Before enrolling our child in school, my son Desmond (ed note: child’s name has been changed) and I read the student handbook and carefully discussed the school rules. For several days we practiced walking in a straight line, staying on the right side of hallways, and keeping our hands and feet to ourselves. “Internalize your prison!” I instructed him, as he giggled into his hand and stood straighter. After more than a year of home schooling, our seven-year-old needed practice to meet the more rigid expectations of public school.
Homeschooling was not our ideal choice. In 2010, our rental home was foreclosed on — the bank evicted us, I consequently lost my job, and we moved back in with my mother. She generously provided us a rent-free home while we worked to re-establish our lives. In the meantime, we decided that it wasn’t safe for Desmond to attend school. The county we live in is a striking mix of rural and conservative, and my partner, Liam, and I are both visibly queer transgender men. Desmond himself came out as trans in early 2010.
Desmond announced to us that he was a boy in the middle of a torrential rainstorm, as we drove miserably to pick up the final load of our suddenly fallen-apart lives. “I told the kids at school that I’m a boy and they ask too many questions. I don’t want to go to school anymore,” he said, as rain fogged the windshield in rushing sheets. Driving in such weather is never the best time to shit a brick; Liam and I traded queasy glances and waded in.
Many people interpreted Desmond’s identity as a product of my poor parenting. Most parents of trans children receive this treatment — Liam and I doubly so because we could be directly accused of having “given him the gay.” Others simply hoped or assumed that it would pass. I knew differently.
At around 18 months, Desmond told me that he was a boy. Within the following months he changed his name to Dinosaur and insisted that he was not a boy or a girl, but a mean, meat-eating T-rex. This Dinosaur identity lasted until he was about five. For a few months, he seemed comfortable identifying as a girl. Then, suddenly, the rainstorm.
As a trans person myself I felt silly to grieve, but still I felt a sense of loss for the little girl that had roared like a t-rex in sparkly red high heels. Eventually I realized that the little girl that I grieved for probably had never been. Like my own mother before me, I bucked up and accepted my child as he was. And as I had done since that second line on the pee test, I stepped forward to support him. We found a warm, knowledgeable therapist who guided us through the tenuous times to follow.
We lost a lot of friends and family. Slowly our lives were leeched of cousin-friends and sleep-overs, leaving us largely isolated in the beautiful but slightly sinister salt marsh property my mother lives on. Alligators hunted in the creek behind the house; pick up trucks slowed for stares, U-turning for an extra long look. We stayed on her property most of the time, studying local ecology and reading book after book about Desmond’s favorite topic, dogs. Desmond, being an aspiring veterinarian, volunteered with local animal shelters and insisted on caring for local strays.
In fact, it was Desmond’s desire to one day be a vet that inspired him to ask to go back to public school. He feared falling behind on the math he’d one day need to calculate medicine dosages, and he longed to play with kids his age. I warned him what might happen in the local elementary school, and he reminded me that I might be telling a story out of fear, that my story was something that I was afraid of but couldn’t know.
“I did everything right,” Desmond told Liam. “I sat at the lunch table better than anyone else. I was even going to do some math problems until it was time to go home.”
Desmond was able to attend school for one day before the superintendent threatened to call Child Protective Serices. The issue, of course, was not whether Desmond walked on the right side of the hall with his hands in his pockets as we’d practiced, nor how still and quietly he sat at the lunch table, nor how many math equations he did or didn’t do. The issue was where he used the bathroom.
“She is a girl,” the superintendent seethed at me, “and girls will use the girls’ bathroom.”
Desmond’s teacher had explained to us that while the unisex bathroom is usually for staff only, she could give him a pass to use whichever bathroom he feels comfortable using while the other children are in class. However, following this incident with the superintendent, Desmond told us that his teacher had made him use the girls’ bathroom. His teacher called me soon afterwards to explain: “It was the superintendent’s decision. I just pulled Desmond aside and quietly asked him; no one else heard.”
The next morning, I sat awkwardly in an impromptu meeting with the superintendent and the principal, a briefcase full of trans-related literature from Trans Youth Family Allies perched across my lap. I was expecting a dialogue. Words were certainly exchanged — heated ones, framed in rigid lips curled down in disgust — but no discussion was had. The superintendent had made his decision, and I withdrew Desmond from school.
The absurdity of it never fails to strike me — my child can’t attend public school because he has no place to pee? The intent behind forcing a seven-year-old boy into the girls’ restroom can only be to shame, and this shaming carries with it a violent hatred that has broken bones, taken lives. As I have done all year, I am working hard to move my family far from this county, this time making sure that we will never return. In the meantime, I will do for my son what I have always done: step forward to support him, to forge a place in the world for him to grow.