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Parents of transgender children are faced with a difficult decision, and it’s one they have to make sooner than they ever imagined.

Isaac, age 17.  

Looking up from the changing table, the beautiful boy said to his mother, “I want to be a girl.”

This was not a passing phase. At 3, Mark asked to dress for Halloween as Dora the Explorer; his parents bargained him down to Darth Vader, which at least featured a cape. At 5, he insisted on trick-or-treating as Gabriella Montez, the High School Musical sweetheart. By then, his birthday parties were girl-only, with girl-only themes. Any boy toys received were instantly re-gifted to a cousin.

At first, his mom was “all Free to Be You and Me about it,” she says, willing to let Mark experiment within reason. But whose reason? The neighborhood’s? (The Benders, as I’ll call them, live in a conservative suburb in the tri-state area.) Their own? They of course loved Mark, the middle of their three sons, but worried that permission amounted to encouragement. As for Mark’s “reason”—well, as many people trying to be helpful pointed out, it was pre-rational, as if this diminished instead of intensified its authenticity. Who credits a child’s wishes? Their youngest son wanted to be Spider-Man.

But the Benders knew that Mark’s desire was different: It went far deeper than a costume donned or discarded. When asked to explain himself, he’d say things like, “I want to have long hair that moves.” The Benders would counter: Well, there’s the dad at the bus stop whose hair is like that, and he’s a boy; you can be a boy like that. “But I don’t want to be a boy with those things,” Mark would answer. “I want to be a girl with those things.” The more he pushed, the more they worried, and the more desperate his rhetoric became. “Why did God make me this way?” he cried. “I don’t like myself.” “I hate myself.” “I want God to take me up to the clouds and bring me back down as a girl.”

Through her reading on the subject, Mark’s mother gradually came to feel that she and her husband had to be that “God” for their son. But it took Mark’s implicit threats of self-harm to convince his dad. “I’m in a conservative business; I sell software,” he says. “I want the normal life. And this was gonna be different, when my son is getting out of the car in a dress in front of everybody. But then you have to think about who are you protecting? Yourself or your kid? People would say, ‘I can’t believe you’d let your kid do that. That’s abuse.’ I’ll tell you what’s abuse: suicide. Do you want a live daughter or a dead son?”

So the Benders, recognizing a tidal wave, stopped trying to hold it back, and instead tried to channel it. At the start, when Mark was in first grade, the result was what they sometimes call a “dual life,” or, more tellingly, a “half-life”: He was a “weekend and after-school” girl, tearing off his boy clothes the second he got home. But it soon became clear that this accommodation, which essentially told Mark he was “okay with us but not the world,” was untenable. Rules they erected to contain his feminine expression kept dissolving. At 6, Mark made a grand appearance at a pool party for his brother’s Little League team in a bikini. By his 7th birthday, the icing on his cake spelled MOLLY, and that’s who she has been in the two years since: “Molly 100 percent.”

Actually, “Mark” and “Molly” are the names Molly herself has chosen for use in this article, though she’d rather use the real ones; and though I am using male and female pronouns to differentiate between the time before and after the transition, her parents don’t. Out of respect for their daughter, they use “she,” or try to, even when talking about the past. Similarly, they have edited out of their albums and wall displays six years of pictures of Molly as a boy and have bought a new carved oak figurine to update the genders in a family crèche on the mantelpiece.

Molly, too, seems to have edited out any sign of her boy past. The lilac walls of her room are dominated by giant Hannah Montana decals. The closet and bureaus are jammed with pink clothes; a vanity overflows with costume jewelry, nail polish, and makeup. Even in a typical school outfit—a blue skirt over navy leggings, a blue top printed with silver peace signs that match the sparkly silver on her Twinkle Toes sneakers—she has located herself at the extreme girlie end of the style spectrum. And if this at first seems an exaggeration of gender iconography, her older brother’s room, down the hall, seems no less so, encrusted as it is with sports detritus, including a headboard made, by his father, of sawed-off hockey sticks.