A Boy's Life

Since he could speak, Brandon, now 8, has insisted that he was meant to be a girl. This summer, his parents decided to let him grow up as one. His case, and a rising number of others like it, illuminates a heated scientific debate about the nature of gender—and raises troubling questions about whether the limits of child indulgence have stretched too far.
transgender child
Brandon on Christmas Day 2002, wearing
his mother's bandanna around his waist
and a towel around his head
(Courtesy of the family)

Catherine Tuerk, who runs the support group for parents in Washington, D.C., started out as an advocate for gay rights after her son came out, in his 20s. She has a theory about why some parents have become so comfortable with the transgender label: “Parents have told me it’s almost easier to tell others, ‘My kid was born in the wrong body,’ rather than explaining that he might be gay, which is in the back of everyone’s mind. When people think about being gay, they think about sex—and thinking about sex and kids is taboo.”

Tuerk believes lingering homophobia is partly responsible for this, and in some cases, she may be right. When Bill saw two men kissing at the conference, he said, “That just don’t sit right with me.” In one of Zucker’s case studies, a 17-year-old girl requesting cross-sex hormones tells him, “Doc, to be honest, lesbians make me sick … I want to be normal.” In Iran, homosexuality is punishable by death, but sex-change operations are legal—a way of normalizing aberrant attractions.

Overall, though, Tuerk’s explanation touches on something deeper than latent homophobia: a subconscious strain in American conceptions of childhood. You see it in the hyper-­vigilance about “good touch” and “bad touch.” Or in the banishing of Freud to the realm of the perverse. The culture seems invested in an almost Victorian notion of childhood innocence, leaving no room for sexual volition, even in the far future.

When Tuerk was raising her son, in the ’70s, she and her husband, a psychiatrist, both fell prey to the idea that their son’s gayness was somehow their fault, and that they could change it. These were the years when the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim blamed cold, distant “refrigerator mothers” for everything from autism to schizophrenia in their children. Children, to Bettelheim, were messy, unhappy creatures, warped by the sins of their parents. Today’s children are nothing like that, at least not in their parents’ eyes. They are pure vessels, channeling biological impulses beyond their control—or their parents’. Their requests are innocent, unsullied by baggage or desire. Which makes it much easier to say yes to them.

Tuerk was thrilled when the pendulum swung from nurture toward nature; “I can tell you the exact spot where I was, in Chevy Chase Circle, when someone said the words to me: ‘There’s a guy in Baltimore, and he thinks people are born gay.’” But she now thinks the pendulum may have swung too far. For the minority who are truly transgender, “the sooner they get into the right clothes, the less they’re going to suffer. But for the rest? I’m not sure if we’re helping or hurting them by pushing them in this direction.”

It’s not impossible to imagine Brandon’s life going in another direction. His early life fits neatly into a Zucker case study about family noise. Tina describes Brandon as “never leaving my side” during his early years. The diagnosis writes itself: father, distant and threatening; mother, protector; child overidentifies with strong maternal figure. If Tina had lived in Toronto, if she’d had the patience for six years of Dr. Zucker’s therapy, if the therapy had been free, then who knows?

Yet Zucker’s approach has its own disturbing elements. It’s easy to imagine that his methods—steering parents toward removing pink crayons from the box, extolling a patriarchy no one believes in—could instill in some children a sense of shame and a double life. A 2008 study of 25 girls who had been seen in Zucker’s clinic showed positive results; 22 were no longer gender-dysphoric, meaning they were comfortable living as girls. But that doesn’t mean they were happy. I spoke to the mother of one Zucker patient in her late 20s, who said her daughter was repulsed by the thought of a sex change but was still suffering—she’d become an alcoholic, and was cutting herself. “I’d be surprised if she outlived me,” her mother said.

When I was reporting this story, I was visibly pregnant with my third child. My pregnancy brought up a certain nostalgia for the parents I met, because it reminded them of a time when life was simpler, when a stranger could ask them whether their baby was a boy or a girl and they could answer straightforwardly. Many parents shared journals with me that were filled with anguish. If they had decided to let their child live as the other gender, that meant cutting off ties with family and friends who weren’t supportive, putting away baby pictures, mourning the loss of the child they thought they had. It meant sending their child out alone into a possibly hostile world. If they chose the other route, it meant denying their child the things he or she most wanted, day after day, in the uncertain hope that one day, it would all pay off. In either case, it meant choosing a course on the basis of hazy evidence, and resolving to believe in it.

About two months after the conference, I visited Brandon again. On Father’s Day, Tina had made up her mind to just let it happen. She’d started calling him “Bridget” and, except for a few slipups, “she.” She’d packed up all the boy-clothes and given them to a neighbor, and had taken Bridget to JC Penney for a new wardrobe. When I saw her, her ears were pierced and her hair was just beginning to tickle her earlobes. “If it doesn’t move any faster, I’ll have to get extensions!” Tina said.

That morning, Tina was meeting with Bridget’s principal, and the principal of a nearby school, to see if she could transfer. “I want her to be known as Bridget, not Bridget-who-used-to-be-Brandon.” Tina had memorized lots of lines she’d heard at the conference, and she delivered them well, if a little too fast. She told the principals that she had “pictures and medical documentation.” She showed them a book called The Transgender Child. “I thought we could fix it,” she said, “but gender’s in your brain.” Brandon’s old principal looked a little shell-shocked. But the one from the nearby school, a young woman with a sweet face and cropped curly hair, seemed more open. “This is all new to me,” she said. “It’s a lot to learn.”

The week before, Tina had gone to her mother’s house, taking Bridget along. Bridget often helps care for her grandmother, who has lupus; the two are close. After lunch, Bridget went outside in a pair of high heels she’d found in the closet. Tina’s stepfather saw the child and lost it: “Get them damned shoes off!” he yelled.

“Make me,” Bridget answered.

Then the stepfather turned to Tina and said, “You’re ruining his fucking life,” loud enough for Bridget to hear.

Tina’s talk with Karen, the mother of Bridget’s best friend, Abby, hadn’t gone too smoothly, either. Karen is an evangelical Christian, with an anti-gay-marriage bumper sticker on her white van. For two years, she’d picked up Brandon nearly every day after school, and brought him over to play with Abby. But that wasn’t going to happen anymore. Karen told Tina she didn’t want her children “exposed to that kind of thing.” “God doesn’t make mistakes,” she added.

Bridget, meanwhile, was trying to figure it all out—what she could and couldn’t do, where the limits were. She’d always been a compliant child, but now she was misbehaving. Her cross-dressing had amped up; she was trying on makeup, and demanding higher heels and sexier clothes. When I was over, she came out of the house dressed in a cellophane getup, four-inch heels, and lip gloss. “It’s like I have to teach her what’s appropriate for a girl her age,” says Tina.

Thursdays, the family spends the afternoon at a local community center, where both Bridget and her little sister, Madison, take gymnastics. She’d normally see Abby there; the two of them are in the same class and usually do their warm-up together, giggling and going over their day. On the car ride over, Bridget was trying to navigate that new relationship, too.

“Abby’s not my best friend anymore. She hits me. But she’s really good at drawing.”

“Well, don’t you go hitting nobody,” Tina said. “Remember, sticks and stones.”

When they arrived at the center and opened the door, Abby was standing right there. She looked at Bridget/Brandon. And froze. She turned and ran away. Madison, oblivious, followed her, yelling, “Wait for us!”

Bridget sat down on a bench next to Tina. Although they were miles from home, she’d just seen a fourth-grade friend of her stepbrother’s at the pool table, and she was nervous.

“Hey, we need to work on this,” said Tina. “If anybody says anything, you say, ‘I’m not Brandon. I’m Bridget, his cousin from California. You want to try it?’”

“No. I don’t want to.”

“Well, if someone keeps it up, you just say, ‘You’re crazy.’”

Tina had told me over the phone that Brandon was easily passing as a girl, but that wasn’t really true, not yet. With his hair still short, he looked like a boy wearing tight pink pants and earrings. This meant that for the moment, everywhere in this small town was a potential land mine. At the McDonald’s, the cashier eyed him suspiciously: “Is that Happy Meal for a boy or a girl?” At the playground, a group of teenage boys with tattoos and their pants pulled low down did a double take. By the evening, Tina was a nervous wreck. “Gosh darn it! I left the keys in the car,” she said. But she hadn’t. She was holding them in her hand.

After gymnastics, the kids wanted to stop at the Dairy Queen, but Tina couldn’t take being stared at in one more place. “Drive-thru!” she yelled. “And I don’t want to hear any more whining from you.”

On the quiet, wooded road leading home, she could finally relax. It was cool enough to roll down the windows and get some mountain air. After high school, Tina had studied to be a travel agent; she had always wanted to just “work on a cruise ship or something, just go, go, go.” Now she wanted things to be easy for Brandon, for him to disappear and pop back as Bridget, a new kid from California, new to this town, knowing nobody. But in a small town, it’s hard to erase yourself and come back as your opposite.

Maybe one day they would move, she said. But thinking about that made her head hurt. Instead of the future, she drifted to the past, when things were easier.

“Remember that camping trip we took once, Brandon?” she asked, and he did. And together, they started singing one of the old camp songs she’d taught him.

Smokey the Bear, Smokey the Bear,
Howlin’ and a-prowlin’ and a-sniffin’ the air.
He can find a fire before it starts to flame.
That’s why they call him Smokey,
That’s how he got his name.

“You remember that, Brandon?” she asked again. And for the first time all day, they seemed happy.

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Hanna Rosin is an Atlantic contributing editor and the author of God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America (2007).

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