“I feel like when I was born, the midwife slipped a man’s suit over me when no one was looking, and I can’t find the zipper to take it off.”
Ruby* is an exceptionally beautiful girl with shoulder-length, wheat colored hair that’s almost as animated as she is. The wind keeps flopping strands of it into a smile that lights up the coffee shop where we sit. Her earrings are small, gold lightning bolts—appropriate, given her electric personality. And her eyes? A deep hazel carbon copy of her father John’s, who is sitting next to her.
Ruby is only 12 years old. She is transgender. And she came out her classmates on her birthday, only one week before our coffee date. Standing in front of her science class, she explained how she was a girl born into a boy’s body.
“They all clapped for her. One kid gave her a high-five,” John says, excitedly interrupting the shorter version his daughter is telling me. He is proud. Very proud. And emotional. He says he wants to make sure others know how accepting children are if the adults around them are supportive.
This is not the reception most transgender children receive. It is a testament to the times, to Ruby’s parents, and to her progressive Boulder, Colorado, school district. According to John, Ruby was previously in a school that borders Boulder’s school district, where the climate was the opposite. When Ruby came out to the teachers and principal at her last school, the reception was so bad that they moved her to Boulder with only four weeks left of class. This was the first in a string of moves her parents made to advocate for their daughter.
“You go into protection mode,” John said.
Parents of transgender children usually aren’t prepared for their children coming out. It’s not something most people expect. For John and his wife, the journey has already been a difficult one.
“For a long time she was distant and distraught,” he said. Even Ruby wasn’t sure why. At one point, he said, she thought she was bisexual. Then she thought she was gay. Then one day, she saw a movie about a transgender girl. “The movie sort of tied everything up in a nice little bow for her.”
Looking back, he and Ruby agree she has had these feelings since she was a little girl. She just didn’t know how to express them.
Ruby’s experience is not unique.
“We work with a lot of children who start transition around the start of puberty. Before puberty, physical differences between genders are less pronounced, and gender roles can be more fluid,” said Abby Simon, a licensed social worker with the TRUE Center for Gender Diversity at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “There are significant challenges and concerns that come from being transgender, but parents should also know that transition can be an expansive, healing, and beautiful journey. We work with so many young people who are thriving and for whom their gender identity has helped them be more caring, responsible, tolerant, strong, and resourceful.”
TRUE serves more than 450 patients, who range in age from four to 25 years old. Seattle Children’s Hospital reports that it and Colorado are among only five children’s hospitals in the nation that have clinics dedicated to caring for young people with gender identity concerns. Dr. Daniel Reirden runs the Colorado TRUE Center. He has more than 15 years of experience working with gender-diverse children, adolescents, and young adults.
“The Center offers an array of services, including medical evaluation and management of puberty-blocking hormones and cross-sex hormones, psychological support, and resources to work with schools,” he said. Reirden said gender confirmation surgeries are not done before the age of 18 and hormone blockers are not only safe, but completely reversible.
Amanda is the mother of an 11-year-old girl who started her transition last year. She said she supports blockers because going through puberty could be very damaging to her daughter’s mental health.
“Imagine being trapped in the wrong body and then all of the sudden those features getting more pronounced… having the ability to basically just put a freeze on puberty is a wonderful option,” she said.
As for parenting, Amanda said, “listen to them. They know how they feel inside.” She has had several conversations with her daughter that confirms for her that this is not a phase or gender experimentation. “Plus,” she said, “her therapist told me no one would put themself through what she was going through with her peers if it was just a phase. They would just stop after seeing people’s reaction.”
Reactions from friends and family can be particularly difficult. Some blame parents for raising gender nonconforming children.
“A kid’s gender identity is not determined by parents or parenting,” said Erik Kluzek, an engineer at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder. Both he and his wife said neither of them knew any transgender people when their adult child came out as a transgender woman four years ago. “We figured that it was due to ‘crazy liberal parents’ who wanted the opposite gender child.”
Determined to be the best parents they could be, the couple began researching, meeting other moms and dads, and having in-depth discussions with their own daughter. Kluzek now helps other parents by being on the leadership team of Trans Youth Education and Support (TYES). It is a volunteer peer-parent group designed to help parents throughout Colorado. His advice for parents new to the group?
“Listen to your child and assure them that you love them no matter what. Let your child explore and follow their lead,” he said.
Peer reactions may be the hardest issue for parents to help their children navigate.
Ruby said many of her friendships were strained before coming out. Friends would often come home with her but end up playing with her brother because she didn’t enjoy the games her boy friends were interested in. Now she feels like she’s on display when she walks down the halls at school.
“Everyone is looking at me. I can see their eyes. They are trying to figure out features I have that make me identifiable,” she said. Ruby hasn’t been bullied, and she’s not afraid of bullies.
“I’m strong,” she said with the kind of bravado reserved for the young. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t vulnerable. “Sometimes at night, I crawl into the crack between my bed and the wall. It’s my safe place when I have anxiety attacks in the middle of the night,” she confided.
Midnight anxiety attacks are not new to Ruby. But since coming out, her father said they have decreased significantly. John suspects they are decreasing because she doesn’t have to worry anymore about her friends discovering her secret. She also doesn’t need to worry she may lose friends because she didn’t tell them she’s transgender.
It’s a lot of weight to carry on 12-year-old shoulders.
“She’s transitioning, thinking about the rest of her life, and she’s in the middle of school,” John said.
Ruby is a member of a new generation, perhaps the first that, from a young age, has support, accurate information, and access to medical and therapeutic services. As for now, John and his wife are trying to provide her with as much support as necessary.
“Sometimes,” Ruby says, while rolling her eyes, “too much support.”
There is a strong bond here. She and her father talk, interrupting and finishing each other’s sentences. At times, it’s like watching a comedy team. At one point, Ruby gets tired of her father trying to clarify what she is saying and exclaims, “This is my interview, Dad!” Her dad lets her finish as she trails off into an analogy about zombies neither of us can understand.
That doesn’t matter. What does matter is there is a lot of love. And support.
“We need to start with the kids and understand why their life is turning out this way,” John said. “They are teaching us.”
*Only first names and/or pseudonyms were used in this article to protect the children’s privacy.