Our Story of Desistance
Today, our son is a 20-year-old sophomore at a liberal arts college. He is a walking, talking story of success, with a merit scholarship, and straight As. He speaks Japanese and has self-published two novels. He's physically and mentally healthy and self-reliant, in a loving relationship with a girlfriend, with a great friend group. He's thriving.
Except... when he comes home. Where he is so profoundly triggered by being back in his neighborhood, his house, his bedroom, that he can't sleep. Why is this? Because, sadly, he’s haunted by memories of one three-year period of his adolescence, filled with depression, anxiety and self-harm. The three years where he identified as a girl.
He had always been a special boy —a square peg, a socially awkward kid who preferred the company of adults to hanging out with his peers. He is sensitive, empathetic, mature, and intelligent, but he never quite fit in at school.
During his pre-teen years, he went down the Reddit, Tumblr rabbit hole, searching for his tribe. You’ve heard his story before on PITT, because it’s a common one.
At 12 1/2, he told us he was gay. We responded with love and support. But his social anxiety only grew and he began cutting. At 13 1/2 he asked for a gay therapist, and our school’s director recommended one. After three sessions our son told us he needed to come out to us AGAIN. “I’m a girl, I’m trans.” And again his revelation was met with love and support also this time we also reacted with surprise—and private and confident disbelief.
Immediately, we made an appointment for a family session with his therapist, where we were told “to mourn the loss of your son and embrace your daughter”. This seemed extreme, and certainly, extraordinarily, FAST. Our son had never exhibited any feminine behaviors or traits. But, even so, we chose to trust the experts, and to follow the guidance of this medical professional who immediately chose to affirm our child.
This so-called professional then took it upon himself to reach out to our child's school, telling them to change our child's name in the yearbook, to ask the teachers to use new pronouns, and to give our child access to the girl's bathroom. And the school did all of this, without question or hesitation.
We were stunned at how quickly our young, puberty-age son had been told that the reason he felt socially anxious and uncomfortable in his own skin was that he had been born into the wrong body.
Today, our son blames us for not pushing back at this absurd diagnosis. He doesn’t understand how we bought into it. Why did we not trust our gut feeling that this was wrong? Why did we let him buy girl clothes he never wore? Why did we send him to an LGBTQ+ summer camp, where counselors tell the kids, “This is where you can be yourself, this is where you are safe, your parents don’t understand you, we do”. Why did we go along with any of this when he had never shown “consistence, persistence or insistence” regarding gender dysphoria?
Why indeed? We gave him the simple answer. Fear. He had been cutting. And was constantly sharing statistics about trans suicide rates and that he only had a 40% chance of living past 18. We went along with it all, knowing it was not his truth, because we were scared he would kill himself. And whenever we sought reasonable counsel and wisdom we found none.
I saw a therapist for myself who specialized in this field. I found her to be kind, open, very easy to talk to... until I told her how uncomfortable I was with the situation and the speed with which everything was happening with my son, and how my mom gut told me this wasn’t his truth—and how I was certain that my son was overcome with depression, not suffering from a gender mismatch. She sternly told me that I was in denial. I needed to immediately get into the meetings at an organization she was affiliated with: Transforming Families. I walked out feeling as though, yet again, I’d gone with an open mind, looking for an evidence-based conversation, only to be punched in the gut.
Throughout this entire time, our child did not change his appearance, grow out his hair nor adopt a new style of dress. Other than a small padded bra a couple of days a week and a purse. He did not seek out a new peer group. He DID take a feminine name, female pronouns and used the gender-neutral bathroom. Coincidentally, all the things his therapist and the school had worked out for him. He was also happy to correct us, disagree, spout statistics and regurgitate pro-trans activist anecdotes. But by almost every metric, he was living his life as a teenage boy.
Yet, all the while, our son told us that he desperately needed hormones or he “might revert back to being a boy if he didn’t have them right away”. We wanted to be able to consult with a doctor, at the very least. However, the word on the street, from two separate sources, was that the doctor at CHLA doesn’t give the kids any psychological evaluations, only an abacus where they slide beads to tell her how they identify. Then she puts them on hormones or puberty blockers, depending on their stage of development. So... that was out. Instead I called a local pediatric endocrinologist to have a consultation. This doctor told me what I wanted to hear, which was that she would NOT give our son any hormones. So, I brought him in to see her, pretending she and I had never met.
As recently as last month, we explained most of this to our son. We explained how, though we had always presented a loving and supportive front to him, we had worked behind the scenes to prevent any permanent changes to his body or legal identity. Since learning this, his anger toward us has lessened.
At the time, we’d give him reasons like: he was legally too young. Or that our insurance wouldn’t cover the cost of HRT. We just needed to buy him time to try on this new label and work through the depression and anxiety component without any gender-based medical involvement. Creating the space and time to explore and grow emotionally.
Eventually, the interest in transitioning began to fade. The purse stayed on the shelf. The bra stayed in the drawer. He seemed lighter, like the depression wasn't winning anymore. Perhaps it was a newfound love for playing guitar with friends in a heavy metal band. Or the satisfaction he found in creative writing. Whatever the reason, we sensed he was looking for a way to realign.
We made an appointment to see his therapist and discuss. The therapist disagreed with our frontline assessment and claimed that our son was in danger of behaving recklessly. And yet we were seeing the total opposite at home, a return to calm, little to no cutting, no more talk about trans activism. The therapist said he didn’t agree, nor did he want anything drastic to happen under his watch. He said could no longer treat our son. We were on our own.
Now, without any professional guidance as to next steps, we suggested to our son that he get some time outside the bubble. How about a summer trip with a teen tour? Our kid was thrilled at the idea of visiting Japan for two weeks. And when he returned home after this adventure, he calmly explained to us, “I'm not a girl, I'm not trans.”
Looking back, our son feels he was the victim of manipulation. Immediately affirmed by adults, therapists, camp counselors, school counselors, the people on Tumblr, DBT, Reddit, the internet, and society at large, that he was not just like every other teenager searching for a tribe while transitioning to adulthood—they pushed him down the path of believing he been born into the wrong body. Thankfully he was given the time and space to figure out on his own that this was not the case. But now, even though he never experienced medical interventions, he carries a distrust for the system that rushed to give him a label, and that he believes, failed to support his truth. Which is : “I'm not a girl, I'm not trans.”
Our son is not the only one who feels let down by the mental health and medical professionals. We didn’t get it all right by any means but, were it not for our parental diligence, application of common sense, critical thinking, and yes, subterfuge, our child might be physically scarred for life and/or dealing with the complexities of drug therapy, trapped in a body he was not born into.
At the moment, our son’s trauma consists of anger and nightmares, all unwelcome souvenirs from that scarring 3 years that were stolen from his childhood. In spite of all his success at college, he remains on anti-depressants. We hope that, in time, he will work through his PTSD, casting it aside like he did that padded bra and purse.