My mom called me to dinner. I swallowed thickly and emerged from my room, faintly practicing the lines I had prepared. It was the winter of 8th grade, and Christmas music was playing. Feeling light in my chair, as though I was going to fall out of it, I cleared my throat and told my family, “I have something to say.”
I waited at least two minutes before continuing, and in that time my dad asked what “her” name was, thinking I was going to tell them that I was a lesbian. My mom was deathly quiet, and my twin sister gripped the sides of her chair next to me. The Christmas music was silenced, and the three other members of my family stared at me as they waited expectantly.
I tried to back out, saying that I wasn’t ready, but my dad stopped me and told me that I had to tell the family. I don’t think he understood what was happening. My mom did. She told me a few years later that she knew as soon as I started talking.
Surprisingly, I don’t remember the exact words I said, but I remember crying as I spoke. I told them that I was non-binary and that I wanted to use they/them pronouns and the name Ash, which I found when googling “gender neutral names.” My mom teared up, my sister started crying, and my dad looked confused. I learned later that he rushed to his computer to look up what “non-binary” meant. He eventually understood that it described me as someone who didn’t identify as either exclusively male or female.
My mom looked at me and said, “My sweet [deadname],” apparently mourning the death of her daughter and the birth of some strange new creature that would replace her. Later, my sister said, “This will change everything forever.”
Willing to Learn
At first, my family was unsure of how to respond. Although they were never outright against who I was, I often felt that my identity was ignored by them for convenience. For the first few months, they still expected me to play girls’ sports, referred to my sister and me as “the girls,” and had a lot of trouble using the correct pronouns.
I felt misunderstood by my family, especially my parents. Their ignorance and lack of knowledge about my identity in those early days cut deep. I don’t think they were ready to let go of their daughter. They thought that me being transgender, meaning that my gender identity doesn’t correspond with the sex I was assigned at birth, would uproot my personality and the very core of who I was.
Luckily, they were willing to learn, something that made all the difference in the long run.
We started having family conversations about my transition where my parents asked me how I felt about my body and why I wanted to wear binders and dress masculinely. While these conversations felt emotionally fragile at first, I could tell that they were listening to me.
They also started researching transgender topics online and attending parent support groups through LGBTQ organizations such as PFLAG. All of this helped my dad understand what it meant for his child to be non-binary, and he decided to get me a gender therapist.
I remember him saying, while pointing to the profile picture of a prospective therapist, “Well, I don’t know nearly as much as she does. She’ll probably help you out more.”
My mom gradually realized that although I was transgender, I still had the same core personality. This made my transition less daunting for her, and helped her to fully accept me, because she learned that she wasn’t actually losing a child. Her child was just changing.
She saw how quiet and somber I became when I was misgendered, and how excited I was when the binders I had ordered arrived in the mail, or when I shopped in men’s clothing sections.
She got better at using my pronouns correctly and was more open-minded and cheery when we talked about my identity. I could tell that she just wanted me to be happy, and that recognizing how much happier and more confident I was helped her become comfortable with my transition.
Around this time I decided to change my chosen name; Ash just didn’t feel right. When I told my parents, they said they wanted to help. Together we chose Kai, which we all liked the sound of. Having their support made my new name feel special, like a do-over of when they named me as a newborn.
A year after I came out as nonbinary, I came out to my parents as a boy. After changing my name to the more masculine sounding Kai, I had realized how happy being gendered as male made me. I’d also learned more about the broader trans community, which helped me open up to the possibility of being a man. The more I thought about it, the more right it felt.
My parents were immediately accepting and willing to listen. A few months later, I had a conversation with my dad about pursuing testosterone replacement therapy, or TRT.
“Kai, why do you want to start taking testosterone?” he asked.
“It would make me feel better about myself,” I responded after thinking for a few moments. Although wearing binders and masculine clothing had helped me feel more like myself, my voice and body still didn’t match how I felt.
“So it would be for confidence, and self-esteem?”
“Yeah. Pretty much for that. I think it would make me feel more like who I am,” I said, and I started to feel a little nervous.
“Good. That’s all that matters.” He said matter-of-factly, and my heart warmed at the sureness in his voice.
“Thanks,” was all I said, though his understanding meant the world to me. His love for me was truly unconditional, and he was willing to fly to the moon for me if it made me happy. I don’t know how many other trans teenagers have the privilege of receiving that kind of love.
Thus, my journey into the trans medical world began.
Starting My Medical Transition
My primary doctor referred me to adolescent medicine clinics, and a few weeks later I had an initial appointment with an endocrinologist who could prescribe testosterone for me and monitor my hormone levels. Walking into the noticeably high-security medical building was nerve- wracking, yet I was filled with excitement and wonder. It was a dream coming true.
While a social worker vehemently took notes and a medical student observed in unnerving silence, my doctor laid out the side effects of testosterone for me.
For every positive effect, there were three negatives. The promise of a deep voice, more muscle mass, and facial hair appealed to me. But then there were the risks, which were repeatedly stressed: weight gain, acne, body odor, irritability, mood changes, and the biggest one of them all, infertility.
The doctor asked me, “Would you like to have a family?” and I thought, “What? I’m 14.” Although supportive, she had an air of hesitation about her, as if she thought she was misleading me and that I would regret treatment.
The more the doctor and social worker spoke, the more I realized that the path to TRT was going to be filled with paperwork-signing, blood-drawing, therapy sessions and doctors’ appointments. Starting testosterone was going to take a lot longer than I thought and, as this fact bore down on me, I was overcome with frustration.
Not only did I personally have to deal with medical bureaucracy and gate-keeping, but states across the country were beginning to focus their attention on trans youth. Bans on gender-affirming treatment for trans minors were popping up left and right. I worried that my access to the medical care I needed was waning with every new ban I heard about.
After I had my blood drawn I left with a stack of paperwork to sign and a pad of gauze on the inside of my right elbow, feeling a little dazed. I didn’t know what to think. I was excited and frustrated, but a quiet fear had seeped into me of becoming an unlovable monster, of becoming infertile, of developing diseases and conditions while I took testosterone.
Despite this, as I weighed the options in my head, the positive side effects outweighed all of the risks. I thought, Am I going to remain stuck in this body forever, or will I try to do something about it? Besides, I knew that TRT is a relatively slow process, and that I could stop taking hormones at any time.
The fact that I was in control helped me decide to move forward with treatment.
My parents were excited for me, but nervous about the side effects, and especially hesitant about the risk of me becoming infertile. They did their best to hide their reservations, but it was evident that they were scared for me. They were protective of me, and I can’t blame them for that.
We had many conversations about my self-esteem and about my plans for the future. They made sure that I thoroughly read the stack of paperwork I had been given and that I had considered every last word the doctor said about the risks. But at the end of the day, seeing my confidence in proceeding with TRT, they stood by my decision.
After two months of medical appointments, and acquiring a letter of recommendation from a therapist, it was decided. I would start testosterone sometime in the summer. Much later than I had originally hoped, but the promise still made me happy.
In June, two months before starting testosterone,I got a text from my dad with a link to the registration page for PFLAG’s pride parade. I was excited to attend Pride for the first time, and sent the link to my mom.
Before the parade, my mom made a simple sign with bubble letters and little red hearts, reading, “Proud Mom of This Great Kid.”
The sight of her in the PFLAG purple shirt with a rainbow baseball cap excitedly hoisting her sign warmed my heart more than the merciless June heat ever could. It felt like the previous two years had culminated in that moment, a happy ending that told me that my mom, and my family by extension, saw me for who I was and were proud of me for it. It was a sign, in more ways than one.
Seeing Me as Their Son
In August, I arrived home from summer camp, and my mom handed me an orange and white box containing a bottle of testosterone gel. I held it in my hands like a bar of gold and blabbered my thank yous. The next morning I took testosterone for the first time, giddily rubbing the cold gel onto my shoulders.
Over the next year, taking testosterone became a normal part of my life and routine.
The positive side effects became evident after a few months, as my voice deepened and the shadow of a mustache and beard grew on my face. My parents observed these changes with excitement, complimenting me on my pubescent, squeaky voice and laughing with me at every voice crack. I finally started to feel at home in my body, sounding and looking like myself for the first time.
The negative side effects didn’t occur. My acne actually got better, and I did not gain weight. To my delight, I did not turn into an unlovable monster, nor was I stricken with a chronic illness. And although I’m still years/decades away from thinking about having children, I’ve read more encouraging research showing trans men can preserve their fertility.
One side effect of testosterone that the doctor didn’t tell me about is my dad constantly asking when I’m going to start going to the gym. A few months into starting T, when my voice had lowered considerably, I saw my dad realize that he was raising a son. He then expected me to be tough, and to start bringing home busloads of girlfriends.
Although it is humorous, sometimes I feel awkward being vulnerable around him now, and I worry that he’ll think I’m weak. In those moments I wish he still thought of me as a girl. I feel a new type of dysphoria, an urge to be this ultra-muscular, nonchalant, tough guy. Less to make myself feel better; more to make my dad proud.
Although our relationship is complicated, I’m realizing that its imperfections have almost nothing to do with the fact that I am transgender. My parents see me as their son which, as a trans guy, feels like a privilege.
Kai Arrowood is a high school junior from NYC. His dream is to be a journalist and travel the world covering stories. In his free time, Kai likes to bake, write sci-fi, and listen to music. At school, he enjoys studying history and Spanish and writing for the school newspaper. He hopes to show the world that trans people are just like everyone else, and are able to succeed despite the challenges they face.