I’m a mom of a trans girl named Shaheen. She used to be a boy named Shahrick.
When Shahrick was 4, he told me there were no such things as fairy godmothers. He had just seen Cinderella on DVD, and very seriously he said, “I know fairy godmothers aren’t real, because every night I wish upon a star and pray that I will wake up to be a girl, but my wish never comes true.” I thought carefully and then gently replied, “Shahrick, that wish will never come true, but let’s talk about why you want to be a girl.”
I gave birth to Shahrick when I was 29. Three years later, Shahrick’s sister was born, and the house filled up with pink bows and dresses. My son (at this point, he was still my “son,” and still “he”) would put his little sister’s bows in his hair and play with her dress-up clothes. I took pictures of him making brownies with necklaces draped around his neck, dancing with fairy wings, and putting on a play in character as Belle from Beauty and the Beast, thinking they would make great material for a wedding rehearsal dinner slideshow one day. He wanted to take ballet and wear a pink leotard, and so I signed him up for classes, though he wore black leggings and a white tank top. When some of his friends at pre-school said, “Boys don’t take ballet,” he responded, “Yes they do, because I do.” I think this is the moment my child first started to think about gender, rather than just living authentically.
At the age of 4, Shahrick was sure of the reasons he wanted to be a girl. “I like their stuff better. It feels like me.” This made sense to me. Sparkly rainbows, sequined unicorns, and glittery butterflies are prettier than brown footballs, green frogs, and yellow tractors. I wasn’t forcing this behavior or pushing any agenda, but as a mom, I felt it was my job to follow where my kid was clearly taking me. So I simply explained that if preference was all it was, he could wear different shirts, and I bought a few from the girls’ section. He loved them. For his 5th birthday, all Shahrick wanted was a dress with a tutu. I offered up a new bike as an option but met adamant resistance. The dress with a tutu he got was purple with a butterfly.
After turning 5, I saw Shahrick looking in the mirror wistfully while singing a song from Mulan. In the movie, Mulan’s mother takes her to a matchmaker and in preparation for marriage, they put a lot of makeup on her and fix up her hair. When Mulan gets back home, she wipes the makeup off and sings, “When will my reflection show who I am inside?” I felt teary watching my kid. Shahrick had been interested in being a girl for two years now, so I talked with my pediatrician and called the 1-800 number for PFLAG, asking them both the same question: “Is this a phase he will outgrow, or is this an indication that my child is transgender?” Every person I had seen on reality TV who got a gender-affirming operation said that on some level, they had known since they were 3 or 4 years old. Both the pediatrician and PFLAG answered the same way: “Keep an eye on it and love him.” They said I couldn’t know for certain, but the longer it lasted, the less likely it was that he was going through a phase. Although there would be some bumps in the road, it wasn’t a phase.
Of course, this was more than ten years before Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate any reported instances of children undergoing elective gender-transitioning procedures. The directive opines that this gender-affirming care amounts to “child abuse” and seeks to investigate parents helping their child secure it. Governor Abbott also reminded teachers, doctors, and other individuals who interact with children that they are mandatory reporters under the Texas Family Code, so they could face criminal penalties and loss of licensure for not reporting the “abuse.”
The Governor’s logic is flawed. Supporting a child as they struggle to figure out who they are can never be child abuse. No parent wants to make their child’s life harder. Every parent wants their kids to have a simple life where things come easily. But at the same time, you have to love the kid you are given and do the best you can for them. You are their advocate—sometimes, their only advocate. When being their advocate means seeking medical intervention like hormone therapy, or mental health counseling, a parent should be—needs to be—entitled to seek it. The government has no place in such healthcare decisions.
Gender-affirming care is so important to addressing the mental health needs of transgender and non-binary kids. They have higher rates of depression, and making them feel seen and understood prevents suicide. My first thought when I read the order was that some doctors may not want to provide this kind of care if they could be exposed to legal liability, and teachers would have to break confidences. This puts them in a terrible position. Any adult that acts to prevent depression and suicide in a child has that child’s best interests at heart. They are trying to keep that child alive, and that is the very opposite of abuse. Every action I have taken has been carefully taken in accordance with my child’s express wishes and with her best interests at heart.
The minute Shahrick got home from kindergarten each day, he’d change from his gendered “boy” uniform into “girl” clothes that felt more comfortable, and then he would tell me about the day. “The girls sat in the front and listened to the teacher read, but the boys sat in the back and made jokes.” He sat in the front, of course. By second grade, the girl clothes no longer fit, and I heard no request for more. He got interested in Legos, Harry Potter, science, and dragons and had a nice group of friends who were boys, so I thought, well, that must have been a phase.
One night in seventh grade, while being tucked into bed, Shahrick told me that he thought he might be gay. “I love you no matter what,” I remember replying, but I followed up with, “How do you know?” Our conversation was nuanced, but it essentially came down to who he was attracted to, Shahrick said. When he looked at pictures of girls and boys in magazines, he thought the boys were cuter.
In eighth grade, when Shahrick was taking an advanced geometry class, I noticed him cutting himself with the sharp point of the compass he was using to make circles. I asked why he was hurting himself. Shahrick could only answer that it was hard at school, and there was pressure to be perfect. We talked about how cutting doesn’t solve problems, and how it can lead to more self-harm. We talked about strategies to deal with worry, and I told him that grades didn’t matter. I repeated a thousand times how much I loved him and that I needed him to stay alive. I got him a therapist. They met four times in person but didn’t really seem to connect. Before I could think of making a change, Covid reared its head, and the pandemic sent everyone home.
I was grateful to work from home and keep an eye on my child. We had breakfast, lunch, and dinner together. Shahrick said he didn’t need a therapist anymore, because all his problems stemmed from school, which was easier online. Eighth grade ended, and through the summer of 2020, I watched him closely, and while I didn’t notice any self-harm, I saw some sadness and a little withdrawal. When ninth grade began in person, the cutting started again. I became panicked and a little dramatic, drawing butterflies on his arm with a marker and naming them after myself or Shahrick’s sister. I told him if he cut, he was hurting us. The pandemic had strained mental health resources and it was hard to find a different therapist, but after several providers turned me away, I was able to connect with a therapist who had been the former guidance counselor at a Houston private school and happened to be openly gay. I thought that if the cutting was related to any kind of school issue, the therapist would understand, and if it was because Shahrick was struggling with coming out, the therapist could help there, too. Their connection was much better, and Shahrick asked to go back once a week. I could see he was visibly happier. The cutting stopped, and then one evening out of the blue, he gave me a letter.
In his letter, Shahrick revised his earlier declaration that he was gay. He explained that because he was attracted to boys, and society told him he was a boy, the conclusion was that he must be gay. But through exploring some of his feelings and looking back at his emotions, he realized that he was actually supposed to be a girl, and just felt like his body didn’t match how he felt inside. She asked me to stop calling her Shahrick, as she preferred Shaheen—a gender-neutral name in our culture like Chris or Kelly, but also a combination of her old name and my name, to match with me for loving her. I was a little taken aback, but this time, I did not need to ask, “How do you know?” because on some level I’d always known too. I reassured her that I love her no matter what. She visibly shook with relief.
This began a lot of long conversations. Between second and ninth grade, Shaheen told me society had worn her down. She felt like a girl but believed she was a boy because that’s what the world told her, and the distress she felt at her body not matching her feelings was causing the anxiety that led to the cutting. She stressed that throughout the summer, she’d felt her life had less and less meaning, until she hit a wall and wholly understood what she had to do was try to live like her authentic self. It’s age-appropriate for angsty 15-year-olds to pull away from their parents, but Shaheen gave me so many tight hugs after she saw that I still loved her. Not only had I tried my best to support her throughout this complex process, but her life felt more complete and worthwhile than it had since we first outgrew those girl clothes. She was just so grateful that I understood. I bought her a necklace with her new name engraved on it, and she wears it every day.
The transition process started slowly. We picked out a few dresses and she wore them on the weekends to see how she felt. She wore them with confidence—with a bounce in her step. The happier she was, the more I felt comfortable that this was not a teen experimentation. She was just blossoming. Shaheen asked if she could shave her legs, and I showed her how. She started wearing pink sneakers to school and began growing out her hair. She still saw her therapist to help manage the changes, but her grades were great, and her enthusiasm for life soared.
When Shaheen asked if she could start taking hormones to ease into the transition, I felt unsure. I didn’t know if they were safe, if they would work, or what the side effects would be. We got an appointment with a pediatric endocrinologist who specializes in gender dysphoria, and I asked lots of questions. The doctor recommended estrogen and a testosterone blocker, as at age 16, Shaheen was already in the middle of male puberty. Most side effects were reversible: For instance, if Shaheen chose to stop the hormones after a time, her facial hair would come back. Other changes would be permanent, like her sperm count remaining low. The doctor also explained that many trans kids never have a surgery to alter genitalia if society affirms their gender identity and they look the way they want. I took notes, and then sought out a second opinion.
The second doctor was at Texas Children’s Hospital, one of the premiere pediatric teaching hospitals in the United States. His treatment protocol was the same as the first doctor’s, but Shaheen and I both had a better connection with him and ended up selecting him. The physician explained that Shaheen’s hormone therapy would be covered by insurance under a code for gender dysphoria, but some parents, worried about child abuse charges, asked that the coding be listed simply as a “hormonal imbalance.” Texas had tried to pass a bill last spring redefining child abuse to include gender-affirming therapies, but it had been defeated. I told the doctor to code with accuracy.
Some may suggest I should have waited until Shaheen was 18 to start hormone therapy, but I didn’t feel that we had the luxury of time. Male puberty would have been harder to reverse the longer we waited. And, I wanted her to take the hormones under my roof so I could monitor her side effects and mental health. At 18, I would lose access to her health care records, and I wanted to be a part of the journey. I felt that she needed an advocate by her side while she transitioned. No doubt, it has been a tough journey, but we are lucky. We can afford health insurance and therapy, and not all trans kids have this privilege. We live in the city of Houston, which is a blue dot—along with Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas—amongst a sea of red in Texas. People’s hearts here don’t always match the politics of the state.
We are also lucky that Shaheen’s friends and school are generally accepting and supportive. Gender is fluid to this generation, and they don’t care as much about labels. When I tried to tell Shaheen she was being brave, she said “brave” was not the right word—she was just being herself. She dealt with any weird looks or awkward readjustments because the benefits far overwhelmed any drawback. I love her so much, and don’t want her life to be hard. I worry about how her adulthood may take shape, including things like employment discrimination and whether she will find a life partner. But those are worries that I can deal with in the future. For now, I just wanted her to stay alive, and had to act in the moment to handle her distress. All the rest can wait.
Unless it can’t wait. With this order, the actions that I have carefully and pragmatically taken could be reported, and then I could be investigated. I am keeping a folder of the doctors we have seen, the medications we considered, and the therapists I interviewed to demonstrate that all my actions have been thoughtful, and made with Shaheen’s best interests at heart. But if a district attorney disagrees and brings child abuse charges, there is a possibility that Shaheen could be taken away from me right when she needs me most. Shaheen called me from school when the news of the Governor’s directive broke, and it killed me to hear tears in her voice. I was so grateful to her history teacher, who saw and gave her a hug. I reassured Shaheen that the district attorney in Houston would not prosecute me, and she feels better. Our friends have been supportive and loving, and it is good to know that so many people (in Texas, no less) have Shaheen’s back.
Life is full of challenges, and we’ll continue to face them. But in the meantime, Shaheen is smiling and once again sharing clothes with her little sister. She wore a dress to a school dance this spring and got lots of compliments. She’s a trans girl, and I am hopeful about her future. Perhaps our state will see that parents do not make decisions about the well-being of our children lightly. By trying so hard to get it right, I’m like any other mom who thinks about whether her son should play football given the risk of concussion, or whether her daughter should be allowed to be vegan despite the nutritional challenges. These decisions do not amount to child abuse. They amount to a mom trying to fulfill her daughter’s dream, like all moms should.
Nirmeen Anver is the pen name of a lawyer and mother living in Texas.