First grade, first day, six years old. I have golden locks that fall to my chin and a pink shirt. My lunchbox, soft fabric, is covered in tiny purple and blue and red flowers. I place it in my cubby with my backpack. There’s probably a sandwich inside. Pretzels, apple slices, a bottle of water. It’s a normal lunchbox. I’m a normal kid; this is a normal first day.
So when we go to lunch I’m surprised at the angry voice that comes from across the room.
“You got a girl shirt and a girl lunchbox.” Forgetting these words, or their impact, is not an option for me.
Angie is a tall girl with plastic clips in her hair and a shirt not too different from mine. She is well-liked by everyone, even the teacher. Her voice, the cutting edge of her words, take me aback. She’s not the first person to police my expression, and she’s not the last. But it is a delicate moment of first-day fragility. I am scared. And because I am different, I’m vulnerable too.
Shame. Shame is what I feel. Shame for who I am and the clothes I wear. I put my lunchbox back into my cubby without eating and I fold my arms across my shirt for the rest of the day. I feel like I’ve made some crucial mistake. I feel like a joke.
The world is crueler to trans and gender nonconforming kids as we grow older. The acceptance or at least passivity that we find among our peers in preschool fades as we are socialized into our respective gender roles. We are taught not only to police our own gender expression, but the expression of those around us.
My mom warned me that kids might be mean or not understand. She showed me the blue lunch boxes with cars or superheroes on them, but she knew from the start that those were never what I wanted. I didn’t listen to her and she didn’t push anything too hard. She knew it was a battle not worth fighting–a kid knows what she wants, and I certainly did.
I heard her warnings but I never understood what it would feel like until the first day of first grade. I got home that day and I cried until the tears ran dry. I told her about Gwen, I told her I never wanted to go back to that place again. If it was between school and my girl lunchbox, I chose my girl lunchbox.
Two years earlier: I have just passed through my toddlerhood and I am beginning to formulate myself as a kid. We are shopping for swimsuits in Old Navy. The kids section has boys’ and girls’ on either end. I run right past the trunks and settle immediately on a red bikini. It’s my favorite color, and it’s even got a little flower on the front. I know what I want. There’s no arguing with me.
My mom stops by the trunks and points to a nice red pair with blue stripes. “What do you think of these, sweetie? They’re the same color.”
“No, mom, I don’t like the stripes. And those are too big. I want this one. It has a flower on it.”
“These ones have flowers, honey!”
“Not pretty ones like this, and they’re blue. I want red.”
“Kiddo, that’s a girl’s swimsuit. Don’t you want a boy’s swimsuit?”
“I don’t care. I like this one. Izzy gets to buy a bikini, why can’t I?”
She looks over at Izzy, my younger sister. Izzy has also chosen her swimsuit and put it in the cart, no argument. Mom sighs.
“What are you going to say if someone asks you why you’re wearing a girl’s bathing suit?”
“I’ll tell them I’m wearing it to go swimming. Besides, it’s my bathing suit, and I’m a boy.”
Really, it’s infallible logic. She smiles, takes the bikini off the rack, and tosses it into the cart. We move on to the flip-flops.
Later that night. Muffled voices in the living room. I am vaguely aware when my parents argue, but for the most part they confine it to whispers, or wait until we are asleep. Luckily, I won’t know about the details of this argument until years later.
“How could you let him buy this, Vicky? I don’t want him wearing it out of the house.”
“How could I argue with him, Nate, it’s all he wanted. There was no convincing him. I just want him to be happy! He didn’t even give the boys’ suits a second look.”
“God Vicky, when will this end?”
“I don’t know. Maybe never. All I know is we have to support him or we might lose him. Do you want that to happen?”
“Of course not, but there’s got to be some middle ground. I don’t want my son in a bikini.”
“Well, would you rather be a little uncomfortable at the pool or have an unhappy child?”
“You can’t phrase it like that. It’s not fair. He’d still be happy in something else. He’s a kid!”
“Yes. And he knows who he is. And this is what he wants to wear. And I’m going to let him. Get on board. This is who he is.”
My mom was working as a freelance writer at the time. Before my parents got divorced, she had that freedom to pursue her interests. After our experience in Old Navy, she published a short opinion piece, “The Red Bikini.” She quickly got letters from across the country: from trans people who were validated by our experience, to parents with similar kids who were so relieved to know they were not alone, and nothing was wrong with their children. But the most common response she received was: “If only my parents had reacted in a similar way, I would be so much happier right now.”
She got letters from across the country, but didn’t realize that there was someone much closer who would benefit from her writing. Our neighbor, Margo, who was still going by Mark at the time. Margo was in the early process of transitioning, and dealing, at the same time, with a very messy divorce from her wife.
My parents faintly new of Margo’s situation, but my mom didn’t fully understand until she was approached by Margo one day. She had just clicked my sister’s and my seatbelts into place when Margo walked up to her. “Your piece gave me the courage to come out to my wife,” she confessed.
My mom kept this to herself for a few years, until one day when we were sitting down to dinner in her new house. I was in first grade–it was shortly after my first poignant experience with bullying. We were just settling into our mom’s new home and getting used to the routine of switching houses twice a week. To mom’s on Wednesday after school, and back to dad’s Saturday at 6, like clockwork.
“You know, sweets, our neighbor Mark is going to be a woman. He’s going to grow out his hair and start wearing dresses, and he wants us to call him Margo.” My mom said this to the table as if she were announcing the weather tomorrow.
My sisters nodded in assent, but I looked up from my plate. “You can do that?” I asked. My face must have lit up, like a long-lost switch finally turning on.
“Yeah. He’s even going to have surgery to turn him into a woman.”
I had no idea any of this was a possibility. “You mean–I could do that?” I said.
My mom looked at me with a concerned face. I don’t think it surprised her that I asked this, but no one wants a child who’s different. “Well, not till you’re eighteen. But yes.”
I knew there must have been a caveat. I looked back down at my food. This was something I wanted know, not twelve years from now. Eighteen feels like a lifetime away to a six-year old.
If he is transgendered, or turns out to be, it just really doesn’t matter. I think his life would be hard, because of other people’s prejudices, but I’m going to love him no matter who he is or what he does.
It took almost ten years for me to come out to my mother as transgender. I’d only settled on this a few months earlier myself, and had come out just to my closest friends. No one in my family knew yet. It was a busy time in my life–I was wrapping up my most challenging year of school so far, and preparing to spend my junior year abroad with Rotary in Slovakia. The decision that I needed to transition came at a tough time–life is never convenient.
We were home alone on a clear spring night. The sun had set, dinner was through. My older sister, Bree, was attending school in Washington State, and Izzy was out with friends. I walked quietly into my mom’s room, knocking softly to wake her from her nap. I laid down next to her in bed.
“Mommy–you need to know that I’m trans. I came out to Les already. And I don’t want to go on exchange next year. I want to stay here and transition. I’m ready,” I said in one breath.
She looked at me and smiled. We both knew this was no surprise. “Of course, honey. I knew when you were six years old this conversation was coming. I’m so glad you felt comfortable telling me. I love you, I always will.”
I knew she’d be supportive, but I was still very relieved that this was her response.
We laid for a while in silence, me snuggled into her shoulder, her stroking my hair.
“Sweetie, do you remember Margo?”
“Our neighbor who transitioned?”
“Yes, her. You know–she came up to me one day and told me that you were who gave her the courage to transition. She read the piece I wrote about you–about the day at Old Navy when I bought you that bikini.”
“Really? It was because of me?”
“Yes. I think I knew from that day on who you were. I was just scared. Scared for you, for the family… That’s why I never pushed it. I always wanted you to make your own decisions, be in control of who you are.”
I was silent for a moment. “Maybe, if you’d given me that language, that chance, when I was younger, this would all be so much easier now.”
“Honey, even I didn’t have that language yet. I didn’t learn what transgender was until I was in college, and certainly not that it was something a kid could be. In my family, it was always talked about like there was something wrong with it–being gay, or whatever. It just wasn’t normal.”
I started to cry. “I just wish I could have done this younger.”
Her eyes watered, too. “I know, sweets. But it’s never too late to be who you are. I love you, and I’ll support you through this. Whatever you need, I promise. Even if you need to stay home next year.”
She had been my number one advocate from day one. She is to this day. I don’t know what I would have done without her, without the courage she gave me. I’m proud to say that I’m a woman, and a transgender person, but it doesn’t define me. Ironically, my life only felt more normal after this. It was like I settled, finally. I’m not just trans. I’m a writer, I’m a cook, I’m a student. I’m a good friend, daughter, and sister. I’m a biker, I’m a hiker, I’m a swimmer. I have good days and bad like anyone else. Through it all, I’m me.