I had to read the e-mail twice before it began to sink in. Even then, I had a hard time connecting the words to reality.
"I am a girl trapped inside a boy's body," our middle child wrote in a painfully honest admission on a bitterly cold night in February of last year. "More than anything, I want to be a girl. Please try to understand. Please help me."
It was a call from the darkness, a desperate plea from a child who had scrounged up every last ounce of strength to reach out.
Like many people, what I knew about transgender children at the time could fill a postage stamp. I recalled the talk shows I watched when my kids were younger, families sitting stiffly on the stage, asking for acceptance, as audience members hurled hurtful misunderstanding their way. The children were labelled confused or mentally ill, while their parents were called everything from overly permissive to outright abusive.
I realized we were now those parents. And he – no, she – was our transgender child.
Alexis was 11 years old when she came out to us. We never saw it coming.
It's true that Alexis preferred sewing to swords, dancing to danger. But any clues to her true gender were ambiguous at best. She idolized Hannah Montana and went through a hefty Justin Bieber phase. Germs and bugs grossed her out, much to the delight of her mischievous brothers. In many ways, we simply saw her as a "softer boy." It didn't matter to us. Our children have always been free to explore their interests and be who they are.
But despite a supportive environment, Alexis never declared her femininity at a very young age like many other trans children do. She didn't fight getting haircuts or wearing clothes from the boy's department. While she knew something wasn't right, she didn't know how to articulate it.
Around the age of eight, she began turning her turmoil inward, becoming withdrawn, depressed, anxious and angry. Meltdowns and panic attacks became daily occurrences. Getting her to school and social activities was like pulling teeth. She would hole up in her bedroom at every opportunity, hiding away from the world.
We tried changes to sleep, schedule, diet and discipline. We took her to social workers, psychologists and physicians. We even moved provinces to access better mental health services. Nothing helped. I stayed up many nights, worrying for my struggling child. Heartbreak is a mother without answers.
It wasn't until puberty found her that Alexis finally realized what was happening: She was inside a body moving rapidly in the wrong direction. It would be several more months before she could speak that truth to anyone else. When she did take this brave step, our initial shock was served with a side of relief. Yes, this was a big surprise, but we finally had a starting point – a way to help.
Our family began this journey the only way we knew how: with love. As waves of uncertainty and fear washed over us, unconditional love became our life raft. We let it lead us through the initial weeks while we slowly found our footing.
What I first learned about gender issues terrified me. The attempted suicide rate of trans people in Ontario is 45 per cent. The rates of poverty, homelessness and addiction among LGBT youth are staggering. Our daughter is far more likely to fall victim to violence and homicide simply because she's transgender.
These frightening statistics haunted me and left me feeling challenged in a way parenting had never done before. It became clear we were in a fight to keep our child alive and well. But there was hope I could cling to. Research clearly demonstrates that supportive families can make all the difference to a transgender or gender-non-conforming child. By accepting Alexis, educating ourselves, advocating for her rights and providing access to much-needed health-care professionals, we are drastically improving her chances to live a long and happy existence.
Life today is markedly different for Alexis. As her hair grows longer, her smile grows wider. At 12 years old, she is nearly indistinguishable from the other girls in our Ottawa neighbourhood. She loves music, movies and friends, and has a nail polish collection that puts mine to shame. After a year of homeschooling and social transitioning, she will be returning to school in the fall as a wiser, more confident young woman. She has resilience in spades.
Alexis's male puberty is suppressed through medication. Eventually, when her doctors at our local children's hospital give the green light, we will begin cross-sex hormones to put her into female puberty. The care she receives is in line with world standards and provides the best outcomes for trans youth.
Is this simply a confused child in the midst of a phase? This is the question we get asked most often. The vast majority of trans kids in this age group will grow up to live as trans adults. Alexis is not confused. She is a girl, through and through. This is our new normal.
Our entire family has embraced her, and our community has welcomed her transition with kindness and respect. As a result, the child we could have so easily lost is now thriving.
But the world isn't changing quickly enough for my liking. Hate and discrimination still exist outside her safe little bubble. In our brief time as an out and proud trans family, Alexis has been called confused and ill; we have been told we're abusive and overly permissive. The Internet lets everyone be an audience member, and not all are kind.
I let their words roll off my back. There's a light in my daughter's eyes and a smile on her face – I know we're on the right path.
Amanda Jetté Knox writes about her life as a mother on themavenofmayhem.com.