I’m a Nonbinary Chinese American Who Co-Parents With My Trans Partner
I worry about the impact trans-competent healthcare bans will have on our teens
It was a hot day on our first leg of the journey which would end in the kid switch-off ritual we participated in each summer and winter break. C and M were in the back seat, shoving the cooler back and forth, trying to bother the sibling in the other seat. When we finally pulled into Lake Catherine State Park Campground in Arkansas to end a full day of driving, we rushed to put our swimming gear on and get in the refreshing water.
A white family was floating on tubes in the water already. I was apprehensive in the way that you are when you occupy a new place and scan the room, checking out the danger meter. I was nervous traveling through rural parts of the South as a queer- and trans mixed-race couple with two kids in tow. I always took note of our surroundings and whether or not we saw anyone else who looked like our kinds of people.
I often avoided going swimming or to the beach unless I was going to a Trans and Nonbinary Beach Day where I felt safety in numbers. As a parent, though, this swimming hole had been a carrot we’d held out for the car ride. I didn’t want to keep the kids from a swim at the end of a long day of driving.
I tried not to look at the white family staring at us, thinking that I would mind my own business and keep to our own section of the lake – and hoping they would do the same. But my partner whispered to me: “That man has a swastika tattoo over his heart on his chest,” and I felt my neck muscles, holding all my stress in my body, pulling for the exit.
I didn’t want to stare, but tried to see out of the corner of my eyes. A large white man and, presumably, his wife stared at us as if we had intruded on their lake. Their kids, carefree, splashed around them. I made slow and steady moves to get us out of the water because I didn’t want to scare our kids. We started moving them towards the lake bank, despite their protests that they had just gotten into the water. I felt the man’s eyes on us as we rinsed off lake grit at the showering station, his gaze following us all the way out of the beach area. I wondered how many other people we would encounter who would wish harm on our family.
I am a nonbinary Chinese American in a relationship with a white trans woman and have been co-parenting my partner’s children since they were 3 and 6 years old. Both children, now 13 and 16 years old, have come out as nonbinary and trans in the last few years. As a new co-parent navigating raising children moving between two households with very different cultural understandings, I first searched for community and cultural resources for trans parents and found little which was helpful or applied to our experience.
I was never sure I wanted to create a child from my body, continue my bloodline, bear a child. I was raised to bear children, but only in proper ways. I have a clear memory of my mother calmly telling me that she would disown me if I ever came home pregnant. As a child, I remember the gossiping of my aunts when my cousin fell in love with a Vietnamese woman (face like a horse!) and my other cousin a model (loose woman!). I rejected the clear trajectory (virgin to wife to mother) when I brought home someone of the wrong race (white, black or Latinx), wrong educational background (community college) or wrong gender (trans).
I’ve always thought that if I made the decision to parent that I would adopt or foster someone who needed me. In high school, I was horrified to read about Chinese girls abandoned at orphanages by parents who only wanted a son, exacerbated by China’s one-child law – and imagined that if I were to become a parent, I could support someone who had been thrown away by family or society, like an outlaw.
I wasn’t quite prepared when C (3 years old) and M (6 years old) came into my life. I had never thought I’d be parenting into adulthood what I thought were two white boys, wanting them to be racially sensitive and queer and trans positive.
When I met Cassie, I didn’t expect much either.
In my early 20s, I had a white boyfriend who was obsessed with Japan. I wasn’t Japanese, but I was the closest thing he had in proximity. When we ate using chopsticks, he would tell me what he thought were proper ways to use chopsticks even though I had grown up using them. I never told him that I had grown up listening to the elders in my family express contempt and resentment for the Japanese because of Japan’s invasion of China during World War II. When we split, I vowed to never date a white person ever again and I didn’t for the next twenty years.
I first became aware of Cassie at a local meeting for a support group where we discussed relationships. The meeting took place in an overly crowded room – she heard my voice and my thoughts about gender and relationships and wanted to meet me. I heard others gossiping about her as a trans woman – and knew that I had yet to meet her because I had never before met a trans woman in that very white, heterosexual space.
We met when I arrived at the tail end of the group’s four-year anniversary party at the local bowling alley/arcade bar. My friend wanted an invite to the underground local hot tub collective, a local word-of-mouth fixture in Milwaukee, where I survived the winter by going for soaks on cold nights. I asked who else wanted to come and Cassie came along.
You never knew who you were going to encounter in the tubs, but I hadn’t seen anybody at the tubs who was out as trans. It was in the basement of a multi-use building which housed a local yoga studio and across the street from a bookstore. There was a key to open the outer door into a small yard area and a code to enter. There was a hot tub, cold tub, sauna and room off to the side where people stored their belongings. There was a slot in an inner wall for visitors to pay the $5 guest fee.
Since I didn’t know Cassie well, I just watched and observed both how she was moving in the space and how others in the space reacted to her. She told me about leaving her marriage and I learned that she was newly coming out as trans. She kept her underwear on and kept following me in and out of the hot water. I wasn’t dating white people or interested in getting into serious relationships with them, but I became heated and brash.
‘You like me,” I said flatly. She was a bit flustered, but didn’t deny it. I was toying with the idea of being bossy and in control. It felt important to be the one to set parameters and tone for how we were going to interact.
I told her to write me a letter that detailed out all her significant relationships with other people of color. I was surprised when a thoughtful and detailed personal letter arrived in my inbox.
I asked her if she knew who Bayard Rustin was. She didn’t. I proposed seeing Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin because I wanted to see how open she’d be at learning about something outside of what she knew. I also wanted to know how she would react to activities centering queer people of color as a white person. She agreed so I kept hanging out with her.
Much of our early relationship was built around first sharing food and then making food. A week after we met, I invited Cassie to an annual dumpling-making party I hosted for my birthday. She was one of the first to show up to help chop vegetables. In the middle of the party, we ran out of dumpling wrappers and she ran out to acquire them. At one moment in the midst of chaos, I looked over and saw Cassie happily chatting away with someone she had just met, engrossed in conversation like the rest of the room. She looked like she belonged in the stream of my multiple networks of acquaintances, friends and housemates.
When my housemate decided to celebrate her birthday (and entryway into cronehood) by shaving her head down to the nub, she threw a party where she asked a few of us to shave our heads in solidarity, including me. I didn’t invite Cassie to that gathering because it felt intimate and I wasn’t sure how she would react to such a ritual. In the middle of that party though, Cassie dropped by because she had brought me goat milk in courtship. I stored the goat milk in our fridge and took small sips throughout the week, savoring the fresh milk.
When I was sick, as an act of care, she brought me three different kinds of cough drops because she didn’t know what I liked. We started cooking together and sampled grocery stores in lieu of dates as we got to know each other. Going to the grocery store became a ritual we shared together.
Cassie and I slowly progressed to sharing more and more of our dinner table, which included C and M when they were in Cassie’s care.
The first night I met Cassie’s two kids, C and M, she had them for the night so she invited me over to her place. I hadn’t had too many kids in my life except cousins and my little brother so I was nervous about what to expect. It was late and the kids were in bed. We had just gone back to Cassie’s place to make out on the couch and snuggle because it was convenient. We were still on the couch when M woke up upset about something. I wondered if I was supposed to be there. Cassie held M with her full body as M tantrumed, struggling to hit something. I wondered what I had gotten myself into.
One of the first things I noticed was the food. C and M both wanted Mac and Cheese, pizza, hot dogs or hamburgers and not much else. They were picky about food and I was too.
When Cassie and I introduced the kids to stirfry or other food that they were not used to, they often rejected what was on the menu. They would beg and moan for something else even after the thank you helping that was customary and inherited from Cassie’s ex’s family that became a practice adopted for the kids – to respect the person who made the meal.
I grew up in a Chinese American immigrant family where much of the care in our family was expressed with food. My favorite meals were dumplings and hotpot — meals that everyone made together. We ate family style – sharing several different kinds of dishes in the center of the table.
Growing up, my mother made the majority of our family meals. I was used to eating what was placed in front of us. Though I had preferences, I cannot imagine wholesale rejecting what was placed in front of me and demanding something else from her.
M had a distaste for family-style meals, always preferring individualized meals. In the early days of living together, we often accommodated C and M’s demands. It created a situation where two separate meals were prepared and eaten and highlighted the differences in the kinds of food that the kids were used to and the kinds of food that Cassie and I made together as part of our relationship. When we went out to eat as a family, Cassie and I often ordered family-style over M’s objections.
I viewed C and M’s reactions as a white, privileged way to approach food and meal-making, often making meal times feel like a tense showdown. I worried that I wouldn’t be on the same page as Cassie because I hadn’t been there in the very beginning years. I also didn’t want to complicate her relationship with the kids.
Cassie eventually agreed with me that she catered to the children out of a sense of guilt. She also told me that there might be other reasons for M’s orientation around food. I slowly learned that M’s autism made her extremely sensitive to textures in food and grass and that she would hyperfocus on that to the exclusion of everything else.
We were navigating our relationship as a newly out trans woman and a nonbinary person. Cassie’s kids would scream “Daddy” in crowded public spaces and we would worry about what would happen if strangers objected to our presence in the space. We tried to warn them that there might be people who would judge and try to hurt us because they didn’t understand us (and Cassie being especially vulnerable as a trans woman).
Neither of us had any models of what a family like ours could look like and didn’t know of any other families, even in the queer and trans support groups we belonged to. Many of those who came didn’t have children and the ones who did had often come out much older. There didn’t seem to be any others who had young children shared across multiple households.
I looked up kids’ books that included trans protagonists and/or families. There wasn’t a lot out there, but I tried to get my hold on everything published and we started reading together. We wanted to show them that there were other models out there other than families with a heteronormative father and mother. We didn’t find too much that we loved (some were okay representationally speaking but lacked in terms of storytelling, and others had the opposite problem), but at least there was a place we could start together.
We chose to read as much as we could so that there could be a variety of representation – from books spotlighting gender creative kids to even rarer books which featured a trans parent. We also read books featuring kids of other kinds of queer families such as families with two moms or two dads or even queer penguins. I worried that the kids would rebel against what we were trying to teach them – to be gender-inclusive and to understand that there were many different ways of making and being family – and ours was just one of the variations.
When I got a new job in Texas, I asked Cassie to move with me – and she made the challenging decision to leave her kids behind. By that time, we had switched to seeing them every other weekend and sometimes longer on breaks. Once we moved to Texas, we saw them for part of their winter break and part of their summer break – with long stretches of time when we were not able to see them. We became the traveling, queer and trans, mixed-race family – often driving across the country to pick them up and drop them back – and their other family was the white and straight suburban family who had them during most of the school year.
We had to navigate transphobic and sexist expectations of Cassie as a “father” because Cassie was the one who had always worked outside the home to support her family. Even when her job proved to be too stressful, causing debilitating bouts of anxiety, and she chose to move with me to Texas, she was stuck in the childcare agreement that she had made based on the snapshot of her life from the time when she had separated from her ex. This arrangement was then reinforced by the state regarding when we were allowed to have time with the kids and the level of support that Cassie was expected to give to her ex.
We learned about the transition period between households and how that would impact the kids – when we were in the same city and switching five days on and five days off, it would get hard in transition days leading up to switching households with more tantrums and mood swings. The same happened on a different scale in the week which led to the switch.
It was also an intense transition for us – from no kids to full-on parenting with no ramp-up. Because months passed since the time we had seen them in person, it also felt like we were getting acquainted again.
Until recently, we were an always migrating household – moving for jobs and circumstance — and the children were constantly migrating back and forth between different households. This made it challenging for them to make friends with others their own age. We became our own little insular household when the kids were with us.
When we first moved to Houston, the Hero Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) campaign to pass HERO, an ordnance which would ban discrimination on sexual orientation, gender identity, sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy, genetic information, family, marital or military status, was underway. As has happened before, the anti-HERO campaign used trans women as the focal point around whom to organize, increasing fear.
Traveling between Houston and Huntsville, where I worked and Cassie attended school, felt like shuttling between two different universes. Houston was a large city which felt very international, where we weren’t the only mixed-race couple and often weren’t the only queer and trans people around. In contrast, Huntsville was a small city which ran on the prison system which dominated the city. However, HERO’s defeat confirmed that there were many in the area who saw trans people as not deserving of protection – and it increased my sense of foreboding that harm was coming to us.
When I agreed to teach a Honors-level Black Lives Matter class with two other queer colleagues, a false news article was published in the conservative news about how the Honors College was pressuring students to take a politicized class on the Black Lives Matter movement. I got a voicemail on my office phone offering de-transition support from my sinful lifestyle. We all got hostile emails telling us that the sender hoped we would lose all our funding, as we deserved.
I was navigating being an out trans-identified faculty member on a campus where the LGBT group was semi-closeted and where I seemed to be the first trans/non-binary faculty member (and person) many of my students had ever met. I was often thankful that the kids were with us in summertime or winter break when we had more breathing room. Even though I loved the culture and big sun of Houston, I started making plans to escape to a place where I didn’t feel an impending sense of disaster and doom, which ultimately ended up with moving to the Pacific Northwest.
As we entered the tween years, our household was rocked by big emotional mood swings when the kids were with us. Each day, I would ask C and M to walk with me to get exercise and food in the neighborhood. Early in the summer, we caught C sneaking sugar in the form of a bag of Dum-Dums, which continued throughout the whole summer. Cassie had bought and put up a yoga body sling in the doorway and C started hiding out in it. We noticed that C often couldn’t answer our questions about what was going on and couldn’t tell us what they needed and often withdrew from family conversation or interaction.
The next summer, Cassie got a new job and I became the one who spent time during the daytime with C and M at home. That summer, M spent much of the time in her room sleeping or with the door closed. When I asked M about how she was doing, she admitted to me that she was depressed. C spent much of the summer in their room and wouldn’t eat. I started asking C and M to help out with household chores – to get them circulating in the house and to encourage them to get vertical and off their screens. All they wanted to do was hide out in their rooms and play Minecraft.
At the end of the summer, right after she said goodbye to us, M released a video of her playing Minecraft, with the main character ripping up floorboards at the end of the quest to reveal a trans flag. I wondered how her larger extended family would receive the information since Cassie had not been supported in her gender transition. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that M received a lot of support and care. A few days later, we heard that M had chosen a new name for herself – Myra.
Myra’s coming out as a trans girl (and later Clover coming out as nonbinary a year later) forced me to re-calibrate my sense of the family that I was in since all of us now identified as trans and non-binary.
Looking back, we had often referred to both kids as a collective: “the boys.” We asked them to use the boys or men’s restroom and assumed that they were male. Even though we were both trans, we didn’t give space for them to choose how they wanted to identify and present to the world. I was so concerned to make sure they knew how to address Cassie properly as a trans woman and understand what it was like to be the kid of a trans woman – and secondarily, that they knew that I was genderqueer and nonbinary – that I didn’t consider the possibility that they were trans and nonbinary themselves.
The kids reminded me of how binary my worldview still was regarding gender. Myra, for instance, grumbled about how we would say “Good girl” to our dog Pepper and “Good boy” to our dog Benny. “Why can’t you just say Good dogs?,” she grumbled. And we had persistently gendered her as male without giving space for her to choose, until she told us otherwise, despite both of us identifying as trans.
Another hot summer day. We’re nearing the end of C and M’s time in the Pacific Northwest. I’m in the car on parent duty, Myra in the front seat and Clover in the back seat. It’s the first summer that Myra has lived with us since coming out and she’s beginning to shine. Cassie recently took her thrift shopping for her birthday. She modeled the clothes in the living room, twirling around and smiling. Now she’s wearing one of her thrifted skirts paired with black combat boots, ready for the LGBTQIA* youth social.
I wonder what my life would have been like if I had attended an event like this as a young person. Cassie and I talk about what we want this next generation to experience that we didn’t.
In the parking lot of the zoo, we see a line of young people queued up to enter the zoo. Many of them look like they’re already friends or have come together and I worry about how she will do on her own without knowing anybody first. It hasn’t always been easy to make lasting connections with other kids their age because they move between two households and we are often moving.
“Make sure your phone is fully charged and call me if you need to be picked up,” I say. Or rescued, I think. “Actually, make sure that you write down our phone numbers somewhere in case you phone dies.”
Myra rolls her eyes and grumbles – a hint of that old contrarian gritting her teeth at the dinner table – but does what I say and copies down my number.
I ask Clover what they want for dinner and we decide on burgers. When we first drive off, I’m alert for any notification that Myra needs to be picked up and is not having a good time. I remember my own awkward pre-teen and teen years where I felt excluded and ostracized socially and hid in the band locker during lunch so I wouldn’t have to publicly eat my lunch alone. But she doesn’t call. Clover and I eat our burgers in the car while watching the locals order shakes, burgers and fries in summer heat at Dick’s Drive-In. We’re not staring at them the way we were stared at in Arkansas six years earlier and they don’t pay us any mind. Instead, we’re enjoying the summer air through the open windows and just spending time together.
We finally get a call that Myra is ready to be picked up.
“So, how was it? Did you have fun and meet anyone cool?” I prompt.
“Yes, I made a friend!,” Myra says. I see a hint of jealousy from Clover that they aren’t yet old enough to attend the social.
I feel relief and excitement for Myra about the possibility of growing a new friendship and Clover who can attend the social the following year.
It is hard not to worry about how the kids will navigate this world which increasingly targets them. It is hard not to worry about what impact it would have if Myra is denied access to trans-competent health care or the ability to use the bathroom she chooses in school. It is hard not to worry about the high rate of teen trans suicides or the battle for trans youth and their families to be treated with dignity and respect.
A few weeks ago, Clover decided to move across the country to live with us full-time. I felt proud of them for deciding that they wanted something different in their life, naming what they needed and working to make that vision materialize. I remember that this is how trans people have always survived. We take care of each other. We build our own networks of support. We choose our own family and kin.
Notes: C/Clover and M/Myra are pseudonyms. I first met C/Clover when they were 3 years old. They changed their name in the last year to reflect their gender identity. I refer to Clover as they/them to reflect their pronouns at the time of this publication.
I first met M/Myra when she was 6 years old. She changed her name in the last year to reflect her gender identity. I refer to Myra as she/her to reflect her pronouns at the time of this publication.