It was a crisp fall afternoon and my children were about to meet my friend Chris for the first time—he was driving to our house and would stay with us through the weekend. My son and daughter were not quite 4 and 6 years old and I was pregnant with my third child.
“Chris was my best friend starting from the time I was in middle school,” I explained to them as I glanced out the front window to see if his car had pulled up.
“Wait—your best friend in school was a boy?” my daughter asked.
Actually, no. When we were in school, Chris had been a girl. Over several years when we were in our mid-20s, he went through a series of wrenching transformations and eventually completed his transition into the gender to which he felt he had always belonged. I had seen him several times after his transition, but not since I’d started having children.
I could have answered my daughter’s question directly, but instead, I chose to continue preparing my kids for Chris’ visit as I do whenever we are expecting house guests. I told them that Chris had known their aunt, uncles, and grandparents for a long time. I reminded them that on my daughter’s first birthday, Chris was the friend who had given her a homemade monster doll, which she still harbored under her duvet with the rest of her eclectic stuffed menagerie. Then I showed the kids my half of the clay heart that Chris had made when we were in middle school; when joined with the other half that he had kept for himself, the heart read, “Best Friends.”
By the time Chris walked through our front door, my kids were so excited to meet him that they dangled from the staircase like plastic pawns from a Barrel of Monkeys. My daughter quickly fetched her prized monster and showed him off.
“Oh—I totally forgot about that!” Chris exclaimed, examining his own handiwork. My daughter beamed.
Soon, my kids were dragging Chris toward the dress-up box, asking him if he could stay until Halloween. He followed along sportingly, emerging minutes later dressed in a sheriff’s vest and a top hat, shaking a pair of mismatched maracas that had been assigned to him by my giggling daughter.
My son appeared at the top of the stairs wearing plastic princess heels and a Batman suit. He and Chris sat down at the table to have a glass of juice and a snack.
While Chris got to know my children, I took note of what I knew and loved about him. All the little things I remembered had remained the same through his transition, like how his nails widened at the fingertips, resembling small, hand-held folding fans; his breathy, chortling laugh; how he licked his upper lip when he paused while speaking. The heavier things also remained, like his gift for listening in a way that makes a person feel like they’ve been heard.
He was attending a friend’s wedding nearby in Boston that weekend, and when he asked my children to help him get ready, they squealed. He had organized a flash mob routine for the wedding guests, and my kids assumed this meant he was practically famous. They picked out his tie. Then, my son made the hopeful suggestion that nail polish was in order.
“I don’t think so,” I cautioned, but Chris shrugged.
“Why not?” he asked.
“You sure you’re up for this?” I asked him, handing over a sleeve of seven bright polish colors, along with my assumptions of disaster.
“I guess so,” he said, laughing.
I ushered the three of them onto the back patio and laid down a drop cloth. The kids whirled about, giddily slathering each of Chris’ fingernails, cuticles, and surrounding areas in a different color. I ducked into the kitchen to arrange lunch, peeking out the window as my children shrieked and tried to steady their quivering hands. When they were finished, Chris painted their nails, too. My children waved their fingers in the air, reveling and hopping around, just being their mighty little selves.
It wasn’t until two years later when I finally broached the subject of Chris’ gender transition with my kids. I stumbled into it, really. We were at the grocery store and the checkout girl’s hair was mostly shaved down to the skin, leaving only a roughly cut crop that fell over her eyes. My children studied her. When we got back to the car, one of my older kids asked if the checkout girl was a man or a woman. I explained that some people adjust their outward appearance to reflect how they see themselves or how they feel inside. Then I told my kids about Chris.
“Really?” they replied in unison.
“Yes,” I said confidently.
“So…you get to choose if you want to be a boy or a girl?” my son asked.
“Not usually,” I said, “but some people feel almost like they’ve been born into the wrong body, so they decide to make a change.”
My kids thought about that for a moment.
“Was that hard for him?” my daughter asked sadly, clasping her hands together.
“Yes,” I said again.
It has been three years since my kids met Chris for the first time, and I am driving them to school on a rainy morning. We are talking about gay marriage and how sexual orientation is different from gender identity—weighty stuff for 8:00 in the morning.
My son is numbering the possible combinations of couples that can now be legally married in several more American states: two gay people can be married, a transgender person might be married to either a straight person or a gay person, and so on.
“It’s just like a Rubix Cube!” my son shouts definitively.
He thinks about that some more while I search for his favorite hip hop song on the radio.
“I think you should just…marry the person you love,” he says finally, looking out the window toward a section of the sidewalk that has flooded.
I smile, feeling deeply satisfied at his conclusion.
I’ve had to program my children to a certain extent—as toddlers they would have eaten stickers or slurped water from the birdbath unless I had told them not to. With this, they came to their thoughts themselves, organically, after meeting and falling for Chris as I did so many years ago. They developed these feelings of empathy on their own, and that is how it should be, naturally.
Samantha Shanley is a writer and editor. She is a D.C. native who now lives in the Boston area with her husband and three children. You can follow her on twitter @SimShanley.
You may also be interested in: