Second Nature

In an exclusive preview from our March issue, meet a local family that is raising a little girl born in the wrong body.

March 2008

Judy Martin has a slender, youthful face, light brown hair usually pulled into a ponytail, and a tiny frame. She often wears unassuming clothes like jeans, sweatshirts, and clogs, and rarely wears any makeup—an unnecessary luxury that she doesn't have time for. One afternoon, not long after we met, as Judy brewed some coffee and prepared a plate of fruit, she dodged here and there—pulling clothes out of the dryer, answering the ringing phone—moving like a fluttering sparrow. Judy, in fact, frequently does a birdlike thing: She stops suddenly, almost freezes, and cocks her head as if she's trying to figure out what it is exactly that she's supposed to do next. One of the things on her to-do list was to finish packing up their house in Jefferson County for the move to Boulder County.

That particular day, through the kitchen window of their home, we watched an older woman walk across the lawn, from one nearby home to another. It was Judy's mother-in-law on her way to visit a neighbor. Judy said that some extended family initially had a "hard time" with Lucia's transition. "I understand that it will take time for them," Judy said. "I understand. But I think sometimes Lucia is a little disappointed." On a recent visit to her mother's home in Oklahoma, Judy asked her mom to take down the artwork signed by "Luc," because it was something Lucia would rather not see. With hands clasped together around a coffee mug, Judy changed the subject with her pause-and-head-tilt thing. She puffed a strand of hair from her eyes.

"I know it's stupid to make generalizations," Judy says, "but looking back on Lucia's first years, there was just this overwhelming feeling of discontent. It was just impossible to make this kid happy. Nothing. Not a McDonald's Happy Meal, not an outing to the zoo. Nothing." Those years were a blur of tears and tantrums. Fourteen months after Luc was born, the Martins had their second and only other child, a girl, Kelly. For a while, the Martins figured that perhaps Luc's behavior was a response to the new baby. Judy and Michael redoubled their efforts to be equitable with their time and attention, but people outside the family began to notice Luc's emotional unrest. At the suggestion of a relative, the Martins had Luc tested for admission to a local private academy. The test measured IQ and also involved behavioral screening. The results, Judy says, indicated that Luc was a bright child but seemed to be harboring a lot of anxiety, anger, and stress. "Only 60 percent of stuff made him happy," Judy says. "Then only 40 percent made him happy. By age four, nothing made the child happy."

Simple choices—decisions that for most kids are pleasant and fun—were agonizing for four-year-old Luc. Let loose in a field with his family to pick out pumpkins, he could never find one that satisfied him. He'd say, "What about this one? I like this one better. No this one. There's too many!" Looking at that picture of Luc and the family at a pumpkin patch today, Lucia says, "I couldn't find one I liked. They were all either too big or too small." By the time Luc was five he was, as Judy recalls, obsessed with "super-clean" and "super-perfect," and he didn't like to be alone. He wouldn't do anything without someone with him.

Judy didn't want to be one of those parents who make something out of nothing. Her own parents had divorced when she was a kid. She didn't have a father around during her formative years, and her only sibling was a sister. She didn't know much about boys. Now, with a son of her own, she told herself, "Maybe this is just the way boys are."

Judy and Michael kept an even closer eye on Luc's behavior. Michael gave five-year-old Luc a train set in a little tin box, which was decorated with a locomotive driven by a little boy who looked like Luc. Within days of giving him the train set, Judy and Michael noticed that Luc had used stickers to cover the boy's face on the train's tin box.

Luc's discontent and anger intensified in the first grade. The seven-year-old threw public fits during which he seemed inconsolable. There was one especially volatile breakdown over a forgotten school lunch, and another unnerving "freak-out" during a trip to the barber, with "Luc screaming that he did not want his hair cut," Judy says. At home, meltdowns became a daily ordeal. "He would fly at me, flailing and screaming, head down," Michael says. "I would have to hold him with me, against my chest, wrap my arms around him and literally restrain him."

Confronted with the realization that Luc's behavior could no longer be chalked up to boy-being-boy, Judy turned to the family's pediatrician, Dr. Jeff Richker, for help. (The Martin family gave their doctors and therapists permission to speak with me about Lucia's case.) Richker had been seeing Luc since he was two. "What I saw was extreme anxiety," he says, "and I wanted to treat that." He prescribed the generic version of Prozac, fluoxetine. The drug worked wonders, but only for a few months. In 2005, about a year after Luc began taking the antidepressant, Judy found Luc in his bedroom closet with a child's toolbox that had been given to him as a gift. He was crying and holding the little metal blade of the saw over his bare wrist.

Judy ran to him, grabbed the saw, and asked what was going on. "There are too many expectations," Luc said. Then he said it again, "There are too many expectations." He was crying. "Maybe if I were an animal, like a bear or an owl—animals don't have expectations. They're just happy. I don't think there is a place for me in this world." Recalling that day, Judy says, "I don't know that Luc even knew intellectually what suicide was, how to do it, the wrists." Judy didn't want to ignore what seemed like a warning sign. "Can you imagine," she says. "This was a child who was seven." Judy stops talking and allows herself only a couple of tears before she wipes them away and looks up.

Luc's words shook his parents, who became terrified that he might hurt himself or someone else; he was now fighting violently with his younger sister, Kelly. Judy kept Luc home from school, and attempted to home-school him and give her son more attention. Judy and Michael even sent Kelly, who had been patient with Luc's behavior, to live temporarily with a relative. They asked Dr. Richker to recommend a child therapist.

In the spring of 2005, Judy took Luc to see Dr. Deborah Holden, a child clinical psychologist and a developmental neuropsychologist who has been practicing since 1980. In her Denver office, Dr. Holden saw Luc twice a week for about a month, administering a variety of emotional, developmental, and behavioral tests. "I was doing a compete evaluation," Holden says. "Considering the whole spectrum." Holden saw that Luc's moods were "poorly regulated," therapist-speak for extreme overreaction and irritability. Initially, she suspected that Luc might be bipolar, but Holden soon changed her opinion. "Luc's unstable mood," Holden says, "was coming from a very strong sense of not being understood around gender issues."

There was never a session where Luc walked in and stated that he wanted to be a girl. "He didn't use those exact words," Holden says, "but he definitely expressed feeling an urgent need to present himself to the world as female. Luc had a very specific idea of how he wanted to dress and present himself, and that was as a female. He wasn't arrogant about it, but he was very determined." Holden has seen more than 100 kids with gender issues, and in her clinical opinion, only eight to 10 of those children had "true gender confusion." Only two of those select cases were gender dysphoric to the point where she discussed with the parents the possibility of allowing the child to begin transitioning. Lucia "is the most clear" case of gender dysphoria Holden's seen. "From the very beginning," she says, "Luc exuded a most extraordinary feminine elegance."

Judy and Michael were both present for Holden's official diagnosis. They listened as the doctor told them that Luc was chronically unhappy with his birth sex, that he didn't identify with his anatomy. Her formal diagnosis was mood disorder caused by gender dysphoria. The couple looked at each other, dumbfounded. Intellectually, they could comprehend the definition of gender dysphoria, but in terms of their child's life, in terms of the real world, they had no idea what it meant. "We understood that dysphoria is the opposite of euphoria," Michael says. "It was more of a question of, 'OK, now what do we do?'"