Transgender kids: How young is too young for a sex change?

Delving into the often tumultuous worlds of transgender youth

Julian started the treatments anyway, and his father kept his word. Julian slept on a friend's couch for three months, then got housing through Avenues for Homeless Youth's GLBT Home Host Program.

Julian is five foot one, and dresses preppy—baggy jeans, gray argyle sweater vest over white collared shirt, black Ed Hardy baseball cap. A shadow of a moustache hovers over his upper lip, and a silver barbell pierces his left eyebrow. He has a girlfriend now, and he splits his time working at District 202 and serving as an aide for mentally disabled adults. Two months ago, he started a chest-binder exchange—trans men who've had top surgery and no longer need the tight spandex compressors give them to pre-ops who still have breasts.

The shots of testosterone have given Julian more hair on his legs, arms, and stomach. Eventually, Julian plans on top surgery—a double mastectomy. He wishes he would have started taking T earlier, because he would have liked to be a little taller. "I think it would have helped a lot in the process," he says. "I'm just short, and guys aren't short."

Rachel Salomon
Walter Bockting, president-elect of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health
Nick Vlcek
Walter Bockting, president-elect of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health

But Julian tries not to let his breasts and vagina make him feel like any less of a man. Someday, he hopes, he'll be able to afford to change his body to match his heart.


THAT AFTERNOON, Kathy got a call. The principal had been so affected by Steven's response—"Why don't you tell them I'm a boy?"—that she had decided to cancel the school-wide assembly.

Kathy felt intense relief. Slowly, things started to get easier for her son. Steven played on boys' sports teams, won the school record for pull-ups and sit-ups, and palled around with other boys his age. In school photos, he was a cute, toothy kid. Sometimes, it seemed that the whole world had forgotten that Steven had been born a girl.

But there were always reminders. Kids would whisper to him on the bus or in the front yard, "I know you're a girl." At the pool, a boy once covered his eyes at the sight of Steven's bare chest. "Disgusting!" he squawked.

By the time that her child was in third grade, Kathy was pretty sure that Sarah's transformation into Steven was permanent. She'd come to accept the loss of her daughter, the addition of a son. But she worried about the looming clouds of puberty. How would her little boy deal with growing breasts and getting a period?

Kathy called Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays for help. But in 1995, PFLAG didn't have services for transgender adults, let alone for kids. So the mother turned to the internet, where she found moms across the country with children like hers. Together, they pushed PFLAG to add transgender issues to its mission statement in 1998. Kathy became a PFLAG speaker, and a well-known advocate for the transgender community.

But as his mom talked about his life (always using a pseudonym), Steven was in hiding. He slept in three layers of clothing.

Kathy searched for a pediatric endocrinologist willing to prescribe puberty-blockers and prayed that Steven wouldn't start his period early. A few days after his 11th birthday, Steven got his first puberty-delaying injection. Ten days before he turned 14, Steven started testosterone treatments. His voice squeaked and then dropped, right along with those of his friends. He grew facial hair and his shoulders broadened.

"He looked like an ordinary guy," Kathy says. "No one would ever guess."


FOUR YEARS AGO, Will (names have been changed) pressed a photocopied letter into two neat folds and stuffed it in an envelope. He tucked a photo inside. In it he is smiling, his arms crossed over his green checkered shirt, his mother at his side. She points at him with an expression of delight, as if to say, "Look how proud I am of my son!"

This is the letter Will sent to his friends and family to tell them that he was transgender.

Will was born a girl. Her name was Beth, and she came out as gay—she never liked the word "lesbian"—when she was 15. Beth's mother couldn't have been more accepting and supportive. She went to PFLAG with her daughter, noticing when Beth's eyes lingered on a cross-dressing man. "You know, I really admire him," Beth told her mom. When she was 18, Beth decided she might be transgender.

Through PFLAG, Beth and her mom met Kathy. By then, Kathy's son Steven was in high school, and she had accumulated an encyclopedic knowledge of the Twin Cities' trans resources. Kathy told Beth about a support group for female-to-male transsexuals, and Beth began researching how to make a gender switch. She found a therapist who diagnosed her with gender identity disorder. She had a hysterectomy and double mastectomy, started taking testosterone, and changed her name.

For the first few months, the testosterone made Will a little crazy—he calls it his "steroid rage." After his mastectomy, one of his drainage tubes clogged, causing one side of his chest to fill with blood. The doctor had to lance the hematoma, Will says, "like popping a zit." Now his pectoral muscles lie flat and smooth beneath his nipples, but a scar shaped like the lower contours of a woman's breasts stretches across them. He plans to cover over that with a tattoo.

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