ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:
The challenges facing transgender adults have gotten lots of attention recently in the wake of the very public transition of Caitlyn Jenner. But often those challenges start much earlier in life when very young children feel they were born into the wrong body. This is the story of how one California family is navigating their child's decision.
JAMES CHRISTIAN: Somebody ring the bell again.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: No, no. No, don't. Don't, down.
CHRISTIAN: Ring the bell.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Stop.
WESTERVELT: It's controlled after-school anarchy at the Christian-Carter household. 7-year-old Chloe has rolled herself up in an exercise mat in the living room of the family's lovely Oakland home. Look, I'm a burrito, Chloe shouts. Her 4-year-old sister, Jackie, swoops in for a bite and a push.
JACKIE CARTER CHRISTIAN: Hi, my name's Jackie.
CHLOE MARIE CHRISTIAN: Ow. Mommy, Jackie pushed me right into the table.
WESTERVELT: Just two sisters playing, occasionally sparring, as dad, James Christian, and mom, Mary Carter, watch nearby.
MARY CARTER: Jackie.
JACKIE: Sorry, mama.
CARTER: You need to go say sorry to Chloe.
WESTERVELT: Jackie's birthday is in mid-October. But for Mary and James, there's another date that's seared in memory, almost as intensely - what Mary calls The Day.
CARTER: It was May 15, 2014 and I remember the date because Jackie was out of school that day, and we drove to drop her older sister, Chloe, off at kindergarten. And normally, Jackie is quite happy and content to hang out with me and play.
WESTERVELT: Jackie was 3 then, and she was called Jack. Glancing into the backseat of her car, Mary noticed something different.
CARTER: Jackie just looked really, really sad and - sadder than a 3-and-a-half-year-old should look; this weight that looked like it, you know, weighed more than she did. You know, it was something that she had to say, and I didn't know what it was, but I assumed it had to do with not going to school. So I asked and I said, you know, Jackie are you sad that you're not going to school today? And Jackie was really quiet and put her head down and said no, I'm sad because I'm a boy.
WESTERVELT: Mary was taken aback. Her youngest had been wearing her big sister's dresses regularly and enjoyed donning pink boots, but this was new. Mary wanted to confirm, you're really not happy being a boy?
CARTER: And then I thought a little bit longer and I said, well, are you happy being you? And that made Jackie smile. And I felt like that, for that moment, was all that really mattered. That was the day.
WESTERVELT: Mary took her to a chain drugstore, and Jackie asked for elastic hair bands. Her hair wasn't long enough yet, but Mary put Jackie's hair up in five makeshift ponytails.
CARTER: And I've never seen such a happy child. And to go from maybe an hour before this - you know, this child who looks so sad - to that, I felt like, you know, I'd done something right by her.
That's you when you were born.
JACKIE: How old was I?
CARTER: You were just born. You were a few minutes.
WESTERVELT: In the months that followed, they started talking over girls' names, with help from Jackie's pre-K teacher. On her 4th birthday, the family sang happy birthday, for the first time, to Jackie.
CARTER: That was your birthday party.
JACKIE: How old was I?
CARTER: You just turned 4.
WESTERVELT: A new job for James prompted the family to move from Atlanta to Oakland two years ago. Mary and James say they feel lucky they've landed there. The Bay Area is one of the most LGBT-friendly regions in the nation. The challenges ahead might be far greater, James says, if they'd stayed in the South. He recalls the Fourth of July weekend last year; they were back visiting Atlanta. At a party, James noticed a growing group of kids gathering around Jackie, who still went by Jack back then.
CHRISTIAN: There was a point where some of the other young boys who were sort of the alpha males - and we're talking about 15 kids surrounding Jackie pretty quickly. Clearly, the alpha males in the group wanted to challenge this notion, like, wait a minute, you said you're a boy but you're wearing a dress and you got ponytails. I don't understand that so...
WESTERVELT: How'd you feel?
CHRISTIAN: Anger. Anger toward the - just what I saw. Joy when this girl, about 9, stepped in and said no, this is Jack. He's my friend. He's wearing a dress. And Jackie stood her ground, and so that made me very proud.
WESTERVELT: Jackie, you want to grow your hair pretty long or do you like it this length, here?
JACKIE: I want it all the way down to my hips.
WESTERVELT: Whoa. Holy cannoli.
WESTERVELT: That's long.
JACKIE: Actually, all the way down to my knees.
It's only been a little more than a year since Jack became Jackie. Neither of her parents has any illusions about the potential struggles ahead. Transgender people have alarmingly high rates of depression, substance abuse and suicide. James says, it's on us as parents to give her all the support she'll need.
CHRISTIAN: There will be more challenges, certainly. As Jackie gets older and, you know, gets around more kids and then puberty and dating and, yeah, the challenges are going to - you know, it's going to be like a very steep curve. But I'm hoping that by the time Jackie gets there, one, we will have given her the tools, and two, there will be even more and more acceptance of this entire issue.
WESTERVELT: There is more acceptance than there was even a few years ago says psychologist Diane Ehrensaft at the UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital. She's worked with transgender youth for more than 20 years.
DIANE EHRENSAFT: We, as a culture, have lifted the lid so that kids can start speaking up, showing themselves and that we have a lens to understand it from. We are now much more commonly hearing very little children speak up - and they're persistent, insistent and consistent - please let me be the gender I am rather than the gender you think I am.
WESTERVELT: How to approach gender identity in the very young is hardly a settled issue. There are diverging opinions within the field, and Jackie's parents know some people may not understand their approach and it is hard for them at times.
WESTERVELT: Do you like "Dora The Explorer," Jackie?
JACKIE: (Makes noise).
CHLOE: He hates it.
WESTERVELT: As Mary explains, her daughter Chloe is the only one the family Jackie still allows to occasionally refer to her as Jack, as he and as brother.
CARTER: Chloe's very loving and they're protective and supportive, I think, of each other. But I think that, for Chloe, she still attaches this memory of her little brother - of Jack - and it's, right now, really hard for her to let that go. It's that last piece, I think, that she's holding on to.
CHRISTIAN: I, myself, have times when I miss my boy and, you know, I look at the old clothes and the old pictures, and I will miss Jack. And that's probably never going to go away. And that's just going to take some time.