absolute silence regarding their existence.”
If this cultural silence can be broken, we’ll need more than a handful of memoirs about trans kids written by their parents. We’ll need to read books written by trans authors, such as Cooper Lee Bombardier and Janet Mock, and many more. We’ll also need the stories of trans children, those who hover in the historical archives and those who are alive today. Maybe then our combined voices can shatter the silence. Maybe then we can celebrate the gift of trans kids and love them for who they are.
Heather Hewett is a co-editor of #MeToo and Literary Studies: Reading, Writing, and Teaching about Sexual Violence and Rape Culture (Bloomsbury, 2021). She is an associate professor and chair of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and an affiliate of the English Department at the State University of New York at New Paltz. She reviewed The Bold World in the March/April 2019 issue of WRB.