Pseudonyms are used throughout this article and in “Transister: Raising Twins in a Gender-Bending World,” including for the author, to protect the privacy of those involved.
By Scott Etkin
When Kate Brookes started writing about how one of her twin boys, Gideon, identified as a girl at age eight, she had no idea that it would turn into a book. “I just write to kind of process big things [in my life],” Brookes, a TV producer and filmmaker who lives on the Upper West Side, said in a phone call with West Side Rag. “My son realizing she was my daughter seemed like a pretty big thing.”
Five years later, Brookes’ journal entries will be released as a memoir in August. “Transister: Raising Twins in a Gender Bending World” shares her family’s experiences navigating the confusing, surprising, scary, and life-affirming choices that go along with having a transgender child.
Brookes had reservations about what the publication might do for her kids’ privacy and still worries about their reactions – they haven’t read it – but she continued with the blessing of her daughter’s gender therapist. “My need to write does not supersede either of my kids’ need for privacy,” said Brookes.
What inspired Brookes to go ahead is her mission to make the world safer for transgender people. “Our country, in general, is not safe for my daughter. And I think some of the ways to make it safer are to increase awareness about trans issues, to educate people, and to share stories,” she said.
The book focuses on the early childhood and the start of the transition of Gabriella, formerly known as Gideon, which took place around the fourth grade. Research shows that at around age two, most kids become conscious of the physical differences between boys and girls. A child begins to have an innate sense of their gender identity between ages three and five.
Many of the book’s chapters take place on the Upper West Side. Gabriella first learned about the word “trans” when they saw a doll in the window of West Side Kids, the longtime toy store on West 84th Street, holding a sign that read, “Protect Trans Kids.” This sparked a conversation with their parents about what it means to be trans. It turned out that the feeling of your insides not matching what you see in the mirror was something Gideon had been experiencing for years. (The salesperson who put the sign in the window teared up when Brookes later relayed this story.)
To Brookes, stories like this “normalize” the trans experience — helping to shift it in the culture from something that’s often vilified to something that’s understood. She hopes to do this, in part, by correcting myths about being trans. “Some people think being trans is a choice [or] a phase,” she said. “It’s no more a phase than [my being] a heterosexual cisgender woman.”
Brookes described the Upper West Side as a relative safe haven for trans people. “People have been so overwhelmingly supportive,” she said. Of course, there have been awkward confrontations in their apartment building and behind-the-back conversations at school. But these pale in comparison to the situations in other states, such as Florida, which have banned access to gender-affirming health care. Trans people are shown to have higher rates of suicide, depression, and homelessness — likely caused, in part, by feeling misunderstood or rejected by family, friends, and community. “Gender-affirming health care saves lives,” Brookes said.
The family goes to the Ackerman Institute for Family Health, in Flatiron, which has support groups for gender nonconforming and trans kids, as well as parents and caregivers. “Their motto is ‘acceptance is protection’,” said Brookes, “because research literally shows that when transgender youth in particular are loved and accepted by their families, they absolutely can thrive.”
Brookes said that allies can support trans people by objecting to hate speech when they hear it and trying to use the right pronouns. Of course nobody will get this right 100% of the time: “We mess up pronouns in our house and call the kids by the wrong name. That’s kind of just being a mom or dad,” said Brookes, who speaks with the passion of an activist but has not lost her sense of humor. “If you mess up a pronoun, don’t make a huge deal of it for 20 minutes, just be like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, she,’ and then move on.”
The conversations Brookes has had with her daughter about her gender identity have evolved over time. Gabriella is now entering high school and their college search will be guided by which states and communities are hospitable to trans people. “There have always been trans people since the beginning of time,” Brookes said. “What I 100% believe is that there will always be transgender people and no amount of hate or legislation can change that.”