Grace Lilly recently had the opportunity to talk with Debi Jackson about her transgender daughter’s coming out in a conservative, religious community. This is the fourth installment in a series of interviews with experts and parents of LGBTQ kids. In the coming months, we will be speaking with more parents and experts about their various experiences and perspectives.
Tell us a little bit about yourself: where are you from? What do you do?
Debi: I am originally from the South, so I am from Alabama and a very conservative family, Southern baptist upbringing. My husband is from the Midwest, so that’s where we live right now, in Missouri. And his side of the family is not really very religious, so we’ve got the two sides going. The Midwestern, more casual, laid-back attitude versus the super conservative Southern attitude that we’re dealing with. We both work for ourselves. I work in marketing and he works as a doctor.
Can you tell us about how your child came out to you as transgender, or how you learned that she was transgender?
Debi: When she was around four, we started seeing some behaviors that were not gender typical. A lot of dress-up play at daycare using dress-up clothes, princess dresses, handbags, heels and that sort of thing. But we have an older son and he had done the same thing. And we have a couple of cute pictures of him in a cheerleading dress with a long wig and that sort of thing. He would do it for 15 minutes and then take it off and go do something else. With our daughter, it was more than just an hour of imaginary play in a kitchen set or something. It started to become pretty persistent, where she wanted a princess dress at home. At home, the playtimes got longer and longer to the point where she wanted to use her princess dress as a nightgown. Then she started asking, “Well, can’t I just have a nightgown? And can I get some more hair accessories? And can I get purses? And can I get sparkly shoes?”
Over the course of a few months, she then started to identify more with female characters in cartoons and on TV shows. So instead of wanting to be Shaggy or Fred on Scooby Doo, she wanted to be Daphne. And that’s about the time my children discovered High School Musical and she wanted to be Sharpe, which is gold lamé and pink bedazzled everything, just completely over the top. And she even wanted us to call her Sharpe for quite a while, which was exhibiting behaviors that seemed a little bit more than just typical gender exploration or understanding.
Go forward another couple of months, and she was having behavior issues at school. She was acting out a lot; she started to fight with kids, she started to bite again, and this was well beyond the biting age that most kids go through. She didn’t want to go to school anymore, and I can understand why.
Then we noticed that she started tucking her genitals a lot, really pushing them out of the way. And that was a big flag. We asked her what was wrong, and she just said she didn’t like them, they were uncomfortable, and she wanted them gone. So that led to a Google search: “four-year-old boy says wants genitals gone.” And a bunch of results popped up from conversations on parenting sites that pretty much just said these could be early behaviors of a transgender child. So we didn’t put a lot of credence behind that. We didn’t know anything about being transgender. We kind of just assumed we’d end up with a gay son.
But between Thanksgiving and Christmas of that year was when everything really just came to a head. The Christmas catalogues came and she started circling all the girl toys and then didn’t want to send a letter to Santa because she was afraid. She actually said, “If Santa sees that I just want girl toys, he’ll think that I’m a bad kid and he’ll want to skip our house. Then my brother won’t get anything and I’ll feel really bad.” And we tried to reassure her that kids can want anything. You can be a boy who likes girl things, that’s perfectly fine. It’s just what you’re interested in and a lot of girls like boy things, and that’s okay.
So we again thought maybe gay son, and we were just trying to reassure him. But the reality was we didn’t have a son. It wasn’t a “him.” We had a daughter. And in her brain she was a daughter. And a couple of weeks after that she told us — a four-year-old told us — as I was walking through the store with her, “Mom, you think I’m a boy. But don’t you know I’m really a girl? I’m a girl on the inside.” You don’t expect words like that to come out of a four-year-old. Where would they get that idea? It was pretty foreign as a concept but at the same time we’re thinking, “This isn’t something a kid can be taught and convinced of.”
So we started looking around for experts and we talked to our pediatrician, who recommended we see an endocrinologist and a child psychologist. And while we were trying to make all of those arrangements, she pretty much had the same conversation with my husband as they were in a store and she needed to go to the bathroom. He started walking her to the men’s room and she yanked on his arm and said, “I can’t go in there. I’m not supposed to go in there. I’m a girl and girls don’t go into the boys’ bathroom.” So we definitely knew we had a real issue on our hands. She had told both of us in turn and from there we were able to get in with a gender identity specialist and get everything confirmed and get a diagnosis of gender dysphoria.
What was your first response after you realized your daughter was transgender?
Debi: I’m a very intellectual, logical, non-emotional person. I don’t sit and process things emotionally. I have to make sense of them in my head first. So my first reaction was I had to do research. I had to go to the library, and I had to order books. I had to read as much as I can. I had to get medical textbooks and consult with the American Psychiatric Association. I needed to understand this. And thankfully, with my husband being a doctor, we had a lot of access to medical texts and he started reading.
For us, it really just came down to, we needed to understand. There has to be a reason why this happened. And I don’t really know why, because we both have gay best friends and we don’t question them or want to know the “why” and the science. We just think that’s how they are. But for some reason this seemed like a bigger thing that we really needed to process. As a mom, my first thoughts were, “What did I do during my pregnancy? What did I eat? Was I around chemicals? Was I overly stressed? What was it that I did that might’ve caused this?” I think that’s a natural reaction for moms whose children have any sort of medical condition. The first thing that we do is blame ourselves or question what we did, to make sure that we didn’t cause it.
What happened after that first response?
Debi: I think it helped us know how to deal with people going forward. We really didn’t know that we would be socially rejected the way we were. But for us, you kind of understand that people are going to question, “How could a child like this know? How could you be supportive of a transition? Maybe it’s influence. Maybe it’s nature versus nurture. If you did more saying ‘No, you’re just a boy who likes girl things,’ she would come to terms with that. It would be okay.” So we expected the questions about our parenting. And for us to be able to say, “No, we have visited the doctors and transition is actually what they recommend as treatment. You don’t try to give little kids medications, antidepressants, or anything like that because it messes with the brain and it can be pretty dangerous. So instead, just affirming who she says she is and letting her do a social transition, growing her hair, changing her clothes, changing her pronouns, that is going to be much healthier than us trying to deliver a bunch of drugs to her never knowing what the side effects could be down the road.”
So we appreciated the medical knowledge as a way to educate our peers and our social group. And for us, that was what was most important—being able to explain to other people, “This might not be ideal, but it is normal. It’s not contagious. Her changing her behavior around her friends is not going to suddenly make them reconsider who they are. So it’s going to be okay and we are doing what the doctors recommend that we do.” So having that backing from the medical community was really important to us. In the end it didn’t matter. People didn’t want us around anyway, but for us it reassured us we’re not making a mistake. This is what’s going to be in her best interest because that’s what all of the medical societies and the psychological societies say is best. .
How have you found support through this process?
Debi: Well for about a year, we really didn’t have any support. We thought the people we were around at our daycare were going to be our support structure. The parents that we knew there had known us, and our child had been there since she was six weeks old. And we actually had an older son, so we had known a lot of these families for more than five years and they knew both of our kids. So we really expected support to come from them. They knew her personality. They knew she’s friendly and outgoing and rambunctious and all of that. They knew us. We’d been to their houses and they’d been to ours for kids’ birthday parties, so it was a social circle. But once we let them know she really is a girl and she transitioned, suddenly it was like, “Oh my gosh, hands off. I don’t know how to process this and it scares me so I’m not going to talk to you anymore.”
I actually had made a letter for all of these parents that said, “You probably have questions and are confused. Imagine being us. We have even more questions and are even more confused. But this is what the experts tell us is best. Here are a couple of websites with resources. It tells you how to talk to your kids. Please read them. Here’s my contact info. We’d love to stay in touch, but we’re going to pull our daughter out of daycare to make sure she’s getting the support she needs. And we would like to remain friends.” And we heard zero. No one wanted anything to do with us.
We were also part of a Christian homeschooling group. I had started homeschooling my older child and they had seen that I had two boys and suddenly I had a boy and a boy that had some girl clothing on. And then they saw a boy in all girl clothing. And I explained to them, “She’s told us she’s female and we’re going to allow her to transition.” And we were kicked out of that group. We were not being godly enough or leading a good Christian life, so therefore before we got our household in order, we were going to be a bad influence. And we weren’t allowed around them anymore.
So we lost absolutely everyone in our social circle. And we didn’t know where to go. I mean how do you go introduce yourself to a new person and say, “Hi, we have a daughter who’s right now transitioning from male to female, so would you like to have coffee and be friends?” I mean, you just can’t do that. Going to the playground, she still had a really short, buzz-cut hairdo. So to have a child in a dress with a buzz cut go to the playground, kids are going to say, “Who are you? What are you?” and she wasn’t going to be making friends. So for that first year we were really kind of homebound. And we didn’t do anything and we didn’t talk to anyone. And she grew out her hair and started to look more feminine. After that we looked for new homeschool roots. And we started making some friends through getting to know those families. Finally we were able to get a little bit of support, but it was a long, long, lonely road.
Has having a transgender child changed your and your family’s life? If so, how?
Debi: It has. We don’t even look at her as transgender at this point because she’s just our kid. And we’ve been living with this for half of her life; she just turned seven. And when you look back, you can see some gender variants that were happening when she was three or three and a half, and we just didn’t recognize it as being that. For half of her lifetime, this has been our normal. So there are days when it doesn’t even register that we have a transgender child. So life is pretty easy and we’re just as boring as any family on this street.
But at the same time, I was very conservative. I mean, I listened to conservative talk radio all day and I was very much politically conservative, straight Republican down the ticket, you don’t even have to ask because there’s nothing I’m going to have in common with any Democrat out there. So that made voting easy. And I worked in a corporate job; I was out of the home doing marketing at the beginning. Then some of the behavior issues started taking place and we decided we were going to start homeschooling our kids. And I can’t imagine as a family going back to work somewhere and putting my kids in a school where I wouldn’t know how they were treated and I wouldn’t know if they were accepted. You have bathroom issues and all that sort of thing. So it’s affected our family life in that way.
On a personal front, I can’t consider myself Southern Baptist anymore. I don’t think I can consider myself a Republican anymore. And politically, I’m out there doing advocacy work and I’m now giving speeches and even on things like immigration, which you would think would have nothing to do with having a transgender child, I have learned so much about illegal immigrants coming here from Latin America because there is such a stigma against the LGBT population there that is so violent. They fear for their lives so much that they will do anything to get here. And then transgender people who come have nowhere to go within the immigration system, so they’re put in solitary confinement. They won’t put them in with women and they won’t put them in with men. So an immigrant who’s trying to escape after having been severely beaten, multiple times, might come here and get stuck in total isolation for up to a year. For me, I’m just thinking that is not acceptable. I had no idea that this existed and it is not acceptable for me to have a human being treated that way. So now suddenly my entire concept of the immigration problem has been turned on its head and now I have to advocate for different immigration laws. So things that I never would have anticipated could be connected have become connected for me.
It’s pretty much changed my entire outlook and world. The more you get involved in an area of politics or the community that didn’t touch you before, the more you learn that so many things are connected.
Another one is homelessness and child sex trafficking. LGBT youth so often are not understood by their families, so they’re kicked out when they run away. And I think the average is that in 48 hours a child who has run away has to turn to prostitution because they are desperate for money. And if you had a trans teenager about to go to a homeless shelter, a male to female is not going to be allowed in with women and small children because there’s a stigma of, “Well they have a penis, so they’ll be a rapist and attack people while they’re sleeping,” or something like that. So LGBT youth a lot of times don’t have somewhere to go. So having a transgender child has suddenly opened our eyes to all of these bigger issues that are out there and really has made the focus of my world advocating for all these other issues.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve run into having a transgender child?
Debi: Our biggest challenge is wanting her to grow up being proud of herself and not being ashamed of who she is. Because she lost all of her friends, she elected to wanting to be stealth. And a lot of trans people do that. And that just means you kind of start over and reinvent who you are with a new circle of friends. A lot of people will pick up and move to a different town or state so that they can start over there and no one there knows that they transitioned. They just see you as your affirmed gender. And we’ve thought about moving a few times for her, too, so there would never be a chance of someone running across our family and saying, “I know you and you had two boys so that’s really not a girl,” and then she could be outed to people. She just wants to be seen as a girl. So we don’t make a habit of telling people, “By the way, we have a transgender child,” because really who talks about what’s in other people’s underwear? I mean it doesn’t really come up in conversation.
So she is stealth, and most people around us don’t know. I mean our circle obviously has recognized us from this video. But we knew we were in a supportive group of people anyways. So the parents know, and most of the kids have no idea. And she likes it that way. She does Girl Scouts, she does gymnastics, and none of the people around her know. So we’re trying to balance her privacy and her right to not be judged by her body parts but rather to be judged by her personality and to allow people to see her just as a normal girl, with wanting her not to feel like it’s a secret or something she needs to be ashamed of. We have to teach her, “You have to be careful when you go into a public bathroom; you can’t be lazy and just stand up to pee. You have to sit down because if people see your feet pointing the wrong direction they’re going to think something’s weird. And sometimes bathroom stalls have a big enough crack where people will peek to see if the bathroom stall is really occupied or not.” She has to make sure she sits so she’s covered so that if anyone peeks through the crack, they can’t see anything. So we have to teach safety issues that you wouldn’t have to teach with a cis-gendered child. And yet we don’t want her to feel like she’s going to be threatened anywhere she goes. So you have to balance how to kind of scare them into being safe but not scaring them into being paranoid.
And then also she hates her body parts and she wants them gone as soon as possible. So we have to try and teach her patience. So body confidence issues you have with girls are so much more amplified with a transgender girl because it’s not just that you’re not pretty enough or maybe you shouldn’t eat that because you’re going to get fat. We don’t have those issues—we have much bigger issues of her accepting her body. And we don’t want her to be ashamed of being transgender. We want her to be able to proudly say to people, “It’s just how I was born, but it doesn’t affect who I am. This is who I am.” So it’s this odd balancing act that we never anticipated having. I think that’s our biggest challenge is balancing each of this issues: being protective, not scaring her, and making sure she’s proud of herself while respecting that it’s her choice how private to be.
What advice would you give to parents about how to tell their friends and family that they have a transgender child?
Debi: This is one that comes up a lot: people ask how do you tell and do you need to tell. Like if we were going to have a sleepover, would we need to tell? We’ve elected not to tell at this point because when kids sleep over, everyone just piles into a big room with sleeping bags or pillows and they’re watching movies and things. There’s probably not any chance that anyone will see her changing clothes. All the kids go to put on their pajamas on individually, in turn. So no one’s ever seen anything. No one needs to know.
We did tell one parent. We were going to be a couple hours away at an appointment on a day where she had ballet. And her friend was in this ballet class with her so she was staying with a friend for the day so they could go to ballet together. And she has trouble pulling her tights up far enough to get everything comfortable. You know, tights followed by leotard. So we did tell the mom, thinking that if she needs help with her tights, the mom might notice there’s a little bulge in the undies that her daughter doesn’t have that needed to be explained. So she had actually seen a comment a friend had posted about her wife being interviewed on the radio and I said congratulations about that. And she asked, “What are you talking about?” and I said, “Well that’s a transgender woman. Her wife supported her through her transition and stayed with her.” And she was like, “Wow, that’s an interesting subject; I’ve never thought much about it.” And I said, “Well that’s a good thing you are curious and want to know more, because I want to tell you something.”
Then we just sat down over coffee and I said, “This is very private information that we don’t trust to many other people, but we can see how much you love our kids and because our families are close and we know that you are going to be a supportive person, we’re going to confide in you something that we don’t really tell anyone else.” And that way it’s setting the person up to be, “Oh yes, I am supportive and I do want to be a good person and do the right thing. So whatever this big secret is, I’m in the smallest group of people that is trusted enough for this family to want to open up to me.” So you set them up in advance to want to be accepting of what you’re going to say. And then you can tell them, “You see that we have a son and daughter. Actually, when our kids were born we were told that we had two boys. And our daughter has been able to tell us through words as well as her behaviors that she is a female. We’ve taken her to the doctors, we’ve consulted with many experts, and because of that we have supported her through a transition.”
So you put in there that it’s not just us making the child do this, it’s not just us going along with the child’s whims. We talked to the experts and this is what the medical advice is. But also letting them know we don’t tell many people and the people we do tell are the people we trust and believe are going to be open enough and understanding enough to be able to handle this. And then they don’t want to let you down. So even if they do have reservations, it’s going to give them pause and their initial reaction is not going to be, “Oh, that’s weird and disgusting. I don’t want to have anything to do with you.” They’re going to try to temper that response and process it a little bit and then say, “I have a lot of questions.” That’s fine, we had a lot of questions too; what are your questions? Let’s talk about it. And in that respect I think you’re setting both of you up for success. And by telling the person you’re open to communications and questions, it allows for a more successful maintenance of the relationship or the friendship.
Do you have any other tips for parents of transgender children?
Debi: My general tips are more for people who are having a gender variant child and they’re not sure if they’re a transgender child or not. Listen to your child and don’t judge them based on your adult conceptions. This is not about sex. This is not about sexual orientation. This is about who your child sees themselves as being. The gender binary we think exists — you’re either a boy or a girl — is more of a spectrum. Your child might fall in the middle, so what you have to do is allow your child to discover who they are and to figure out, without the stereotypes, where they feel more comfortable. You can’t make a child be transgender. So giving them the room and the space, opportunity, and time to figure it out is only going to be helpful to them. They might discover that they are just a very effeminate boy or a masculine girl, and that’s fine. You’re not going to be able to push them into being trans. Let them figure it out. Kids know.
And it doesn’t have to be really scary. You’re not going to go wrong if you give them the time and the space to explore and discover who they are. So that’s my biggest tip, is that a lot of people think, “Well, if a boy says he’s a girl, let’s just go out and buy everything girly and get rid of everything boyish.” We left clothes, we left toys, and it was a choice every day of, “What do you want to present yourself as today?” And that way she was able to discover just how much she wanted. She didn’t have to go to the extremes of the pink and sparkles. She’s more of a tomboy now, and that’s fine. We have a transgender girl who’s a tomboy. And that throws a lot of people off. But that’s where she’s found that she’s comfortable. So for any questioning people, that would be my advice.
If you already know that you have a transgender child, my advice is don’t try to do everything alone. We homeschool, but if you have a transgender child and you need to have them in a public school or a private school or something, don’t necessarily go in by yourself. There are great organizations: Gender Spectrum, TYFA. There are support groups out there who have people trained in how to go talk to school administrations and things like that. So you don’t have to deal with all of this on your own and fight for your child on your own. There are organizations that will support you into getting your child treated just as fairly as any other kid.
Debi Jackson is from the Deep South, but she and her husband reside in the Midwest. Despite 20 years of experience studying audience psychographics in her advertising and marketing career, she still is baffled when she tries to figure out what makes her two children tick. What she does know is that unconditional love is the only thing a family needs to get through any crisis. Because of her transgender daughter, she has become a fierce political activist for LGBT rights and acceptance. She has also recently started a website for parents of transgender and gender non-conforming children: trans-parenting.com.