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By Isabel Rose
Editor’s note: Isabel Rose is a novelist, screenwriter, actress, and singer. She is the author of an open letter to Ivanka Trump about her experiences parenting a transgender daughter. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
(CNN) — Four years ago on a summer afternoon in late July, I was making cucumber soup in my kitchen when a wisp of light blue flashed across my yard. I dropped my peeler and saw through the window our four-year-old son wandering around the garden dressed like Cinderella.
I recognized the dress immediately. It had been his older sister’s — cast away, no doubt, in a donation bag that was never donated.
I didn’t race outside, tear the dress off and proffer admonishments. I watched, instead, as his makeshift wand of willow danced through the air — a little princess going from flower bed to flower bed casting enchantments over the marigolds.
I let our child continue playing undisturbed, but before I returned to my soup, I did what we all do when we see something adorable: I grabbed my phone and snapped a photo.
Later that night, my husband and I went to dinner with another couple we didn’t know well. As a fellow mom will do, the wife asked to see photos of our children, so I took out my phone and began swiping through recent family shots.
“Aren’t their children adorable?” she exclaimed, grabbing the phone out of my hands and showing photos to her husband.
Before I could get my phone back, they had discovered the photo from that afternoon.
I saw them exchange puzzled looks, then the wife said: “This is your son?”
‘Indulgence and permission are two different things’
Sensing their disapproval, I smiled and responded as calmly as I could, “Yes, he likes to play princess sometimes.”
“You really shouldn’t encourage that behavior,” the wife said with the grave compassion usually reserved for a potentially terminal illness. “When our son was little, he liked to play dress-up, too, but we didn’t indulge it. Not one bit. I even hired a male nanny! And now our son is completely normal! A strapping teenage boy — very popular with the girls — nothing odd about him at all!”
“You can’t indulge it,” the husband concurred. “That’s the key. It’s no different than enforcing bedtime. Children are very malleable. You can shape them, but not if you indulge their every whim.”
I politely thanked them for their (unsolicited) advice and my husband deftly changed the topic, but as I lay in bed later that night I couldn’t stop thinking about the the word “indulgent.”
Was it really indulgence to allow our child the freedom to express himself? It’s not as if he was shooting a BB gun at the neighbor’s pet cat, or throwing sand in another kid’s face.
Since that incident, I’ve had the word “indulgent” leveled at me many times by various detractors who disagree with the unconditional love and support my husband and I have offered our now-eight-year-old transgender daughter, as if that choice was the same as offering her an extra slice of chocolate cake even though we knew she already had seconds.
And here’s what I would say to those people: when it comes to parenting, indulgence and permission are two different things.
When we indulge a child, we let them get away with something — usually a behavior considered reprehensible by others. When we offer a child permission, we give them the reassurance that what they are doing is okay.
I like to think that the permission we gave Samuel to play as he saw fit in his early years paved the path for later emotional security.
On the eve of his sixth birthday, after a four-year battle with self-hatred and depression, he felt safe enough to transition from living as a boy to living as a girl. It was like witnessing a second birth.
And now we have a daughter who greets each day with excitement. Her name is Sadie, and she’s just as precious to us as her male counterpart was, only much, much happier.
What if we had punished Samuel instead of embracing Sadie?
I sometimes ask myself what would have happened if we had taken our dinner companion’s advice. What if we had shamed our son, or punished him? What if we had refused to let him out of his room unless he agreed to behave like a traditional boy?
In those early years of our child’s life, when my husband and I searched the Internet for information about children who claim to be the opposite gender than their anatomy indicates, we found these two statistics: Forty percent of transgender people attempt suicide each year, whereas a child who is accepted by his or her family is eight times less likely to attempt suicide later in life.
Better to be labeled as over-indulgent parents for letting our son play princess, we told ourselves, than to have a dead child.
If you worry that you, or someone you know, is indulging a young child by allowing him or her to cross-dress or do otherwise non-stereotypical activities, think again. Child development experts claim that children understand their gender identity as young as age 2.
But most children lack the vocabulary to articulate how they feel when they are so young. Their only recourse at gaining understanding may be to don a tutu as a boy, or to wear a Superman costume as a girl.
If your young child or student is a boy who likes traditional girl things, or a girl who likes traditional boy things, it doesn’t mean that he or she is transgender. It might mean nothing at all, or it might indicate that the child is what experts call “gender fluid.” It could be a phase, or it could be something more permanent.
No matter the reason, a child’s gender exploration isn’t something to punish.
Of course the nonconforming child’s behavior may be something you fear, and possibly for good reasons. You might live in a community that lacks understanding and compassion. You might be part of a religious group that doesn’t accept transgender identity as a possibility.
It doesn’t matter. Support that child anyway.
‘We’re living our lives, just like you’
Some may decry this decision, as if you are aiding and abetting a criminal. Nothing could be further from the truth. You are aiding and abetting the crucial work we all do in trying to figuring out who we are and why we’re here.
Like me, like my husband, like hundreds of other parents who have faced their young children’s gender dysphoria, you must push past fear and replace it with curiosity. And then you need to start learning, and connecting with other families who are going through similar experiences.
And if you don’t know any gender nonconforming children, or if you think the parents who support nonconforming children are mentally ill, child-abusing monsters — all things we have been called — I would wager a bet that if you came over to visit some afternoon, you might be surprised at how similar we are to you.
You might notice my teenage daughter’s school books and SAT prep manual scattered around. You might hear the sound of my younger daughter’s squeals as our dogs chase her around the house. You might notice we have the same favorite show playing on our TV, and if you look closely enough, you might see the imprint in the sofa where my husband naps as he pretends to watch.
What you wouldn’t notice is that one of my two daughters is transgender. You wouldn’t notice because there is nothing to notice.
We’re living our lives, just like you: struggling to keep things balanced, trying to look on the bright side, trying to get enough sleep, to drink enough water, to remember to brush our hair before we leave the house, to floss before bed, to say please and thank you, to apologize when wrong.
Those of us who are raising transgender children know it is time for us to be brave; to step forward; to introduce ourselves to you and welcome you into our lives; to prove that we haven’t indulged our children but merely chosen to love them.