When Gabriel was nearly 3 years old, he told his mother, "I'm sad."
"Why?" she asked.
"I want to wear beautiful clothes. I want to grow a baby in my body."
Over and over, the mother heard this longing of her child's heart. Every time, she tried to reassure. "You want beautiful clothes?" she said. "I can take care of that."
As for the baby? "You can be a parent," she said. "You can love your child as much as I love you."
She knew her answers were not enough. A parent knows such things.
Soon, Gabriel started trying on some of his sister's clothes. She is only 15 months older, so they fit well enough. Gabriel wore them only at home. When he did, he felt beautiful.
One day, while still in preschool, Gabriel asked his mother, "Can I wear a dress to school?"
She hesitated. Another boy at the preschool dressed in dresses. "The only thing everyone knows about that boy is that he's the boy who wears a dress," she told her husband.
They agreed that Gabriel should wait. "You can wear dresses at home," they told their son, "but let's not wear them to school yet."
The parents talked to Gabriel's teacher, who was thoughtful and kind. "I wonder if you're sending conflicting messages," she told them.
OK, they decided. If Gabriel asked again to wear a dress outside of home, they would talk about it.
Gabriel had a little brother by now. One morning, his mother said, "Let's go to the park." Gabriel paused and looked at her.
"What is it?" she asked.
"I was going to ask if I could keep this dress on, but I know the answer is 'no.'"
That weekend, the family of five went shopping to buy Gabriel three little dresses. The parents focused on Gabriel's happiness and tried not to dwell on their fears.
Is he going to be beat up?
Is she going to be killed someday?
That came next, once Gabriel was ready to dress as a girl every day. Through kindergarten and first grade, her classmates still called her Gabriel, regardless of the outfit of the day. In December of second grade, Gabriel told her parents he was ready.
"I want to do a pronoun change," Gabriel said. "And I want to change my name."
Her mother let her teacher know over the holiday break. Her response: "Awesome." There are benefits to living in a progressive community in California. Acceptance tops the list.
One of Gabriel's cousins said, "I'm going to have trouble remembering to call you 'her' and 'she.'"
Her reply: "Please try."
Her aunts, who live on the East Coast, told her mother, "This would never fly at my kids' schools."
"Then we're glad we live here," she replied.
After the holiday break, 8-year-old Gabriel walked into school for the last time and signed up to speak during the special hour reserved that week for class discussion. Her close friend stood with her, holding her hand as she spoke.
"I know you've talked about whether I'm a boy or a girl," she said. "I'm a girl. My name is Rebecca."
One girl expressed concern. "Does that mean you're going to use the girls' bathroom? I'm not sure about that."
"I'll be in a stall," Rebecca assured her. That was that.
Rebecca walked out of the school that day.
Her mother says Rebecca is happier. Calmer. "For the first time, she is comfortable in her skin," she says. Rebecca has play dates and is invited to all the parties.
She's 9 1/2 years old and a girl to everyone now, including strangers, and she no longer feels the need to wear dresses every day. "She doesn't have to prove it so much anymore," her mother says.
Her endocrinologist, a world-renowned expert for the transgender community, monitors Rebecca's development and progress. Big decisions lie ahead. Her parents make clear that their love is unconditional, their support unequivocal.
"I am aware there will be hurdles," her mother tells me. "I am aware that we live in a bubble right now." The world, she says, can be a dangerous place for her Rebecca. For this reason, I am not using either of Rebecca's real names.
If Rebecca were in North Carolina, the new anti-transgender law would force her to use the men's room.
"It would be humiliating for her," her mother says. "It could be dangerous, depending on who is in there."
Even before she was wearing dresses, male strangers chased Rebecca out of men's rooms because of her long hair, her pretty face.
Grown men yelling, "You don't belong in here."
"To my child," the mother says. "They did this to my child."
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University's school of journalism. She is the author of two books, including "...and His Lovely Wife," which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz ([email protected]) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
Photo credit: Mathias Erhart