“He looks so happy.”
These words make my heart sing. Like any parent, I will never get tired of hearing people tell me my son looks happy. But there was a time when my child hardly ever smiled. It was heartbreaking.
My 17-year-old son is transgender, female to male. That means he was born biologically a female but his gender identity is male. (Throughout this article, I will refer to my child using male pronouns, Amaya's preference since he was a high school freshman.) Like many transgender and gender non-conforming youth, he suffered from depression for many years. His symptoms were usually mild but it got pretty bad at times. Depression can be devastating; watching your child go through it is particularly heart wrenching.
Amaya was an easy-going baby and toddler. But when he turned three, things started to shift. He said his clothes were too tight. He was fussy about shirt tags and the stitched seams in his socks. There were tantrums and tears. He became more obstinate about clothing choices and simply would not wear typical girl clothing, particularly when he started attending preschool.
Everyone, kids and adults, called him a tomboy. He was athletic and played soccer and tee-ball. When he played dress-up, he’d don superhero gear or a jacket and tie. At home, my husband Gabriel and I observed that he had a vivid imaginary play life complete with friends (always boys).
At preschool, he played with both boys and girls, but there was one older boy in particular who Amaya clearly thought was the coolest kid ever. He emulated this boy’s style of dress: cargo shorts, t-shirts with cool designs—and always a baseball cap. The hat became my child’s defining talisman. For years, he was never seen without one.
When he went to kindergarten, Amaya begged us to let him get a spiked top haircut, and he was so happy about his cut that he nicknamed himself “Spike.” He was even happier when we agreed to let him wear boy’s underwear. That was a difficult adjustment for me; I was anxious because my “daughter’s” way of expressing gender was becoming more and more consistently “boy.” I wanted to support my child and I knew in my heart that it’s best to listen to and respect the child—but what had happened to my little girl? Still, it was clear that he was happier the more we let him dress and play as he wanted.
As he got older, things got a bit more challenging. Up until 4th grade, boys and girls tend to play together, but they tend to separate as they get older. When this began to happen it was confusing for Amaya. He was no longer invited to boys’ houses or birthday parties. He had friends who were girls, but he was cut off from the boys, and he talked about missing them. He continued to play team sports, but he no longer seemed to enjoy it as much as he did when he was younger.
In middle school, Amaya was a good student and had a lot of friends, but he also spent many afternoons and weekends at home, often feeling lonely. When he wasn’t doing something with our family, he spent much of his time in his room either watching TV or interacting on social media. Occasionally we could hear him play-acting in his room (always in male character of course).
He seemed increasingly depressed. Like most middle school students, he was going through puberty, and we noticed that his posture became more and more hunched and closed as his chest began to develop. Photos from that time show sad eyes and a heavy heart. When we talked to Amaya’s teachers and school counselors, they said he seemed happy and connected at school. We couldn’t understand what the disconnect was.
We needed support. First we reached out to Gender Spectrum in Oakland, and my husband and I attended a few parent support group meetings. It was good to connect with other parents and share experiences, but there were few parents in that group whose children had already gone through puberty.
Meanwhile, Amaya was looking on his own for information and support on YouTube and other websites. I did not know it at the time, but many young trans youth have shared their stories on the Internet. From these stories, Amaya was learning about who he was—and who he was not.
At one point he learned about breast binding and top surgery, and he came to me to talk about solutions for his growing chest. But the solutions were all ultimately frustrating. I helped Amaya, already sensitive about comfortable clothing, try out a succession of bandages, binder tops, and undertype shirts. With each attempt, he had to check and recheck his appearance to be sure he was concealing the parts that were the cause of his distress. Because binding is so restrictive, he had a lot of stomachaches and his breathing was definitely compromised.
He really was bound in so many ways.
Finally one day, my 15-year-old child bravely came to me and told me he didn’t want to have breasts anymore. He said they didn’t feel like they belonged there. He wanted them gone. It was a call to action.
Tapping into our growing network of resources, we found an amazing therapist who helped Amaya and our whole family understand what he was experiencing. The therapist diagnosed Amaya’s challenge as gender dysphoria, a condition of discomfort or distress resulting from a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity. Gender dysphoria often is accompanied by depression and can also be a significant factor leading to suicide. Treatment typically aims to reduce or remove the discomfort and distress, and the approach is unique to each individual. Some people with this challenge get relief by dressing and living as their affirmed gender. For others, treatment may mean taking hormones or having surgeries to change their physical appearance. Some need a combination of all these solutions to combat the challenges of dysphoria.
Supported by his new counselor, his family, and a wonderful group of friends, Amaya’s depression began to ease a bit. He began to attend a support group for LGBT youth. He asked us to use male pronouns. His transition was beginning.
After much research and counseling, we agreed with Amaya that for the benefit of his emotional health and well-being, it was best he have top surgery to remove his breasts and create a male chest. This was not an easy decision. Fortunately, one of the top surgeons in the field practices in our county. Meeting with Dr. Crane and hearing about his successful work confirmed we were on the right track.
Still I was nervous. How do I know this is the right decision? Is my child old enough to make this life-changing choice? I talked to doctors, family members, friends, and even friends of friends. One close friend’s perspective was to the point: “Sure, why not lop ‘em off?!” This was a refreshing perspective. It helped me let go of attachment and open to what needed to be done.
The day of his surgery, Amaya was incredibly calm. Then he spent a long week at home healing and enjoyed visits from his friends, who came bearing ice cream and a card that said “Congratulations on your booblessness.” The day he got his bandages removed was akin to the day I gave birth to him. It was one of the happiest moments I have ever shared with my son. A heavy burden was lifted and he was already standing taller.
Still, my child continued to suffer from symptoms of mild depression, and it was clear he needed more support. He was still feeling anxious about how he was perceived by others. We explored hormone treatment, which can help resolve feelings of dysphoria by changing physical appearance. It also affects brain chemistry, lifting the fog and clearing depression often associated with dysphoria. It seemed to be the right choice for Amaya.
And it was. Within a month of taking testosterone, his whole demeanor shifted. He had more energy and a positive attitude. He was participating more and more in life with family and friends. His eyes brightened and his smile emerged. He had that spark. Witnessing this shift in my child was and continues to be incredibly heart-opening and confirming. He knows who he is and what he needs to live as his authentic self. Following his lead, we have parented him toward independence.
Gender dysphoria can be resolved—and every individual will have a unique journey. Amaya’s challenge has been met with a combination of solutions ranging from counseling to surgery to hormones, all with support from family, friends, schools, and community. (It really does take a village.) The Human Rights Campaign recently surveyed 10,000 LGBTQ-identified teens (click here to see the survey results) and found that the most important things they need in order to feel good about themselves are love, support, and acceptance from their families. And indeed there are many organizations that offer education and support to those in need. Click here for more information.
What a difference a few years has made. Amaya considers his transition complete for now. He is a typical teenage boy who has a unique story. While he doesn’t broadcast the fact that he is trans to all the world, he doesn’t hide it either. Gone are the days of bellyaches and slumped shoulders. My boy is now a young man, and he stands tall. He looks so happy!