A few weeks ago, actress Charlize Theron confirmed to The Daily Mail that her seven-year-old child, Jackson, is transgender. "Yes, I thought she was a boy, too. Until she looked at me when she was three years old and said, 'I am not a boy!' So there you go! I have two beautiful daughters who, just like any parent, I want to protect and I want to see thrive," Theron said.
Both Jackson and her older sister were adopted. "They were born who they are and exactly where in the world both of them get to find themselves as they grow up, and who they want to be, is not for me to decide," Theron added. "My job as a parent is to celebrate them and to love them and to make sure that they have everything they need in order to be what they want to be, and I will do everything in my power for my kids to have that right and to be protected within that."
On the heels of Mother's Day, Theron has set an example for us all about what it means to be a great mother. But while many applauded her evolved perspective and support for her child, others questioned if a three-year-old, or even a seven-year-old, can really know if they are transgender so young, and if a parent should allow a child to present as another gender in a world that may respond with bullying and persecution.
This struck a chord with me, as I have a good friend whose child was assigned male at birth and told her mother she was a girl at the age of four (the child is now five and a half). She is another example that children can be as young as Theron's child and know their gender identity. Studies show that kids often have a strong sense of gender identity by the time they're four years old. For example, the journal of Psychological Science concluded that transgender children as young as 5 years old demonstrate consistent gender identity across a variety of implicit gender-association measures.
My friend is a queer single mother of color who lived in Los Angeles and graduated from UCLA before moving to the East Coast where she gave birth. She works in the non-profit sector, where she helps build safer public spaces using non-criminal and community-based approaches like training, storytelling, art and research. She's worked professionally to educate the public about the experiences of trans and nonbinary people of color in the #MeToo movement. This includes working on campaigns to end the criminalization of sex work which many trans people in particular turn to because employment discrimination shuts them out of alternative forms of employment.
So how did my friend's daughter first reveal that she was a girl a year and a half ago? "She was working on a school assignment where she was asked, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' and she immediately squealed, 'A girl!' I realized in that moment that she had been trying to communicate it to me for a long time in different ways, including once telling me that she was a 'boygirl' and her pronouns were 'he-she,' and this was just the first time she said explicitly that she was a girl," my friend related.
She says her child had been communicating the message even earlier- she had enjoyed wearing princess gowns since she was two years old. She has long, curly hair and, at only five and a half, many have always assumed she was born a girl. On the street, no one questions her wardrobe choices, at least not yet. The same goes for her using the women's restroom.
My friend also let her 5-year-old pick her own new female name, with some veto power, nixing choices like Rapunzel. "At her school, I told her teachers directly that this was her name now and that she wanted to use 'she' pronouns," mom explains. "I mentioned it as an aside while I was dropping her off, and they said it would take some time to adjust, and I said that I understand and that it would be an adjustment for me, too. And it was, but at home, it was more gradual. About a month before she told me, I had moved away from using pronouns for her altogether and just referred to her by name."
When the child started a new school, she was registered as a girl under her second name, and my friend told the school that she goes by a different name than what's on her birth certificate. They never talked about her gender, and my friend says, "It was an easier transition into the new school because they had only known her by her chosen name, so no one had any reason to ask any questions. It became slightly more challenging when she changed her name a second time. It was something that I expected — she was only four when she changed her name, and even now, she's only five."
So will her child stick with it?' My friend admits she has no idea, but that is not the point. She feels there is no harm in respecting her kid's preferred name and pronouns, even if they might change. And there's a lot of harm in not respecting them. One study showed that referring to a transgender person by the name they use to refer to themselves can reduce their chance of suicide by 65%.
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Unfortunately, naysayers don't take this statistic into account. Friends and family’s reactions haven't been as easy or seamless as the schools' were, especially when my friend shares photos on social media. She was forced to ask her own sister not to attend her daughter's birthday party if she wasn't able to respect her name and pronouns, and her father, whom she rarely hears from, thinks she's brainwashing her child. Since she's queer as well, and she's taken her daughter to a lot of Pride parades and events celebrating and lifting up the LGBTQ+ community, they think she's indoctrinating her offspring into her ways and they probably aren't alone. "What's actually happening is that I've always taught her that all families are different and beautiful," the supportive mother says, adding that her own mom has kept a more open mind.
Of course, she has concerns as more people come in contact with her child and it becomes more obvious that she is trans. She especially has fears about what middle school and high school will be like for her. If she does decide her gender identity is something different when she gets older, so be it. She also says if her child asks her to remove photos on social media [of her in female clothes], she'll do so in a heartbeat. Right now, her daughter wants her mom to take pictures and share online, so she does.
Transgender kids definitely need more studies, if only to back up the case that mothers like my friend and Theron are doing the right thing. But the National Center For Biotechnology Information (part of the U.S. National Library of Medicine) did run one that suggests there is real damage to combatting how a child identifies themselves. The "Mental Health and Self-Worth in Socially Transitioned Transgender Youth" study concluded that their findings "are in striking contrast to previous work with gender-nonconforming children who had not socially transitioned, which found very high rates of depression and anxiety."
Trans people are perhaps the most marginalized in the LGBTQ community, but with mothers who publicly stand by their children and listen to what they're expressing, perhaps the waveforms of these actions will cause a ripple effect to everyone else (schoolmates, teachers, even those on the street). Tolerance and acceptance from the person who brought you into the world is a beautiful thing either way.