My 4-year-old nephew is now a niece.
This news came to us through our 4-year-old, who announced, “Benny says he’s a girl now. His mom and dad told me he’s a girl now, so I think he is a girl.”
Whoa, whoa, whoa, I thought, in this record-scratch moment. We knew it might be coming; we’d heard some rumors. Benny had been showing up to family gatherings in dresses and skirts for a while, but clothes are clothes.
But this was new… now our 4-year-old, Trojan-horse-like, was bearing this new “truth” into our home, that a boy could become a girl.
I had debated months prior, if this moment came to pass, how would we deal with it, and how to do so in an age-appropriate way? Would there be a way to hold our own convictions (that a child can’t be in the wrong body) in a kind, respectful manner when dealing with family members who hold opposite convictions? And if the time ever came, how could we possibly impart these two things - our beliefs AND our respect for those who don’t share them - in a coherent way to a 4-year-old?
We sat our daughter down. “Do you know what makes a girl a girl?” we asked. “A vachina,” she replied. “And what makes a boy a boy?” “A penis.” “Benny might believe he is a girl, but it isn’t the truth,” I said, faltering as I tried to choose words very carefully. “But many people believe now that you can change from being a boy to a girl or a girl to a boy. That isn’t the truth. But if Benny tells you he is a girl, you can pretend with him, as long as you know what the truth is.”
This conversation brought me back to something I learned in high school. There my music composition teacher instructed us: “We need to learn the rules of composition and theory first. And only then, once we know them like the back of our hand, are we allowed to break them.”
All the greats had learned the rules of composition, he said, from Beethoven to the Beatles, whether they knew it or not. Was this something along the lines of, “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it?” I wondered at the time; do we need to have a certain reverence for the prior traditions and our roots to have a real grasp of when and why to depart from them?
As I pondered the existence of the trans debate in our family, I remembered my teacher’s words. Although I can’t be sure, I believe my nephew was taught that he could choose gender based on how he identified. And I thought about other questions of truth that I pondered myself as a 4-year-old: Was grass always green? Could it be purple? Why was the sky blue? If a girl had short hair like a boy, was she a boy? The adults in my life had the answers. They knew the rules. And knowing the boundaries of those rules - that 2 + 2 was always 4, that the sky was blue - made me feel safe in a world that was completely new to me. In the same way, it was comforting to be told fairy tales of good and evil. It was only later in adolescence that we started to play around with some of these basic ideas - finding out that there could be negative numbers as well as positive, that good and evil might not always be as crystal clear.
Sometimes I wonder if adults recognize, when teaching very young children that gender is an identity on a spectrum from which they can choose, that many children haven’t even been taught general principles of how sex works, and why it works the way it does. Are children being invited to bend rules before they even know what the rules are?
I didn’t want to cause World War III in our family. I didn’t want a disruption. My daughter has always loved her cousin, and they enjoy playing together. But I couldn’t let these new beliefs about gender win the day, without teaching our child the truth as I best understand it.
Family get-togethers now always came with a forced cheer, as underneath, my fingers were crossed in anticipation of the moment it would all be out in the open, and the volcano would erupt.
And one day, it did. “You’re not really girl,” my daughter told my nephew. “Girls have vachinas.” “I am a girl,” Benny persisted. “I am really a girl.” “You’re not!” she said. “You’re just pretending.”
I held my breath, battling internally. I somehow wanted my daughter to know these things without needing to say them out loud, a burden that no 4-year-old can reasonably bear. And I also didn’t want my nephew to feel in any way rejected, or to try to impose our thoughts on him.
I knew only that I wanted to claim the right of teaching my own kid about gender ideology, and that if we didn’t say something to her at this crucial time, then we’d very likely lose our chance.
Surprisingly, after this brief confrontation over Benny’s social transition, the two cousins resumed playing together and had a great time.
But this incident wasn’t the final word. Benny’s parents have told us that we must affirm Benny as a girl, or we cannot have a relationship with them.
I find myself trying to analyze my way into a solution. If we affirm Benny as a female, we may save the relationship, but we resort to telling lies, to our daughter and to ourselves, not to mention to Benny. If we don’t affirm Benny’s transition, we maintain honesty with our child, but lose relationships. And what if we were to use Benny’s name and avoid pronouns entirely? This would be fine by us, except that we are now the only branch of the family who hasn’t embraced female pronouns. I am comfortable with our daughter learning to be in a world where others challenge her on our family’s deeply held convictions but believe that four is just too young for this.
We have opted to hold to our convictions. That decision has a high cost, and it’s one that I question every single day. I wrestle with losing the relationship these two cousins have had. I worry that Benny will not know our sincere love for him. I worry that the family itself will think we are transphobic and bigoted and not understand that we wish to respect their opposing beliefs and have no desire to undermine them, and that we just want to have the ability to believe as we do and teach our children according to those beliefs.
What impossible choices we face.