Encounter in second-grade class leads to story of transgender 5-year-old

May 21, 2012

I was volunteering in my son’s second-grade class when my world first intersected with transgender children.

The kids were pitching story ideas for a class newspaper.

“How about a story about why people are transgendered?” one girl suggested.

I was floored by her casual use of the word and a little flummoxed about how to respond.

“Oh, that’s interesting,” I stammered. “Maybe we’ll follow up on that later, thanks! Any other ideas?”

I had no idea that the girl’s younger sister was about to officially become her little brother.

The next day, my son came home from school and said: “Mom, you know how you really didn’t know what transgender is? It’s just when you have a boy mind in a girl body. Duh.”

Wow.

His teacher explained to me that the family had been wrestling with their younger child’s gender identity, and this eloquent phrase — “boy mind in a girl body” — was the way big sis was explaining things to everybody.

At a birthday party a few weeks later, I saw the transformation. The 4-year-old’s hair was shorn, the clothes were mini-macho and the child was bouncing and wrestling with the pack.

“So remember I was telling you about the transgender kid?” I told my husband at the party. “He’s here. Can you pick him out?”

Three attempts, and my husband couldn’t find him.

I told a friend of the family that I was longing to tell their story. But I was afraid that approaching them would make them uncomfortable. A week later, the mother e-mailed me, asking whether The Post would be interested in doing a piece on their struggle. (She and I will be online at 11 a.m. Monday at washingtonpost.com to answer your questions about the story, “Transgender at Five.”)

We established some initial ground rules about protecting her son’s identity. Eventually, my bosses at The Post decided to use the family’s middle names and to refer to their now-5-year-old as Tyler, the name his parents say they would have given him if he’d been born a boy. We also opted not to publish details about where the family lives, goes to church and school.

Over the course of four months, the family opened themselves up to me. They were honest about their fears, arguments, worries and triumphs. I went to their church, hung out in their kitchen and looked into their bathroom cabinets (cleaner than mine).

I got a good taste of their daily struggles when Tyler, his mom Jean and I went to Ikea and checked him into the kids’ play area.

Tyler high-fived the babysitter guy on the way in and tumbled into the ball pit.

I panicked. What if he has to go to the bathroom and someone freaks when the pants come down?

Jean chuckled. “Relax. I already scoped out the bathroom there. It’s a single stall, so he will always be alone. And he knows to keep the door closed,” she said.

A week later, she had to go through another gut-wrenching exercise to sign Tyler up for summer camp.

“What about swimming? What about the teams being divided up by boys and girls? I had to go through all of this with the camp,” she told me.

This is her life now, in the name of her child’s well-being. And for anyone who meets Tyler, two words come to mind right away: happy and boy.

Follow me on Twitter at @petulad or e-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things.
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