"A Dead Son or a Living Daughter": A Conversation with the Mother of a Transgender Child

June 4, 2021Aron Hirt-Manheimer

I first met Eva in a Temple Tots program that my wife and I conducted at our Reform congregation in a small New England town. At that time, Eva was about 3 years old and presenting as a boy. She is now 15 years old. Eva is fortunate because her parents have always been supportive, but for many LGBTQ youth COVID has hit this already vulnerable population very hard. I sat down with Alisa Gold, to hear more about Eva’s life and struggles as a trans youth.

ReformJudaism.org: When did you first realize that the child you and your husband adopted as an infant and converted to Judaism identified as a girl?

When Eva was about 2 years old and people said, “What a cute little boy,” she would respond emphatically, “I’m not a boy. I’m a girl!” She showed a strong preference for female playmates, dolls, and anything pink. At daycare and at home, she always wore a towel or T-shirt on her head, which represented “long hair,” as she called it.

She often dressed up as Maleficent from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, probably because the evil queen wore extraordinary outfits and had magical powers. Eva felt unhappy and angry about being different from everyone else. “There’s nobody like me, and it’s not fair,” she would complain bitterly. In kindergarten, she started drawing pictures of herself with X’s through them. It was not uncommon for her to throw four-hour tantrums and act aggressively toward us. In calmer moments, she would let me in on her escape fantasies, such as growing wings and flying away, and living in the woods “where nobody will find me.”

Did you seek professional guidance?

When Eva was 3 ½, we took her to a therapist, who insisted that young children absolutely could not be transgender; he later apologized for his error. Gender identity is essentially set by age 3. Eva has been in therapy since she was a toddler.

How did your husband respond to Eva’s identifying as a girl?

Early on, he did not realize the true nature of what was happening. Later he was in denial and even tried to intervene by engaging her with toy trucks, Lego blocks, chemistry sets, and athletic activities. He just needed time to process that Eva needed to socially transition to live full-time as a girl. He is now one of her biggest supporters.

Did you face criticism for supporting Eva’s desire to be a girl?

For a long time, I was unfairly criticized by everyone around me for such things as not knowing how to discipline, for letting her play with dolls, or for not having her in enough sports activities. My dad said, “If you didn’t have a play kitchen set, none of this would have happened.” My husband’s brother told him, “If you did more manly things or were more of a man yourself, you wouldn’t be having this problem.”

Our whole family is now supportive, but it took about a year to get them there.

How did Eva’s schoolmates respond to her?

She was constantly teased, bullied, and shunned. She was never invited to birthday parties, and no classmates came to hers, so we invited family friends with kids. Honestly, how likely is it that every invitee was unavailable on that day?

Eva tried to stick up for herself, but she felt deeply hurt by the ridicule and rejection of her peers. She started talking about ending her life at age 4, and she attempted suicide at 6 ½. One day, she came home from school and started talking about how she didn’t want to live anymore. She ran upstairs and tried to jump out of a window. Fortunately, just days before, we’d installed safety tabs to keep her from climbing out of a window.

After that incident, she switched to a kinder, more accepting school but again faced some taunting and bullying in her middle school because of her gender identity. One child who did not go to the same middle school even went so far as to give a yearbook from kindergarten to a friend in Eva’s middle school to pass around to prove to everyone there that Eva was really a boy. At 15, Eva is still dealing with the trauma of the rejection by peers and society and recently switched schools again.

To people who say we chose to make our son a daughter, we reply: “You cannot make someone live as another gender. Our only choice was to have a dead son or a living daughter.”

Where have you found support in your community?

Our Reform congregation has been one of the few bright spots. Eva has always felt at home at temple and loves to be up front on the bimahbimahבִּימָהThe platform in the synagogue from which which worship services are led and from which the Torah is read. The bimah, usually raised, can be placed in the front or the middle of the sanctuary. (pulpit) with the rabbi and cantor. She has felt comfortable asking them questions like, “How can God be so unfair?” They listen and use these encounters to try to comfort her. Most people in the congregation were accepting of Eva when she transitioned, and they were sympathetic to our concerns. The religious school was very supportive, too; the teachers tried to make sure Eva was treated no differently than any other girl. Our Rabbi feels very deeply about ensuring Social Justice and runs a group for the older teens that Eva participates in. He is a great role model for the kids.

Four years ago, as part of her bat mitzvah project, Eva helped put together and lead our temple’s first Pride Shabbat. She also sewed a beautiful Pride Torah cover with the help of one of the congregants.  During COVID, a Rainbow Flag with the Star of David that Eva’s grandfather made for the temple, stands proudly behind the rabbi on the bimah, as it had, pre-COVID. Our cantor has also been very supportive of Eva and made her a Pride tallit tallitטַלִּיתPrayer shawl; plural: tallitot during COVID and gave her two beautiful shofars to add to her shofar collection, which she started at age ten when she requested her first shofar for her birthday. Eva has also found support in our town, our state, and on a national level with the inauguration of President Biden, who has been so publicly affirming and supportive of the LBGTQ community. Finally, on a town level, Eva helped launch an annual Pride celebration, and this year many of our local businesses have gotten involved as well.   

What do you wish for Eva?

I want her and all members of our LGBTQ community to be safe, happy, to have a meaningful and fulfilling life and to be treated equally. I would very much like to see the passage of the Equality Act, which would amend existing civil rights laws to “provide consistent and explicit anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people across key areas of life, including employment, housing, credit, education, public spaces and services, federally funded programs, and jury service” (HRC). 

I am very fearful at the moment with the political divisions in our country and the fact that an extreme minority group is using transgender youth as a flashpoint to try to gain followers. This is not a game.  Lives are at stake. Gender-affirming care IS life saving and medically necessary as the vast majority of medical professionals have affirmed. Half of trans youth think about or attempt suicide, but studies show that having a supportive environment can really make a difference in saving lives.

Our hope is that more and more people will join together to expand the network of supportive communities until transgender people and all LGBTQ individuals are fully accepted by society and treated equally.

Sources for info

The lives and Livelihoods of Many in the LGBTQ Community are at Risk Amidst COVID-19 Crisis

The lives and Livelihoods of Many in the LGBTQ Community are at Risk Amidst COVID-19 Crisis PDF

The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on LGBT People

Editor's note: This story was originally published in 2016 and has since been updated.

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