Her eyes focused on the arcade screen, Bridget awaits her moment of transformation.
The 9-year-old is playing the video game Ms. Pac-Man, where the title character eats a magic pellet that turns her into a super being. As Bridget grips the joystick, the sunlight streaming in through a nearby window highlights her features: She has a face full of freckles, glinting, grey eyes and brown hair that tumbles past her shoulders.
“I’m good at this,” she says of the game.
Maybe that’s because, on one level, Bridget has mastered the art of transformation: She’s a transgender child.
No one really knows why people are transgender. A growing body of scientific evidence suggests some people are born transgender, sometimes called trans. Someone can identify as trans at virtually any point in life.
‘She Gets Tense When You Ask Her About It’
When Bridget was born in Olympia in 2005, the doctor identified her as a boy. Her parents, Maryann and Richard, raised their child as their son. But around the time their son was four-and-a-half, he confessed that he was not a he, but a she; not a boy, but a girl.
The news meant the married couple’s son was actually their daughter.
Out of fear of discrimination, the parents have asked that we identify her with the pseudonym Bridget.
Even though Bridget slipped into her new gender identity with ease, she didn’t have the easiest time talking about it.
“She really likes to not have gender be an issue,” Richard said. “She gets tense sometimes when you ask her about it.”
Her mother Maryann agrees. “Yeah, it was like the further in it we got, the less she could talk about it. Like, the second it would come up, she would shut down.”
While it’s true Bridget usually keeps quiet about gender, every once in a while she’ll talk about what she thinks distinguishes boys from girls. “They will look different, they will dress different,” Bridget said. “And they have different body parts, sometimes.”
Boys, she said, like to wear black clothing, though they usually don’t do dresses. Defining her preference for clothing is a little more challenging.
“Oh, that’s hard,” Bridget said. But after a few seconds thought, she’s got it: “I like to wear, like, T-shirts and jeans. And not really dresses. One reason why I don’t like dresses is because they’re hard to run in, and I like to run.”
Seattle resource: The Gender Odyssey Family 2014 runs August 14-17. It's an annual conference for families who are working to navigate the day-to-day realities of raising a gender-nonconforming or transgender child.
‘You Have No Idea’
Maryann embraced Bridget’s new gender identity. “I remember at one point being like, do you want me to tell your poppa to call you ‘she’ and ‘her?' And she was like, ‘Yeah.’”
Richard, on the other hand, struggled. “She was so sure about it, you know,” he said. “I’m going by ‘she’ now. And I was just like, ‘You don’t want to be my son anymore?’”
While Richard’s struggles were internal, Maryann dealt with the outside world — specifically, school. Before Bridget came out as trans, she had been enrolled to start kindergarten as a boy. Then, Maryann says, Bridget made a request.
On the first day of school, Bridget said she wanted to go by “she.” Maryann walked with her into the classroom to explain. “The teacher says, ‘Oh, you’re a girl? I thought you were a boy.’”
Maryann froze: What if the teacher asked her to explain the switch in the child’s gender identity? But the teacher didn’t need any more explanation. Instead, she changed Bridget’s paperwork from male to female.
“I remember walking out in the hall,” Maryann said, “and there were parents crying to each other, and I wanted to be like, ‘You have no idea.’”
‘This Is My Child’
While the teacher’s acceptance was instantaneous, acceptance from Richard took more time. Richard said he went on a lot of walks, examining his resistance to Bridget’s identity. He questioned whether there was any basis for his anxiety. Eventually he realized something was more important than his fear: being a supportive father to Bridget.
He said he told himself: “This is my child. This is who my child is. What does she choose? What does she want? And then [let] me watch that and help her put it together in a way that will be the best for her.”
So now both parents were on board, except Maryann and Richard had to deal with another issue: Their marriage was in trouble. Serious trouble.
“Our relationship was not doing good at that point,” Maryann said. “Her dad and I were fighting all the time.”
“You’re worried about yourself, and you’re scared about your children,” Richard said. “It’s an easy circumstance to go to fighting, to go to raised words. One time we got into a fight about haircuts.”
So Bridget’s shoulder-length hair that shone in the sunlight while she played Ms. Pac-Man? Her hair — or more specifically, a certain haircut — lay at the center of an argument between Maryann and Richard. And even though this haircut took place four years ago, the memory of it still dredges up deep emotions.
Right before Bridget started kindergarten, she had long hair. Then, one day, Maryann walked into the house.
“Her dad was going to give her a haircut,” Maryann says, her speech punctuated by tears. “So I stepped in, I took over. I didn’t want him to cut her hair.”
Neither did Bridget. “One thing I know is I hate getting my hair cut,” Bridget said. “I don’t cut my hair. I have my hair done.”
But by the time Maryann stepped in, Richard had cut some of Bridget’s hair. Maryann trimmed up the edges, but she admits the haircut was terrible.
“It was just this moment that was a living metaphor for me,” Maryann said, “letting my kid get screwed over.”
Richard said he only tried to cut Bridget’s hair because it needed to be cut, not because long hair was too feminine. But he knows Maryann saw it differently.
“And we never got a chance to really deal with that,” Richard said. “There was just too much stuff going on to have that talk about that instance in a way that we both felt supported and protected.”
The fighting continued and, most of the time, it wasn’t about Bridget. Several months after the pivotal haircut, Richard and Maryann separated. That was back in 2009.
Even though that was years ago, Bridget still remembers the time her parents split up. “It was sad,” she said. “That’s all I have to say about it.”
The couple has not been able to repair their relationship. Maryann recently filed for divorce.
A Weighty Subject
So where does that leave everyone? For starters, Richard and Maryann say they’re both committed to co-parenting their children.
That commitment may be tested in the near future, when the family considers whether to place Bridget on puberty blockers. The medication can halt the development of facial hair and an Adam’s apple in Bridget when puberty begins. Maryann supports it, but Richard has doubts.
His doubts, however, haven’t stopped Richard from learning that the desire for young people to forge their own identity is universal.
“It’s hard,” he said, “because it’s such a weighty subject to have to think about, to start defining yourself in any way that is radically different than how you began; we all do that in life. It’s part of growing up.”
Funding for this story was provided by the KUOW Program Venture Fund. Contributors include Paul and Laurie Ahern, the KUOW board of directors and listener subscribers.