I knew in my gut J wasn’t interested in boys, and that she might never be. By the time she turned 12, 13, and then 14, there were no signs of boy crushes or any interest in socializing with boys. There was no makeup or hair styling or hogging the bathroom or fussing over what clothes to wear. Our once-adorable daughter wasn’t taking her tomboyish looks in stride – beginning in 8th grade, she began to sabotage her appearance. She piled on weight, wore her hair severely tied back in a ponytail at the nape of her neck, refused to wear anything feminine. Anything with color in it got pushed to the back of her drawer. She was deeply embarrassed about menstruating. In billowing sweatshirts and loose clothing, she looked like a sack of potatoes.
She no longer lit up a room – she was trying to make herself invisible, and it was working.
This wasn’t entirely surprising. Adolescence is a time of intimacy and sexual experimentation and vulnerability. I knew our daughter, a Russian adoptee who rejects physical and emotional closeness, was going to be more socially challenged than she’d ever been in her life. I was prepared for a bumpy road.
What I didn’t see coming was her telling us she’s transgender.
I don’t care how cool LGBTQ is at the moment, or how much the media and other industries are propping up the visibility of people with these choices. In the end of the day, this is not welcome news to a parent.
The first time she said this, I recoiled. The air drained from the room. My mouth became arid. I was literally dizzy. In the grip of this traumatic moment, I didn’t believe it was true. I’m not saying I think she was lying to her dad, and me. I believed right from the start she was lying to herself.
If she’d told us she was a lesbian, we wouldn’t have been as taken aback, but we’d still remain skeptical because we don’t think our teen is mature or emotionally developed enough to know who she is yet in terms of her sexuality. J has never had a best friend. She’s always been friendly with everyone but close to no one. At her core, she’s a loner – most comfortable when she’s by herself. By seventh grade, she made friends.
We were so thrilled. They actually seemed like innocents – children who were not as sexually progressed as we were when we were their age. But during the first half of eighth grade, J withdrew from us. She became moody, hostile, shut down. Obsessed with the smart phone she’d been given in September. She wouldn’t let us help her with homework anymore, and her grades slipped precipitously. Her appearance became appalling. The only link to her former self was her continued interest and achievement as a violin player.
In December, right before Christmas, the floodgates opened. We learned J had taken on a masculine alias. Via Instagram, and with inappropriate pictures of binding her breasts, she was broadcasting her new identity. She was convinced she is transgender, and when confronted by all that was going on, she came “out”.
As I said before, I don’t think this is ever welcome news to any parent, and it wasn’t to us. But here’s the thing: If, after the shock of it, I searched my soul and thought it to be true, I would have accepted the notion, and done what was needed to move forward. However, that is not what happened. I took a deep breath, a cool step back and tried to observe without an objective eye.
What I’ve realized is that being “trans” has made our daughter interesting, edgy, different, among her peers. Mostly, she tells the world she’s a boy, and dresses like one. What I believe, and I’m not a trained therapist or a professional but I’m am a mother, and one who has made J my highest priority and my life’s work -- is that our attachment-phobic daughter is using transgenderism as a shield against intimacy and sexuality. When I’ve suggested to her that perhaps she’s a lesbian, she is most defensive and unhinged. If you’re straight or gay, you’re still in the game of sexual exploration, and some of the girls in her group have experimented with one another. But J’s otherness keeps her a step apart. She never talks about sexuality, only genderism.
She’s never been interested in boys or in the masculine realm. In fact, she’s always responded to female mentors and teachers, and specifically not to men. She may not have played with dolls much, but she also didn’t play with trucks or guns. Nothing about her existence up to this point suggests that she’s “a girl in a boy’s body”.
Just pick up a newspaper or flip on the television, and there are daily reminders of the growing acceptance (perhaps even the glamour and hipness) affiliated with the LGBTQ movement. I believe in some cases it’s a haven for teens who are having trouble defining themselves in other emotional ways. It’s taken on a life of its own as a way to stand apart. Many youngsters are using these labels and preferences to garner a sense of inclusiveness, or in J’s case, to use it as a shield.
Our stance with our daughter is this: When you’re 18 years old, you’ll have legal rights. You can change your name. Take hormones. Make adult decisions about an adult topic. For now, she’s not going to wear a skirt or date a boy, or even date a girl. We’re going to strike a neutral pose so we don’t alienate her, because that’s a death sentence for adopted children with attachment disorders, and we’ve worked too hard to get her to attach and stay attached. At the same time, I’m not convinced she’s coming from a place of self-awareness.
Recently I was talking to a therapist friend who specialized in LBGTQ teens. I told her what was going on, but said I was skeptical. I was expecting her to talk me down, and tell me why it’s important that my husband and I embrace J’s declarations and enable her. Instead she told me the therapy community is having to dial back on what seems to be an “outbreak” of transgenderism, and to approach the subject with more skepticism. That was enough for me, for now.
Tina Traster is a award-winning veteran journalist, author and filmmaker. She is the author of Rescuing Julia Twice: A Mother’s Tale of Russian Adoption and Overcoming Reactive Attachment Disorder (Chicago Review Press).