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Texas, Meet My Trans Teen. Please.

A Personal Perspective: Why gender affirmation is not child abuse.

Key points

  • Texas lawmakers are trying to equate affirming a transgender child’s identity with child abuse.
  • Pediatricians and mental health specialists mostly agree that it is important to let a child's identity unfold naturally.
  • If a child’s gender nonconformity is consistent, persistent, and insistent, it is not a phase.
Roseann Henry
At age 5, this kid knew who he was
Source: Roseann Henry

My beautiful four-year-old, with long silky blonde hair and perfect little features, asked me a very simple question one day: How do people know if a baby is a boy or a girl? Even at that early age, I knew it was a loaded question—more loaded than most—and that I had to step carefully.

Well, I responded, all the doctor can do is look at the baby when it’s born. If the baby has boy parts, the doctor says “it’s a boy!” and if it has girl parts, the doctor says, “it’s a girl!” But, I continued, the doctor can only see what’s on the outside.

You have to wait a while, until that baby grows up a little bit, to find out what’s on the inside, and that’s when you really know. From the tears that suddenly welled up in those beautiful blue eyes (and mine), I knew that I had gotten that one right.

Would Texas consider me a child abuser for having answered that way? Texas lawmakers are trying to equate affirming a transgender child’s identity with child abuse. I guess Texas would have wanted me to say that if the baby has a penis, that’s a boy, end of story. No penis, it’s a girl.

I suppose Texas would have wanted me to ignore what was going on with my little girl-on-the-outside as time went on. I could have refused to let her take the role of the dad when she played family with her little sister or snatched the little blue peg right out of her hand when we played the game of Life.

I guess I could have forced her to stay in gymnastics after the coach said she had to wear the leotard now and couldn’t tumble with the boys anymore, or perhaps beaten her until she agreed to wear the Communion dress? That wouldn’t have been child abuse, according to Texas. Letting her be who she is, though? Texas calls that abuse.

Roseann Foley Henry
By middle school, my teen's identity was clear
Source: Roseann Foley Henry

How Can This Be Abusive?

Pediatricians and mental health specialists mostly agree with what a therapist told us when our child was just eight years old. You won’t change the outcome, he told us. You won’t affect who she is. All you will affect is how she feels about herself.

Everything I’ve read since then tells me I did the right thing by letting my child’s identity unfold on its own. Even without science, I would have known with every fiber in my being that a child can know at an early age who they are.

And my child knew from before the time she could speak that no matter what her body looked like, she was not a girl.

I’ve talked with other parents who have had to muddle their way through this. We don’t all understand it, but we live it. We know our children’s hearts and minds, and we know that accepting them for who they are is not child abuse. Letting your children know they are loved, supported, and, yes, affirmed for who they are—that’s pretty much a parent’s job definition. We have to be their allies even when they are transgender, especially when they are.

No, It's Not a Phase

Texas seems to be worried that parents are rushing their gender-confused kids into treatment that they don’t understand and that they’ll later regret. I was a bit on the tomboy side when I was a kid, but I am not transgender. Most little tomboys are not. Trans kids are different.

We knew our child was not just a tomboy, knew that she had to sort out who she was in her own good time. And what she—now he (but really always he)—is, is trans.

When you see it, to paraphrase Justice Stewart, you know it. All those years ago, our therapist asked if our child’s gender nonconformity was consistent, persistent, and insistent. If we said yes to all three, he said, this was no phase. Our job was to provide love and support and neither push nor pull.

Roseann Foley Henry
New school, new identity
Source: Roseann Foley Henry

I know I’m lucky that my child waited until turning 18 before deciding to transition, and my heart aches for parents who have to make gender-affirming decisions with younger children. On the other hand, I wonder if my child’s transition would be easier today if we’d temporarily blocked the puberty that enhanced femaleness in a child destined to be male.

It’s impossible to know. It’s impossible for any parent navigating this to know what that other road might have held. We can only do the best we can, with what we know in our hearts, supported by science.

That beautiful long blonde hair is now barely crew-length, and the pretty little face has the beginnings of a mustache. It’s weird, confusing, and intensely emotional. We are all going through a convulsion of reactions and feelings, fears and joys.

But those same beautiful blue eyes look back at me when we talk, and I know that’s my child, the one I’ve known for 18 years, in that evolving body. I wish all of Texas could meet him, see photos of him growing up as he developed the confidence and self-awareness it took for him to get to where he is today.

I am so proud of him for knowing who he is and for claiming his right to his own identity.

That’s not child abuse, Texas. Taking his identity away from him—now that would have been a crime.

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