This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, please call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources. LGBTQ youth can contact The Trevor Project's lifeline 1-866-488-7386 or text START at 678-678.
After just a few weeks of distance learning, 13-year-old Aaron seemed like a new kid. He stopped skipping meals or collapsing on his bed in exhaustion at the end of the school day. Instead, he had enough energy to start playing the ukulele, drawing and exploring the arts — and to begin smiling more, joking easily and acting silly.
“It’s all the things that you want your 13-year-old to do that we haven’t seen in a year or two,” Aaron's mom, Elizabeth Haley, 33, told TODAY Parents. “Since he’s not having to physically and emotionally fight just to exist every day, he’s his normal self.”
As a transgender boy, Aaron was assigned female at birth but always felt like a male as he was growing up. When he came out two years ago, Haley and her husband supported Aaron and worked with his school to make sure teachers, staff and students understood what his pronouns were, what his new name was and what all of this meant. But, not everyone embraced Aaron.
“I used to receive notes in my locker telling me to kill myself,” Aaron told TODAY Parents. “I would be called princess and people would purposefully misgender me. There would be people at lunch chanting things like, ‘Gay is not the way.’”
Against that backdrop, it's no wonder Aaron has been breathing easier thanks to distance learning. Parents of transgender kids across the country say their children have been thriving at home, away from bullies, confused peers and incredulous questions about their gender. Some parents say the changes have been so far-reaching for their children that they plan to continue home schooling for years to come.
“Aaron is a whole different person now,” said Haley, a bank manager from Ringgold, Georgia, who runs a nonprofit called Binders for Confident Kids. “He is happy and so much less stressed and so much less depressed and so much less anxious.”
Molly — a mom in Eastern Pennsylvania who asked not to use her last name to protect her child's identity — noticed that her daughter Zoey, 12, stopped interrupting class and acting like the class clown during the distance learning months.
“We were getting emails from her teacher, from the head of the school saying that her participation was an issue and that really points to ... the amount stress that she deals with having to navigate an institutional school environment being trans,” Molly told TODAY Parents. “She is hypersensitive to being outed as being the ultimate embarrassment.”
Molly said Zoey has to balance the feelings that preteens experience during puberty with the dysphoria she's facing as her body is changing.
“She very much struggles with it and has a lot of internalized suffering around the fact that she doesn't match in the same ways to her girlfriends or how her girlfriends match to others,” she said. “She’s got a lot of gender noise that most people don’t have.”
And, she is mixed race and often gets rejected by peers for that as well.
“She identified with the African American and Black girls in her cohort and they told her that she wasn't Black enough,” Molly said. “She doesn’t fit in.”
Heather Denton’s 4-year-old child Maxi was assigned male at birth but wears more feminine clothes and refers to herself as girl. Sometimes she goes by "Max" or "Maxine." While her preschool has been mostly supportive, children of that age often think in terms of "boy" or "girl" stuff.
“It was just this ongoing asking of Max: ‘Are you a boy or girl?’” Denton, 38, a therapist in Chicago, told TODAY Parents. “I think she would feel more comfortable just sort of living in the gray and not having to choose. So that was hard at school. I would hear it on the playground over and over again.”
The whole family feels relieved that they haven't had to think about Max's gender identity during the pandemic. They love to see Max being so "carefree."
"It's so refreshing," Denton said. "It's been a really nice break."
Tonya, a Utah mom who asked not to reveal her family's last name, said her 12-year-old transgender son, Leo, transitioned to his new identity at a videoconferenced school assembly during distance learning. Everyone at school participated in the Zoom assembly, but with their video cameras off and their microphones muted. That gave Leo space from puzzled looks or nasty comments.
“They reintroduced Leo and it made it very normal. This is just how it is, no question,” the 47-year-old stay-at-home mom and contract editor for academic journals said. “I don’t know if it would have gone as well if we waited until school resumed.”
Leo said he felt pleased with the experience.
“It went really well and the school has been supportive,” he told TODAY Parents. “I really like how I transitioned. ... I just wish we were in normal school.”
While Leo and Max plan to return to school next year, Aaron and Zoey are going to be home schooled. Molly said keeping Zoey home means she’ll be safer — both physically because of COVID-19 threats, and emotionally because of bullying and harassment.
“My husband and I came to the decision about it probably 30 days into self-isolating,” Molly said.
Haley said she feels that pursuing home schooling is the best way she and her husband can help Aaron.
“Aaron is doing all of his school from home in a safe environment where nobody picks on him,” Haley said. “He has just blossomed.”