Bedtime Stories For Transgender Kids

Bedtime Stories For Transgender Kids

two girls sitting on the pier

By Heather Osterman

Recently my Facebook feed was flooded with posts about the suicide of a transgender woman I knew tangentially. Depression is a tremendously complicated thing and I certainly didn’t know her well enough to presume any connection between her identity and her action, but it’s hard to separate them completely and it hit me hard. I connected to the comments others wrote on her Facebook page I’m so tired of grieving my transgender sisters and We know this mourning song in our bones.

I’m not transgender, though my husband and many of our friends are. As a white middle-class couple, we’re on the safer end of the spectrum and we still know this song in our bones. But while it’s important to sing this song, as we gather the power to fight hard for a better world, it’s also important to engrave the tune of hope in our hearts because few of us grew up singing it. So, if I had one piece of advice for parents raising transgender children it would be this – fight like hell to make the world a better place for your children, but in the meantime, teach them how to sing, inscribe a story of happiness on every bone of their body. Because narratives matter.

When I came out to my mom as gay twenty-four years ago she confessed that while she would support and love me no matter what, she also worried because, from her perspective, being gay seemed to be a sadder and lonelier life. My then-self, on the cusp of adulthood, was enraged. How dare she insinuate that gay people had greater challenges finding fulfilling relationships and carving out a life for themselves? But now, as a parent of two young children myself, I understand things differently. What parent would ever want their child’s life to be harder than it needs to be?

To be fair, in 1990, her reaction wasn’t out of left-field, and she was voicing my own deepest fear, that I would never be loved. At the time, there were few positive images of gay life in the mainstream media. In every young adult novel I’d read growing up, the gay character was either raped (if they were female) or attempted suicide (if they were male). Our society had just witnessed the gay male community being ravaged by AIDS, and it seemed the only stories about gay people in the news were about discrimination and violence. I didn’t know a single gay couple who was married, let alone with children, and I knew I wanted both of those things. So, if I didn’t see it out there, how could I believe it? How could my mom believe it?

The world has changed a lot in the past twenty years. In no way do I want to minimize the challenges that gay and lesbian youth still face, but there has been a large societal shift.

I think that shift has not brought along the transgender and gender non-conforming population. Over 50% of transgender students will attempt suicide at some point in their lives and 82% report feeling unsafe at school. LGBTQ youth currently make-up the majority of homeless youth. And while I see more and more parents actively and openly supporting their gender non-conforming children, I know many of these parents are still plagued by the fear that their child will never, truly be happy and this fear can impact children in a subtle, but devastating way. While there has been a recent uptick in positive transgender presence in the media, as Janet Mock, a transgender activist, writes, “It’ll take more than a year of a few trans women in media to transform decades of structural oppression and violence, decades of misinformation, decades of exiling.”

If I had my way, the media would be also be flooded with stories of regular transgender people leading happy, fulfilling lives. And while I see more and more parents actively and openly supporting their gender non-conforming children, I know many of these parents are still plagued by the fear that their child will never, truly be happy and this fear can impact children in a subtle, but devastating way. If I had my way, the media would be also be flooded with stories of regular transgender people leading happy, fulfilling lives.

Here’s my token attempt at adding to the pot: My husband and I may not be an Oscar-winning story. We bicker over dishes and laundry and who forgot to buy the milk, but our house is filled with enough love it threatens to explode at the seams. We have two beautiful children, made possible with the help of two good friends, a gay married couple. Our children stop our hearts with smiles and hugs one moment and then drive us to utter distraction the next because they refuse to put on their shoes. Sometimes, my husband will stop in the middle of what he’s doing and say, “I can’t believe that this is my life, how lucky I am. I never imagined that we could have this.”

But he should have been able to. I should have been able to.

As a parent of a gender non-conforming child, I believe that you have three obligations: fight for laws to protect your children, teach them ways to protect themselves, and last but not lease, help them believe in an amazing future, because chances are their biggest fear is the same as yours, that they won’t be accepted or loved. And yes, you have some justifiable reasons to be scared– the murder rates for transgender women of color could make you drop to your knees and sob–but please, don’t only focus on how challenging life might be.

So every night, as you’re tucking your child in to bed, lean close, kiss their cheek and tell them this bedtime story again and again, “Once upon a time there was a transgender child and they were so, so beautiful and so, so loved. And they went out into the world, and oh, the wonderful things that happened.”

Heather Osterman-Davis is a mother of two young children and is constantly attempting to balance creative and domestic endeavors. Her work has appeared in Time; Creative Non-Fiction; Literary Mama; Listen to Your Mother; and Agave Magazine. You can find her on Twitter @heatherosterman






A Work In Progress

A Work In Progress

mardi gra new feature

By Lynn Adams

My six-year-old daughter Margot has a problem with what she calls “boy-yee girls.” This chafes me, because my favorite aunt was such a girl. When I was a child, my parents talked about my aunt’s “roommate” accompanying us on beach vacations. Aunt Betsy and Jane were two foul-mouthed dames who drank Jack Daniel’s and chain-smoked into the evening, then slept until noon in the same bed. Come on. I made sure my children knew the truth from the start, so they’d consider my aunt’s relationship as normal as mine.

We’re not the most progressive family in the world, but we’re certainly not the least. We live in New Orleans, and our families go back several generations here. The first wedding we attended as a family, though, united two men. Racism, sexism, classism, hetero-centrism, at our house, are past-tense problems. At least that’s how we talk about them with our kids.

But this “boy-yee girl” thing really bothers me, and my daughter can tell. She first used the phrase on a woman I’ll call Cathy, a counselor at camp this summer. I’m sure Cathy noticed Margot giving her a wide berth and a wary stare, but I never got to know her well enough to talk it over. And I guess that’s the point. Aunt Betsy and Jane have passed away, so Margot doesn’t have anyone in her daily life from whom to learn about gender presentation in all its varieties. At best, Margot seems to sense that something’s out of whack. At worst, she seems scared.

Mostly it’s about aesthetics, I think. Margot is a kid who notices things. If there’s a heavyset person in a crowd of 200, she’ll point it out. Once, in church, she leaned over and said through clenched teeth, “Mom, there’s a lady in the next pew who’s wearing no shirt.” Actually Margot had a point, because the woman was wearing a strapless top in an Episcopal church, which is almost as questionable.

Margot has had more exposure to differences than I did, so I figure she has a head start on learning tolerance. I have one memory of gender bending from my childhood, and it was Mardi Gras, and he was only dressing up. A girly boy. I was three years old, and that’s prime time for children to learn about gender differences.

I had run out of the bathroom, smack into her. Blue mini skirt, fuzzy knees, red-and-white tube socks, red high heels. Or was it him? I stepped back and looked up higher. Frilly white blouse, blonde braids with red ribbons resting on crooked bosoms. Dirty blonde mustache. As the cigarette smoke hit my nostrils, he smiled and held out his arms for a hug. Red lipstick on his teeth. His wide embrace blocked the way to the kitchen.

Was that Mr. Jack?

What was going on here? Could a man just turn into a lady? What if Dad did that? Would he turn out to be a certain lady like Aunt Shirley? Would he be the mom, then? Wait. Could Mom turn into a man? Or could she turn into something else, like a bear? Would she take care of me then, or hurt me?

“Honey,” my mom reassured me, “we wear costumes at Mardi Gras time. You’re a princess, and Jack’s a lady. I think he might be Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. You love The Wizard of Oz, right?” In truth, I’d only seen a bit of the movie because I was scared of those flying monkeys in the hats and coats. Cross-species dressing.

My son had a similar reaction to clowns at the same age. Once his panic subsided, he asked me, swallowing, “What are clowns? Are they … birds or something?” It takes awhile to distinguish the irregular from the threatening.

Nowadays Margot’s reaction looks less like fear, and more like distaste. And that’s no better. There’s a tradition in our neighborhood, even though we’re not on the Mardi Gras parade route. On a weekday afternoon a couple of weeks before Mardi Gras, the Jefferson City Buzzards, an all-male walking parade dating back to 1890, struts around our neighborhood dressed as women. My husband used to be a member. It’s roughly fifty men, exuberant after a liquid lunch. Last year, when Margot was five, a man in a black leather-and-lace teddy and thigh-high leather boots shimmied up to her and handed her a string of pink Mardi Gras beads. She took the beads and smiled, then backed away. Was she scared?

“Mom, that man has a pretty outfit but he’s too hairy for it.”

He offended her aesthetic sense, is what happened. She reminded me of my mother when she first saw a man in skinny jeans.

But that wasn’t the end of it. This summer at camp, Margot met Cathy, who was entrusted with the job of head counselor. She was also the woodworking counselor, wielding the sort of tools that impressed both my children.

At first glance, Cathy looked male. The first sign she was female was her name. Her hair was shaved on the sides, she wore roomy cargo shorts and tee shirts, and her ears were pierced in a manner that’s so uncommon in my circles I finally had to break down and research it online. It’s called “stretching,” which means that her earlobes were pierced in the conventional way, and then gradually stretched to accommodate an earring about the size of a washer. It creates a hole big enough to look through.

Despite our superficial differences, I immediately identified Cathy as my kind of person. Each time she had to discipline my impulsive son she did so by touching him, and speaking in a voice only he could hear. She never involved me. James listened to Cathy, even said she was his favorite counselor.

I asked Margot about Cathy and she said, “Cathy’s okay, I just don’t like her.”

“Does it have something to do with how Cathy looks?” I asked, and Margot bristled. She knew she was setting herself up for a lecture.

“No, Mommy, it doesn’t. I know girls can be boy-yee and boys can be girly. They’re born that way. Okay?” So something had sunk in.

If the stretched earlobes were what disturbed Margot, that was cool with me.

If Margot disliked Cathy for being a boyish-looking girl, that was going to be harder to take.

“Is it her earrings?” I asked.

“Maybe,” said Margot. My hopes surged.

“Well, how about we ask her how it’s done and if it hurts?” I replied, using my usual strategy of information-gathering to fight a fear.

“No,” said Margot. “But can we ask her what kind of underwear she wears?”

In other words, she wanted to know how deep this boy-yee thing went.

It was fine with me that Margot was curious. What bothered me was her behavior. Margot avoided Cathy all week, so she never got to know her like my son did. While James sat next to Cathy at the campfire, hollering obnoxious camp songs, Margot brooded on the fringes. All because of the way Cathy looked.

It feels like I’ve failed both Margot and Cathy.

The culture has changed between my childhood and Margot’s, but brain development hasn’t. Children still learn about all types of differences over time. So maybe I’m the one who needs to relax.

I hope Cathy’s back next summer, and that Margot can have another chance.

Author’s note: It’s only been five months since summer camp, so I can’t say we’ve made any progress. That’s okay, though. In the transition from child psychologist to mother, I’m getting used to being more patient than I ever thought I’d have to be.

Lynn Adams lives in New Orleans with her husband and two children. A former child psychologist, she now writes parenting essays about child development and Autism Spectrum Disorders. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child; Salon; Scary Mommy; and other places in print and online. Find more of her work at


Child of Mine

Child of Mine

By Jamie Johnson


They say there’s nothing like a mother’s love. But, just how far can it be pushed?

I wondered how to tell my 81-year-old, very religious mother, our family secret. It had taken me so long to get through the tough initial stages of adjustment. But, my mom, well, she thought in very straight, defined lines.

I had pictured myself going to visit her, talking distractedly about the weather and then, with a burst of courage, handing her the family letter Julia had written to explain her private suffering—and then I’d run.

I couldn’t do it. We had to tell her in person. Though imagining the look of confusion she would wear as we tried to explain this haunted my thoughts.

When Julia and I headed to her seniors’ home, I wished the corridor leading to my mom’s room was longer that day, so I would have more time to somehow come up with just the right thing to say.

There have been times when being Julia’s mom has been challenging. During her youth, we’d meet people I knew, and they’d say, “This must be Joey?” Joey was her brother. I’d search Julia’s face, but she looked… well, content. It bothered me, especially when it still happened at sixteen. Her butch look suggested she would eventually announce she was gay.

The truth was much more complicated.

I couldn’t imagine how complex that truth would seem to a reserved, small-town grandma, one who had lovingly taken her granddaughter to church every Sunday for years.

*   *   * 

My mom greeted us with a loving smile. I hated having to take her happy look away.

I stalled with idle chatter, but it couldn’t wait any longer.

Timidly, I began, “Mom, we have something difficult to tell you about Jul.” I had done it: I had replaced her contented look with fear. I quickly continued, “She isn’t terminally ill or anything, but it might be something you’re not going to be happy about.”

I took the letter out of the safety of my handbag. She lowered her eyebrows suspiciously, glancing quickly at Jul to see if this news was something she could recognize from across the room. I softly said, “This is a letter Jul wrote for our family.”

The day my daughter had told me, in 2003, I had come home to find her watching Oprah. Jul hates talk shows, I thought. Must be pretty interesting. Maybe I’ll watch a little.

All of Oprah’s guests were transgenders. They were born with reproductive organs that didn’t match how they felt in their hearts and souls. Each guest had been bruised by judgment. Some had been disowned by their families, lost friendships, or had experienced trouble finding love.

Jul had decided this was the time. She looked at me apprehensively and quietly said, “Mom, I think that is what I am.”

My initial shock went almost straight to denial. “Oh no, honey, you’re not. You’re gay. Not this.” Fortunately, after several months, I finally arrived at acceptance and support.

I held my breath. And hoped Jul’s letter would be a much gentler way of sharing.

*   *   * 

As my mom opened the letter and began to read, I looked at Julia, or Kip, which was my new son’s chosen male name. Kip appeared as frightened as I felt. No matter what happened, though, I would be there for my child.

My eyes returned to my mom. She was reading with intense concentration. Then it happened—our worst nightmare. She glared a fierce look I can only describe as “how dare you” straight at Kip.

I didn’t have to look at my son to know his horror; I could feel it. My mom’s piercing stare emitted raw anger.

She looked back down to the page. Then time stopped.

It couldn’t have taken her more than a few minutes to finish reading, but those few minutes seemed to last a lifetime.

Finally, she slowly stood up. God, what is she doing now? She took a few awkward steps toward Kip, then put her arms around him. She quietly said, “Honey, I hope you don’t think we would ever stop loving you?”

Those words will be ingrained in my memory for life. Big, heavy tears rolled down my cheeks. I had worried for months about this moment.

It’s estimated that as many as a third of people who want to transition, like my child, end their lives, or attempt to. The anguish of trying to live the role of the wrong gender is excruciating. And many have said that telling their family is the hardest part in the whole process. Kip had expressed his worst fear in his letter—that he would lose the people he loved so dearly. Those words must have connected with my mom.

As we explained, my mom’s eyebrows softened. She told us she had always thought this sort of thing was a choice, maybe she’d been wrong. After a temporary moment of passion, my mom had received this difficult information with grace and an open heart. I learned that she could have a mind much more open than I had given her credit for.

Kip and I left my mother’s room feeling half like we were in shock, barely able to believe my mom’s reaction, and half like we had been injected with pure love.

A mother’s love can certainly surprise you—if given a chance.


Jamie Johnson is an antique/gift show owner who enjoys writing about her fascinating children. Her full length memoir Secret Selves: How Their Changes Changed Me won an IP Book Award for Best Nonfiction in Eastern Canada and was a finalist in the Beverly Hills Book Awards. Her short pieces have appeared in The Globe & Mail, Homemakers Magazine, Families in TRANSition (a resource book for transgender families), and the anthology, Hidden Lives: Coming Out on Mental Illness.

Photo by Scott Boruchov

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Loving Kip

Loving Kip

By Jamie Johnson

Transgender ArtWe’d been watching Oprah the day my 18-year-old daughter, Julia, shared her secret with me: a show featuring transgenders who were transitioning. Frankly, I was surprised. Julia never watched Oprah. Movies: yes. Sports: all the time. But talk shows: not a chance. I thought, It must be pretty interesting if she’s watching. Maybe I’ll watch, too.

All of Oprah’s guests were transgenders or transsexuals. They were born with reproductive organs that didn’t match how they felt in their hearts and souls. Doctors think this phenomenon happens in the first trimester of pregnancy. As the fetus develops, the brain forms as one gender, and the body the other. It is referred to as Gender Identity Disorder.

Each of Oprah’s guests had been bruised by judgment. Some had been disowned by their families, lost friendships, or had trouble finding love. Staying employed was a problem. Being brutally beaten was not uncommon in their stories.

Jul had decided this was the time.

She quietly turned towards me. With a surrendered look, she raised her fine eyebrows and in an almost whispered voice, she said, “Mom, I think that is what I am.”

I remember all the air leaving the room; thinking my lungs had decided that, nope, they weren’t going to cooperate any longer. I fought for air, but life had punched it out of me. Realizing Jul was watching me, I began my persuasion. “No honey … you’re not. You’re just uncomfortable being a lesbian. You’ll get used to the idea.”

With hurt in her eyes, my daughter’s chin quivered as she spoke. “I can’t stand the thought of a girl, or anyone, touching this body; it’s humiliating. It’s not a choice, Mom. I have the wrong body.”

I sat listening, trying not to hear.

Panic. That was the first feeling in a chain of emotions that now seem like some strange twelve-step program. Fear followed. They’re not the same: panic and fear. Panic grabs you, squeezes fiercely; it paralyzes you, the pressure leaving you unable to think. I wanted to hide.

The fear that followed was a different type of weight. It bore down gently, but continuously, dropping a thought into my head every now and then.

What would people say? What if she transitioned and still wasn’t happy? How would hormone therapy change the way she looked? All parents have to adjust to their child’s choices: piercings, tattoos, haircuts, clothing. Even the gradual, natural changes are an adjustment. But the process of seeing my daughter become a man seemed unthinkable.

The fear wore me down for a while. But slowly, very slowly, I made my way through those feelings, and acceptance followed. I felt like I’d just carted a canoe through the drizzling rain for miles, feet wet, finally reaching the river, the sun coming out as I set the canoe down. I felt the warmth. Acceptance has a wonderful warmth to it.

But there, in that feeling of surrender, where I knew it was the love for my child that mattered, I still felt a twinge of something uncertain. How would the hormone treatments change her? No, how would the hormone treatments change him? Would I recognize my child in the end?

I wanted my new son to have what we all take for granted: to feel natural in his body, in his face. I wanted him to no longer wonder whether people were looking at him because he looked androgynous, questioning his role and how he fit into society. At 21, it had been over a decade since he’d resembled someone who could even remotely be called girly, except of course on those dressy occasions when I’d forced it. Since before ten years of age, he’d had our hairdresser chop his hair short, wore a ball cap, and sported either a basketball or hockey jersey with jeans. The jeans were always over boxers. She had always been boyish. Most of her “look” wouldn’t change, but part of me was having a very tough time at the thought of losing Jul’s face.

Once the process of hormone therapy started, a manly stubble would rub against my cheek when we hugged. The hormones would change his bone structure just enough to make him look less like Jul, and more like “Kip.” His facial features and hairline would shift to give him the more masculine look he craved. But just how much would the hormones change the young adult version of the face I’d grown to cherish?

Baby Jul had a beautiful face. I’d peer down at her and love the sweet little thing peeking back up at me from her crib. Her perfect full lips. The Gerber Baby cheeks that were always chubbed up, rounding out her oval face in a big, eager grin. The little button nose. Her squeezable little chin. It was the face of my perfect little angel. How much would I miss it? I couldn’t imagine not seeing it anymore.

It wasn’t the first time I’d experienced the fear of losing her quiet, natural beauty, though. She had been five the first time. I was home, sick, when the shrill sound of the phone woke me. A car accident. A serious head injury. Danger of internal bleeding in the brain. I was needed at the children’s hospital immediately.

The person on the other end of the phone cautioned me not to drive; she said I might be in shock.

I was.

The scene I arrived to at the hospital instantly slapped me out of my numbed state. First I heard her voice. It was aggressive, tortured, demanding, loud enough for me to hear before I even entered the busy emergency room. “I want my mom. I WANT MY MOM!”

If that familiar voice hadn’t been coming from the little thing stretched out on the gurney, I wouldn’t have had my heart shredded to a million bits when my eyes rested on her. I wouldn’t have known my little kindergartener. Her face was swollen and horribly flat. Tiny little fragments of glass, and some not so tiny, were embedded everywhere. As I walked toward her, I watched as the hospital staff bent her arms, her wrists, and her fingers, in an attempt to locate broken bones, Jul fighting every second of it, her panic increasing. At the top of her lungs, she chanted, “I WANT MY MOM! I WANT MY MOM!”

I stood over her in disbelief. She didn’t know I was there. Her eyes were swollen shut. I took her little hand in mine and cooed, “Mommy’s here, honey. It’s okay, Mommy’s here.”

I only have fragments of memories about that first day, the first out of a week I spent sleeping in a chair beside her hospital bed. But I do remember one question that, somewhere during the craziness of that first day, selfishly passed through my mind. Oh, her beautiful little face. What’s it going to look like when it heals?

What a trivial, stupid thing to worry about then. My daughter had survived a massive head trauma. I still had my child; that was the important part. But as parents, we get so attached to the face we’ve looked at and loved.

Maybe that car accident was a lesson given to me years before, in preparation for the loss of my daughter’s face. I had been a kindergartener then too, I guess; a beginner in the years of parenting classes ahead. I didn’t know then that the body was merely the packaging of the soul I loved.

As I waited for the call to confirm that the first shot of testosterone had been scheduled, marking the beginning of my daughter’s transition, I began my goodbye to Jul’s face. I was grateful that I was at least learning to be a little less absorbed with outside appearances. I might still feel a little twinge when the time came and the changes started, but I was ready to confront letting go. I will admit I was worried, but I would try to love the new face as it came.

To Kip, however, the day of that first shot of testosterone could not come soon enough. Once started, his facial characteristics did transform. His forehead worked its way backward, as the hairline framing it receded, and took on squarer, sharper lines. I noticed something else about his forehead. The bone structure just underneath his eyebrows seemed to change. I could see something that sort of reminded me of a Neanderthal. Now, I’m not saying that the more male hormones kip received, the more Neanderthal-like he became, but really, don’t laugh, it was there. It wasn’t a pronounced thing; it was subtle, but his forehead was different, and in a very distinctive male way.

The other changes in his face were subtle, too. There was definitely something about his cheekbones. They appeared to recede a bit or shift position. His jaw seemed to change, as well. It took on a more squared look. Actually, his whole face seemed somehow squarer than before. He even developed a new, unfamiliar space between his two front teeth—something he did not appreciate; his teeth had been one of the only things he had liked about himself— but it was a small price to pay to feel at home in his body.

The changes didn’t happen overnight, however. In fact, they were so gradual that I didn’t even notice them at first. It wasn’t until I compared a year-old photo to a recent one that I could see the full effect of the injections. His bearded image had become handsome.

It seemed strange. I’d been so worried about how much I’d miss Jul’s face. But I’d grown to love my new son’s face as it emerged, without even realizing it.

It’s because Kip isn’t a face, or a name, or a gender. Kip is a person. And it’s Kip, not the “he” or “she” that I love to death. His soul is still the same. His face wasn’t really a loss.

I think about the parents who don’t learn to accept. How can they let their relationship with their children die? Or worse yet, how do they survive the tragedy of suicide that sometimes lands on families who can’t open their hearts to the transition? How do those families carry on? That is loss.

Now, ten years later, I still have my first-born child sitting with us at family dinners. From across the table, I see the same smiling hazel eyes. Framing those eyes is a new man. A man who wears a strip of short stubble from one sideburn to the other, the way his wife loves it so much. I look at him now and smile. This mom has no regrets.

Author’s Note: Seeing a person with our eyes brings such limited results. When we see with our hearts, looking inside, past the surface, underneath what society dwells on, we see so much more. What we are isn’t the most important thing: it’s who we are. My son helped me learn that lesson. The physical changes were not important. My son’s spirit and courage are going strong. That makes this mother proud.

Jamie Johnson is an antique/gift show owner who enjoys writing about her fascinating children. Her full length memoir Secret Selves: How Their Changes Changed Me won an IP Book Award for Best Nonfiction in Eastern Canada and was a finalist in the Beverly Hills Book Awards. Her short pieces have appeared in The Globe & Mail, Homemakers Magazine, Families in TRANSition (a resource book for transgender families), and the anthology, Hidden Lives: Coming Out on Mental Illness.

Art by Michael Lombardo