In May 2021, I sit on the couch, filling out registration forms for my children’s new school. After writing their names, birthdates and addresses, the school wants to know each child’s gender and pronouns: he/him, she/her, or they/them.
I roll my eyes and smile. This is so woke. So ridiculous.
“Hey, Nathan!” I call to my then 9-year-old son. “What do you want your pronouns to be at school? He/him, she/her, or they/them?” I smile as I hear the expected answer ― he/him ― and fill in that bubble.
“Rachel ― what about you?” I ask my then 6-year-old daughter. “He/him, she/her, or they/them?”
She runs into the room, and looks at the form, her brow furrowed as she reads the words.
“They/them,” she says.
I look up at her. “No, I mean seriously,” I say. “She/her, right?”
She shakes her head. “No. They/them.” Then, she runs out of the room to continue listening to one of the Harry Potter audiobooks that have been on repeat since the pandemic shutdown.
I slowly fill in “They/Them” for Rachel, thinking that I can always change it later to “She/Her.”
A month later, Rachel says that she doesn’t want to wear girls’ clothes anymore.
“What do you want to wear?” I ask. “Boys’ clothes?”
“Are there clothes for neithers?” she asks.
I don’t know, but I tell her that of course there are, and ask her what kind of clothes she wants to wear.
“Longer shorts, shirts that aren’t pink. That sort of thing,” she answers.
I learn that if you go on any children’s clothing website, you have your choice of “Girls” or “Boys” clothes. I also learn that long shorts and shirts that aren’t pink are only found in the boys’ section ― girls, evidently, just want to wear short shorts, and pink or purple shirts with sequins on them or rainbows or kittens or witty little sayings like “Girls Just Win.” So, I buy Rachel boys’ clothes, tell her that they are from the neither section, and see her face light up as she tries on her first pair of athletic shorts and a T-shirt without sparkles or some sort of unicorn.
She asks for boys’ underwear, and I tell her that boys’ underwear probably won’t fit her, but that I can buy white underwear that looks like boys’ underwear. This satisfies her, but takes some doing on my part. Again, look online: Almost every pair of girls’ underwear comes with a pattern ― hearts, wavy purple lines, flowers. Most of them are “bikini cut.” So many things that I never noticed before, I notice now. I have to notice now.
August comes, and Rachel asks me to call her “they/them” in public. They say that they don’t feel like a boy or a girl. My husband is not on board.
“Who put this idea into her head?” he asks. “Did you start the conversation? She hasn’t talked to me about it.”
I examine the timeline and feel guilty. I did start the conversation when I was filling out the school forms. I tell him that I think Rachel felt like this before, but didn’t have the language to express it. They’re only 6.
“Fine,” he says. He seems unconvinced.
At school, Rachel goes by “they/them” and wears their “neither” clothes. This does not go well. First graders live in a black and white world, and their classmates ― especially the girls ― don’t know what to do with a long-haired person who wears boys’ clothes and doesn’t seem to have a recognizable gender. Rachel uses the boy’s bathroom or the girl’s bathroom, and their classmates want to know if they are a boy or a girl.
“If you’re not a boy or a girl, then you’re a monster,” one little girl says to Rachel. Rachel comes home and tells me things that have happened at school, but begs me not to say anything to the teacher or school counselor. So I don’t. I do tell my husband.
“‘If you’re not a boy or a girl, then you’re a monster,’ one little girl says to Rachel.”
“Well, I haven’t heard anything about it,” he says, as if that makes Rachel’s stories untrue.
“Maybe she just doesn’t want to talk to you about it,” I shoot back. The three of us ― me, Nathan and my husband ― are the only ones Rachel still allows to use “she/her” pronouns, and only at home. This is even more fodder for my husband’s argument that this “phase” isn’t going to stick.
I tell my extended family to use the “they/them” pronouns with Rachel. The younger ones are fine with it. The older generation is a bit confused. I am faced with questions that I don’t know how to answer:
“She’s too young to know what she’s feeling, don’t you think?”
“How can you let her dress like that?”
“How do you use ‘they’ in a sentence? They sits? They sit?”
By October 2021, I have done a lot of reading about nonbinary and transgender people, especially children. I have learned that the younger a child begins to transition, the more likely it is not to be a phase. I have read about the higher depression rate, anxiety rate and suicide rate in the nonbinary and transgender community, especially among children and teens. I have learned that if you support your child or teen at home, they will probably have the same mental health status as their cisgender peers. I have learned the term “cisgender”: It means someone whose gender identity aligns with the gender they were assigned at birth. Like me. I’m cisgender. My husband is cisgender. And in October 2021, he’s still not convinced that this change is Rachel’s doing.
“But who is starting all these conversations?” he still wants to know.
By November, I am able to tell him that Rachel is starting the conversations. They want to know if there is a way to not get breasts. They want to know if they can avoid getting their period. And they are now 7 years old, watching Nathan head into puberty. They look at his body, and I can see the wheels turning in their head, wondering, ”How do I get that body?”
In January, the stories about bullying at school are mounting, and Rachel begins to cry at night and insists, “I’m a boy! I’m a boy!” They finally ask me to tell the teacher and school counselor what has been happening.
I learn that I have made a huge mistake in not reporting the bullying from the start. I am angry, furious that Rachel has had to suffer for so long, but my memory is now fuzzy on the details, and my report to the school counselor and Rachel’s teacher is not completely accurate with regard to names, places, events. I should have taken notes, I think. I shouldn’t have blindly obeyed Rachel when they asked me to keep these events a secret. There are some decisions that a 7-year-old can make ― such as gender identity and pronoun usage ― and some that, as a parent, we have to make for them. I should have told Rachel that I needed to report children following them into the bathroom, asking about their genitals, wanting to know again and again what they were: boy or girl?
In May 2022, Rachel changes their pronouns to he/him. He has been saying that he is a boy for months, so I’m not surprised by this ― I was waiting for this. My husband is still resistant, not in Rachel’s presence, but after Rachel is asleep, when we are alone: My husband still thinks that this is a phase or wants to think that this is a phase. He wants to believe that Rachel doesn’t know what he’s saying. He needs someone to blame, so it’s my fault.
He starts looking for information on transgender children. He searches online and finds a book that is literally called “The Transgender Child.” As it is only available in e-book form, he buys a Kindle and reads it. The first chapter explains that you cannot make your child transgender or nonbinary (or cisgender, for that matter). If your child wants to be called a pronoun different from the one that aligns with their gender assigned at birth, you should honor that. It’s not a phase. There is no “fault.”
I get a formal apology from my spouse, and we are suddenly, at that moment, reunited, on the same page.
My husband and I ask our families to read “The Transgender Child.” It comes out in paperback, and we send copies to some of our family members and friends: It’s almost like we’re proselytizing. I now know how to answer questions such as, “Is this a phase?” “What happens when he hits puberty?” “What are you going to do?”
“No, it’s not a phase.”
“We will go to a gender clinic if he wants, and talk to a doctor about options.”
“We’re going to follow his lead.”
Rachel gets a haircut and now fully presents to the world as a boy. We take a two-month road trip, and he lives his best life as a boy. We use his new pronouns, and ask him if he would like to change his name. I’ve scoured the internet to see if there is another male named Rachel, and it appears that no one in the history of the world has named their boy “Rachel.” But, he says that Rachel can be a name for a girl or a boy, and that his name is Rachel Rose Smith.
“Why would I want to change it?” he asks as I broach the subject during a hike in July. We are chugging up a trail in Banff, Canada, and I think we have to talk about something. Might as well be names.
“Just, if you wanted to, you could,” I answer.
“Can I change my name?” Nathan asks from behind me.
No, I think. “Sure,” I say. “What would you change it to?”
Nathan doesn’t change his name and neither does Rachel, but we come back from the trip now referring to Rachel as Nathan’s little brother, and using the he/him pronouns all the time. I buy both of them new suits for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Rachel stands tall and proud as he tries his on for the first time.
“Don’t I look handsome, Mommy?” he asks, smiling at himself in the mirror.
“Yes, you do,” I answer. And he does.
In the Jewish community, Rachel is a female name. In the Torah, Rachel is the wife of Jacob; she is one of the matriarchs of Judaism. When we go to services for Rosh Hashanah, my husband and I introduce our boys to new people.
“I realize that now my husband and I will also be judged, and we will just grin and bear it because Rachel’s mental health is more important than a stranger’s opinion.”
“These are our sons, Nathan and Rachel,” I say to an older woman. Services are over, and the congregation has gathered in the social hall for lunch, so the room is loud. She looks at the two children standing in front of me, both in suits, and wants to know their names again.
“Nathan and Rochen?” she asks.
“Nathan and Rachel,” I repeat, smiling through my discomfort. I dismiss the boys, tell them to run and play, and the woman nods her head, gives me and my husband a curious look, and leaves to get in line for food. I realize that now my husband and I will also be judged, and we will just grin and bear it because Rachel’s mental health is more important than a stranger’s opinion that we are weird for giving a boy such an obviously feminine name.
As second grade passes, one girl in Rachel’s class continues to give him problems, to tell his classmates that he is really a girl, but I report each incident to the counselor as it comes. My husband and I immediately tell his school about any bullying. The teachers and administration are extremely supportive of Rachel’s gender identity, he starts making friends ― something that didn’t happen in first grade ― and he seems happy.
It helps that Rachel knows our home is a safe place. It helps that my husband and I are now a united front, that our extended family is respectful of Rachel’s pronouns. It helps that Rachel’s school lets him be who he wants to be. All of these things are important, and now Rachel is our little boy. Our content, confident little boy.
I look back to September 2021, when I first dropped Rachel off at his new school, and I remember feeling some loss, a pressure in my chest that made it hard to breathe, as I watched my then non-binary child enter his new world. Two months earlier, he had been my daughter, and now I wasn’t sure where we were, but I knew that I would never have a daughter again. I did mourn that, but only for a short period. Then I realized that I had gained a son and was now seeing who Rachel had always been, and that was enough for me.
I have learned so much in the past 18 months. I have learned that there is no such thing as a perfect parent, but there is such a thing as unconditional love: I wasn’t perfect through Rachel’s transition ― and I’m still not ― and my husband wasn’t perfect ― and he’s still not ― but, even though he may have doubted or not wanted to believe that Rachel was nonbinary or transgender, he never, ever withheld love from him.
I have learned so much about the transgender and nonbinary community, especially that pronouns matter, and that when I used to laugh about how silly the idea of a “they/them” pronoun was, I was being insensitive at best and ignorant at worst. Pronouns matter. They help define our gender identity, which is a part of who we are. But, I’ve also learned that gender identity is only a part of who we are: a piece of the puzzle. Rachel is a transgender boy, but he is also a person who loves to read, who likes art, who sings ”Hamilton,” and whose favorite number is three. These are all pieces of the puzzle of Rachel, just like I am more than a cisgender female: I am also a mother, a wife, a writer, someone who practiced law, and loves karaoke. I have learned that gender identity is extremely important, and should be respected, but it is not the only thing that defines us.
I have also learned that I am afraid for Rachel. I am afraid for things I cannot control: his physical safety when he goes to college (or even before then), what will happen to him in certain areas of the country or the world where transphobia is the norm, how he will be treated in the world at large when he grows up, what the laws will be. I am afraid that one day he will go into an LGBTQ+ nightclub, and not come out alive.
I have learned that there are some people whose minds will never be changed when it comes to their bias against transgender people, especially if this bias is ingrained in their culture, and some people who just need a little education. Over the past 18 months, my husband and I have been called “brave” more times than I can count, but I have learned that we are not the brave ones: Rachel is. He has to go to school every day knowing in the back of his mind that he might be misgendered, made fun of because of his gender identity; he has to deal with the fact that, right now, his body doesn’t match his feelings; he has to deal with confused faces and stares when being introduced strangers ― and he deals with all these things holding his head high, an example to us all of what true bravery looks like.
Note: Names and some identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals discussed in this essay.
Kate Smith is the pseudonym of a writer who lives on the East Coast.