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"A Dead Son or a Living Daughter": A Conversation with the Mother of a Transgender Child

"A Dead Son or a Living Daughter": A Conversation with the Mother of a Transgender Child

I first met Eva in a Temple Tots program that my wife and I conducted at our Reform congregation in a small New England town. At that time, Eva was about 3 years old and living as a boy. She is now 10 years old, and we recently saw her perform in a theater recital. Watching her perform, I never could have imagined what she’s been through – or the pain and trauma she and her parents have endured.

ReformJudaism.org: When did you first realize that the child you and your husband adopted as an infant and converted to Judaism identified as a girl?

Eva’s Mom: When Eva was about 2 years old and people said, “What a cute little boy,” she would respond emphatically, “I’m not a boy. I’m a girl!” She showed a strong preference for female playmates, dolls, and anything pink. At daycare and at home, she always wore a towel or T-shirt on her head, which represented “long hair,” as she called it.

She often dressed up as Maleficent from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, probably because the evil queen wore extraordinary outfits and had magical powers. Eva felt unhappy and angry about being different from everyone else. “There’s nobody like me, and it’s not fair,” she would complain bitterly. In kindergarten, she started drawing pictures of herself with X’s through them. It was not uncommon for her to throw four-hour tantrums and act aggressively toward us. In calmer moments, she would let me in on her escape fantasies, such as growing wings and flying away, and living in the woods “where nobody will find me.”

 Did you seek professional help?

When Eva was 3 ½, we took her to a therapist, who insisted that young children absolutely could not be transgender; he later apologized for his error. Gender identity is essentially set by age 3. Eva has been in therapy since she was a toddler.

How did your husband respond to Eva’s identifying as a girl?

Early on, he did not realize the true nature of what was happening. Later he was in denial and even tried to intervene by engaging her with toy trucks, Lego blocks, chemistry sets, and athletic activities. He just needed time to process that Eva needed to socially transition to live full-time as a girl.

Did you face criticism for supporting Eva’s desire to be a girl?

For a long time, I was unfairly criticized by everyone around me for such things as not knowing how to discipline, for letting her play with dolls, or for not having her in enough sports activities. My dad said, “If you didn’t have a play kitchen set, none of this would have happened.” My husband’s brother told him, “If you did more manly things or were more of a man yourself, you wouldn’t be having this problem.”

Our whole family is now supportive, but it took about a year to get them there.

How did Eva’s schoolmates respond to her?

She was constantly teased, bullied, and shunned. She was never invited to birthday parties, and no classmates came to hers, so we invited family friends with kids. Honestly, how likely is it that every invitee was unavailable on that day?

Eva tried to stick up for herself, but she felt deeply hurt by the ridicule and rejection of her peers. She started talking about ending her life at age 4, and she attempted suicide at 6 ½. One day, she came home from school and started talking about how she didn’t want to live anymore. She ran upstairs and tried to jump out of a window. Fortunately, just days before, we’d installed safety tabs to keep her from climbing out of a window. After that incident, she switched to a kinder, more accepting school.

To people who say we chose to make our son a daughter, we reply: “You cannot make someone live as another gender. Our only choice was to have a dead son or a living daughter.”

Where have you found support in your community?

Our Reform congregation has been one of the few bright spots.  Eva has always felt at home at temple and loves to be up front on the bimah (pulpit) with the rabbi and cantor. She has felt comfortable asking them questions like, “How can God be so unfair?” They listen and use these encounters to try to comfort her. Most people in the congregation were accepting of Eva when she transitioned, and they were sympathetic to our concerns. The religious school was very supportive, too; the teachers tried to make sure Eva was treated no differently than any other girl.

Last year, Eva was given the honor of blowing the shofar at Rosh HaShanah services, and she requested a shofar for her tenth birthday.

What do you wish for Eva?

I want her to be safe. There are a lot of violent people out there – we saw what happened in Orlando. More likely, she might try to harm herself. Half of younger transgender people attempt to kill themselves, but studies show that having a supportive environment can really make a difference in preventing these suicides.

Our hope is that more and more people will join together to expand the network of supportive communities until transgender people are no longer shunned by society.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism's editor-at-large.
Photo credit: Rose Eichenbaum

Aron Hirt-Manheimer
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