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About a Girl: Coy Mathis' Fight to Change Gender

By the time Coy Mathis was four years old, he knew one thing was for sure: that he wasn't a boy

Coy Mathis at home in Colorado, October 4th, 2013
Gillian Laub
October 28, 2013 9:00 AM ET

When Coy Mathis was a year and a half old, he loved nothing more than playing dress-up. He didn't show much interest in the fireman costume or the knight outfit, but would rummage through the toy box to grab the princess dress with the flowery headpiece. His mother, Kathryn, would text photos to her husband of their plump-cheeked blond boy twirling in a pair of pink-and-purple butterfly wings or wearing a frilly tutu.

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Cute, Jeremy Mathis would text back. A former Marine who was attending college in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Jeremy agreed with his wife that Coy's fascination with all things sparkly, ruffly and pink was the harmless play of a toddler whose mind was yet untouched by social constructs of "masculine" and "feminine." Coy was one of four siblings – a triplet with a same-age sister and brother, plus an older sister – and so was surrounded by both "girl" and "boy" toys, inside their cramped split-level house, where the living room was covered by a patina of puzzle pieces and stray Legos. Kathryn and Jeremy figured it was just a matter of time before Coy sorted it out for himself.

As Coy hit the terrible twos, though, his preference for all things girly became more insistent. He refused to eat unless his food was served on a pink plate, with pink utensils. He rejected the Matchbox cars and Iron Man figurines his parents gave him for Christmas, telling his brother, Max, "This is for you." And at every opportunity Coy would wriggle out of his jeans and T-shirts and reappear in his sister's dress or, when he could get his hands on it, her Dora the Explorer bathing suit. His parents made concessions to pacify Coy, including letting him remain dressed in girl clothes, but only in the privacy of their home. Living, as the Mathises did, close to five military installations, as well as near the headquarters of the far-right evangelical advocacy group Focus on the Family – and not far from New Life, the 10,000-member megachurch founded by Ted Haggard – Kathryn and Jeremy figured their conservative neighbors might not see Coy's playful cross-dressing as benignly as they did.

"It's a phase," the Mathises reassured each other. Kathryn, however, wondered if it could be something more. She'd noticed the way Coy brightened whenever he put on a dress or a fairy costume. She wondered whether their toddler might be gay. The notion sat fine with her: The Mathises were recent transplants from Austin and considered themselves progressive and open-minded; Kathryn herself had a gay sister. But she told no one of her suspicion about Coy – it felt creepily premature to speculate about the sexuality of a kid still in diapers.

Then one night in January 2010, Kathryn was tucking him in for bed under his pink quilt, and Coy, then three, seemed upset. "What's wrong?" she asked. Coy, his head resting against his kitty-cat-print pillow, hugged his pink stuffed pony with the glittery mane that he'd gotten for Christmas and said nothing, his mouth bent in a tight frown. "Tell me," Kathryn urged. Coy's chin began to quiver.

"When am I going to get my girl parts?" he asked softly.

"What do you mean?"

"When are we going to go to the doctor to have me fixed?" Coy asked, tears now spilling down his cheeks. "To get my girl parts?" That's when it dawned on Kathryn Mathis, with a sinking feeling, that she and Jeremy were dealing with a different issue altogether.

Thus began the journey that would lead the Mathis family to perform a radical social experiment, put them on a collision course with their local school district in Focus on the Family's backyard and transform Coy Mathis into the transgender movement's youngest icon – setting the stage for a showdown in the very capital of the American religious right.

Building upon the gains of LGB activists, the trans-rights movement is having its moment, advancing more swiftly than even its advocates ever imagined. This past May, the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was updated to replace its old classification for trans people, "gender identity disorder," with "gender dysphoria," reflecting the new understanding that having a gender identity that doesn't match your birth anatomy doesn't make you mentally ill; only any associated distress is considered a problem. The diagnostic change was greeted within the tiny trans community – gender dysphoria is thought to affect as many as one in 10,000 people – as momentous a turning point as the DSM's 1973 declassification of homosexuality had been for gays. The increasing acceptance also sparked a new awareness of how early in life some people begin to realize they may have been born in the wrong bodies.

"One kid in my practice tried to cut off their penis with a pair of scissors at five," says pediatrician Johanna Olson, who is the director of the country's largest clinic for gender-nonconforming kids, the Center for Transyouth Health and Development at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. "It happens more often than you might think."

If the trans movement is the LGBT's final frontier, then transgender youth represents its farthest outpost. Kids are coming out as trans earlier than ever: A survey of the San Francisco school district found that 1.6 percent of high school students and, incredibly, one percent of middle-school students identified as transgender. Children are packing the few U.S. clinics like Olson's, which are at the forefront of a new therapeutic approach, in which children may live as their preferred gender, complete with appropriate clothing, pronouns and often a new name. This so-called affirmative model has found an increasingly warm reception among the worried parents of trans children. And so while most doctors still consider this "social transition" for kids under the age of 10 to be controversial, already these intrepid young pioneers have begun venturing out into the world – including, in rare cases, female-to-male trans kids who undergo "top surgery" as early as age 13.

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As such, the trans-rights movement has speedily moved to a brand-new battleground: public schools. Although 623 American colleges and universities have already adopted nondiscrimination policies to cover gender expression, high schools and middle schools are being forced to grapple with the question of how to deal with trans students in their locker rooms, athletic fields and bathrooms. It's a haphazard fight raging at district, county and state levels; thus far, 2013 has been what appears to be a watershed year. This past winter, educators in Massachusetts, Maine and Portland, Oregon, issued guidelines to accommodate trans students, allowing them to use bathrooms and play on sports teams corresponding to the gender with which they identify. But in August, California trumped them all by becoming the first state to pass legislation spelling out that transgender students can choose which bathrooms, locker rooms and sports teams they wish, based on their gender identity.

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