Susan pulls out her camera phone as a proud mommy and shows a picture of her daughter with hair braided in pigtails a la Pippi Longstockings.
Six-year old Taylor looks happy. She looks free.
It wasn’t always this way as Taylor, the youngest of four kids, was biologically born with male parts.
Now Susan and her husband have been searching Richmond and beyond to build a network of support for their daughter.
At the end of this month, Susan will take Taylor to Gender Spectrum’s Annual Family Conference in Berkeley, California. The conference is the only of its kind with support for trans children and teens.
Here in Richmond, building that network hasn’t been a quick process but Susan has found acceptance and understanding for Taylor through her family, Taylor’s school, and groups like ROSMY.
Susan and her husband have always been progressive in their parenting and supported their kids’ interests – for example their oldest son started taking dance at age three.
Susan jokes that she found “her people” when her and her husband, both Richmond natives, moved to the West Coast.
It was living on the other side of the US where Susan remembers seeing a documentary about the struggles of transgender youth with the gritty realities of children disowned by families, living on the streets, and resorting to prostitution.
“I remember thinking in that moment if I ever had a kid that was gay, bi, or trans, I would never be a parent like that,” she said. “I would accept my child.”
After the dot com burst, Susan and her husband found themselves back in Richmond’s suburbs. They hope to get closer to the city at some point.
In their household growing up, all of her children always had gender neutral toys – a play kitchen, cups, plates, cars. The kids never dressed in sporty stuff. “Sweet babyish clothes” as Susan describes, “yellows and greens.”
But it was early on, Susan noticed Taylor wanted to play with baby dolls and refused wearing traditional boy underwear.
At age three, Taylor went home with a friend and came back wearing a princess dress. She wanted to wear the princess dress everyday to school, which Susan allowed for a while.
That summer, she wanted a girls bathing suit. Susan compromised with board shorts.
“You know how girls can go totally tomboy and no one blinks an eye,” Susan said. “Everyone’s hair was raising on the back of their neck.”
It was Taylor’s second year in pre-school when she had long hair and wanted a buzz cut following her brothers’ lead. “I think she was struggling with [her gender] but didn’t know,” Susan said.
At the school, Taylor began taking girls clothes from the extra clothes bin.
“She would go pick out a jacket or sweater from the girls box,” Susan said.
When she was 4-years-old ago Taylor asked Susan not tell anyone new about her presenting as a girl. She wants to blend in and told her mother she didn’t want to have “the argument” - when someone questioned her about whether she was a boy or girl.
“She didn’t want me to discuss it the way I had been,” Susan said. “She didn’t like that. It made her uncomfortable.”
Susan said Taylor used to vomit when going to restaurants – saying she was worried about the argument. They started not using pronouns when they went out. Originally, Susan thought it was just a food allergy, but it has stopped since Taylor transitioned living fully as a girl.
“The true transition is when we used pronouns and had accepted it for ourselves,” she said.
“I’m A Girl”
A year ago in spring, Susan went to a transgender panel discussion at First Unitarian Universalist upon recommendation from friends that also attended in support.
“When I heard those stories, I realized I was missing the picture. I was supportive, but not getting it. I probably broke speeding laws going home,” she said. ”I went up to Taylor’s room and had to ask her.
“I asked her ‘are you a boy or a girl?’ She looked up at me and said she’s a girl – very matter of fact. I explained there was a difference between liking girl’s stuff than really feeling like you’re a girl on the inside. She looked up again annoyed and said ‘I’m a girl.’
“I hugged her and grabbed her and told her ‘I’m so sorry that I didn’t know sooner.’ She said, ‘it’s okay mama.’ I cried – she would not let go of me. She was hugging and kissing the next several days telling me I was the best mom in the word.”
That’s when Susan began her research and called ROSMY jumping in full force to figure out what was next. ROSMY referred Susan to a counselor that met with Susan and her husband. ”We asked if we should switch pronouns and that’s when the journey really began. He told me how harmful it would be if we didn’t make the switch.”
The counselor told Susan, “What you’re giving Taylor is what most other trans adults didn’t get – a childhood. It’s not like she’s fifteen – she hasn’t been denied those feelings and access.”
“That’s why we feel we didn’t need counseling at the time,” Susan said. ”The counselor said we’re light-years ahead. Most parents want to fix the kid.”
Because Susan and her family practice alternative medicine, she was hesitant to take Taylor to the pediatrician to get her physical before entering kindergarten. Prior to seeing the doctor, Susan presented a letter from their counselor requesting the doctor use the feminine pronoun.
“I brought the letter for my own protection thinking he might take action against me. We had seen him before and I had been afraid, but he was awesome and fabulous,” Susan said. ”He came in and even had a student with him and both had respect for her body. He used the correct pronouns the whole time, so I knew from the moment he came it, it was way different than I thought. We talked in code for hormones, changes, timing, what to look for. I left warm and at peace.”
Making that transition, Susan said she always kept herself in check. It wasn’t without questioning herself along the way. Years ago, the same friend that took Susan to the transgender panel asked if Taylor was identifying because she thinks it’s what’s mom wants.
“That’s the comment that I remembered,” she said.
That question comes up a lot to parents of transgender children. Susan reflects asking why would we want our children to be part of a group that has such a difficult life. ”No one would want to wish this on anybody,” Susan said.
She had never bought any clothing item without Taylor. “I bought it with her so she could say, this is what she wants. This is who she was,” she said.
After getting the okay from the counselor to make the pronoun shift, that’s when Susan went shopping for the first time without her daughter. “That was a big deal, really in my acceptance and transition.”
“I let her take the boys clothes out of her drawers – she said, ‘I don’t need these anymore.’”
Taylor had a fashion show and loved every single item according to her mother.
“We watched her blossom over the summer,” Susan said. ”She was way more girly – she got prissier.”
“She was free – she sang all the time. She giggled all the time. The throwing up stopped. It all changed. It was a breath of fresh air. We redecorated the room. Her neutral room became more girly. It was really exciting.”
“It was hard not knowing, but when you’re around her, you know it’s the right thing. No question.”
“It’s easier now that we understand what Taylor was going through,” Susan said.
It took three weeks for the entire family to be on board. ”My husband needed to hear it from her,” she said. ”When he got home one day, she ran out and grabbed his face and said I want to be your little girl,” Susan said. ”That’s all he needed – he’s been golden since.”
Taylor also spoke with her siblings and they were all supportive. ”They’ve never used the gender card against her when they’re ticked,” Susan said of her children. ”Deep down, they get it. I know my two older ones worry about her. Some other kids are worried about the pronoun change – that’s the hardest for people.”
Susan’s father also struggled with the idea, but has been supportive. ”He switched pronouns before I did, so that says a lot about my super-conservative father,” she said.
Taylor’s grandfather even booked an appointment with the counselor, but still worries about the future – relationships and puberty. “He’s afraid for her,” Susan says
Susan has explained to her daughter that she has to be patient with her body and accept it and take care of it. Surgery is only an option for adults in the United States. As for puberty, hormone blockers and treatments are available and a big decision the family will have to make. For now, Susan is taking it one day at a time and doing her best to make sure Taylor enjoys her childhood.
Susan said she hasn’t been able to find any other parents – although she suspects some of the children in her pre-school may have girls that feel like boys, but their parents don’t know. She says she’s had other parents ask questions. The pre-school community is filled with like-minded, home birth and nursing moms, that have been supportive in multiple ways according to Susan.
“I don’t plan to do public school – I’ve been advised not to,” she said. ”I also was an educator. I love what this school is doing. We had to do financial aid, but we put their education first.”
The school required the family to establish a working relationship with a counselor so they would have someone to go to if something came up. They couldn’t find anyone in Richmond that had worked with a transgender child, but a specialist who has worked with transgender adults assessed Taylor three times through observation and play therapy.
When back in session this past January, the school called ROSMY to coordinated two sessions with the counselor to discuss transgender issues with staff, faculty, and teachers. While ROSMY has been a resource to get Susan started on this journey, the organization only offers support groups for ages 14 and up.
Susan is open to leading a support group for anyone in the area with gender-variant children.
“It starts before birth – when you find out what they have between their legs, we start forming them. That’s what comes naturally, but we really need to change our thinking about our children. We really need to be accepting to let everyone be how they want to be. Realize that it’s not a reflection on us – that’s my fear as a parent. People worry about how it’s going to affect them.
“I want people to understand it hasn’t been a struggle to support my child in this way,” Susan said. ”The struggle is with everyone else’s understanding.”
When Susan flies to California she hopes to meet other families going through this and for Taylor to develop relationships with other kids. Next year, she hopes to be able to bring Taylor’s other siblings so the whole family can benefit meeting others.
“I can get the information anywhere, but it’s the connection,” she says.
An online giving box has been setup here to help fund their trip.
“There’s nothing you can do to cause this, nothing you can do to change this. It is what it is,” Susan said. ”It’s about supporting your child and having them grow up happy healthy, and fulfilled.”
Kevin Clay is the editor and publisher of GAYRVA.COM. He is a Richmond native, loves the city and knows it's on the edge of greatness. Don't hold back RVA. You can follow Kevin on GAYRVA's Twitter or e-mail him at email@example.com.
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