Finding Myself

Trans Kids Are Not Your Property

1993. I’m with my family—my mother, my father, and my sister, 8 years older than myself. I’m maybe 5 or 6, and we’re in Seattle, the final destination of a hellishly long cross-country drive initiated by my father. For family vacations, we do what he wants to do, and usually he wants to do something physical and punishing, something the rest of us hate, like driving cross country and camping out at dusty, deserted, flea-bitten campgrounds where it’s a mile’s walk to the nearest bathroom and the tile floor of said bathroom is always wet, with dead bugs floating in a pool of water around every outdoor shower drain.

The journey is over now, and we’ve arrived in Seattle. My sister wants to go see Nirvana, who were playing there, but my parents—rather, my father—won’t allow it. It’s her last, maybe her only chance to see them, she pleads. And it turns out to be right. She won’t get another chance to see the band live, because in a year or so Nirvana frontwoman and transgender icon Kurt Cobain will be dead. We don’t know this yet. All we know is that we’re in Seattle, and while it’s not raining, it’s a decidedly gray day, overcast, bleak, bleary. We saw the great outdoor market with its pungent fish stalls, and we’ve been trekking all over the city, because my dad, as previously described, is allergic to comfort. We don’t take trains or cabs or public transportation: we walk everywhere. When we’re tired or hungry he says something like, “can’t you wait?” We, the children, are a nuisance to him, full of needs and requests and the occasional full-throated demand.

Currently, we are still walking, walking, walking, and I’m tired. All I can see in the sky, in the sea, in the Seattle around me, is gray. I am starved for color. When you’re a kid, the world can feel so sharply grown up at times. Everything is so colorless and adult, and nothing about that world appeals to you. You’re on the lookout for the parts of the world that are soft, colorful, welcoming. So you dream about big rainbow lollipops and My Little Ponies and you revel in the rainbow-headache world of Lisa Frank. It’s what you need. It’s a balm to your soul, which feels trapped by all these grown-up things that are just so sad and dismal and desperate, like to be an adult just means to be in a gray, washed-out, rainy world all the time.

And honestly, once you do grow up, you see that you weren’t really wrong about that. It’s called depression, and you had it when you were a kid, too. It’s just that it was easier to manage then.

In all likelihood, what I had seen in the window was not a rainbow-colored lollipop, but a rainbow-colored dildo.

Because a color could cheer you up then. And that’s exactly what happened on that grayscale day in Seattle. We were walking along some interminable street somewhere and out of the corner of my eye I saw a rainbow. In my memory, it’s like one of those corny commercials for anti-depressants where everything in the frame is gray except for one brightly-colored object that pops. I saw a store full of rainbows—in my mind, there was even a big spiral lollipop in the window. I thought it must be for kids—it must be for me. I broke away from my parents and ran across the street. I made it through the door of the store, past the threshold, and then I was stopped—I felt my parents hands on me. I heard them apologizing to the people who ran the store: people who were gay men. Because it was a sex store that I had run into, and in all likelihood what I had seen in the window was not a rainbow-colored lollipop, but a rainbow-colored dildo.

Maybe you remember what it was like back then, even up until around the 2000s: there were stores like this, that weren’t quite sex stores or gay bookstores, but kind of a combination of everything. They were just gay stores. Stores that sold rainbow coexist bumper stickers and “On Our Backs” and dildos and lube and the latest copy of Out Magazine.

I’d found a gay store in Seattle and I knew already that it was home. But my parents—terrified, stammering apologies, focused on dragging me bodily out of the store—could only see danger. I was a child, and I’d entered a place that was for adults. It was for adults in a way that most spaces weren’t, in my life. And even though I lived in a place known famously as the home to “10,000 kissing, cuddling lesbians” as a tabloid once described it, I had never ventured into the gay store. It was for adults. And the world of kids–then and now—was seen as being completely separate from the world of gay people, gay life, gay things.

Because “gay”, in 1993 or whenever it was, meant sex. It meant f*cking. It meant swearing. It meant learning about unpleasant truths. It meant AIDS. It meant porn.

I didn’t see it that way. To me, the rainbow meant safety. It meant love. It meant a way out. The rainbow promised another side of adulthood, one that wasn’t disgusting and sad and gray.

The thing parents need to do now in regards to trans kids is the thing parents have always needed to do historically: back the hell off.

The truth, of course, revealed itself in time. Gay life isn’t all rainbows and butterflies, and at this point in time, seeing a rainbow flag creates a complex reaction that can never again be as pure or hopeful as it was at that moment, when I was a tired kid needing the smallest amount of glitter to keep me going. It’s very different now, but it’s also exactly the same.

When I think about the attack being waged on trans kids, I think about that gay store in Seattle. I recall how my parents—well-meaning progressive liberals who still had nothing but horrible things to say to me when I came out as trans in 2008—could only see it as something I needed to be protected from. Meanwhile, I saw it as something I needed to run toward at full speed.

Parents of trans kids are in a strange position currently. They’re being told by conservatives, reactionaries, and the Pamela Pauls of the world that this trans thing is new, and dangerous, and kind of made up. They’re being told that their job as parents is to protect their children from even learning about trans existence. Because we are told by society that transness is an X-rated subject. Being gay and trans is for adults, so how do we square it that kids sometimes—often—understand that they belong in this community long before they encounter puberty?

Simple. The thing parents need to do now in regards to trans kids is the thing parents have always needed to do historically: back the hell off. A parent’s job isn’t to protect their kid from outside influences, or shelter them from the world’s harsh truths, or protect that completely made-up thing we call innocence. A parent’s job is to make sure their kid is clothed, fed, loved, and understood until the age of 18. A parent’s job is to support their child and help them become the adult they were meant to be. A parent does not own a child, nor should a child be seen as a mindless dependent up until the age of 18, as if that number carries some special adult magic. You can be a dumbass at the age of 8 and a dumbass at the age of 12 and a dumbass at the age of 42, or you can be a genius at the age of 8 and a genius at the age of 19 or a genius at the age of 58, or any combination of intelligences within that. The idea that children are stupid idiots in need of protection merely from ideas and identities is one that upholds the parent as a kind of savior figure. But a parent is not, and cannot be, any kind of savior. Children are human beings, and as such, they know who they are, sometimes at a shockingly young age. On the other hand, there are plenty of adults who never find out who they are. They do not have the courage to find out, nor do they especially desire to learn.

For kids trying to learn who they are, the best thing a parent can do is step aside. Because no good parent should ever feel the need to protect their children from knowledge. Knowledge is the thing that transforms us into the people we were meant to become: and there is no shielding us, or anyone, from the truth.

Children are not the property of their parents. Children have, in fact, very little to do with their parents. And the worst thing a parent can do is to try and stop their children from growing up.♦

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