A couple of weeks ago, we introduced you to Tomás, an eight-year-old boy who began going to school as a girl named Luna as a seven-year-old in second grade. At the time, parents Amy and Pete Rochas of Berkeley, Calif., had occasionally allowed their son to wear his preferred clothing of skirts or dresses in the privacy of their own home. But it wasn’t until his teacher brought up the possibility that Tomás might be transgender—a conversation that unleashed emotions ranging from anger to relief—that they started to let their son explore his gender identity as a whole.
Recent high-profile reports have focused attention on the need for respectful and, more importantly, early, discussions about gender identity. (Research has shown that by age two, gender identity is as innate and consistent in transgender children as in non-transgender children.) Rejecting the discussion altogether risks a situation similar to that of Leelah Alcorn, a transgender 17-year-old who committed suicide following her final plea posted to Tumblr, “Fix society. Please.” Alternatively, you get parents who support their child’s gender fluidity, as with 12-year-old transgender girl Jazz, who has been hailed as the face of the teenage trans community. And in December, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt announced that their eight-year-old daughter Shiloh, who has worn traditional boy’s clothes throughout her childhood, wants to be called John.
The attention is overdue. And we want to add to it with a missing piece of the puzzle—the parents’ perspective. The Rochas, who have four children, have experienced both grief and gratification as their son has explored his gender identity. Currently, he goes by Tomás around his family, and goes by gender pronouns such as “he” or “she” interchangeably. Here are excerpts from our conversations about their experiences navigating the gender spectrum with their son. Responses have been edited for clarity.
What were your first inklings that Tomás might be on a different path?
Amy: Before he could talk, he was wearing my high heels. Sometimes I would let him wear them to the store, and this was in DC, so it’s not common. He was also obsessed with mermaids, which is pretty interesting because a lot of kids who tend towards non-conforming love Ariel, the mermaid princess. I guess it’s ambiguous from the waist down—he’s not really sure what she is. She has a tail, and she changes. When Tomás was four, I bought him an Ariel dress.
GLAAD defines gender identity as one’s own, internal, personal sense of being a man or a woman (or someone outside of that gender binary). What does that mean for your family?
Amy: Tomás said, “You can call me a he or you can call me a she, it doesn’t really matter. Whatever you want to call me. But my name is Luna.” At school, he wanted to be called Luna. At home, he wanted to be called Tomás. But I don’t know if maybe we didn’t really…I’m not sure if it was fully accepted at home. That was something that was hard for us to allow him to change his name because that’s his birth name. It’s hard. Just like kind of mourning the little boy we raised. I really can’t articulate it very well. Sometimes we would call him Luna, and he would tell us that he wanted Tomás as his home name and Luna as his school name.
How did you react to Tomás’ non-conforming behaviors when he was younger?
Amy: He wore his sister’s Cinderella dress all summer before kindergarten. We wouldn’t let him outside the house with it. Then when he went to kindergarten, he wore typical boy clothes to school, but he wanted to be Ariel. So I made him dress like a pirate—an old pirate. He didn’t say anything. He just did it. I do feel bad about that. I see pictures of him when he was a little guy and I’m like, “God, why couldn’t I just let him be himself?”
Pete: He kept wanting to wear the things that he wanted to wear. We’d say okay on the weekends or tell him he could do it on vacation. But when he went back to school, it was like, “Here’s your A’s t-shirt and some jeans and you’re a boy and this is school and this is how you dress.” It was in my mind that it was a phase. We’d just had our second son, Leo, who as a baby was getting a lot of attention. You think maybe Tomás was the only boy and now he’s got another boy, so maybe it’s a competition thing. He wants to be different and get attention. Even after the behaviors had gone on for a year and more, I still thought it was maybe a phase, and that by age seven or eight he’ll be interested in tractors and playing ball and those sorts of things.
Did you worry about Tomás being ostracized, or wonder what would happen to your child if you let him be who he wants to be?
Pete: Yeah. It was a concern and it still is. But it went in stages, so I can’t recall exactly when we worried about specific things. It started with letting him wear skirts to class. And in first grade, one of the kids in his class said, “If you don’t stop wearing girls stuff, I’m going to beat you up.” But I really think that is the only incident I can think of—which is just amazing to me. But you have moments like that where you’re just thinking and worrying.
Amy: I was afraid. I created hypotheticals in my head: If I allow him to be who he wants to be, then somebody’s going to say something, and then he’s going to be depressed. The research is there. Fifty percent of transgender kids attempt suicide at least once. Going down that spiral can be pretty detrimental.
What was your reaction to your child’s teacher bringing up the possibility that Tomás was somewhere on the gender spectrum?
Pete: Of course my wife and I had plenty of conversations about it, but it’s always different when you hear it from someone else—especially a qualified third party. I think part of it was relief in a way, that there are plenty other people who are like that and that it’s normal, it’s part of life. Normal as in a big-picture. And then I think just knowing that the schools themselves were aware of it. One of the things that we were very happy about was the fact that we did move to Berkeley and that it was the kind of community that recognizes all gender orientations no matter where you are on the spectrum.
Amy: She’s the first one who mentioned the words transgender or gay to me. And I was floored that she did that, actually. I was upset. But it was a good thing though because it made me…I had to confront it. I had to acknowledge it. I’ve been a teacher for 12 years, and I would never say anything like that to a parent about their child. But thank goodness she did bring it up. And who knows whether he is or he’s not, but it’s to be talked about. It should be acknowledged.
How do you feel about talking about this on a large scale?
Amy: Kids are depressed or try to take their own lives because they’re not allowed to be who they want to be. So hopefully, we’ll just give him power to be that. Let’s just not make it an issue. As parents—and I’ve kind of realized this now—we don’t want his goal in life to be to stand up and be a poster child for transgender rights. We don’t want it to define him. He loves science and he’s smart, and he’s funny. He’s hilarious actually. He’s a really, really funny kid. There are other things that are unique about him—this is just one aspect of his life.
Is it challenging to discuss the subject with other people?
Pete: The terms and the vocabulary are limited. For example, we’ll tell people we have four kids, and they ask, “What’s the mix?” Three boys and one girl is our standard answer. Describing it as, “Anatomically he’s a boy, but that’s not how he acts…” One would assume it’s an innocent question—an icebreaker kind of thing. But how much do I want to get into what my son’s gender is and where he is on a spectrum? Sometimes he’s roughhousing and tackling his brother, and sometimes he’s brushing the hair of his doll. As a society, there’s a lack of adequate vocabulary for how those things are, so explaining it is one thing. But then a second thing—this is something that’s personal. Kids are one of those common elements that most people feel like are easy conversation topics to have. How do you go to explaining something that’s definitely not conventional?
Amy: It’s so strange because every time I would explain the situation to people, anybody, I used to just be in tears because I was so worried, and sad, and angry, and had all those grieving type of emotions. But I don’t do it anymore.
What helps you feel comfortable talking about it?
Pete: Having someone in the schools who was cognizant and an advocate makes a difference. You don’t have to worry about him being socially ostracized or bullied. He’s a pretty happy kid with good friends who just enjoy playing with him. There are a couple of girls that are really close to him. I think that opens up that he doesn’t have to be one thing at school and one thing at home. He’s just who he is—wherever and whenever he wants.
Amy: Knowing that he is going to have friends even if he was not the typical kid. He wasn’t going to be shunned by society. He has a group of girlfriends. He has people who protect him and love him for who he is. So that was comforting. And talking with his friends and their moms, and letting them know what was going on—communicating feelings.
Do you have friends in similar situations?
Amy: I do. They’re afraid that their kid is going to be ridiculed and going to suffer because of the external type of behaviors that they can’t control. It basically comes down to control. They can’t control society, how people feel, how people react, and what people say. Personally, I was in denial for a while. I’m not really sure what emotional response it evoked. Partly it was selfishness—having to deal with it. You know what I mean? It’s not easy to navigate this situation. It’s not like he has something concrete that I can fix or try to work on. It’s just the way he is. I can’t control it.
How do you navigate any effects on his siblings?
Amy: We also have a six-year-old girl, and a three-year-old boy and a one-year-old boy. His younger sister Margaux was the only girl, and we were especially worried that she would feel bad, because that was kind of her spot. But it never changed anything. We talked to her, and asked how she felt about Tomás wearing girl clothes. (I say girl clothes, but typically I hate saying that.) But she said she loved it. She said, “I love having a big sister.” So we’re like, OK, great, cross that one off our list.
How does having a conventionally unconventional family impact major decisions?
Pete: My company is headquartered in Iowa. And I’ve been asked a couple times if I wanted to go and work in the main office. But a consideration is, how would Tomás do in that community? Could I imagine him in a public school there? How would that go? How much more difficult would that be? It just makes me think about how fortunate we are to be where we are, and to have people who recognize the diversity of people, and stand up for the rights of children to express themselves like that. It feels like he’s free to express himself [in Berkeley].
For a gender nonconforming child, is it more challenging to set boundaries?
Amy: Over the summer, he wanted to change his name to Stella, and then Amore. I told him he couldn’t change his name whenever he felt like it. There have to be some boundaries. I said, “Why don’t we go back to Tomás until you find your true, true name that you just can’t live without, because obviously Luna wasn’t it.” He said ok. We kind of figured out where he is, and now he needs boundaries. For example, the other day he walked home from school, wearing some glittery shirt that he had tied up in the back with a rubber band. He can wear whatever he wants, but he needs to be classy—tying up his shirt was not classy. So he had a temper tantrum. But he changed his shirt.