Raising Penelope, My Transgender Son

Photo: Mater Mea and J. Quazi King
A little while ago, I posted a picture on Instagram of me and my husband, Joe, snuggled up next to each other. I was wearing a T-shirt that read “Legalize Trans." One of the likers wrote a sweet, if not quite accurate, comment, assuming I was transgender: “All that matters now is you’re a woman. Trans couples have rights.” I’m a cis woman, the mother of five kids, four of whom I birthed, but I understood its intention and smiled. A few years ago, that wouldn't have been my response. I would have been taken aback, freaked out, even. In fact, a few years ago, I barely knew what transgender meant. But a lot has changed since then, including the arrival of my youngest son, Penelope. Penelope is a transgender boy. Today, he’s 8 years old, but from the time he could speak, he told the entire world, “I am a boy.” Our family — including his siblings — chose to believe him.

From the time he could speak, he told the entire world, “I am a boy." Our family chose to believe him.

There are an estimated 9 million LGBTQI people in the country (that's the size of the state of New Jersey) and around 700,000 transgender people. All of them have families. You’d assume there'd be lots of families like mine, out and proud. But it's not that easy. Speaking up and rallying around trans rights is hard enough because of gender bias, misunderstanding, and the threat of violence, but when you throw in that we’re not celebrities and my son is still in lower school, it gets so much more real. Here’s how crazy it is: For simply supporting and loving my son as he is, I get hit with intense criticism from angry strangers all the time. Whenever I write an article or a post a blog about our family’s journey, the online remarks are extreme. “How could you do this to your daughter?” wrote one woman with a nasty emphasis on “do."
Photo: Mater Mea and J. Quazi King
“The only thing I let my kid choose is her bedtime story. Choosing her gender is ridiculous," another said. “I feel so sorry for your poor daughter that her narcissistic mother is using her for attention. Directing your daughter into a warped, 'alternative lifestyle' so [you] can write all about it and try to gain a wider audience.” As if I became an LGBTQI advocate for the Instagram likes. I didn't. I did it because over 50% of transgender teens attempt suicide and because violence against trans people is an epidemic. I did it because the decision to love and support him is a decision that could make the difference between life and death. I did it because all kids deserve respect. One day, about 5 years ago, I noticed that Penelope — once such a happy and adventurous kid — had become sad and nervous. Everything about him showed signs of anxiety and anger. Chronic nail biting, bedwetting, and nightmares plagued him. At 2, he was carrying a burden on his shoulders much bigger than himself. So, I sat down with him — face to face — and asked him, “What’s wrong, baby?” It was then that he told me, “Everyone thinks I’m a girl, and I’m not. I’m a boy," all the while crying deep, heavy sobs. As a mother, when you see your child in pain, all you want to do is stop the pain. So I told Penelope that however he felt inside was fine by me. And what came next changed my world forever, “I don’t feel like a boy mama, I am a boy." Those four words changed everything. I realized that something I'd imagined to be concrete — the gender of my child — wasn't. What Penelope was talking about wasn’t just self-expression — it was identity. And who am I to question anyone’s identity, even my own kid's?

He said, “Everyone thinks I’m a girl, and I’m not. I’m a boy," all the while crying deep, heavy sobs.

So I was faced with two options: Discounting everything Penelope was telling me and sticking with the way things were, or being open to learn, over time, and potentially allowing my world to flip upside down. I chose to learn. Over the last six years, Penelope (who by the way, loves his birth name and doesn’t want to change it) has consistently and unanimously said “boy,” “he,” or “son” when referring to himself. He’s never once said “girl,” “she,” or “daughter." Because Penelope was brave enough to demand, “I am,” the least I could do was be brave enough to listen. Life got so much better for all of us once when we accepted Penelope for who he was, because it allowed us to accept our own selves in a deeper, kinder, more human way. Penelope is a boy with a vagina. As crazy as that sounds, it's true. Both he and I have come to terms with it. And, today, he's thriving.
Photo courtesy of the author.
One of Penelope's books.
He loves school and brought home a 98% GPA from third grade (yup, he skipped second). He loves sports and is a karate champion — winning the gold in all categories among both the boys and the girls in his age group. His one-arm push up is insane. But he’s also my most gentle artist, with a passion for creating storybooks, illustrating them page-by-page, and leaving them under my pillow as gifts. He loves jewelry, stylish clothing, slick haircuts, and “cologne” (which is actually my expensive perfume). He spends an enormous amount of time in the mirror each day working on poses he thinks are cool and karate moves he thinks are awesome. Just a few months ago, I asked Penelope, “How does it feet to be a boy with a vagina?” He replied, “Well, mom, I’m human, so it just feels normal.” Hopefully, as puberty approaches, Penelope will continue to be comfortable having the body he has. But for many trans kids and their parents, puberty causes tremendous fear and anxiety. Bodies change and often the alienation trans people can feel with their birth bodies reaches an unbearable apex. Menstruation, which can be a rite of passage for cis girls, is horrifying for many trans boys. Facial hair, that thing every cis boy eagerly awaits, is revolting and humiliating for a trans girl. For kids like Penelope, the body betrays and reveals: I’m not “normal.”

I asked Penelope, “How does it feet to be a boy with a vagina?” He replied, “Well, mom, I’m human, so it just feels normal.”

The parents of many trans teens pay for blockers to suppress puberty, and later on, spend thousands of dollars on gender reassignment surgery — as willingly as parents pay for college. They make these life-altering decisions for their kids not because they want to, but to keep them alive. But if I'm honest — and with no judgment to those they help — the idea of giving hormones to Penelope scares me. And I can't help but wonder, Is it our job to facilitate body alterations? Or to help move the conversation more towards self-acceptance? Does having a beard make one a man? Will having a stronger jawline validate Penelope? Or is it our responsibility to keep reminding ourselves that we all have the right to simply “be" in the form that we were made?

There are still a few years before we have to make any decisions like that for Penelope. For now, I'm still explaining to everyone that he didn’t “transition” into a boy — he is one — and he’s most certainly not playing dress-up. He’s just transgender, which simply speaks to his body being different from his father’s and his brother’s. As he reminded me, he's human, and that speaks to what’s most important.

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