It was a phase. We insisted on it. It was fine, we all said, and told my sister Ann not to worry. If little three-year-old Frederick liked to wear high heels, or wanted to wear dresses around the house it wasn't a big deal. It was a phase.
It’s just a phase, I told her.
But my sister would tell me in private moments that she did not think it was a phase. She would tell me that I didn’t know Frederick. I was dismissive and I told her she read too much into it. She did worry about it though, and so did I. And so maybe did the rest of us.
I’m telling you it’s not a phase, she said. He tells me he does not understand why he has a penis. He asks me when it will fall off. He asks me when he will get his vagina. He doesn’t understand why he doesn’t have one.
After she told me that I started to pay attention. A child doesn’t know any better. But adults should. I should have known better.
Our father marched during the ‘60’s. He’s never made a big deal of it, though some of the stories leak out now and again. He marched against the Vietnam War and he marched for civil rights. He was a ‘marshal’, indicated by his black armband. He would march next to the leaders of the protests, and was charged with their protection.
Our mother didn’t march but did what she could. During the push for the Equal Rights Amendment, as leaders of that movement staged hunger strikes, she set aside Wednesdays as a day of fast in support of them. She sat at the dinner table, her plate empty as we ate and discussed our day.
They had three of us, me and my two sisters.They brought in foster children. They adopted one. We are four.
Our Italian family from the suburbs of Chicago. My mother is not Italian and neither is my brother. But it was our identity. We were raised to see people as people. We tried not to see labels. We were to judge by character and content and not color.
We learned about sexuality at an early age and were not supposed to be afraid of it. Our mother showed and read us books about how babies were made and how they were born. As we grew toward and into puberty we received our own copies of books like “Our Bodies Ourselves” which explained the changes we were going through and what further changes we could expect.
We were “woke”, our family, even before people used the word woke to mean enlightened or progressive or understanding. Or so we thought.
But we never talked about gender identity. There was no mention of words such as ‘transgender’ or ‘cisgender.’ The books did not mention them. I’m not sure my parents knew it was something that needed discussing. During the 1980’s the United States was having enough issues coming to grips with homosexuality. Transgender was not on the radar at all.
Cross-dressers. Transvestites. These were the words that were used, if they were ever discussed at all.
Frederick came into the world on a late spring day in May of 2009. He was born to racially mixed parents, my youngest sister of our Italian/Polish-American clan and her husband, an African-American man. They were highschool sweethearts, and while their coupling did not seem to affect our immediate family one bit, it had been deemed necessary that their relationship be kept hidden from certain members of our extended family, lest it spark any outrage, argument or unnecessary comments.
I can admit now, though, that in private moments I would wonder why she could not find a nice white guy. The moments were fleeting and irregular, but they existed. I’m not proud that I had these moments, but I had them. I don’t think that his blackness was directly related to my issues. But indirectly it may have been. Not because I cared who my sister dated. But it has always seemed to me that Ann, the youngest child of my parents, has chosen the path of most resistance. And dating a black kid, even in the mid to late 1980’s, was still a path of resistance.
But I don’t think that Ann’s path is a choice. It is ingrained in her that she follow her heart and do what she thinks and feels is right. We all want to believe we are right and that we do the right things in life. But taking action and backing up beliefs is the hard part. I like being right and try to stand up for what I believe, but historically I have tried to avoid confrontation unless I see that there is no other way. Least resistance is the easier path to take, but that is not Ann’s way.
Frederick was the third of four children born to my sister and her husband. They had managed to pull off a pattern of boy/girl/boy/girl, and while their children would have the usual sibling rivalries, it seemed perfect that they would all have one like the other to share their experiences with as boys and girls and then as men and women.
Frederick’s complexion was a creamy light brown, as were all of Ann’s children, not jet black like their dad’s and not alabaster like their mom’s. People always comment on how beautiful their skin is. And Frederick’s was no different. Until he was.
Babies are needy by their nature and Frederick was no exception. But as he grew into a toddler, that extreme neediness persisted. Frederick was prone to outbursts and meltdowns, and they were more intense and more prolonged than I’d seen in my sisters’ other children or in my own child. He would be unable to calm down after a meltdown. He’d been known to flee the house, running down the street in an escape attempt to escape. He never got far, and it was never exactly clear what the meltdowns were about or from what he was trying to escape.
There was a certain amount of exasperation with Frederick from all of us, especially from our father. He would try to be calm, but there has always been an amount of eye rolling and talk under his breath when a scene Frederick was creating was about to unfold. I have tried to have patience with Frederick, but patience has never been a strong suit in our family.
I’m not the only one who thought that something was ‘wrong’ with Frederick, but he did seem different almost from the time he started walking and talking. I didn’t mean for ‘wrong’ to be hurtful but I’m sure I said it out loud more than once. It was undeniable that Frederick was different, especially when compared to his siblings. Frederick had ‘issues.’ He was anxious and high-strung and worrisome. Counselors and social workers were enlisted to try and get him and his parents some answers and maybe some peace.
My sister naturally noticed some of these ‘issues’ earlier than I did or the rest of the family may have. Most of the family’s first glimpse into Frederick’s ‘phase’ came soon after he could walk and talk and start to imitate his own sister. They both loved their Aunt Beth, who they simply call “Auntie.” Auntie is the third oldest of my siblings in our family, followed by Frederick’s mother and preceded by me and our older brother. My sisters have an extremely close relationship, almost to the point of annoyance. I have come to call them by a common name, a one word combination of their first names, like a celebrity couple along the lines of “Bennifer” or “Bradgelina”. And while I Auntie is not exactly a co-parent, she is a close third behind my brother-in-law when it comes to raising Frederick and his siblings.
All of my sister’s children do, but Frederick had a close relationship with Auntie from the start. So when his own sister began to find pairs of Auntie’s high heeled shoes lying around and wearing them around her house, Frederick would do the same. He would do it even when his sister stopped. He would wear Auntie’s shoes so much that she would have to hide them from him or limit his time with them lest they be ruined. But that never stopped him, and he was forever clomping around on her hardwood floors in her high heeled shoes. It was endearing for a while, but it became another point of annoyance the rest of us, especially the constant sound the oversized shoes made, and the inevitable scene that was caused when the shoes would get put away.
But Frederick was just a child, and what’s to be made of a child wanting to wear his Auntie’s shoes? No one felt any issue with it or saw any harm in it, even as we’d giggle and tease Frederick’s father. He has never seemed to be anything other than tolerant and in that respect has always fit in with our family, but between me and my father and my brother, my brother-in-law has always been the most traditionally masculine. He was a wrestler in high school and has been a weightlifter on and off all of his adult life. He was an easy target for us to tease about his son’s love of his Auntie’s shoes. It was good natured ribbing, or so we thought at the time. But as with most things about Frederick when he was younger, we should have known better.
So then it came as no surprise when Frederick wanted to wear clothes like his older sister. He wanted to wear dresses. He wanted to wear skirts. He wanted to wear necklaces and carry a purse. None of it seemed like a big deal to us, just another part of his phase. He looks up to his sister, we said. He’s just a child, and what does he know of gender and what was acceptable?
There never was a time that Frederick relented or a time that he did not push the issue. He was trying to communicate something to us, something that he did not have words for, but something that he knew. He just wanted to be himself and express himself in a way that was honest. And so he was allowed to play dress up. My sister did not buy him the clothes he wanted, but did get some princess dress-up type dresses and some second hand girls’ clothing for him to wear. Frederick began a double life. My sister’s children started pre-schooling at three years old at the school they attended, and when he was at school he would wear his boy clothes. But the moment he got home from school those boy clothes would come off, and on would come the dresses and accessories.
Frederick always made me laugh. From afar, as the uncle, I was able to take his outbursts and outlandish comments to his mother for what they were because I did not have to go home with him at the end of the day. He cracked me up without meaning to. My sister has a colorful vocabulary, and her profanity has worn off onto her children. But while her oldest two children are able to censor themselves, Frederick will use profanity as part of his outbursts. He favors variations of the ‘f’ word, and when he drops it I cannot help but laugh. He has on occasion been frustrated and dropped the f-bomb, and when his mother gets mad about it he has said “but Mom, I didn’t say motherfucker!” But as much as I enjoyed him and his comments, and as much as I and we all tolerated his ‘phase,’ it was jarring to see him in his dresses. His face and his little afro said boy but the dress and shoes said girl. He was happier in them, though, and he seemed more comfortable, even if it may have made me just the slightest bit uncomfortable. I didn’t want it to but it did. But he was still Frederick regardless of what clothes he was wearing.
My sister knew better. She knew that we referred to Frederick’s dress-up as a phase. In private moments when we would talk about Frederick, she began to tell me what she really thought. She would tell me how Frederick would ask her questions about his anatomy. He would ask her about his penis and why he had one. And he would ask her how long it would be until he would get his own vagina.
She told me she didn’t know the word transgender before he asked her those questions. Her research had started right then, she said, as she sat on the closed toilet getting Frederick ready for a bath. She typed “my son wants to be a girl” into the search engine on her computer, and so it began.
My sister knew what was to come. I think that the rest of us held out hope that Frederick would outgrow his feminine ways and act like he was supposed to act. I know that there were times that I hoped for that. As open-minded as I tell myself and others that I am, and as much as I want people to be who they feel they are, it’s a different dynamic when something “other” is close to home. Part of it was me clinging to outdated beliefs of what femininity and masculinity are supposed to be, that boys should be tough and play sports and that girls should wear dresses and play with dolls. These are not my beliefs but what I still think are the beliefs of our society at large. And while change comes, it comes slowly, and because of how I assumed people would respond, part of it was embarrassment. If Frederick was not Frederick it would be something that we’d have to explain to people knowing that we’d be met with disapproval on many fronts.
A lot of it was concern for my sister. It would be yet another hurdle she’d have to jump over. It was another struggle that she would have to endure. The path of most resistance was paved with my sister’s tears, for even as she wanted to do what was right, by herself and for her children, her path almost certainly takes a toll on her heart and on her soul.
She held out for as long as she felt she could. But by the time he was five years old Frederick wore girls’ clothing everywhere except to school. My sister knew that the transition was coming, but it was difficult for her to let it happen for Frederick at such an early age. It would involve a lot of work. It would involve a lot of questions. It would involve a lot of explanation. And there would be no going back.
Frederick did not know anything of transition. Frederick did not know how the world worked or about genderism or about our society’s difficulty with ‘other.’ My sister has told me that in her research and in her support groups the stress is on keeping the child free from labels. That’s probably a good lesson for all of us, but as it pertained to Frederick he just wanted to be who he was. For Frederick, there was not a transition. He merely wanted to be who he was. He was a girl, and much of his young life had been spent trying to make other people see what he knew to be true.
Maybe it’s called a transition for everyone else. It was not Frederick who needed to change. It was the rest of us.
Somewhere during that fifth year Frederick gave himself a new name. He insisted that people start calling him Maxine. My sister and her husband allowed her a wide berth at home, and the family began to call him Maxine and to refer to him as her. But as they began to realize that they would have to allow Maxine to be who she really was and could not hold onto a Frederick-in-public and Maxine-in-private dynamic, Maxine forced the issue. Mid-way through her second year of kindergarten, K-5, grade, Frederick became Maxine to the world. She announced to her class that he was in fact she, and that they were to call her Maxine.
Maxine made the decision, and helped her parents and the rest of us transition. Without realizing it, she did the right thing. And without realizing it, she made her life better and more challenging all at once. She came out to the world, but it would be left to my sister to do the rest of the work.
And so in that summer between the kindergarten and first grade my sister did research. Many things she already knew by that point, but there was no avoiding who Maxine was any longer and she did not want to announce Maxine’s arrival without being informed. She learned about the term “gender non-conforming” and used it in her discussions with us. When she finally discussed it with our family and her friends and when she finally sent out emails to extended family and when she finally had to discuss Maxine with the school she had facts. She knew that there is somewhere around 1.5 million people in the United States who identify as ‘transgender’, and that the number is probably higher, for people who are transgender do not always have support and do not come out as such. She knew that the suicide rate for transgender is between forty-one and forty-five percent. And she was determined that her child would not be part of that number.
For me, it was that statistic that erased any lingering concerns and hang-ups I may have had. Whatever we were to call my sisters’ third child, she was still a great kid and deserved to be happy. She would face prejudgment once she was out in the world, and the last thing she would need was disapproval from within. Whatever stigmas I may have been concerned with for myself and for my sister were gone as I rallied in support of Maxine. But that is not to say that it was not a challenge for us. It took a while to stop using “he.” It took a bit longer to stop saying Frederick and to start saying Maxine. Early on it came out as “he…she” followed by “Fred…Maxine.” Over the past two years, though, all of our confusion has ended, and Maxine is Maxine. It is as if she was never Frederick.
The reaction from within has been largely positive. My sister’s husband, to his everlasting credit, embraced Maxine and understood the statistics and how the deck was stacked against her. His mother tries, but still refers to Maxine as Frederick on occasion. And it is not so easy for my brother-in-law and his extended family, some of whom still do not know that there is no longer a Frederick but only a Maxine. There are occasions that my sister's’ mother-in-law will insist Maxine wear “boy” clothing when they visit, especially if there will be other family members present or if they are going to go out into the world.
School has been a challenge. As Maxine began to wear the clothes she wanted to wear there were times when a teacher who did not know would stop her from entering the boy’s bathroom. Maxine soon started to use the girl’s bathroom. By and large the kids at the school know her as Maxine now, but there are still kids who call her Frederick and remind her that she’s not “really” a girl. And while no parent has been overtly hostile, there are a few families that do not speak to my sister anymore, and do not allow their children to associate with Maxine.
My sister has encountered prejudice at work. She owns a cleaning service. There has been occasion when she makes small talk with her clients, and they discuss what school her children attend. The client will be familiar with the school, and have said things to the effect of “I can’t believe they allow transgender children at that school” not knowing that they are talking about my sister’s child.
When Maxine showed everyone who she was the difference was in her behavior and demeanor was palpable. There was less angst in her eyes. She seemed more comfortable in her skin and more confident in who she was. The way the world works right now, though, the transition will never be complete. For while Maxine is Maxine, there will always be someone or something that needs to transition. My sister and her husband will forever have stress and worry for Maxine. As she reaches puberty, they will have to decide about hormones. As she gets older, she will attend new schools and there will be new people and teachers and school boards that they will have to explain Maxine to all over again. They will have to decide if and when to legally change her name. And there will always be public bathrooms.
She has discussed with her mother that she is sad she will never be able to have children. And she does not understand why she would need to have surgery to make her body feel like her mind already does.
It is normal to us now, that Maxine is Maxine. She’s still high strung. She still overreacts. She still has meltdowns. She still requires too much attention, and sometimes her siblings resent her for it. But all of that is just who she is, good or bad. How she is is how she is, and any issues are unrelated to he being a she. She’s human, as are we all, with our own issues that have nothing to do with our gender.
But as normal as it is for us it’s not something that the world has fully embraced. I hear the worry in my sister’s voice when we talk about Maxine. I listen to her describe encounters with the world where people, known or unknown, passively or aggressively, show their disapproval of Maxine. When we are in public, I see people looking at Maxine with confusion in their eyes. Sometimes they stare, and I know that they are trying to figure it out, and I wonder exactly how they sense that Maxine is “different”. I watch my sister at Maxine’s gymnastics meets, or when Maxine is in a swimsuit, or anytime that Maxine’s genitals may be visible through her clothes. I’ve seen her choke up at the sight of them, worried that others may see them and what their reaction may be.
She’s scared for Maxine. I don’t think Maxine realizes, at eight years old, what a scary place the world is for someone who identifies as ‘other’ than their birth gender. I’ve seen the tears welling up in my sister’s eyes. She’s done the right thing, as always, but as always the right thing for her is the path of most resistance. As hard as it may be on her she takes that road, again and again, because it is the right thing to do, for her child and for herself, and for all of us. I know my sister wishes it could be easier, for her and for Maxine. I know the effort exhausts her. But because of Maxine and what is in her heart, I know that in my sisters heart that she would not have it any other way.
But while our transition as a family may be complete, the world will never stop transitioning. When Maxin is an adult she will have to get a job and navigate the world and all of its prejudgment. She’ll may decide that she wants to get her vagina. There will always be hurdles, and sometimes getting over those hurdles will feel like climbing a mountain.
Progress is made in our society, and what was once deemed deviant or unacceptable slowly becomes the norm. But matters of race and gender and sexual preference never seemed to fully be resolved in our country. There is always a backlash, and there are always those who refuse to transition. It will always be a fight, and I hope Maxine is up for it. We will help her, my sister especially. We are ready to fight for and with her.
Aaron J. Como lives and writes and works in Milwaukee, WI. He lives with his wife Susan and their daughter Peyton.