Five years ago, I was just like Mario Lopez and I knew virtually nothing about transgender children. Today, I am the proud mother of a transgender daughter.
It wasn’t until my child started exhibiting behaviors I didn’t understand that I had to learn about a part of the world of which I was completely ignorant. What I learned has changed how I parent. It has changed how I vote and the company I work for. It has changed with whom and how I spend my time. I’m a better person and a better parent because I was born to be my daughter’s mother and it has changed everything.
Today, I have a thriving 17-year-old daughter who knows who she is and who is changing the world. Have my decisions as a parent been “dangerous,” as Lopez postured? No. Have the repercussions been significant? Yes. Without my unapologetic decisions and unconditional love, she could be dead. I wasn’t willing to take that life-or-death chance, nor would the thousands of other parents of transgender children who are boldly stepping up so their kids can simply be themselves in a world that doesn’t yet understand.
I’m not a celebrity host of a wildly popular network entertainment show with a nationwide platform like Lopez. I am a single parent who loves her child, wants the best for her and who will do anything to make sure I’m the best parent I can be for her. I’m not an expert on the transgender experience ― I can’t be, because I’m not transgender ― but I am an expert on my own child and the path I have walked to be her mother.
What I know now is this: My child knew who she was long before I knew and it took me 13 years to catch up to her truth. She is, and has always been, a girl.
My path on this journey started with how I was raised. I grew up in a little Massachusetts town that has more trees than people, still has no traffic lights but has two Dunkin’ Donuts. My dad is one of 17 children and my extended family is the size of a small battalion. I have first cousins I’ve never met. Family clam boils and reunions in the summer drew hundreds of aunts, uncles, cousins, spouses, children, other kids from the neighborhood and anyone else who didn’t have a clan like ours or who just wanted to run around on the acres of farmland that was my grandparent’s back yard. But regardless of who you were or where you came from, you were welcome.
There were only two families of color, that I remember, in my town ― two girls in my high school class. I didn’t eat a bagel until I was in college and I hadn’t met anyone who was Jewish until then, either. In fact, everyone I knew growing up was white and Catholic and probably Republican. I didn’t think I knew anyone who was gay, even though I must have. We just didn’t talk about it. I didn’t know the word transgender and certainly had never met someone who was. We didn’t talk much about a lot of things. I was ignorant and didn’t even know what I didn’t know.
Fast forward to college, a move to Oregon for a major career move, becoming a pilot’s wife and then moving to Kentucky for my husband’s career and our welcoming of a child. A boy ― or so I thought. Then a divorce and my move back to Massachusetts as a single mother.
At three, Nicholas (my child’s birth name used with permission) loved Thomas the Tank Engine, but the trains had tea parties and didn’t crash like when other boys played with them. At four, on Christmas Eve, Nicholas sang “All I want for Christmas is a princess dress!” At five, Nicholas descended the stairs at preschool in a Cinderella dress for the Halloween parade and not in the elephant costume I had bought him. Mulan was his favorite Disney character; after all Mulan was a girl pretending to be a boy. At six, in first grade, Nicholas boycotted the holiday book swap because he didn’t want to give or receive a “boy book” that the rules outlined, and which the school principal refused to change.
I coerced Nicholas to join the soccer and tee-ball teams and was even one of the coaches. At the first soccer practice, Nicholas was playing with one of the girls and her pink soccer ball and asking for one of his own. On the baseball field, I was happier than Nicholas was, except for when he was making dandelion bracelets in the outfield.
In those same years, Nicholas had friends who were both boys and girls but in playtime, Nicholas was always Princess Leia, Arwen or Ahsoka Tano. By age seven, this was no longer a phase. By age eight, the Tony awards were the biggest night of the year at our house.
For years I thought it was all my fault. My child was with me nearly all of the time and had no strong male influence. There was probably just too much estrogen in our house, I thought. I wore dresses, makeup and high heels ― of course, my child wanted to as well.
For years I thought it was all my fault. My child was with me nearly all of the time and had no strong male influence. There was probably just too much estrogen in our house, I thought. I wore dresses, makeup and high heels ― of course, my child wanted to as well. I secretly wanted an American Girl doll. Somehow, by telepathy maybe, my child did, too. Every big and small choice Nicholas made screamed “girl” even though in the delivery room, the doctor had said, “It’s a boy!”
What I did next is probably what many parents do when they face a situation they don’t understand: I dug into research. I read everything I could find about gender identity and children. I reached out to experts ― medical and mental health professionals ― who might have answers. And I found a community of parents who had and were walking this same path at the same time.
I was frightened and in denial and disbelief all at the same time. Although I allowed Nicholas to dress and play freely at home, the outside world was scary and off-limits to pink, dolls and girl stuff. My child’s stress and anxiety levels were high and the pressures to conform to societal norms were rising quickly. Musical theater became the escape and the stage became the safest place for my child to live, thrive and just be.
I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and I didn’t have the luxury of not finding out. I didn’t learn quickly either. But I did learn, and my thinking did evolve. It wasn’t my fault. Gender is hard-wired. Forcing a gender identity that doesn’t align with who the child truly is in heart, mind and soul ― despite anatomy ― has a high probability of catastrophic consequences.
When my child was 10, I found a secret listserv of parents of young gender non-conforming kids and we attended a family camp in rural Minnesota. For four days, my child got to live authentically for the first time in dresses, high heels and makeup. On the second day of the camp, I remember Nicholas holding my hand and saying: “I feel like a bird that’s been trapped in a cage since the day she was born and for the first time got to spread her wings and fly.”
For the next three years, I searched for answers and found some of them with a gender specialist affiliated with Harvard Medical School and at the Gender Management Service (GeMS) at Boston Children’s Hospital. Counselor Sidney Trantham conducted an extensive evaluation of my child and diagnosed her with gender dysphoria ― an incongruence between a child’s biological sex and their gender identity. My child’s body didn’t match her true self.
Dr. Norman Spack examined her, confirmed the diagnosis and recommended a puberty blocker ― a completely reversible medical approach to pause the progression of male puberty. This freed her from the trauma of experiencing the wrong puberty and all of the physical consequences that go along with it ― including a changed voice, facial hair, pronounced Adam’s apple, a widened jaw and other male characteristics. A voice change would be especially devastating to my child who was growing as a talented soprano.
Within a year, she was presenting and living as female. She ― actually we ― had come out to all of our family and friends and at her school. A year later, her name was legally Nicole, her birth certificate was updated, her social security card and passport changed and she started taking estrogen. And this summer, she had gender confirmation surgery at Mt. Sinai in New York under the care of Dr. Jess Ting. She had lived years pretending. Now she can live truly and completely as herself and as the girl she has always been.
I have only one regret: that I didn’t learn faster, that I didn’t help her transition sooner. Still, we have become vocal advocates for transgender youth and families who don’t have a voice, live in fear or who don’t have the privilege of living in a state that has legal protections for transgender people. We fought to help pass and defend that legislation in Massachusetts, and it is an accomplishment for which we are both profoundly proud.
What I couldn’t have predicted is the way that Nicole’s story has changed hearts and minds ― from Republican legislators in Massachusetts to executives at major corporations through her work with the GenderCool Project and through countless media interviews and speeches as a youth ambassador with the Human Rights Campaign.
Through it all, Nicole’s voice has risen above it all. Through her spoken, written and sung words, she is changing the world. Together we are showing the world in our small way what it means to love unconditionally even when, at first, we don’t understand. I’ve had to evolve because my daughter’s life depended on it and, what I didn’t know, my life depended on it too.
There are many subjects about which I’ve had to evolve my point of view ― divorce, miscarriage, dyslexia, job loss, single parenting. As I learned, I had to widen the lens through which I saw the world. I had to alter the lens through which I was raised. I had to be willing to humbly challenge what I thought I knew, and I had to be willing to admit when I was wrong.
We learn what’s in our circle and we often see only what is in our view. It’s our choice to expand that lens and see the world from a wider perspective, or not. Mario Lopez, and so many others, have the opportunity to see differently. The mistake Lopez made isn’t necessarily that he had the thoughts and opinions he did but rather that he spoke on camera from a pedestal as if he were an authority about a topic and experience he knows nothing about.
An apology isn’t enough. What is enough is a willingness to admit to being misinformed and taking active steps to learn something new. Or if he chooses not to learn and evolve, to at least not speak publicly as if he has. He’d learn a great deal if he met a few parents of transgender kids. If he did, he’d find that they aren’t so dissimilar from him ― loving parents doing their best to raise their kids, keep them safe, happy and healthy.
Yes, the repercussions of my way of parenting my transgender child have been immense and I couldn’t be prouder of the decisions I’ve made ― or prouder of the daughter I have raised.
Along with being a passionate advocate for transgender people in Massachusetts and nationally, Jeanne Talbot is a marketing professional in the high-technology industry.