By Erickka Sy Savané
For many of us just getting an idea of what it means to be transgender (identifying with the opposite sex of that which you are born), the thought of a transgender child is confusing because it poses questions like, is it just a phase and is a child old enough to make such an important decision about his or her identity? And while the majority of us will never have to deal with this issue, the truth is, some of us do, and probably more of us than we think. One of the reasons the topic stays under the radar is not because it’s not happening, but more often because opinions are so strong that parents choose not to talk about it. For Brooklyn-based beauty blogger and mother of 5, Jodie Patterson, staying quiet is not an option. For her, raising a transgender child, the right way, is a matter of life and death. Though I wrote this story a few years ago, it still rings true today, even more so with transgender rights and people being constantly under attack. Hopefully, reading this will give some insight into this under-discussed topic.
HOW DID YOU REALIZE THAT YOUR CHILD WAS TRANSGENDER?
JODIE: Penelope was born a she. Around 2 ½ I noticed she was grumpy, bullying, fighting me when it was time to get her dressed and bathed. Finally, I asked her what was wrong and she said, ‘Everyone thinks I’m a girl and I’m not.’ I came to realize that her brain registers as male.
WHAT DOES THAT MEAN EXACTLY? BECAUSE A LOT OF PEOPLE FEEL THAT A CHILD IS TOO YOUNG TO MAKE THAT DECISION.
JODIE: The forming of ones Identity is actually a biological process that occurs in each of us. It’s not something we choose to do, rather it just happens. And the process surprisingly starts around 2 years old and then again during adolescence. The body and brain does this process, not the human will. Identity is not a ‘decision’ it’s simply biology. So Penel’s timing is pretty typical.
HOW LONG DID IT TAKE FOR YOU TO ACCEPT THAT?
JODIE: At first there was the initial fear. I’m terrified and imagining the worst. I think people won’t understand and will be disgusted by it. But when you think about changing a person’s core, you’re inflicting murder on them. When your child tells you, ‘I don’t want tomorrow to come because it’s going to be worse than today,’ it becomes about supporting them. It becomes about keeping them alive. So I read a lot. I prayed. Meditated. It helped to say the word transgender out loud. The family has been supportive on both sides. At first, they didn’t understand and felt like, ‘just put a dress on her; it’s just a phase.’
IN TERMS OF ‘A PHASE’ HAVE YOU EVER SEEN A CRACK IN HOW HE SEES HIMSELF?
JODIE: (LAUGHS) No, Penel’s been consistent.
HOW DID YOU BECOME SO OPEN ABOUT DISCUSSING THIS TOPIC?
JODIE: It’s such a private experience on many levels and people were encouraging us to keep it private. But I feel like the topics of gender and identity are public conversations that you have to have. They are limited if we keep them private.
IN YOUR EXPERIENCE HOW COMMON IS THIS?
JODIE: I don’t have statistics on how many transgender kids there are but I am surprised to know that in black families, in white families, there are transgender stories and they’re not to be confused with drug addiction, poverty, and sexual abuse. Those are separate issues that sometimes overlap in our lives, but transgender is a separate conversation around identity.
HAVE YOU BEEN ABLE TO FIND SUPPORT GROUPS IN THE NEW YORK AREA?
JODIE: Yea, there are some great organizations that have weekly and monthly meetings. The organization I go to for information is PFLAG. That’s a good starting point. We go to transgender family camps and I’ve also made personal friends.
HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH THE CHALLENGES THAT ARISE?
JODIE: Mostly we use meditation. We also do a lot of reading on the topic. We adults have a therapist who is keen on identity. As for Penel, I always do check-ins and ask questions about how he’s feeling about his body. We also watch age appropriate documentaries.
WHAT’S BEEN THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE SO FAR?
JODIE: Just the mental switch. So many things are different from what I thought. What is gender? Identity? I throw my hands up to God and see this as another level of his perfection. I have to approach life differently.
HOW HAS SCHOOL BEEN?
JODIE: Fantastic. He goes to a small, private school. From the beginning I sat down with the Principal and told him that my daughter will be coming in a boy’s uniform, and he was okay with it. The students are used to seeing him that way, and there’s been no pushback from the parents. There’s only one single bathroom, so we haven’t had to deal with that yet. There are no sports team. I know that high school, puberty, hormones, will be my next hurdle. How will Penel want his body to be? There are drugs to take that delay breasts and period, but it’s scary because we’re very organic.
HAVE YOU FOUND YOURSELF THRUST INTO THE ROLE OF SPOKESPERSON?
JODIE: I’m a mom first. Once you understand the path your children are on you have to help them along. I don’t shy away from being a voice. I wanna be that person. I don’t think Penel does. But I really do this because I want Penel to live. When you see potential suicide in your kid this becomes about keeping him alive. That’s why I do this.
DO YOU HAVE ANYTHING YOU WANT TO ADD?
JODIE: The big issue is talking about it early so that you can deal with it early. Also, listen. Pick up on signs. Ask questions. Be willing to understand.
Did this conversation help you better understand parenting a transgender child?