Melissa Harris-Perry: In 2022, state lawmakers have introduced more anti-LGBTQ legislation than in any other year. According to the advocacy group Freedom for All Americans, 39 states had introduced more than 200 such bills by April of this year. That surpasses last year's already record-breaking 151 bills seeking to limit LGBTQ rights. Most of these actions target trans youth and include healthcare restrictions, exclusion from sports, and proposing state action against parents for affirming their child's gender.
Carolyn Hays describes her family's experience with an accusation of child abuse for gender-affirming parenting in her new memoir, A Girlhood: Letter to My Transgender Daughter. I talked with Carolyn about raising her daughter and how it led to a visit from Child Protective Services.
Carolyn Hays: Our daughter let us know that she was a girl at a very young age. She was assigned male at birth, she's our fourth kid. We were kind of cocky, we were like, "We've got this down, we understand raising kids," but we did not know what it was to be transgender. We had very little understanding. When she started to be consistent, persistent, and acute in her gender identity really young, we listened and we did the research and we spoke with experts. Then we let her, at a certain point, go by female pronouns, put a barrette in her hair, choose her own clothes, and go by a nickname.
Shortly thereafter, we got a knock at the door and that knock at the door changed our lives. It was from the Department of Children and Families. Someone had made an anonymous call accusing us of child abuse for supporting our daughter. We quickly found out that in the deep South where we were living at the time with a lot of Republican-appointed judges that if this went poorly and we went up in front of a judge that we could actually lose custody. That was terrifying, obviously, for us as it would be for any family.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I wanted to be sure that we were clear that the trauma here was that intervention by the State, not by the experience of parenting a transgender child.
Carolyn Hays: Right. Parenting a transgender child has been fascinating and amazing journey. There's this quote by Nick Krieger that I had, he's a transgender man, a writer, he wishes people hadn't told him how hard his life would be, but how his compassion would grow and his empathy would grow. It's just this beautiful quote and that's what we tell our daughter, but it was also definitely true for my husband, and for me. We became much broader people. We were seeing the world in a new way and she really kicked the doors of our heart wide open.
For us, it's been an interesting journey in terms of faith but also science and just the incredible architecture of the brain and humanity. Our story is not a tragedy, that's the first line. This is not a tragedy. Of course, yes, having that threat of the government coming in and tearing your family apart, of course, that was tragic.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You wrote a lovely piece about your decision to use a pen name for authoring this book and there was a sentence that really stood out to me probably for obvious reasons. You write, "I was both a mother in the thick of it and a writer taking notes. It was a coping mechanism." Can you tell me both about your decision to use the pen name and this experience of being a writer taking notes as a coping mechanism?
Carolyn Hays: I've published a lot of books under my own name and the decision to use a pseudonym is to protect my family. That decision to take notes was a number of things. For one thing, I hadn't processed yet what was happening to us. Then also I really needed my daughter to be old enough to say, "It's okay, you have permission to take this book out to publish it," and our story just became more urgent as we've seen more anti-trans policies.
Also, I was writing all of these books and stories and all of this stuff during these 10 years while I was waiting for all of that. In that process, I knew what I was living was far more beautiful, [laughs] far scarier, and just more gripping in a way. I wasn't able to write that story but I sure knew to take notes.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How did parenting your daughter help you to become a different human and a different parent?
Carolyn Hays: I think that's where people get into trouble a little bit when it comes to accepting their child as trans. They'll hang up on that idea that somehow this is a reflection of me and they over-identify with the child. Luckily, it was really great that we'd already had some kids and they'd fully disabused us of that notion.
Carolyn Hays: I say every child teaches you how to parent that child. It's always a different journey and it was already with all of our kids. I do remember the exact moment when-- and I talk about it in the book, when my husband who was a division one athlete and very cisgender, heterosexual guy came to me and told me what he was worried about. Once he had to tell his friends and his buddies on his soccer teams that this would seem like his weakness made manifest.
Then we got to break that down and say, "Really, did you make our oldest son his masculinity? Did your father make you exactly masculine and feminine? Did he have his hand on the dial? Is that how this works, or do the kids come out very much who they are?" In that way, we got to get rid of that thought pretty quickly.
One of the things that it's helped the most with is that these lessons are transferable in raising a daughter who's a minority in a group that's often bullied and has trouble getting basic rights of education and now just being allowed to play sports or being able to go to the bathroom without segregation. It's helped me see the lives of other mothers in particular with much more clarity and much more empathy.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You also write about how it opened your eyes to thinking about gender in different ways. Tell us a little bit more about that.
Carolyn Hays: When you're not trans you grow up thinking very little about your specific gender, but even how we are gendered as we grow up is actually really foundational. One of my earliest memories was about being misgendered. My parents had gone away, my older sister gave me this terrible pixie haircut, [laughs] the newspaper man called me Sunny and I burst into tears.
Just that little misgendering, it rattled me as a kid. It was hard. Then to think about trans kids who are just misgendered all day every day that that is their constant, and how they're looking out at the world and not seeing themselves seen in any way, it's a real erasure when you're not seen for who you are in such a fundamental way.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Your daughter very early on was very clear about her own identity and yet some of the professional advice that you were receiving was to push back against that identity. Can you talk to me a little bit about the nature of that advice and how you decided to move away from that and to be gender-affirming?
Carolyn Hays: I like the idea that we open up a middle space for kids. We give kids space to be non-binary or to move through this and think about it in their own way and on their own terms, and that we're really following their lead. She was the one who said, "No, I'm not a boy who likes girl things." I understood where that researcher was coming from and I do think that there are ways for us to open up the middle space as a culture for just gender expression in all different ways.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's take a quick break here. We're going to have more of my conversation with Carolyn Hays coming up in just a moment. Stay with us, it's The Takeaway.
Carolyn Hays: In A Girlhood, I tell both difficult and beautiful truths, handing over a record of her early years while tracking the connections I was making.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You're still with The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and we're listening here to Carolyn Hays, author of the new memoir, A Girlhood: Letter to My Transgender Daughter.
Carolyn Hays: As a witness, record keeper, and archivist, I found universal truths about the richness of gender, motherhood, girlhood, the intricate and stunning architecture of the brain, the long history of trans people, botany and migration, the science of seeing and being seen, God and feminism, and the world that takes shape around her. This is the story of opening a space for her girlhood and holding that space viscerally.
It's the story of my body as a mother and this family as a larger body that built itself around her to hold that space collectively. One day, she might choose to write her own story or make art from these pages or upcycle them into armature or a gown or something we can't imagine. She will create her own grand mythology as we all should. This book is my contribution to that ultimate work.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Carolyn's commitment to her child's health, safety, humanity, and freedom against an onslaught of anti-trans state regulations is a harrowing narrative of parental love as is her openness to learning from her daughter.
Carolyn Hays: I was certainly liberated by the idea that gender is a social construct, but it really gets in the way sometimes when I'm talking about my daughter because, yes, pink is for girls in our culture and that's arbitrary, but what we're talking about here is something very deep when she told me and it really was clarified for me, she was talking about her beauty. She said, "When you say, I'm beautiful, say she is beautiful." For me, that was no one gets to say except for you yourself how your beauty is seen. That is you and so for me, that was a real deep, almost the level of her soul of her divinity that I saw there, that we're talking about something very different than just the scaffolding of gender.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to go to the point that you made about following your daughter's lead and the ways that traditional parenting and parenting advice can sometimes tell us we shouldn't even follow our children's lead when it comes to, for example, their food choices at dinner. You'll end up with chicken nuggets and French fries exclusively for their whole lives. How do you know when to trust the lead of your child and when to assert these parental rules?
Carolyn Hays: For this group, and in particular for transgender kids, there was a statistic that I couldn't look away from and that was the really high, almost 50%, something like that, suicide attempt rate for trans kids who are not supported. If you want happy, healthy, thriving children. I really think that to see a child as they want to be seen is a lot different than chicken nuggets.
Not seeing a child for who they really are is a form of neglect. You're not reflecting back to them in a deep way, and you're seeing something that's a version you want to see. As a Catholic, I was raised by nuns and they said, "Be who you are and be that well." My daughter told me who she was and it was my job as a parent to make sure that she could be that person well.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You talk about the rates of suicide and self-harm among trans young people. We know that the realities of peer and of social and political world also intervene here. During your daughter's lifetime, the political landscape in the US, the active legislative efforts to single out trans young people has reached a public fever pitch in recent years. What did that mean for you and for your daughter?
Carolyn Hays: It's really hard to live in America right now in this bifurcated state because in some places there's such full support and kids can be out, and then there-- Texas is home to almost 30 million people. What happened to us being accused of child abuse which seemed like just such a strange, like an error, just such a mistake is now something that governor assigned into law.
In Virginia, Gavin Grimm won a lawsuit to make sure that trans kids could attend their K-12s as they are and have the right to the bathroom of their gender identity. Then that governor just took all of that away this week.
For us when we first started this journey, there are about 13 states that had laws that protected my daughter. Then that got up to like 21. We even went below the Mason-Dixon Line and it was great. Then the heart of America just contracted against trans people and trans kids in particular. A lot of that is because there are people who want to make this a divisive issue, who want to use it for political purposes. They're making up problems where there are no problems, targeting people with misinformation.
We had a bomb threat made against Boston Children's Hospital, death threats against the doctors who work there in the gender clinic. I believe that the person at fault there, really the people who are stoking the flames, some of them are politicians and some of them are just people who thrive on misinformation and media social networks and hatred.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I love this language of America's heart contracting. Whose heart is contracting and whose is opening? Can you talk a little bit about maybe some of the surprising allies that you have found?
Carolyn Hays: There's a Evangelical Texas minister and then the nuns who raised me were fantastic. I'll get really nervous sometimes when I know that somebody is really religious or far right. I've been surprised by how open they are. Once they know us, they get it. Harvey Milk would say we need more out trans people and that makes me really happy about people like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock and Jen Richards and legislators like Sarah McBride and Danica Roem who are out and doing really great work.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How do issues of race and socioeconomic status also crosscut this? I'm thinking about that knock from child protective services and how many poor families and Black families have received that knock on the door for a wide variety of reasons, but how these legislative actions, public policies, and opinions about gender identity might also heighten that vulnerability even more.
Carolyn Hays: We were quickly put in touch with leading experts and one of them took me through a list of questions. Just to assess our risk, she asked us our race and we said white. Asked us if we were cisgender, if we were heterosexual, if we had money that we could throw at this. It was just a list of privilege going right straight down. Every time I said, "Yes, I've got this answer," I reduced our risk and as I was saying, yes, I could see the person who said, "No, actually we're a Black family. "No, we're a lesbian couple." I could just see their risk reducing, and I was haunted by that.
It is hard sometimes to talk about, to use the Civil Rights Movement, but there are so many parallels, the right to education, the right to non-segregated bathrooms. A lot of the things that are going on in sports have similarities to the way Black athletes were first treated. It goes a long way back and also terrorizing families by threatening or by taking away their children that has a long history in the United States, in native populations, all the way up to what we saw at the border under the Trump administration, that was policy to rip families apart. There's a lot of lessons that can be transferable.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That was Carolyn Hays on her new memoir, A Girlhood: Letter to My Transgender Daughter.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.