During the long debate over transgender rights and House Bill 2, many supporters of the law suggested that being transgender is a choice and that some transgender individuals are simply experimenting with their gender identity, choosing to dress like the opposite sex.
But Ashley Nurkin, the Charlotte mother of an 8-year-old transgender girl, has no doubt that her child’s gender identity wasn’t a choice.
Although born with male anatomy, she is definitely a girl, Nurkin said.
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“It’s not an easy thing to wrap your head around,” she added. “When my husband and I came to the realization that our child was more than likely transgender, we were admittedly a little freaked out. We knew nothing about what that means.”
Since then, they’ve read research, gone through counseling and attended conferences to learn more. They turned for support to the Charlotte chapter of PFLAG – formerly known as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. But they soon realized they needed something more specific.
In 2015, Nurkin and another mother started a subgroup – Transparents of PFLAG Charlotte – for parents of transgender children. In 16 months, the group has grown from two families to more than 20, most with elementary school age children. (For information, call 704-942-6857.)
“This is a place where you can go and be vulnerable and talk about your fears,” Nurkin said.
Nurkin’s experience is backed by many researchers and clinicians who study and care for transgender patients. Dr. Deanna Adkins, director of the Duke Center for Child and Adolescent Gender Care, has transgender patients as young as 2. “They are not old enough to consciously just choose to do that.... It is not a choice in any of my patients.”
Last year, Adkins was among 20 North Carolina pediatric endocrinologists who wrote to the governor objecting to HB2, the law that requires transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender on their birth certificate in government buildings.
“There definitely is a lot of literature out there that shows us gender identity is hormonally influenced, influenced by exposures during pregnancy, and affected by your body’s ability to respond to hormones,” Adkins told the Observer. “But the least likely thing is how you are raised.”
Living two lives
Nurkin, who has two children, said she began noticing something “different” when her younger child was 4. He liked to dress up in girls clothes and asked to wear nightgowns to bed. Most of his friends were girls.
“Other moms would talk about their boys, but that was not the way that I would talk about my son,” Nurkin recalled. “My husband and I had this conversation (about whether) we should get the baseball out and hit some balls.…We knew this had something to do with gender. We just didn’t have a vocabulary for what was going on.”
In 2015, Nurkin and her husband, Matt, attended a four-day conference in Seattle, called Gender Odyssey, where they learned that gender identity and sex assignment at birth are separate things. “Gender identity is that deep sense of who you are as a person,” she said. “It doesn’t have to do with the parts that you’re born with.”
The couple began seeing a gender therapist who “made us feel comfortable with where (our child) was in her journey at the time,” Nurkin said.
Although they didn’t fully understand what was happening, the couple allowed their child to lead the way. When he asked to wear “girl clothes,” they bought some to be worn around the house. Eventually, the child wore them on a shopping trip to Target. During the summer between kindergarten and first grade, the child told a few close friends that she was really a girl, not a boy. In first grade, the child wore a boy’s uniform to school, but changed into girl’s clothes at home.
“We were using (the pronoun) ‘she’ in the house, and ‘she’ when it was just family,” Nurkin said. “Then we would have to use ‘he’ at school and around people who didn’t know. We ended up living two lives almost.”
The stress began causing health problems. Their child began having panic attacks “over the smallest things,” Nurkin said. “There would just be these meltdowns. She would get a lot of stomach aches…and a little bit of depression.”
The ‘big talk’
During Christmas break in first grade, Nurkin said they had “the ‘big talk’.…She told us ‘I want to go to school as a girl. I want to be a girl all the time.’ Of course, we said, ‘Absolutely. We love you. This is who you are. We support you.’ ”
But they knew they needed time to prepare. They all agreed the child should finish first grade as a boy. And over the summer, the Nurkins prepared for the change. They met with the principal and arranged for Time Out Youth, a local advocacy group for gay, lesbian and transgender youth, to provide training for the staff. The Nurkins also started telling more of their friends and inviting them to ask questions.
Last fall, their child entered second grade as a girl. Almost immediately, her panic attacks and stomach aches went away.
In November, for the first time in two years, she had a birthday party to which she invited friends, not just relatives.
“This has been a great year for us,” Nurkin said. “Do I think that we will have to go back to counseling at some point? I’m sure we will. I know it’s not always going to be easy.”
In the meantime, she’s thankful for how far they’ve come and ready to help other families in need. “If you are going through this and you’re not sure where to turn, we are here.”