It was the first day of third grade and 8-year-old Lucy was sitting in the principal’s office with her parents, crying her heart out.
“She was terrified,” her mother, Bridget Tidd, recalls. “Mark and I sat with her and said: ‘This is your journey. We will go and do whatever you want.’ She had this blue bunny and she just held onto that and sobbed and sobbed. And then Mark carried her to the classroom.”
It was her first day of going to school as a girl. The little boy who was Benjamin Tidd was no more. Instead, there was Lucy, in her pink dress, black leggings and a headband in her still-short hair.
“The scariest thing is that nobody knew except for the teachers,” Mark Tidd said. “The kids saw Benjamin walk into school dressed like a girl, and they were like, ‘Hey, Benji.’ They were confused, but there was no malicious intent.”
Lucy didn’t relax until recess, when her mother helped a group of curious girls understand what was happening.
“I said to them, ‘This is the same person you played with last year, that you played four square with, that you played jump rope with, that you ran around and played ball with. This is the same exact person,’ ” Bridget told them.
Only now, Benji wanted to be just like them – like a girl.
Benji’s friends at Lyseth Elementary School in Portland didn’t know that since he was 3 or 4 years old, he had been dressing up and wearing nail polish and acting like a girl in the safety of his home. Now he wanted to be that way all the time, everywhere. Just weeks earlier, he picked out the name Lucy – for the young heroine of C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia,” who enters an enchanted wardrobe and discovers a new world on the other side – and decided to start third grade as a girl.
“I said, ‘Do you think that we can let her be herself and do this?’ ” Bridget asked the girls, who nodded in agreement. “Then the next thing I know they took her hand and they ran and that was it.”
“I stood there with tears in my eyes, trusting that the rest of the day would be OK, and I let her go. And at that moment she was completely free, and we’ve never turned back.”
Lucy’s life as a transgender girl since that day, almost 18 months ago, has been largely uneventful. No complaints from parents or bullies at school. No question about the teams she plays on or the bathroom she uses. Friends have been welcoming.
That hasn’t always been the case for transgender people, those who identify with or express a gender identity different from the one that corresponds to their sex at birth. Many who have come out as transgender have experienced decades of discrimination and stigma. But new research, the coming out of several high-profile individuals and a growing transgender civil rights movement have made gender identity part of the national conversation.
The U.S. defense secretary says he plans to lift a ban on transgender troops. Medicare now covers gender reassignment surgery. Title IX protects transgender students from discrimination. The federal Civil Rights Act recognizes transgender discrimination as a form of sex discrimination.
And while some states or cities have opposed laws that prohibit discrimination against transgender people in employment, housing or public places, many, including Maine, have passed laws or policies that shield transgender children from bullying, give them the right to play sports or use a bathroom based on their transgender identity.
“There really has been a societal change and acceptance. Even the laws are changing pretty rapidly,” said Jeremi Carswell, a pediatric endocrinologist at Boston’s Children’s Hospital, home to the first clinic in the United States for transgender children and adolescents.
The Tidds, who have three other children, say they braced for a vicious backlash but have not experienced it yet.
They credit societal changes, as well as strong family ties, faith in God and good friends.
“We were waiting for some name calling or (someone) belligerent,” Mark said. “But people we didn’t know came up to us and said, ‘We support you, we encourage you and we’re here for you.’ It was amazing.”
The Tidds hope that by telling their story, it will help others in similar situations. For years, they struggled alone with their confusion and doubts. Bridget says she still has moments when she mourns the loss of Benji.
Even now they don’t know anyone else in their situation.
“We so desperately want to help someone else,” said Bridget.
‘IT’S ALL OUT NOW’
On a recent afternoon at Lyseth Elementary School, Lucy is bouncing on the tips of her toes, dancing sideways and swatting at a huge red ball as her friends cheer her on. She breaks out in a dazzling ear-to-ear grin, her face framed by a multicolored scarf that holds back her shoulder-length brown hair and reveals gold earrings. She and the girls huddle close in line, whispering and giggling.
There were signs early on that the Tidds’ son was different.
“As early as 3 (years old) she always wanted to be in dresses and have long hair. We allowed it in the home, but not outside of the home because we didn’t know how it would be received,” her mother said. “We were afraid she would be teased.”
“She’d put on my shoes then say, ‘I love the sound of that’ – the tapping sound. Or she would put a shirt on her head and the sleeves would become her hair, and she’d pretend to brush it.”
At first, Mark resisted the girly behavior in Benji, who was in Cub Scouts and played baseball and basketball.
“I had this mindset that I had three sons,” said Mark. “At the time, I thought it wasn’t OK. It’s not the norm.”
Even Bridget admits that she wasn’t always sure what to do.
“As she got older she kept saying, ‘I want to wear a dress to school’ (and) I didn’t know how to respond to that,” Bridget said. “I remember thinking at the time, maybe my child is gay, and that’s OK. That was OK with me.”
But starting in second grade, the Tidds started getting calls from school and noticing more behavior problems at home.
“We were having severe tantrums, screaming and yelling and fighting, and it would last for hours,” her mother said. Lucy would lie, steal inconsequential items like hand sanitizer from classmates and hide them in her room.
“We could not get through to her as parents, and we both have special education backgrounds.”
Mark worked at Sweetser, a behavioral health care agency, for 15 years, and both parents currently work as ed techs in the public school system.
Bridget said she thinks Lucy acted out because she was living a lie as a boy.
“She had a lot of secrets in her life,” Bridget said. “Her secret (was) this lie, this inability to be who she was.”
‘GOD COULD BRING ME BACK AS A GIRL’
It didn’t occur to the Tidds that their son might be transgender.
“It wasn’t something like it is today,” Bridget said. “None of that was there for us in the beginning.”
But they can both point to turning points, when they realized their little boy’s fascination with nail polish and long hair was something more than a silly child’s game.
“I remember finding her journal,” Bridget said. “And it had one of those questions: If you could be anything, what would you be? And she’d written, ‘I want to be a girl so much.’ ”
Mark said he lost his reservations after yet another meltdown, when Bridget asked Benji why he was so upset.
“I said to her, ‘I don’t like to see you this sad. It breaks Mommy’s heart. What can I do?’ ” Bridget said. “And she said: ‘Some days I just wish I could die and God could bring me back as a girl.'”
“That was the linchpin for me,” Mark said.
The Tidds said they started counseling through Opportunity Alliance, with someone who specialized in transgender youth, and that led them to Maine Medical Center and pediatric endocrinologist Jerry Olshan.
The medical professionals confirmed through questions what the Tidds were experiencing: Some kids are born one gender but deeply believe they are in the “wrong” gendered body – known medically as gender dysphoria, when they have a persistent, deeply held belief they have the wrong body parts, and can understand this about themselves as early as 3 or 4 years old.
“To be transgender has nothing to do with getting surgery, has nothing to do with getting hormones, has nothing to do with how you look. It’s how you identify yourself. Period,” Olshan said.
“Mark and I believe that Lucy didn’t ‘decide’ to be a girl; she is and always has been a girl,” her mother said.
Allowing her to be a girl was the logical next step, even if it was unknown to them.
“It was something my husband and I knew was going to have to happen for Lucy to be happy,” Bridget said.
Lucy is now one of a handful of prepubescent patients at the Gender Clinic at The Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center. Olshan, who opened the clinic about a year ago after seeing an increase in transgender youth patients, said the clinic treats about 100 patients today, the oldest in their early 20s.
Medically speaking, there’s not much to do now for Lucy since she has not hit puberty.
After establishing that a patient is, indeed, transgender – medical doctors work with mental health specialists to evaluate a patient – doctors monitor them until puberty. There are potential medical interventions at that time, decided on a case-by-case basis. In general, those can include drugs to delay puberty that prevent vocal changes and facial hair growth, for example, in a boy-to-girl transition.
After puberty, a patient can decide whether to take cross-sex hormones to develop the gender he or she wants. As a last step, an adult patient can decide whether to have gender reassignment surgery, which can include plastic surgery to feminize facial features; reduction of thyroid cartilage; the removal or augmentation of sex organs; and creating male or female sex organs using the natal organs.
All of this is a long way off for Lucy, but it’s already on her mind.
“She gets that she has different body parts and she wants to change those body parts,” her mother said.
The most immediate change in Lucy was obvious.
“The results are a year and half of my child flourishing and being happy and being accepted,” Mark said.
The temper tantrums, the lies and the petty thefts have stopped.
“It’s like night and day,” her mother said.
That’s not uncommon, doctors say.
“This is fairly new, to see these kids transition socially,” said Carswell, of Boston Children’s Hospital. “And the parents all say the same thing: ‘It was like night and day,’ or ‘This kid came out of their shell.’ It’s really reassuring.”
PAVING THE WAY
One reason Lucy has had a smooth transition, particularly at school, was because of Nicole Maines, whose legal battle over which bathroom she could use in middle school established landmark transgender youth law in Maine.
“I think the Maineses opened the door for a lot of people,” Mark said. “That story helped us out immensely.”
Born a boy, Maines, who is now in college, was a fifth-grader at a public school in Orono when another student’s family objected about her bathroom use. The school told her to use a staff bathroom, and later separated her from other students on a camping trip, prompting the family to file a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission and later pursue legal action, which dragged on for years.
In January 2014, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled in her favor, the first time a U.S. court had ruled that it was unlawful to force a transgender child to use a school bathroom designated for the gender he or she was born with, rather than the one with which the child identifies.
Despite the ruling, Gov. Paul LePage has prevented the Maine Human Rights Commission and the Department of Education from issuing rules protecting transgender students, arguing that the Legislature needs to pass a law before regulations can be imposed. Democrats have opposed the governor’s actions, saying that schools are being given guidelines that have no force of law.
Nine months after that ruling, Lucy started third grade.
The Tidds said they first approached Lyseth school officials that summer, and were told that there wouldn’t be any issues.
“They said the law was clear. That gave us some breathing room,” Mark said.
Principal Lenore Williams and Assistant Principal Peter McCormack said they had never had a transgender student before, but learned that the law was clear on what schools have to do. In addition to the effect of the Maines case, the federal Civil Rights Act and Title IX protect transgender students from discrimination.
“We have been pleasantly surprised with how well this has gone,” Williams said. “We are committed to making this work and we have never wavered in that commitment.”
The school officials knew legal protections or court rulings didn’t mean it would be easy.
“As well as you think you know your community, you can’t ever assume. One thing in the back of my mind was that I knew my student population was going to be very accepting. But I wasn’t sure about the greater community,” Williams said.
“Lucy made this incredibly easy for us by diving in with both feet,” McCormack said. “From the first day, she presented as a girl and remained that way.”
Experts say problems are more likely to arise if a child wavers between genders, going back and forth with different names and personas, presenting as a girl one day and a boy the next.
Lyseth officials and the Tidd family decided not to announce Lucy’s decision. Staff were notified but students weren’t, and no memos went out to Lyseth families.
They just let Lucy show up.
Williams said Lucy’s “incredible bravery” made it the most emotional day of her 20-plus years of teaching.
“Watching that girl walk into her classroom, there were a lot of tears,” she said. “We have never looked back since.”
One family asked the school to provide information to the school community about the situation, but Williams decided that wasn’t necessary, comparing it to the obligation of schools to protect the privacy of a child with a medical condition.
“We had taken on what we thought would be this huge struggle, and we’re all so relieved it’s not,” Williams said. “That’s not to say there aren’t going to be many, many challenges ahead. Nobody is losing sight of that.”
But for now, Lyseth is “a safe place and a supportive place.”
Some students still have occasional questions, but McCormack said they don’t assume they are malicious.
“Kids ask questions, and sometimes they’re a little blunt. That’s the honesty of kids,” he said.
“We made it abundantly clear: If anything came up, we would take care of it. Period,” McCormack said. So far, that’s been the case in the “very few instances” of teasing or problems.
‘I MISS THAT LITTLE BOY’
Although her family, school officials and doctors agree that Lucy’s transition has been nearly seamless, Bridget says she has private moments that are difficult.
“I never struggled with wanting to do the right thing. What I struggled with is grieving the son I thought I had,” she said.
“I gave birth to a boy. He wore his little denims and his baseball cap,” she said. “When I look at a photo of him as Benjamin, I miss that little boy. Then I look at her and think: ‘Never mind. This is so much better.’ ”
Family friend Kelly Rizzo said her family can see how much happier all the Tidds are now, adding that her daughter Addie gets along better with Lucy than she used to with Benjamin.
“It definitely has brought them a lot closer. I think Addie looks at her just like another girlfriend,” said Rizzo, who also attends the same church as the Tidds. “It’s not anyone’s place to judge. Until someone has gone through something, whatever that situation may be, no one has the right to judge that family or that person.”
And while Lucy describes transgender teen Jazz Jennings, a YouTube and television personality, as a role model, some people say Lucy herself is their inspiration.
“Being my age and trying to figure out who I am, I really look up to her,” said her 18-year-old sister, Emily. “She is so brave and so unapologetically herself.”
Principal Williams agreed, saying watching Lucy every day over the last year and a half has changed her.
“I absolutely feel enriched by it and we’ve learned and grown as a result of this journey,” Williams said. “Who’s learned more? Probably us. Who’s grown more? Probably us.”