It’s an objection that comes up a lot when we discuss transgender children: they are simply too young to be able to make that kind of decision about their own lives. A cis, 9 year old boy cannot truly feel like she was born in the wrong body. They should wait another nine years to make the choice in adulthood. Nine more years of bullying, of torment, of feeling lost. Eighteen years of never feeling like yourself, like a lie.
What about gay children? There are many of us who know from a very young age that they are different, like I did, but have neither the vocabulary nor the cognition to frame it into coherency. But we still know something isn’t as society has outlined for us.
Knowing your truth at a young age is a gift
The experience of transgender kids and gay and lesbian children is different. But both begin under a veil of secrecy that never really leaves, and both suffer through bullying from a young age.
However, there are some children who from a young age understand who they are, who they’re supposed to be, and have a loving family allowing them to be their true self. That was the case for Jamel Myles.
Jamel was nine years old when he came out to his mother, Leia Pierce. He had said it so nonchalantly that she wasn’t sure if he was playing. He repeated the declaration and she responded by telling him she loves him regardless.
At his age I knew I was different, but I had no clue how to reconcile that understanding with language, labels, or any other term. Some of us wait until we’re in our twenties before embracing reality. Jamel, at 9, was sure that he was different, and knew how to identify himself. While his knowledge of being queer wasn’t unusual for LGBTQ+ youth, what made him special is how quick he was to understand.
Pride In Self
The young boy wanted to go to school and tell his classmates because he was proud of who he was. He is an iconic child for millions of gay youths who still cannot find that ability for a plethora of reasons.
Yet for Jamel his classmates were not as welcoming as his mother; they bullied him and told him to kill himself. And he did, only a short time after coming out.
Jamel’s experience is sadly not special. Bullying by peers can quickly turn into internalized hatred. You are made to believe that you are wrong, that being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer is wrong, immoral, wicked. That begins at a young age and it cuts deep.
I was bullied as a child long before I ever came out. Every move I made on the school grounds was questioned, queried, and often ridiculed. I was different; unlabeled, but still different. And I shut myself down during my teenage years, refusing to even think about being gay. It was not acceptable in society, nor to me.
Suicide in the LGBTQ+ community is one of the highest for a reason. While, unlike Jamel, I managed to swallow down the hatred and overcome the suicidal thoughts, the psychological scars many of us suffer go undiagnosed, unrecognized, and often ignored.
In our “progressive” culture, we treat LGBTQ+ children as abnormal. The children who bullied Jamel were taught that to be anything but heterosexual and heteronormative is deviant. Whether they learn through their parents, through schooling, or from the pillars that hold up our society, that apprehension towards non-straight non-cis children is there. And it is evident just by walking through most school yards in the western world.
Children are far more knowledgeable about who they are than adults give credit for. But for some reason parents, teachers, guardians, our damn culture tells them at a young age how they should act, behave, think, grow. Whether it’s gender or sexuality, these frames are marked in us from a young age. Boys are taught to be one thing, girls are taught to be another. All are taught to grow into heteronormative lifestyles. We rarely have a children’s book which features an LGBTQ+ character, let alone focusing on one. One thing we do know is that children are not born hating or fearing people who we deem as “different”. They learn it from somewhere.
For trans children this is particularly damaging:
If I came out as gay at 9 years old, I would be bullied for sure. I would be seen as differently. I might not make friends, and I probably wouldn’t have dated anyone since I don’t imagine many others would have come out at a young age, but my truth is out there and open for the world. If I was transgender, and I came out, I wouldn’t have been able to dress the way I wanted, or take part in the activities I wanted. I can’t imagine many parents would have allowed me as a trans child to stay over at a friends’ house; even if they didn’t see me as deviant or perverted, many would only see me as a boy, and if they had daughters that wasn’t going to happen.
Mrs. Pierce has since pinned the blame for her son’s death on herself, that as his mother she should have seen the pain he was facing. It isn’t her fault. This is a mother who openly acknowledged her son’s worth as a gay boy. This isn’t a regular occurrence for LGBTQ+ youth; Jamel should have been able to grow up in a safe space knowing he was accepted by those who mattered the most, and without the anguish that bullying brings.
For Jamel, like many before him, and many after as well, ending his life was the only escape from the bullying, from the feeling that he is worthless, that he is unnatural, that he is simply not allowed. And we, as a culture, are the ones responsible for his death.
For anyone who is facing homophobic or transphobic bullying, please know there are places you can get help and I urge you to find it. You are not alone, and you are loved.