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About a Girl: Coy Mathis' Fight to Change Gender

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The Mathises filed a discrimination complaint with the Colorado Division of Civil Rights. They withdrew Coy and her siblings from school, explaining to the kids that the school wasn't being very nice right now and that Mommy was going to be their teacher for a while. Coy understood. "The school is being mean to me," she said. "They're telling me I'm a boy when I'm really a girl." With that, the Mathises were ready to take the next affirmative step.

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On a banquette in the lobby of the Hampton Inn in Philadelphia, on the eve of the Trans-Health Conference, the moms are drinking wine. "My mother says, 'What does she want for Christmas?'" says Kristine Janovitz, speaking of her 12-year-old trans daughter. "I said, 'A vagina!'"

Everyone around the table roars with appreciative laughter, including Kathryn Mathis, who looks shyly down at the table. Kathryn could never be so open with her own conservative, religious Texan family, with whom she'd had an arms-length relationship anyway. Though she's sure some of her family objects to Coy's living as a girl, they know better than to articulate their disapproval because, says Kathryn, "if they were to be outspoken about their problems with Coy, they would be cut off." Perhaps with that in mind, both Kathryn's and Jeremy's families responded quite well upon being told that Coy would be raised as a girl. "Well, I figured," Jeremy's father had remarked dryly, "'cause he's wearing a dress in all the pictures on Facebook."

Absent much family support, the Mathises have built a new community for themselves by connecting online with other parents of trans kids. Their efforts have been made easier by the fact that their discrimination complaint made Coy an overnight LGBT luminary, her story splashed in the pages of The New York Times and on Katie Couric's show. Over the past few months, Coy has stayed up well past her bedtime to appear at the red-carpet GLAAD awards and at a trans-rights fundraiser, events where strangers flocked to the Mathises to thank them, and share their own stories of discrimination. Jeremy has been so horrified to learn about the difficulties trans people routinely face – in the workforce, getting health insurance, in the housing market, and don't even get him started on incarcerated trans people – that he is about to begin law school, determined to become a civil rights lawyer. For Kathryn and Jeremy, their swift rebirth into champions of an underdog cause has imbued their lives with a new sense of forward motion. Thus, in a short time period, necessity and now passion have turned the Mathises into a couple invested enough in trans issues to have packed all five kids into their enormous wheelchair-accessible van for the two-and-a-half-day drive here to the annual Trans-Health Conference, on what amounts to their first family vacation.

As the hotel fills with families checking in, the lobby takes on the gushy feel of a reunion, with parents whooping as they greet one another and proudly introduce their kids, who are running everywhere. "I have three girls: two biological, one trans," one mom says to another by way of introduction. The most striking thing about the crowd is their ordinariness: just a bunch of earnest suburban moms and dads, accompanied by young children still so androgynous-looking that the trans kids are indistinguishable from their non-trans siblings.

Coy races by, shrieking with glee while getting a piggyback ride from an older kid. This evening Coy is wearing a mint-green dress with a butterfly print, pink leggings and pink patent-leather shoes, her baby-fine golden wavy hair pinned back with two sparkly flower barrettes. As she shows off by carefully balancing a dime on the tip of her dainty ballet flat – "Look what I can do!" she squeals, then wrinkles her brow to better concentrate on lifting her pointed toe an inch higher – it seems impossible to imagine that she is anything but a girl.

But with older trans kids tearing about the conference, the Mathises get a glimpse of how puberty will change everything for Coy, and that's a major reason why they are here in Philadelphia: for the camaraderie, yes, and for present-day guidance, but mostly to start amassing information on what Coy's future might hold.

The prevailing train of thought from the affirmative camp goes like so: If these kids are truly trans, why should they endure the horrific transformation of developing the "wrong" adolescent body in puberty – a trans girl with an Adam's apple and a low voice; a trans boy coping with breasts and a monthly period – with all the wrenching emotional consequences, only to have to medically undo those changes later in life, with less-than-ideal results? Rather, a few clinics have adopted a series of medical interventions to delay puberty and then, later, give kids a smoother gender reassignment. The first step, sometimes as early as age nine, are medications called puberty blockers, which stave off secondary sex characteristics, buying families precious decision-making time until they feel sure of the child's wishes. Though concerns remain about whether kids on puberty blockers develop adequate bone density, pediatrician Olson says blockers are an effective low-risk tool when used for the short term: "The blockers allow us to push the pause button and let kids explore gender during what are really the most difficult years," adding that if kids ultimately decide not to continue the regimen, they could simply stop taking the meds, and anatomical puberty begins.

Assuming the kid is still insistent, though, step two begins in adolescence: With the child's prepubescent body a relative hormonal blank slate, cross-sex hormones are introduced, so that the child's body blossoms into his or her preferred gender – resulting in a gender reassignment with far more convincing-looking results than for those who transition as adults. Step two is also the point at which there's no turning back, since once a child's voice drops, or there's significant breast development, those changes will remain even if they come off the drugs. And then, eventually, there's step three: "bottom" surgery, if they choose, at age 18 or older.

This path through adolescence can be a frightening prospect even for the most trans-positive parents. If early social transition is about following a gender-fluid child's lead into a possibly temporary experiment, then medical intervention is the point at which parents take charge and decide their child's permanent outcome. Before turning 18, a kid may wish for gender reassignment, but he or she cannot legally go down that path without parental consent; that burden falls on the adults. "Even for the most accepting of parents, it's very much a grief process," says Olson. "You're losing your son and gaining a daughter." And then there's a parent's worst fear: Maybe they're making a colossal, life-altering mistake for their child.

But at the conference over the next few days, the Mathises will witness firsthand the ramifications of not taking action, when they survey their fellow attendees swamping the Pennsylvania Convention Center: beefy matrons who call to mind Mrs. Doubtfire; delicate men sporting overcompensatory beards; towering divas with fantasy curves; and so many shades of in-between as to make a conventioneer thankful for the name badges listing everyone's "preferred pronoun." The fact that their appearances are confusing even here at the Trans-Health Conference, the most safe and affirming venue on Earth, is a painful reminder that out in the world, these people are not "passing" – few have the privilege of anonymity – and each has to live with the scrutiny that brings.

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A child like Coy, however, could have the power to change public perception of trans people. High-profile trans actors like Laverne Cox on Orange Is the New Black, or trans teenage characters like Wade "Unique" Adams on Glee – and, more controversially, Chelsea (née Bradley) Manning – have brought transgender people a level of visibility they've never before enjoyed. But such spokespeople could never normalize transgenderism in the culture as compellingly as a kid like Coy – whose total inhabitancy of her gender identity is right on the surface, undeniable, as is her guileless wish to be accepted for who she really is.

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