“The Game,” August Malmström. Public Domain.

What Happens to Parents When Kids Come Out as Trans

The first time I listened to a parent tell the story of how her child came out as transgender, it seemed like a strange tale of a private misadventure, plagued with the kind of disproportion most commonly found in fairy tales. But then I heard another such tale. And another. And another. The stories started to sound less like warped fairy tales fed through a game of telephone and more like an epidemic: the first case you encounter is mysterious, and the symptoms make no sense. The next case is eerily similar. Keep looking, and a pattern emerges.

Or perhaps my first metaphor was the right one: one day, the Pied Piper came through town and all the children disappeared. 

I’ve come to realize that when one person transitions, everyone in their life gets recast as supporting characters. They are judged along a single axis: how affirming are you of your loved one’s new identity? How quickly do you reform your speech and rewrite your memories?

The change of script is most dramatic for parents, who can do nothing right. They stand accused of missing the most basic facts about who their child really is: a boy, not a girl, or a girl, not a boy. If the revelation comes as a surprise—if parents find out after a child has already come out at school, for example—then the child must not have trusted her parents enough to share this information earlier. Whatever a parent knows about his or her child cannot touch the essential truth of the child’s new transgender identity. While children gain a new language to describe their experiences, parents lose language. They’re not sure what they can say anymore, so they guard their tongues, dissemble.

Unwitting parents will step on landmines left and right, because their children’s expectations have been imported from a very different world. Online, if you change your username or your avatar, you reinvent yourself as someone new. But at home, you have a name that you have worn all your life. You have loved ones who look at you and do not see what you want them to see. You want them to celebrate, but instead they look at you and worry. Online, you can mute, block, report. The offending account vanishes, a tidy absence soon smoothed over and forgotten. Offline, severing connections means broken hearts and empty chairs at the kitchen table.

Parents who stumble over pronouns and new names, ask for time to adjust, hesitate to consent to hormonal and surgical interventions, or express their reservations and doubts may find themselves cast out of their children’s lives entirely. As soon as I started writing about gender, I started hearing from parents. Every parent I’ve spoken to fears losing their child—to suicide, estrangement, or mutual incomprehension.

Transition As Loss

The act of transitioning is held to be—simultaneously—utterly transformative and no transformation at all. Transition promises a young person a complete overhaul of their life, worldview, and prospects, and yet wags a finger at loved ones who recognize the magnitude of this change.

In a snarky Substack post, Daniel Lavery, who transitioned as a young adult, mocks parents who struggle when their child comes out as trans: “It is only because I love you so profoundly that I must go to the hills to mourn the name you used when you were six, the outfits you wore when you were twenty-two, the lockers you were required to use before and after gym class when you were fourteen.” Notice the minimization. Lavery continues:

Treating transition as a loss is entirely optional, and therein lies the great truth that all these glacial-pacers are frantic to avoid: Transition is fine, and does not actually require much in the way of adjustment. It does not take a great deal of work to wrap one’s head around, does not require months of relentless mental training in the New Pronoun Remembering Mines, does not require a year of full mourning followed by two years of half-mourning followed by eighteen months of wearing lavender and smiling wanly at box socials.

Likewise, Julia Serano derides the “concerned parent” as just a toxic trope, applying air quotes so large that they can be seen from outer space. According to Serano, parental “concerns” are just a pretense, a flimsy cover for ignorance, rejection, and bigotry.

But I’ve corresponded with dozens of parents of gender-questioning children, and nothing could be further from the truth. It’s easy to demonize these parents. It’s harder to stop and listen to what they have to say. Their stories tangle up the simple narrative that trans activists push and raise tough questions about what it means to “affirm” something about a child when that something isn’t true. What is a parent to do when “affirming” a child’s transgender identity means rejecting everything the parent knows about that child: her life story, her one and only body, her scraped knees and bruised feelings, her darkest fears, the dreams she jettisoned when she started chasing gender instead?

A father wrote to me: “‘Deadnaming’ is such a cruel way of describing the difficulty of letting go.”

The Script

For many parents, the story starts when their child abruptly comes out as transgender. One child, age 13, baked a three-layer gender-reveal cake and then read to her parents from a script: she was not the daughter they always thought they’d had, but was rather their son. While this might be hard to accept, she expressed her confidence that her parents would rather have a live son than a dead daughter.

Sometimes parents are among the last to find out. By the time Casey’s teenage daughter came out as nonbinary, “her friends were already calling her the new name. Her therapist was, too. I found this out later. The therapist transitioned a whole group of six girls together, like a class project.”

“At first I thought, OK, maybe this is the truth for my child,” Tess said, after her college-age daughter came out as trans. “But her narrative was full of lies and her answers to my questions were so scripted.” Tess looked at her five children, born between the late ‘80s and late ‘90s, and saw a clear generational shift. “No one in my three older children’s cohort is trans-identified. But I could easily name 12 trans-identified young people from my youngest daughter’s cohort, just in our small suburb. Most are females. It’s just so telling.”

Parents who don’t affirm walk a fine line, never knowing when they might overstep and find themselves cast out of their children’s lives. “Before there was nothing we couldn’t talk about together as a family; now there are so many things that are off-limits. Communication is stiff, uncomfortable, awkward, sad,” Sabrina writes. When she expressed her concerns about her daughter, her daughter and her other children threatened to cut her off for being a “transphobe.” “I had to keep quiet, so I did.”

Many parents spoke about the need to keep their beliefs and concerns to themselves. In a strange mirror of their children’s online excursions into the world of gender, some parents retreat to the Internet, adopting secret identities, stripping their stories of identifying details, so that they can speak freely, if only with strangers. Jill maintains “social media accounts under fake names so that my daughter cannot connect me with my thoughts about this important part of her life. If she knew what I was thinking and writing, she would end our tenuous relationship for good.”

Cindy’s daughter cut ties almost five years ago. “For what reason? I am still not sure. My heart has been shattered. But I know I’m not alone, there are many others going through this experience. Whereas in the early days, I thought I really was to blame—that I had caused this rift. I have now come to realize that it’s all part of the nefarious ‘trans’ script. Ban the mothers—as mothers can see the truth.”

The “script” Cindy refers to encourages young people to sever relationships with family members and friends who are not totally onboard with their new transgender identity. TikTok influencers like Jeffrey Marsh urge their young viewers to “go no contact” as an act of radical self-care. Some US states have bought into this script as well, offering gender-confused kids routes to emancipation not only from parents who may in fact be abusive, but also redefining as abusive loving parents who are concerned or hesitant about hormonal and surgical interventions.

A Cry for Help

What often appeared to be straightforward cases of “transgender” children in need of affirmation to therapists and clinicians tended to look very different to parents, who were too close to their children’s lives to adopt such simplistic narratives. The expectation that parents will celebrate what looks to many like a cry for help cuts deep.

Some children transitioned after experiencing sexual harassment or abuse. Shortly after coming out as transgender, Carrie’s daughter revealed that she had suffered sexual abuse at her school a few years earlier. “We caved on the name and the pronouns to keep our daughter close. We didn’t want her to feel there was a disagreement between herself and her parents at this most vulnerable time. We didn’t want there to be even a hint that there could be a wall between herself and her parents.”

Loss plays a role, too. “A few years ago, her father died,” Tamara writes. Her teenage daughter was struggling and missing too much school. It was then that she came out as transgender. Tamara was shaken, worried that this declaration would lead to medicalization. “I’ve tried to communicate that presenting herself to the world in whatever way she feels comfortable is fine, but not changing the body.” Her daughter’s school, pediatrician, and therapists rushed to affirm. “This has been more upsetting than my husband dying,” says Tamara, “the destruction of my child and the fear it will become permanent. There is no help.”

After being diagnosed with cancer, Dawn’s son started spending his days online, where he was exposed to the trans script. In Discord group chats, he is told that “the depression, the anxiety, the bullying” could all be fixed by embracing his true gender identity. “He was chatting to them all throughout his chemotherapy treatments. He made this announcement and apparently decided he was trans during the most stressful time of his life up to that point.” For Laura, her son’s cancer diagnosis came first, followed by her daughter’s gender declaration. She is adamant: “Having a child with cancer and one with gender confusion, I can attest that “gender affirming care” is neither life-saving nor medically necessary and chemotherapy is.”

For many other teens, bullying, harassment, social exclusion, autism, ADHD, OCD, disordered eating, anxiety, or depression factored into their decision to transition.

A Rush Toward Medical Intervention

Ren understood her 13-year-old daughter’s desire to “opt out” of the popularity contests, uncomfortable clothes, and boy-craziness, and she was relieved when her daughter was willing to consider therapy to explore what else might be going on. In a sense, “being the boy was the perfect answer.” But she found her daughter’s new beliefs unsettling:

According to my daughter, she is actually male, was born in the wrong body, has a male brain (yes, she thinks that’s a real thing and that science backs her up), and will never be happy in her female body. She is adamant that she must medically alter her body in order to be happy—end of story—and she is also adamant that the medical interventions are quite safe.  She is certain that she won’t want to give birth or breastfeed a child, and is not concerned that any of these interventions will cause her medical harm, or will narrow her pool of suitable romantic partners.  She is certain that she will never change her mind.  She also believes that anyone over age 11 or 12 is mature enough to make permanent medical decisions, and should be allowed to do so.

Her daughter expressed the desire to get “top surgery” (a radical double mastectomy) and start taking “T” (testosterone) the next summer, after she finished eighth grade. “I immediately said ‘Slow down!’” Ren remembers, “and that’s when our relationship went out the window. She was expecting me to go along with all this. She was disappointed that I was saying no to her wishes.  She told me she had lied when she asked for therapy because she wasn’t sure, and that this was just to soften the blow to me. She started to reveal how steeped in the ideology she was. We had many debates—more accurately described as arguments—where she said she was ‘really a boy’ and I asked what that meant. She never had any answers.”

A few months later, Ren discovered that her daughter was secretly dosing herself with testosterone she had obtained illegally. She covered the cost with cash from her recent bat mitzvah and had the testosterone sent to a friend’s apartment, so her family wouldn’t find out.

“I know this is wrong,” Ren says.

She has never kissed, had a date, or been intimate with anyone, and doesn’t know what any of that would feel like in her unaltered body. She has never lived as a woman, as she binds herself and pretends to be male in public. She has no idea if she could simply live her life in her female body without pretense. She could dress however, act however, do whatever she chooses for her schooling and career, make friends, have relationships, and generally be herself—without unnecessary, potentially dangerous medical interventions, and without pretense.Likely, she would realize that she doesn’t need to transition. But she won’t even try. Because of that, she has no idea what she will be giving up if she medically transitions. [And] I can’t help her because, sadly, she truly believes I am a transphobe, a horrible mother, and an ignorant fool. Nothing I say will ever make her stop and think, no matter how much sense it makes.

When her 17-year-old daughter came out as a “boy,” Nina “was clear in my explanations about why you cannot be “born in the wrong body,” that it’s quite normal for people (particularly females) to feel uncomfortable in their bodies during adolescence, that there are as many ways to be female as there are females in the world, and so on.” Yet Nina knew she had a narrow window to act: “The scariest thing was that I knew that once she turned 18, she would be able to enact whatever plans she wanted regardless of our thoughts, so my only real strategy at the time was to convince her to delay taking any steps towards such action.”

Abandoned by Medical Professionals

Medical professionals often discourage both parents and children from taking a pause before transitioning. For Simon, his daughter’s request for a chest binder was the first hurdle: “Helping with this felt like aiding self-harm. But the fear was it would be worse if we didn’t. I still don’t know if that was the right thing to do. I hated it. Every day. At the time, Mermaids offered the impression that they knew best. Crazy as it may now seem, it was hard to think outside of that. Especially with the message that your child might commit suicide if you didn’t get on board.”

Looking back, Simon reflected, “I think I had assumed two things. One was that there would be ‘time to think,’ an openness to exploration around bodily discomfort. The other was that puberty blockers were a kind of free pass on puberty.” But—when confronted with the possibility of starting his daughter on puberty blockers—Simon saw things differently:

Suddenly… [puberty blockers] didn’t seem like a free pass at all. Not psychologically (giving the message that bodily change was not something you had to accept). Also the long-term physical effects were either grim to contemplate (impeded sexual development) or unknown (on reproductive health and bone development). But there was always that suicide risk in the background if you said no.

But nonetheless we waited. We didn’t go for a referral. It was the only thing I unambiguously know we did right in the whole thing. And it was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done…. The only message out there was that the struggle was solely caused by our failure to be fully on board.

Parents described the difficulty of finding therapists who wouldn’t automatically affirm their children’s transgender identities before delving into the role of other issues in their lives. “One therapist who called me back made it very clear that he truly believes someone can be born in the wrong body,” Ren says. “He said he realized this when his friend had twin boys, and one of them immediately showed interest in dolls, dresses and all things feminine. I responded that I think it’s fine for boys to wear dresses and play with dolls, but that this doesn’t turn them into girls. He was silent. I ended the call.”

After a long search for someone who could untangle her daughter’s complicated life history, including the neglect her daughter had suffered before she was adopted, Diane found a therapist “who assured us she would not affirm. She lied.”

Lydia, whose son suffers from a serious health condition that would be aggravated by cross-sex hormone use, noticed that the few doctors and therapists she was able to find who did not agree with the affirmative approach “quickly handed us over to the ‘experts’ that did… I believe this was a form of shielding themselves from either professional consequences or the stress of learning about this medical malfeasance.” Lydia reflected on the ways the affirmative approach exacerbates alienation between parents and children:

The problem with the affirmative approach is that a dynamic has been constructed of his parents on one side and all of the other adults on the other side with him. He now believes we are abusive, bad parents for asking questions and demanding answers from these doctors and therapists. It has turned a small wedge into a canyon, where these helpful caring adults are stopped from helping our son stay alive by his hateful, bigoted parents…. Doctors have said to us privately that they support our decision [not to affirm], but then my child comes into the room and the doctors say that we are the ones stopping him from being happy.

Jamie Reed, who raised concerns about the treatment of gender-dysphoric children and adolescents at St. Louis Children’s Hospital earlier this year, observed a pattern of gender clinics “sid[ing] with the affirming parents” and “malign[ing] the parents who ask questions. The parents who ask for more time. The parents who ask the providers to ‘do no harm.’” Reed expressed regret over what she later saw as her role in dividing families: “Because I did not just help medicalize children; I helped to tear families apart.”

Even affirming parents are sometimes treated with suspicion. “I was totally naïve in my reaction to her ‘coming out,’” Lucy remembers. “I was affirming almost to the point of saying ‘that’s nice, dear.’” Nonetheless, her daughter’s mental health declined sharply. Eventually, she “made a very serious suicide attempt.” Afterward,

The hospital staff regarded me suspiciously… The mental health service immediately affirmed her upon discharge, using wrong pronouns in reference to her when addressing me. She was 14. The general view was that she had made her suicide attempt because of her “unsupportive” home environment. My own view runs entirely counter to this: she made an attempt upon her own darling life because she had been brainwashed into thinking that in order to be taken seriously as “true trans” making a suicide attempt was par for the course.

Alienating and Isolating

In addition to the conflict and alienation within families, parents also spoke about the way a child coming out as transgender can strain and shred social networks. Parents are cut off from what would—in almost any other personal crisis—be reliable sources of practical and emotional support.

“Raising a child who identifies as transgender is not the first parenting challenge I’ve had to face,” Jane says. After her first child was diagnosed with autism,

My husband and I leaned heavily on the wise council of the assorted professionals involved in his care. We made hard decisions about how to balance his need for therapy with his need to just be a kid and experience life. When we shared our situation with family, friends, and neighbors, they were always supportive and understood that we were doing what we felt was best for our son. That experience is starkly different from what we’ve experienced with our trans-identified daughter. Whenever a new adult—like a teacher, counselor, or the parent of a friend—enters my daughter’s life, I feel like I have to vet them before allowing them access to my child. We’ve also experienced several young people approach my daughter and offer her a “safe place.” The assumption is that if mom and dad don’t affirm, then home is not a safe place.

“I don’t believe that anyone can really understand what this feels like until it happens to their child,” Caroline says. “Before this experience, I would call someone else’s kid their ‘chosen’ name and pronouns in their absence, thinking I was doing the right thing. Having other parents use my daughter’s ‘male’ name subtly tinged with moral superiority was like watching people give your drug-addicted kid a fix and turn and smile at you.”

Unsure where to turn, Caroline sought support online first: “The more I realized I wasn’t alone in doubting this ‘born in the wrong body’ idea, the less terror I felt.” But the idea of sharing her situation with family and friends was overwhelming at first. Ultimately, she realized she couldn’t go it alone: “I told my family, one by one, and every single one of them initially said, ‘Well, we love and accept her for who she is.’ I said I appreciated that but when I described what was in store for her—hormones and a double mastectomy—and how easily she could access these things, they all realized the horror of the situation.”

But others weren’t so lucky. “I’ve been very lonely not being able to open up to friends and family. You just never know what side of the affirmation spectrum they will fall on,” Julia says. Her husband supported her decision to resist transition, but Julia says he “doesn’t think it’s such a big deal. If I weren’t around, I’m sure she would be fully transitioned by now. He takes the path of least resistance.”

“Parents are trapped by this ideology,” Lisa says. “You desperately want to protect your child, but if you speak out you are vilified. We own a successful business and one whiff that we are against this ideology and we could lose everything… so you keep your mouth shut.”

“I have friends with whom I’ve remained close, who I continue to value, despite having very different opinions about social and political issues over the years, but I can’t seem to talk to them about this,” Elizabeth says. “Some of them have been vocal in support of gender ideology, and some are affirming parents of trans-identified children. Some just haven’t thought enough about it and are following the official progressive position. I’ve distanced myself from them for the time being to avoid painful, friendship-ending conversations, which I am not able to handle right now. There is even a small—maybe paranoid—part of me that worries that if I openly criticize this ideology in the context of what has happened to my daughter, or if I criticize the agenda being pushed in schools, that I will be labeled as a bad or abusive parent and investigated by child services. It sounds crazy, but things that sounded crazy a few years ago are happening now.”

Lydia wrote that she and her husband lost close relationships over their resistance to transitioning their teenage son. “Several of our siblings have told us that we are hateful and we deserve to have him kill himself. When I was at my lowest point, and suicidal, I was cheerfully told that it might be for the best because then ‘she’ could get the care ‘she’ needed.”

What Can Parents Do?

Parents who don’t automatically affirm their children’s transgender identities must take other approaches: addressing other issues in the child’s life, challenging ideas about gender and identity—ideas that many parents view as regressive, widening a child’s world, “affirming the child, not the identity,” changing the subject. Sometimes, all parents can do is bide time.

Some of the desistance stories parents shared with me verged on comedy. “If I’m wearing a pink scrunchie, use she/her,” one daughter dictated. “If I’m wearing a blue scrunchie, use he/him, and, if I’m wearing a black scrunchie, use they/them.” “She would react in a big way if we got the pronoun of the day wrong,” Heather says, “because then ‘you don’t love me enough to pay attention to my scrunchie.’ But we had been dealing with her huge out-of-proportion emotions since toddlerhood, so—as Gen-X parents tend to say—‘whatever.’ We stopped using pronouns altogether in reference to her and used her name instead (which she never changed). We stopped using the word daughter and referred to her as our beloved child or amazing kid or awesome offspring.”

We parents kept our mouths shut. We didn’t ask about her gender status, we didn’t comment on her appearance other than to say ‘you look amazing.’ We kept our snarky Gen-X remarks between us, and we made a point to never jab at her or tease her about her gender or gender presentation. We just let it be—because she has always been somewhat stubborn and oppositional, and we had learned that our lives were much more peaceful if we stayed as neutral as possible about everything. This had nothing to do with gender—this had to do with knowing our kid. And I think we also trusted in puberty and had the wherewithal to remember that adolescence is really hard, and social media—being on display, performing all the time—has to make it even more awful.

When she was 15, I overheard her tell someone on the phone, “I used to think I was trans, but I was wrong.”

“We ignored it for a while,” Casey remembers. “I called her zero pronouns and went to ‘honey’ and other nicknames. I let her wear her hair any way she wanted. I enrolled her in every outdoor thing I could find. I spent a week with her older sister alone researching everything I could and becoming more terrified. Then I got a router I could monitor and restrict without asking her. I cut all adult sites, even just over 16 sites. We went to see her relatives, went camping, rode horses. I asked her about bands and bought concert tickets. She got another ear piercing; I said no to the nose. I said yes to four different colors of hair.”

Teresa and her teenage son argued over whether transition was a “magic pill”—he insisted it was. But after a few months of open disagreement, the two fell into a detente. “We’ve gotten into a routine of just not talking about it… he’s not on any medication. He hasn’t socially transitioned in any way outside of his online world. He hasn’t told anyone at school…” But Teresa worries that her son may be biding his time until he turns 18. “I have come to a place where I realize there’s only so much I can do. The rest he will need to figure out on his own. So we just love him. Every night, I tell him good night and I love you. He used to say ‘I love you’ back to me. He hasn’t said it in almost a year.”

“I wanted him to get there on his own,” Nina says of her own teenage son, “because part of this is the adolescent’s biological imperative to pull away from the parent and become independent. I had to be so careful and strategic.” So she revisited her lifelong fascination with cults: why people join, how they become indoctrinated, why they stay. When she watched documentaries about cults, her son would sometimes join. “He was fascinated, too.”

“There were so many moments where I thought there might be a breakthrough or a loosening of his fixed mindset,” Natalie says. “It did all come apart a few months after his 18th birthday. We had a big fight and he said that I would never accept him as a transwoman. I answered that it would always be difficult, but that if he waited until he was 25, I would be so much more willing to accept his choice. I lost my temper and yelled at him. ‘You are 18! Eighteen-year-olds make terrible decisions all the time that haunt them for the rest of their lives! I can’t stop you!’’ Her son was furious. Finally free to pursue hormonal interventions, he went to get bloodwork done so that he could start estrogen. But he didn’t fill the prescription. A few weeks later, he went back to his birth name and changed his pronouns (they/them, followed by a brief, defiant return to she/her pronouns). “And three days later, it was over. He told us, ‘Don’t tell me I told you so. I want to be a boy again.’ If the relief for me was huge, it was enormous for our son. He’s been relieved of the burden of acting and pretending.”

Laura took a similar approach to encouraging her daughter to think critically about her new belief system. Together, the two watched documentaries like Crime of the Century, which explores the opioid crisis and highlights themes of medical ethics, malpractice, and greed, and Behind the Curve, which follows members of the Flat Earth movement. Documentaries like this “allowed me to say things to my daughter about transgender ideology under the guise of taking about the documentary. I think my daughter knew that we were actually talking about transgender, but went along so we could talk openly without the high emotion that always arose when we tried to talk about trans.”

One scene in Behind the Curve that was especially impactful in causing my daughter to think rationally is when the president of the Flat Earth Society is talking about the movie The Truman Show. He says something like, “If you were just an average citizen in The Truman Show and you found out it was just a TV show you could just leave. You have nothing to lose. But if you’re the mayor of the town in the show, it would be very hard to give that all up to leave if you found out it wasn’t real. People admire you, and look up to you, and you get a lot of social capital being the mayor.” And then the interviewer asks him, “What if you’re the mayor?” The look in his eyes as he contemplates this analogy is tragic. I think it helped my daughter to recognize that sometimes people hold on to beliefs that aren’t true because it provides them with some kind of capital.

“Rescuing any child from a trans identity is difficult,” Laura says, “but I think it’s especially hard for older teenagers and young adults.” After nearly ten years of trans identification, Laura’s daughter is in the process of desisting. “She told me that she believes she can relearn to love her body, but she is going to have to ‘unlearn’ a lot of stuff.”

But Laura remains cautious. After she and her daughter ran into two friends who had undergone double mastectomies, Laura asked her daughter how the encounter made her feel. “Her response struck me as very naïve and juvenile. She said while she felt like it wasn’t her place to judge her friends’ decisions, she was glad she herself hadn’t started testosterone because she likes her singing voice and it would be a hassle to have facial hair. And I thought, That’s it? That’s why you’re glad you’re not taking testosterone? I guess I was expecting a deeper analysis from her that included an understanding that no one can change sex, that a trans identity requires lying to yourself and everyone around you, that there are serious health risks… but she said none of that. I brought up those points and she was, like, ‘Oh yeah. That, too.” It hit home to me that she, and I suspect so many other kids doing this, have no real understanding of the serious, life-long consequences of medicalizing their bodies.”

“We forgive our children for a lot of things,” Nina writes, “and while this whole situation has scared, stressed, distressed and hurt me a lot throughout the years, it is more important to me that she is safe and well, and that her body is intact and unaltered. I couldn’t have lived with myself if I hadn’t done everything in my power to dissuade her from following the medicalised path she had her mind set on for so long.”

Robin, whose daughter ultimately desisted, reflects on all the things her family tried to keep their connection alive and help her daughter consider other pathways: “we pulled her from therapy and stopped listening to the ‘experts’; we got her off the Internet and away from her trans friends as much as possible; we facilitated friendships with healthier kids; we talked to her friends’ parents, school officials, teen program directors, any adult who was involved with her and explained that identifying as trans was actually making her mental health worse; we got her outdoors and physically active; I impressed on her that she was resilient and powerful, not broken and fragile; I found her a healthy, energetic, and creative hobby that she can pour her passion into; all the adults in her life agreed on our course of action, nobody in the family affirmed; we caught this while she was still young enough for us to take control; and, despite not affirming a trans identity, we consistently showered her with love and attention. We never gave up on her or left her feeling alone and scared. When one thing didn’t work, we’d try another.”

Revisiting these stories, I can’t figure out why one story goes one way, the next another. These accounts have the arbitrariness of fairy tales, which sometimes heap blessings and sometimes sorrows. There is no formula, no prescription. The course each story takes is as individual and inscrutable as its protagonists.

I’m reminded, too, of the exacting rites demanded by what fairy tales call the fates. “You broke the spell and will never see me again, or only when you have wept seven bottles of tears and worn out seven pairs of iron shoes, seven iron mantles, and seven iron hats looking for me,” one of Italo Calvino’s scalded lovers cries. In life, as in fairy tales, people will go to the ends of the earth for a loved one, for an answer. 

But there are no endings, happy or sad, or—at least—not yet. There are only unfoldings.