We Think He Might Be a Boy

Tiny Tornado after a recent trip to the barbershop.
Tiny Tornado after a recent trip to the barbershop.

I am at the dining room table, and my five-year-old is in the bathroom. After a bit, I realize that the water has been running for much longer than it takes for him to wash his hands. I hear cupboard doors opening and closing; I hear the rattle of things being taken down from shelves; he’s probably had to put a stool on top of a chair to reach.

“What are you doing in there?” I call.

There is a long pause. He’s definitely up to something.

Finally, he answers: “I am doing,” he says, “what I want to do.”

Let me introduce you to our son. We call him the Tiny Tornado.

He is not yet two and we still think he’s a girl. One day, he refuses every t-shirt in his drawer that has pink anywhere on it, or cap sleeves, or flowers. He puts on jeans and a plain white t-shirt. Later in the day, I’m cleaning out his older brother’s closet, bagging things for Goodwill, and he pounces on a worn-out Spiderman t-shirt that is much too big for him. He wears it all summer. I get it off him every five days or so to wash it, and he puts it back on as soon as it comes out of the dryer. I put his older brother’s outgrown clothes in the basement, and, with a pang, take most of the hand-me-downs from the twin girls down the street to Goodwill instead.

He is two. His brothers are three and six years older than him. We still think he’s a girl. We are at our homeschool group’s Christmas party and my friend Ann says to me, “I find it amusing that the Tiny Tornado is the most boyish of your children.”

He is not quite three. He gets tired of waiting for me to toilet train him, so one day he takes off his diaper and pees in the toilet, and that’s that. He always knows exactly what he wants, but I hesitate when he tells me he wants his hair cut short. I’ve been told so many times that white moms simply can’t cut a black girl’s hair. But he is determined, so, a few days before his third birthday, my partner David gets out the clippers and gives him a mohawk. He runs around with an enormous grin, showing it off. I look at pictures of him with his braids. I think of what hard work it was oiling and combing and parting his hair, how satisfying it was. How beautiful he looked.

He is three. Sometimes he says he’s a boy. We’re not sure. I am looking at a catalog, pining over a red skirt in his size and wishing I had someone to buy it for. He looks over my shoulder. “Ewww,” he says. I turn the page, and there’s a picture of a boy wearing an oxford shirt, khakis, a v-neck sweater vest, a blazer. “Ooohhh,” he sighs, gazing at it yearningly. He learns, from somewhere, about suits with ties, and I buy him one. He is dazzlingly happy, shiningly handsome.

At the end of the year, his preschool puts on a concert. The girls are brilliant in tulle and glitter and sequined barrettes. He is wearing a polo shirt and cargo shorts. I point to where the girls are showing off their dresses to each other, twirling their skirts. I would have loved those dresses at three. I would have loved to buy them for my daughter. I say, “Do you think you would ever want a dress like that?”

“No,” he says. “And I don’t want you to ask me that ever again.”

So I don’t.

He is four. We think he might be a boy. We think probably he is a boy. He holds out the chest of his t-shirt and says to David, “I don’t want to get puffy, like Mama.”

David says, “You mean like breasts?”

“Yeah,” says the Tiny Tornado. He pulls up his t-shirt to show his chest. “I want to be like this, with nipples, but not puffy.”

He’s almost five, and the whole family goes to a conference for trans people, their allies and families, and people in the helping professions. The first morning, at childcare, a volunteer is helping him make his name tag and asks, “Do you want me to write that you like to be called he, like a boy, or she, like a girl?”

Nobody has ever asked him that before, but he answers without hesitation, and the volunteer writes “He” on the Tiny Tornado’s name tag.

The next night, we’re getting ready to go to the family pool party, to join a big happy splashing crowd of trans kids and adults and their families. As we’re changing, I tell him, “I think your blue shorts look enough like a swimsuit that you could wear them to the pool instead of your tankini.” He skips bare-chested down the hallway and spins through the hotel lobby, whirling in little celebratory dances.

He’s five, and he’s a boy.

The week before he starts school, he changes his name to one that sounds more male. The principal and his teachers know his gender status, but to everyone else he’s just one of two hundred little boys showing off to each other on the playground. He worries about his body betraying him, turning him into a woman against his will, and we tell him that doctors can help him with that, if it’s still what he wants when the time comes.

He freezes when his music teacher divides the class into boys and girls, not sure he’s allowed to go with the boys until she reassures him. He asks me to take down a picture of him as a one-year-old. “I have a ribbon in my hair,” he says with distaste. He excels in his swimming lessons, loves his basketball class, learns to skateboard and roller skate. He wants to sign up for t-ball, soccer, karate, hockey, and—now that he knows he won’t be forced to wear tights—a dance class. He trains his dog to jump over jumps and run along balance beams. He can sound out three-letter words and count past twenty. He loves to go to the black barbershop and get a really sharp cut; he admires himself in the rearview mirror all the way home and says with satisfaction, “Lookin’ good. Lookin’ handsome.”

He’s so independent that some mornings he has already packed his snack and lunch for school before I wake up. “Five more minutes, Mom,” he tells me, “and then you really have to get up or we’ll be late.” He tries to pee standing up, and manages surprisingly well, but usually decides to sit down. “He splatters more when he stands up,” I tell his principal. “Well, that certainly sets him apart from the rest of the boys,” she jokes.

I find a doctor’s office that has “male/female/other” on its patient history forms, where he is not their first transgender patient even if he is their first transgender child. I save the information that a new children’s gender clinic has opened in Chicago, just four hours away from us. My father tells me, “I don’t want to have anything to do with you as long as you keep treating her like a boy,” and we are careful about what we tell the Tiny Tornado, because we do not want him ever to think that it’s his fault.

We count our blessings that his school is so supportive, and try not to worry about other schools, and other years. I’m 47 and I’ve never had a career, never made more than $21,000 a year, but I go back to school in speech language pathology. I do this for many reasons, including my excruciatingly banal mid-life crisis. But I do it, too, because puberty blockers can cost over a thousand dollars a month and insurance will almost never pay for them, and whatever choice he makes at 12, at 15, at 18, we need for it not to be about money.

When I was pregnant with our first child, Friends who knew our intimate connections to trans people asked if we were going to try to raise a Baby X, not assign a gender, and avoid pronouns. David would say, “No, we’re just going to go with the apparent biological sex. We figure if we’re wrong, the baby will let us know soon enough.” But we didn’t think that would really happen.

The Tiny Tornado will have a lot to figure out as he gets older: whether to go through puberty as a boy or a girl; how out to be about his trans status; when and how to disclose to potential romantic partners; whether and when to take hormones or pursue surgery. He knows as much of that as it’s appropriate for a five-year-old to know. Which is to say, he doesn’t know much. He trusts us, though, when we say that he is the person who best knows whether he is a boy. He trusts us when we say we can help him with this, that he can grow up to be a man if he wants to, that he can grow up to be any kind of man he wants to be. That he can grow up to be a good man. That we think he will grow up to be the very best kind of man.

Author’s Note: It is customary in my experience to use a person’s chosen pronoun even when referring to their life before gender transition. In addition, I have chosen to respect the Tiny Tornado’s preference not to be referred to with female pronouns.

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Author Su Penn writes: “I put up a blog post today reporting on a session I attended at the TransHealth conference this June. It was a presentation by Dr. Johanna Olson, who has worked extensively with trans youth, and, as the Tiny Tornado’s mom, I went in with a million questions. I found it very informative. If you have questions about things like ‘what if he changes his mind’ or ‘how you can tell if a kid is transgendered or just likes pink or to play sports,’ you might find it helpful.”

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