Marlo Mack's transgender daughter's self-portrait
"Definitely a boy." The ultrasound tech pointed at the screen. "See?"
I looked at the grainy image of the child inside my belly and smiled. Yes, definitely a boy.
I didn't really care about the sex of my first child. I was just thrilled that I was about to become a mother, and I set about preparing myself to be the mother of a son.
The day Marlo Mack's daughter met Laverne Cox.
Except, it turns out, I wasn't the mother of a son. The ultrasound tech hadn't made a mistake – the boy "parts" were clear as day on the screen. The mistake we made was to assume that every child with a penis will turn out to be a boy.
"I'm a girl, Mama," my four-year-old said. My 'son' went on to tell me that something had gone wrong in my "tummy" that had made him come out as a boy instead of a girl. He wanted me to put him back in my belly, "to fix this mistake".
I spent the following year trying to convince my child that he was indeed a boy. I told him that he was perhaps a "different kind of boy" (he had always preferred dolls and princesses and pretty things to the things most boys seem to like), and that this was just fine with me and his dad, but that he was certainly still a boy.
My child didn't give in. He kept on insisting, week after week, month after month, that we'd all made a mistake. He felt like a girl, he said. He had a "girl heart", he said. He was a girl. And the more I pushed back, the more I tried to help him see himself as a boy, the sadder he became.
I did all the things parents do when their child is struggling; I took my child to the pediatrician and a psychologist. They said there was nothing wrong with my child, neither physically nor psychologically. "But he may be transgender," the psychologist said.
Transgender? This word terrified me. The only transgender people I'd seen were sex workers in R-rated movies or spectacles on trashy TV talk shows. How in the world could my child – my sweet, innocent child – be like them?
That was four years ago, before the world had met Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner. I've learned a lot since then. I learned that gender identity does indeed form in early childhood. I learned that I needed to listen to my child and take her seriously. I'm now the proud mother of a seven-year-old transgender daughter. She's everything you hope your young child will be: self-confident, curious and in love with her life. As a boy, she was miserable; as a girl, she's radiant.
And yes, I worry. And yes, it's hard. The world is starting to wake up to the fact that transgender people exist, but many people still don't understand what it's all about. They confuse gender with sexuality ("Is this really an appropriate topic to discuss with such a young child?"). But my child's identity as a girl has nothing to do with sexual attraction; being transgender is about who you are, not about whom you will love.
Others tell me it must just be a phase. "My child wanted to be Spiderman when he was that age but, of course, I didn't take himseriously."
I worried and wondered about this, too. I hoped and prayed for months that it was just a phase. For some kids, it is. Some young kids are what psychologists call "gender-nonconforming". They are boys who love "girl stuff". They are girls who are "tom boys". But those kids feel fine about the gender assigned to them at birth. That's how they differ from mine and other transgender kids.
For children like mine, living life in the gender we've assigned them is literally intolerable. If we force them to do so, they get depressed and anxious. When they're teenagers, they have sky-high rates of drug use and suicide attempts. For parents like me, supporting our kids in their transgender status is literally a matter of life and death. Ultimately we choose to have a transgender child over the alternative of no child at all.
Transgender children aren't common, but there are more of them than you think. There are no reliable numbers on what percentage of the population is transgender, but estimates on the low end are 1 in 500. That means you probably know someone who is transgender, whether you realise it or not. And there may well be a child in your world who is transgender, whether they (or their parents) realise it yet.
So what can we do to support these children?
Listen to them. Take them seriously. Let them know they are loved and accepted no matter what. After all, those are just the things that every child (and every human) needs and deserves.
As my daughter said to me recently, "I think everyone should get to be who they want to be".
Marlo Mack writes about raising her young transgender daughter on her blog, www.gendermom.com. With her daughter's help, she also produces an audio podcast about their life together called How to Be a Girl.