You might think you wouldn't have something in common with the parents of a child who is transgender, right?
Actually, you do. Please hear me out.
Most people have never met someone who's transgender—that is, someone whose gender identity or expression is different from the gender they were assigned at birth, based on their male or female anatomy. Ninety percent of Americans say they personally know someone who is lesbian, gay, or bisexual, but only 8 percent know someone who is transgender.
This is exactly where Debi Jackson, a mother of two in Missouri, was a few years ago, too. In fact, Jackson had never even heard the word transgender. That is, not until about the time that Jackson's own child, who she viewed as her son at the time, told her: "I'm a girl."
At 3 years old, A.J. had a favorite princess dress at daycare. That in itself wasn't a big deal; as the teachers told Jackson, it was hardly an unusual sight to see little boys rifling through the dress-up box, just as girls often played with the "boy" toys. Then, A.J. asked for a princess dress to wear at home. At first, not wanting to waste money on something Jackson assumed her son would tire of quickly, she said no.
But when A.J. continued to ask for a princess dress, Jackson and her husband relented. A.J. wore it every second at home, and as a nightgown. Then, A.J. eventually asked for more "girl" things: clothes, shoes, headbands, toys. Jackson and her husband thought this preoccupation with feminine things was probably a phase. When the phase didn't end, maybe, they thought, A.J. was gay. However, when Jackson discovered her son pressing down on his male genitals, because A.J., explained, they were "in the way" and "I want them gone," Jackson took her concern to an Internet search, and typed in "4-year-old boy says genitals should be gone." A short list of results returned, with one recurring word that Jackson didn't recognize: transgender.
At first, Jackson wasn't sure what to think, but even before she got through the appointments she would make with her pediatrician, a child psychologist, and an endocrinologist, A.J. said to her one day, "Mom you know I'm really a girl, right? I'm a girl on the inside."
Over about ten months, with support from a psychologist at the Transgender Institute in Kansas City, Missouri, Jackson and her husband supported A.J.'s transition to, as Jackson notes, "her true gender." They began using female pronouns, allowed A.J. to grow out her hair, and bought her girl clothes while setting her boy clothes to the side, in case she ever wanted them back. She never did.
Jackson and her husband had a plan in place—A.J. would wear boy clothes to prekindergarten until the end of the school year. But, says Jackson: "A.J. had other plans, and one day refused to leave the house in boy clothes. She was done, tired—sick of pretending to be a boy, so that was it." Free to be the girl that she was, with full acceptance from her loving parents, A.J. thrived.
Today, A.J. is a happy, 7-year-old second-grader. She takes trampoline classes, and hopes to make the trampoline team, like her brother did. She has an entrepreneurial spirit, A.J.'s mom notes proudly. She joined the Girl Scouts just so that she could competitively sell cookies with the troop. She loves Minecraft, Princess Sofia, and Cinderella. A.J. is a "born entertainer," says Jackson, "always making jokes and putting on short skits." A.J. also loves animals, and wants to have some kind of animal-rescue job when she grows up.
When Jackson permitted A.J. to go to school dressed as a girl, her little classmates were accepting. Many parents, though, were not. Jackson, herself a self-described "conservative Southern Baptist Republican from Alabama," lost most of her friends. Relationships with some extended family members were very strained for awhile, too, though some have slowly come around, using the correct pronouns and even recently buying A.J. "girl" toys.
After Jackson's family's story was featured in an article by Eric Adler in The Kansas City Star, Jackson was inspired to write a blog post to clear up many of the misconceptions about transgender children and their parents. It eventually became the basis for the powerful video above, filmed last July and originally appearing online on Listen to Your Mother.
Jackson told me that she had almost canceled that video appearance, fearing for her daughter's safety, given some of the hateful and even threatening comments that Jackson's read online. But feeling other families might benefit from hearing her message, she did it. The video went viral, and Jackson's since heard from others expressing gratitude for her speaking out on behalf of people who are transgender.
Most times, other parents don't "get" Jackson and her family, she says. She doesn't expect them to. After all, she was once just like them. "It's okay for you to have questions and not understand it," says Jackson. "That's where we were three years ago."
Increasingly embracing her role as almost an accidental advocate, Jackson started a website to help other parents, to promote education and understanding of issues surrounding transgender and gender non-conforming children and their families: Trans-Parenting.com. GLAAD, which did a follow-up video interview with Jackson you can see here, invites others to check out GLAAD's #GotYourBack campaign, and to learn more about transgender issues here.
Personally, I have yet to meet someone who is transgender (at least to my knowledge). But after speaking with Debi Jackson, and several other parents in the trans community recently, and even from merely watching the powerful video above, I feel like I understand a little better. It's hard not to feel instant admiration for parents who have had their own friends turn their backs on them and their precious children, but can still be generous in both spirit and time to inform and educate, and hopefully, help all of us to make this world a more accepting place for their children.
For all children.
Gail O'Connor is a senior editor at Parents and mom of three. You can follow her on Twitter @gailwrites.