Three Little Words

I know what you’re thinking. I know when you hear the phrase three little words your thoughts naturally drift to those dreamy words we all wish to hear some day, from those around us, from a partner, from friends, from peers even. As parents, educators, or those with children in our care, those three little words are ones we hope our children hear on a daily basis and will one day hear in life from those around them, perhaps even from a dear partner. You’re with me, right? Awe, I’d love to live in this space with you and the idealistic notion of what comes to mind when we refer to the phrase three little words.

But I’m not going to. And, here’s why.

The three little words I am referring to right now are the three little words that, as a mother of an elementary-aged transgender boy, were like an arrow piercing directly through my heart. My heart still hasn’t recovered from hearing my young trans child utter them to me. By now, you must be wondering what those three little words I’m referring to are, right?

Transgender is wrong.

Yep, within a few weeks of my third grader’s transition at school, where he bravely chose to live his truth as a visible trans boy, he heard those words uttered to him by a peer. My heart still breaks writing those three little words even now, as I attempt to tell you this story. But, this story and what we learned from it needs to be heard, so I’m sharing it with you now. What’s even more important to hear, though, is the way my child handled this painful situation and why I think we all have something to learn from his actions and words, really the actions and words of the fiercely brave children around us, if only we take the time to slow down, listen intently, and see ALL children as part of the celebration of life’s diversity.

“Transgender is wrong,” a nine-year-old peer of my trans son said to him one day at the school lunch tables. Of course, everything that happens always happens at the lunch tables, right, when no adult is within earshot for children to seek immediate help from. That’s just an age old fact. My child was new to the role of self-advocacy and professed at the time to be a “really shy guy” at school. As he recounted to me what this boy had said to him as we drove home from school that afternoon, my heart sank in the most devastatingly profound way. My mama bear instincts kicked in and I was ready to turn our car right back around and march into his school and take care of this craziness, naturally. Who wouldn’t do the same? I know you’re right there with me, right? Instead of turning our car around and heading right back to school, I took a deep breath and asked him, “Oh man, babe, so what happened next?” I was trying to stay calm and hear out the entire story before he and I decided what to do next. Here’s what I heard from the mouth of my then eight-year-old son that shook my world, taught me a couple of huge life lessons that day, and solidified my feeling that my kid is truly my hero. Here’s what happened at the lunch tables that fall afternoon:

“Transgender is wrong,” a nine-year-old peer said, turning to my trans son as he sat down at the lunch table.

“No, it’s not,” my eight-year-old son plainly and simply said back.

“Yeah, transgender is wrong!” the peer restated firmly.

“No it’s not, there’s a poster in the principal’s office,” my son confidently replied.

“There is?” the now wide-eyed peer questioned, mouth agape.

“Yep,” my son said confidently, a shy smile emerging across his face.

Silent stare from the peer. My son turned away and began eating his lunch.

Whaaaaaaat? My mind raced with thoughts as my kiddo recounted this entire exchange. First of all, I was blown away with the confidence it had taken for my son to find his voice, so early on in his visible transition at school, just weeks into the beginning of the school year. Second, I was amazed that my self-professed “shy guy” responded back with such confidence and actually shut the other child down in a respectful way. Third, I was thinking to myself, There’s a poster in the principal’s office? What? I didn’t know that? My first response to him was this: How are you feeling and are you okay. Once he said he was, I told him that by using his voice, he really stood up for himself, advocated for his beliefs, and was able to get himself out of a really tricky situation. I reinforced the notion that it was about that other kid’s issues, not him, that he was glorious, to let the other kid own that nonsense and not to internalize those words. He insightfully understood the power of handing over that negativity to the other boy and didn’t seem to really own any of it one bit. Bravo, kid. My second response was to ask him about the poster in the principal’s office. How did he know it existed and hadn’t even told me yet? Here’s where my kid taught me the first of many lessons I’ve learned from him and one of a myriad reasons why he’s my hero.

“Babe, there’s a poster in the principal’s office?” I asked him. “Naw, well, I don’t know. There was one in the principal’s office in George, remember mama? So, I just said that.” Oh my goodness, there it was. My kid had referenced literature to give voice to his self-advocacy, on the fly at eight-years old, I might add. Hell yeah, I thought, not only did my kid figure out a way to get himself through the first of many, no doubt, tricky situations with peers along his transition process at school this year, but he quoted a book to give confidence to his words. For this educator mama, I was no doubt incredibly proud of him and blown away by his response. Wow, the power of the written word. Aside from the fact that my kid really is the coolest child alive, save his little brother, I want to center the rest of this reflection on this: my kid used literature as a tool for self-advocacy.

As a way to understand the world of being a young transgender kid, before we were able to track down a playgroup of other trans children for my kid to connect with, as my son explored his identity and solidified who he knew he was to the core, we read lots of books about trans characters who reflected his truth. We devoured any and all picture books we could get our hands on that summer before he transitioned visibly at school. Well, there are about ten of those. No seriously, there are only like a handful of children’s picture books with trans characters. We were finished with those quite quickly, but did enjoy rereading and revisiting with the characters and actually role playing situations just to get a handle on what if might be like in school to live your truth. So, we quickly moved on to young adult books. Our first venture into the world of chapter books featuring trans characters was Alex Gino’s George. This is a beautiful book about the transition of a young fourth grade transgender girl, Melissa. My kid and I ate this book up. My kid hung on every word. Each and every word mattered to him. Every scene was mesmerizing. By the time we got to the end of the book, we were literally in tears, we knew Melissa and we were rooting for her with everything we had. It was a glorious few weeks as we traveled Melissa’s journey. The journey was marvelous. And, it stuck. Boy, how it stuck with my kid, in unimaginably significant ways.

So, fast forward to a few weeks later when my kid was confronted with those three little painful words, words that challenged his identity and essentially professed the opinion that who he was at the core of his personhood was wrong. The words from the book George had a profound significance in my kid’s life. One particular scene from George really stuck with my child: the trans character, Melissa, had just gotten punched at school by a peer and was sitting in the principal’s office with her mom. Here’s the brilliance of Alex Gino’s words:

“As the principal spoke, George’s eyes scanned the wall behind her. List upon list of phone numbers and email addresses were taped up to the lower half, interspersed with handwritten notes held up with thumbtacks pressed directly into the wall. Dozens of signs hung above, telling kids to eat right, not to take drugs, to do their homework, and not to be a bully. A sign in the far corner showed a large rainbow flag flying on a black background. Below the flag, the sign said SUPPORT SAFE SPACES FOR GAY, LESBIAN, BISEXUAL, AND TRANSGENDER YOUTH. Reading the word transgender sent a shiver down George’s spine. She wondered where she could find a safe space like that, and if there would be other girls like her there. Maybe they could talk about makeup together. Maybe they could even try some on.” p.124-125.

There it was: my kid had remembered this poignant scene where the main character had first seen the word transgender in print on the poster in the principal’s office and the poster’s association with safe spaces. I remember how excited my kid and I were when we had read this scene and how the character had responded. We had talked at length about how that must have felt and how Melissa was finally finding an adult to support her at school. Wow, impactful at the time, but I had never truly known how impactful those words from that scene had been until weeks later.

That’s the beauty of the written word: To give us as readers the ability to live another’s truth through the author’s eyes. To travel a character’s path without ever needing to leave our comfy reading chair. To have a window into a world we’re completely unfamiliar with or conversely, to experience looking at a mirror of our lives through the eyes of a character, to borrow a bit of an analogy from researcher Emily Style’s work. I’ve always believed in the power of the written word to impact our lives, and the lives of children, in powerful ways. Yes, a truth I’ve known. But, a truth I’ve lived through my child’s eyes? Never. A truth to see the written word as a tool for self-advocacy in tricky times of life? Again, I’d never experienced this until that day with my then eight-year-old trans son. Wow. My heart found hope in a dark time, indeed.

“When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing. Yet, you know you exist and others like you, that this is a game done with mirrors.” Feminist activist Adrienne Rich’s quote is a powerful reminder to us. As parents, educators, and adults in key roles of children’s daily lives, if our intent is to create spaces for children to gain skills to advocate for themselves through tricky times in their lives, to essentially provide spaces and opportunities for them to build their agency, empower their voice and have a central role in their own liberation, we need to center books in children’s lives in powerful ways.

We need to provide books in spaces children occupy that represent ALL children. ALL children deserve to be seen in the books that envelop them.

But, it’s about more than mere representation.

We need to include books that reflect the lives of our children and students. We need to include books that reflect the lives of children within our homes and classrooms and across our nation and the world at large.

But, it’s about more than mere inclusion.

Here’s what it is about.

“Babe, a teacher that I work alongside wants to read Introducing Teddy to her second graders. Isn’t that exciting?” I asked my trans son just recently. This book was another favorite picture book about transgender transition that we read early on in his journey. His response hit me like a ton of bricks and was the second lesson of many I’ve learned from him. “Not if they are mean.” What did he mean? I probed more. He went on to explain that if children are mean, they won’t understand how to be nice when they talk about the character and it would make the whole situation worse, not better. He said they needed to know how to talk about the book. Wow, right? I asked if he thought the book could teach children about learning empathy. He thought for a moment and then said it depended on if they knew how to talk about it. Truth, kid. There is was: the truth of the matter. It’s not about just having the books that represent the children in our rooms and include everyone’s identities and lived truth. It’s truly about how we mindfully use these books to open up thoughtful conversations with children and how we fiercely facilitate these spaces so children have the opportunity to build their empathy toward one another. Thank you for that gentle reminder, kid. You’re wise.

So, more than just providing these books in spaces kids occupy, these books need to be read to and by children. We need to have children experience the lives of these characters in really vivid ways. We need to provide spaces where children have the frequent opportunity to talk about these books, the character’s experiences, and the central themes that emerge within these stories. We need to create safe spaces in our homes, classrooms, and community spaces where children gather, that foster and facilitate open, honest, and compassionate exchange of dialogue. We need to create spaces where tricky conversations can occur in thoughtful ways. And, we need to fiercely facilitate these conversations and actually go there with children. They are ready to have these conversations and we need to honor them by honoring this reality. They actually lead with love and understanding and are known for getting concepts that adults have more rigid views on; emerging research supports this notion.

So, there it is. I’d like to replace those three little words my kid heard one fall day. But, I can’t. I can’t erase that experience. And you know something? I’ve come to learn that I don’t necessarily think that’s the wisest hope I could have. Actually, I’ve come to realize I’m okay I wasn’t there, that no adult was, in fact. And, that’s not a cruel thing to name. If we want our children to have agency over their own liberation from overt or systemic oppression, they must sometimes experience tricky situations alone that enable them to stand tall and use their cultivated voice to advocate for themselves. And how do we prepare them for cultivating their voice, so when these tricky times do come up, they are well-prepared to advocate for themselves? By co-creating safe spaces for these conversations to happen around literature, by fiercely facilitating the exchange of honest dialogue around topics that kids are already talking about, and by honoring them and loving them enough to trust that through this frequent practice, when the time comes, they’ll have the tools to navigate these tricky conversations themselves. This feels really scary as a mother, as an educator, and as an advocate for children, but it’s also a necessarily truth. Using literature as a tool for liberation feels really powerful and supporting parents and teachers to facilitate children’s exploration of identity through the experience of the written word and engage in deep conversations with peers is meaningfully powerful work. My kid experienced the effects of it. I want all kids to have the opportunity to as well. When my kid stood tall, referenced literature, and shut down a bully who essentially stated that his personhood was wrong, I knew in my core the truth of this: literature as a means for self-liberation against oppression based on identity and the conversations children have to prepare for this self-advocacy couldn’t be more real.

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Published with permission from a mother of a young trans child in our advocacy network. -C

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