March 7, 2016

By Gretchen Peters

At 3 years-old, my son declared himself a boy. He patiently corrected me when I insisted he was wrong.

In my ignorance, I didn’t understand; I thought it was “a phase.” Faced with parents who couldn’t hear him and a world that insists that one’s body defines one’s gender (never mind what one’s brain says), he internalized the message that he was “born wrong."

Eventually both his certainty about his identity and the agony of suppressing it for over 20 years were so great that he mustered up the courage to do something I couldn't imagine myself doing - he came out.

Coming out for a transgender person is, by its very nature, a public act. Shortly after coming out, my son stood beside me at my wedding in front of 150 people, most of whom had known him by his (female) birth name. It was the bravest thing I’ve ever witnessed.

I understand parents who feel fearful around gender issues - the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do is accept that the child I raised as a girl for 26 years was, and had always been, a boy.

I felt like my world had come apart. I felt as if my child had died. I cried for a week. I have great empathy for parents of transgender kids. But I have greater empathy for the kids themselves. They face something more terrifying than most of us will ever have to face - often all alone.

I also understand the misconception that being transgender has to do with sex. It took some education for me to untangle ideas about sexual orientation versus gender identity. I would urge people to consider my son, the 3 year-old; he had a clear and unwavering knowledge of his own gender (as most 3 year-olds do), but no knowledge of sex. Sex and sexual orientation are about who you desire; gender identity is about who you are.

The suicide rate among transgender teens is astronomically high, much higher among those who are rejected by loved ones. I have some personal experience here - my son told me he was suicidal when he was 16. There is no wakeup call like that wakeup call. There is no way, as a parent, to un-hear that. This is, make no mistake, a life and death issue.

“Bathroom bills” like the one introduced in Tennessee, designed to prevent transgender schoolchildren from using the facilities that match their gender identity, are born of such misconceptions. There seems to be a feeling that trans kids, and their presence in a particular restroom, are somehow a threat to other children. But bills like these actually put at risk the most vulnerable person - the transgender child himself.

We tell our children that if they have a problem, they should go to an adult. My son learned early on that going to an adult would not necessarily result in help and support, but more likely in pain and shame.

If we allow this kind of legislation to pass, we are telling teachers that these kids are somehow not who they know themselves to be. We are telling children that the world cannot be trusted to believe them.

When we institutionalize this kind of discrimination, we force transgender kids deeper into the closet, shut them off from the support they so desperately need, and very possibly inch them closer to suicide. I don’t like to think about how close my son came to ending his own life. I don’t believe this is what we want for any of our children.

Gretchen Peters is a Grammy-nominated songwriter and Nashvillian.

This op-ed appeared in The Tennessean on March 7, 2016.