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

These days Lucia tries not to smile. Her adult teeth are finding their place, and she's self-conscious about their appearance. At the moment, however, despite her most determined efforts, she can't help herself. It's a bright, brisk winter morning; Lucia is seated with some of her fellow fifth-graders—second row, far left—and the class is about to show off their violin skills. Lucia is wearing a pink scarf and is the only child in the group whose violin bow is not the typical muted brown. Lucia's bow is pink.

Six months earlier, when Judy spoke to the faculty of Lucia's new school, there were no protests or even pointed words. It went as well as Judy could have hoped. There was no need for a Plan B, which is a good thing, because going into that meeting she didn't have one. As Judy says, "We felt like we were already on Plan W." The school faculty turned one of the staff lavatories into a "unisex" bathroom. It was agreed that female pronouns were the way to go. And Lucia quite seamlessly blended in with the innocent orchestra of childhood that is the fifth grade.

In retrospect, the anxiety that Judy felt going into that August school meeting now may seem like much ado about nothing, except for the fact that it could easily have gone so wrong. Just a county away, a family with a transgender child who is transitioning from M2F got a very different reaction from school administrators. Although the family and their elementary school-age child had the support of faculty members, district officials and their lawyers refused to make accommodations for the bathroom, or, for that matter, accommodations of any kind. Instead, the mother, who requested anonymity, says, "So many rumors were spread. And the misinformation about us became so extreme that we had to home-school our daughter." Recently, the family enrolled their little girl in what is proving to be an understanding district and are excited about the new start. "What I'm finding," the mother says, "is for many people, not just for the school districts, but playing out on many levels of the community, is the [reality] of a [transgender child] disrupts how their world works. They have a paradigm and it scares them. But then when they get to know [our] child and see this child blossom, then it's OK. They see we are doing what we need to do."

And while Lucia's life at school has gone remarkably well, her parents know better than to think her life is going to be a Wonderful Wizard of Oz-like fairy tale. Really, the school presentation might turn out to be the easy part. This past January Lucia celebrated her 11th birthday; she's on the threshold of puberty and all of the changes that go along with it. Her teeth are merely one of the physical changes in store, and already she's becoming more anxious. "Lucia is 90 percent happier than Luc ever was," says her pediatrician, Dr. Richker. "I think the transition has gone a long way to alleviating so much of the unhappiness in her life." However, Richker points out that during a recent examination, "Lucia made it clear to me that she didn't want me conducting a full physical exam. I have no doubt that is partly because of the pressures of puberty."

After the violin recital, back at the Martins' home, Lucia told me there were indeed pressures mounting. "Lately I've been on the verge of tears," she said. "I don't know why."

"For how long?" I asked.

"I guess the last month or two."

Judy plans to once again find a therapist to help her daughter and family navigate the difficult upcoming months and years. She also has begun talking with Lucia's pediatrician, Dr. Richker, about facilitating some form of hormone therapy. The Martins know it will be expensive. Dr. Spack, of Children's Hospital Boston, estimates the average cost of therapy for a child Lucia's age is approximately $1,000 per month. But, again, the choice is really no choice at all for the Martins. Lucia is their little girl. "Some families save for college tuition," Judy says. "We'll invest in this and save for the surgery."

Whatever uncharted stress and heartache and skepticism Lucia and the Martins experience, it can all add up to a rare "gift—something quite wonderful," Dr. Holden, Lucia's former psychologist says. "What the Martins have realized is something many parents—and not just parents of transgender children—sometimes go their whole lives without ever realizing: You cannot control who your child is born to be. And when parents understand that, and decide to empower and support their child, that is an incredible foundation. It is an enlightenment that in all likelihood will be the foundation of a tremendous life and relationship." By way of elaborating, Holden likened a child's sense of self to a ship at sea, and said the key to navigating whatever storms may come along is a strong ballast to provide balance.

Watching Lucia play the violin that morning with her class, seeing her pink bow moving in perfect time with everyone else, seeing her smile, conjured up the memory of something she had said to me last October. She was talking about how she and a friend were planning to dress for Halloween. She said they were thinking about wearing black and white coats and going out as the Chinese symbol of yin and yang. Why? I asked. And Lucia said, "It means balance."

Maximillian Potter is executive editor of 5280. E-mail him at [email protected].