Years ago, on this very day, I first met my friend “Kai.” I have not seen or heard from her in years as we met when we were teenagers. But I tend to think of her this time of year and wonder where she is, and how she’s doing. Wonder what her life is like and wonder if she has peace. And especially since becoming a parent, I wonder how her parents…and sadly, many, many, many parents…can treat their child as shabbily as Kai’s parents treated her.
Although I was a quirky and in many ways socially awkward teenage girl, I had a few things going for me. One was that I had a small, close-knit group of friends that accepted my “weirdness” and often helped me navigate different scenarios that cause most if not all teenagers angst regardless of neurology (i.e. school dances, crushes, etc). Another was that my family loved and accepted me (mostly).
Of course, like most adolescents, I had the occasional falling out/argument/spat with my friends over things that seem trivial now but felt really significant then. And of course though I loved my family, I didn’t always like them. I found plenty of areas to find fault with my family, one of which was how ridiculously strict they were (stereotypical overprotective immigrant parents, except it was no stereotype in my case, it was reality).
However, deep down even when my friends and family got on my nerves, I knew that they cared for me. It was apparent in the way that they treated me, interacted with me, spoke about me, spoke to me. It was evident that even though they didn’t always “get” me, for the most part they allowed me to be myself. Despite all of the messages that I had from the world that shouted otherwise, my friends and family didn’t make me feel like something was wrong with me and didn’t try to force me to be like everyone else. As an undiagnosed Autistic girl in a world that I frequently did not understand and that was often a very cruel place to exist, my friends and my family were a lifeline that often kept me sane and helped me to keep going.
Unfortunately, as long as I knew Kai, she didn’t have anyone in her life like that. She and I were friends, but I don’t believe I was capable of filling the parent-sized void in her life. More to come on that…
I met Kai during my winter break from school. Two weeks of holiday to sleep in, to relax, to not have to do much of anything beyond read, and sleep, and watch TV, and sleep, and visit with friends, and sleep some more…it was nice. On this particular day my friends and I decided to go to the mall as we all had Christmas money and/or gift certificates to spend. So rather than just “window shopping” we could actually purchase something (yay!) at the mall. An added bonus was that this was a mall where many of our peers frequented, so it was a good place to see cute people – and to be seen.
I had a love/hate relationship with the mall. Hanging out with my friends? Fun. Seeing cuties, even if I felt too shy to talk to them? Fun. Being in a loud, crowded, overwhelming space? Not fun. Having to visit store after store even after I had already chosen what I wished to purchase because everyone else was still deciding? Not fun. I went anyway, though.
About 45 minutes into it, I needed a break. I left my friends in a music store, letting them know I’d meet them in a while, and I headed to the food court. I was deciding between a smoothie and a soft pretzel when I heard a commotion not far away from me. I wasn’t certain exactly what was happening because there were so many people coming and going. But after a while it became louder and I realize the source of the noise was a group of teenage boys surrounding one of the food court workers.
During peak mall times, most of the restaurants in the food court at the mall would position one or more of their employees to stand in an open area with a tray of free samples to offer to people passing by in hopes that if some of them liked the sample(s) they would purchase a meal. This day, one of the employees at one of the restaurants was being harassed. A boy who appeared to be about my age was making rude jokes about the employee, mocking her accent and her appearance. The girl, who was also about my age, was trying to ignore him, but doing so was difficult, especially since a small crowd had gathered who were laughing at his jokes, which seemed to embolden him. It seemed the girl was fighting back tears.
People were walking by and shaking their heads and frowning. It was clear that a lot of people disapproved of what the boy was doing. But no one was doing anything. And none of the mall security guards seemed to be anywhere around.
I knew what it was like to be bullied for being different and I couldn’t just stand by and watch. I began walking briskly, headed for the group of boys. My heart was pounding because I had no idea what I was going to say, and I felt nervous because I didn’t have my girls with me. But someone had to do something, and if no one else would, I would.
I was at the edge of the group when all of a sudden I felt a huge splash of cold wetness. My shirt was drenched with something sticky. I stopped in my my tracks. There was a girl with long curly hair and glasses holding a smoothie cup in her outstretched hand. Before I could say anything, the girl shouted, “SECURITY!”
Everyone turned around and stared at her. She was pointing at me as I stood in place, drenched. “Security!” the girl shouted again. “Someone bumped into me and made me spill my drink on my cousin! And she’s allergic! Someone get help, now, please! SECURITY!!!”
I didn’t know who her cousin was or what she was talking about. But the crowd that had formed around the boy who was taunting the food court worker dispersed. Some people ran to search for security, others started coming closer to where the girl and I were standing. I had no idea what was going on. The curly haired girl came closer to me and grabbed my arm. “Play along,” she hissed in my ear. “I’m trying to help that poor girl.”
Finally I caught on. The whole thing was a ruse to get security to come over and help the girl who was being harassed! Once I understood, I started moaning and acting melodramatic. Someone brought me a chair. My “cousin” shouted again for security. Not wanting to get in trouble for harassing a mall worker once security arrived, the boy who was causing the disturbance quickly disappeared, and so did several of the other boys who had been with him.
Seeing that the situation was over, I suddenly “recovered” from my “allergic exposure” and stood up. After reassuring some well-wishers that I was fine and NO I did not need to use their epi pen, I left the area to go to the restroom and clean myself off. As I walked, the curly haired girl followed me.
“Hey,” she said. “Slow down for a sec. I’m really sorry I dumped my drink on you.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “That was really cool what you did for that girl.”
“Nah,” the girl answered, shaking her head. “It’s no big deal. I’m sorry about your shirt, though. It was really cute. I’ll replace it for you so you don’t have to walk around the mall like you’re in a wet t-shirt contest.” She opened the very large purse she wore on her shoulder and rummaged around for a bit, pulling out a shirt. “Your boobs are way bigger than mine,” she said, “But I think you can fit this. Don’t worry. It’s clean – it’s brand new, actually. See, it still has the tag on it.”
It did have the tag still on it. I glanced at the tag and gasped at the price. “I can’t take this,” I said. “It’s way too expensive.” I tried to hand it back to her, and she shook her head again. “There’s no such thing as too expensive when you’re giving something to a friend. So let’s be friends. My name’s Kai.” She smiled at me and stuck out her hand to shake mine. I shook her hand and smiled back.
So that was the day I met Kai. I took her with me to join my friends, and they all took to her. Kai was very easy to get along with, and people were drawn to her like a moth is drawn to a flame. She was funny. She was giving. She was brave. She was pretty.
And she was neurodivergent, as well as a transgender teen of color.
I realize exactly how this is going to come off, but in the spirit of transparency I’m going to say it anyway: Kai was the first openly transgender person I personally knew. (I’m deliberately choosing to use the word transgender throughout this post as opposed to the outdated and more offensive name that was more commonly used at that time.) As a fifteen year old Black girl living in a major US city, yes I had casually encountered individuals whom I assumed to be transgender before (and had likely encountered many others unbeknownst to me as well, as the transgender community is not homogeneous after all). But as someone who had a small, insular group of friends due to being (undiagnosed) Autistic, I didn’t easily make new friends, so basically the only close friends I had were the ones who had already proven themselves to me years before; I didn’t incorporate new friends of any background into my life. Kai was different, though.
Even though Kai was a literal stranger, after a day of hanging out, she felt like an old friend, which was very atypical for me. We exchanged phone numbers and spent the rest of the holiday break on the phone with one another every day for hours. Once school was back in session, we regularly kept in touch even though we went to different schools. Kai was easy to talk to, and she was a good listener. She tolerated and even seemed to enjoy my “info dumping” and she seemed to get me.
Kai spent a lot of time trying to make everyone else laugh and smile, but Kai herself was often sad. She would always try to minimize her sadness, but I knew her and I could feel it. She shared with me that her parents and her sister thought she was a freak and a weirdo and they didn’t understand her. They refused to call her Kai, instead insisting upon calling her by her former name, “Kyle” despite knowing how much she hated that name. For Christmas all the clothing they bought her was boy clothing even though they knew she wouldn’t want to wear it. She was forbidden to wear makeup at home and several times her mother had threatened to sneak into her room in the middle of the night and cut off Kai’s long hair while she slept.
In order to get them to leave her alone, Kai always left the house in what she called, “drag” – boy clothes. She would put on a masculine or androgynous looking outfit and pull her hair back. Once she got far enough away from home (i.e. halfway to school, or at the movies or the mall), she would find a place to change into her real clothes and to put on her makeup. Then when it was time to go back home she would change back. (This is the reason that Kai had a shirt handy in her purse the day we met; she always had a few changes of clothes, shoes, and makeup with her at all times. Hence the ginormous purse she carried.)
Kai’s parents allowed us to hang out because Kai lied to them and said that I was “Kyle’s girlfriend.” They were delighted, as to them it meant that Kai must have been finally “growing out of that stage” and acting more like a boy in order to be able to secure a girlfriend. They didn’t get it at all. Kai couldn’t act like something she wasn’t – at least not for long. Kai couldn’t be a boy because she wasn’t a boy. She was not Kyle. She was Kai.
School was difficult for Kai. She struggled with academics because she was dyslexic, but she seldom raised her hand in class to ask for help because she didn’t want to call extra attention to herself because she already had enough issues at school to deal with. She got teased a lot by her classmates and got called horrible names. People, especially guys, would secretly date her, but they were too cowardly to take her as their date to school dances or walk down the hallway with her in front of their classmates. Because she was so pretty, a lot of the girls didn’t like her (they probably felt threatened by her in my opinion). Kai did have a few school friends, but they weren’t that close. It was a shame, because Kai was very sweet and was a lot of fun to be with.
Kai and I could relate to one another about our school challenges. Being Black, gifted, and Autistic, the school environment was a challenge for me as well (though in different ways than it was for Kai). I often hated going to school at all. Naturally, Kai and I devised many silly, devious plans to shut our schools down to give ourselves a reprieve. “Let’s clog up all the toilets!” she suggested one day. “Nope,” I replied, “I’ve got a better one. Let’s sneak in at night when no one is there and mix all the chemicals in the science labs to blow the place up.” We giggled mischievously, somehow not taking the time in any of our planning to figure out how we would manage to escape without harming ourselves; thank goodness we were only fantasizing…
Kai and I were both Black. We were both neuro-atypical. We were both the children of immigrant parents (mine were West African; hers were West Indian). We went to different schools and lived in different neighborhoods, but we had a lot in common. But there was one major difference between us, and that difference caused our lives to be very different. It was a difference that caused Kai a lot of pain, and it’s a difference that ultimately caused us to lose touch and no longer be friends.
NO, it’s not her gender that I am referring to. Kai knew who she was. She told me that even though she didn’t confide in her parents nor start living as a girl until high school, she had known since she was very, very young that she was really a girl. She said she never said anything before then because she didn’t think her parents could handle it so she waited until she was older. Kai always maintained that it was other people, not Kai herself, who had a problem with her being transgender. She was open and comfortable talking about gender issues with me, and as I was so ignorant about anything beyond the binary I was raised with, I was pretty much a neutral, blank slate. I didn’t have much context – negative or positive – with which to compare Kai. She liked that. She said it was always easier to work with someone who had a neutral opinion than to change the mind of someone who had a negative opinion, but it was a welcome yet rare treat to find someone with a positive opinion.
The big, gaping, tremendous difference between Kai and I was our relationships with our parents. When I had a difficult day at school, or was bullied, or clashed with a teacher, or was treated unfairly, or had sensory overload or whatever list of endless things that I encountered, I could count on my family lifting me up. They always had my back. My older brother would threaten to “beat up” whomever was bothering me. My dad would start drafting one of his infamous letters to the school administrators. My mother would plan to take off yet another day of work to accompany me to school to right whatever wrong had occurred (and as ableism, racism, and misogyny was then, and still is, pretty rampant in schools, there were plenty of those “ism”-s and more to deal with). My younger brother would tell me some silly story about his day to cheer me up and make me laugh.
My home wasn’t perfect and my family definitely wasn’t, but they made my home a haven. I didn’t have to hide my stimming (although my mother did let me know that some of my louder vocal stims were irritating sometimes). It wasn’t a big deal that I liked to eat the same food prepared a certain way or that I liked playing the same songs over and over, especially when I was upset. Whether I had a good day or a bad day, I knew usually when I got home at least most of the bad was over. I could relax.
That wasn’t the case for Kai at all.
Kai’s parents refused to consent for her to receive educational services for her learning disability at her high school – even though it was available at no cost to them. They argued with diagnosticians that their child was “not stupid” and that they refused to continue to let their child be “labeled” by schools. They didn’t believe dyslexia was a real condition, or if they did, they assumed she should have gotten past it/overcome it by now. Kai’s parents often told Kai that she was just being lazy. They told Kai that if she “worked harder” her grades would get better, ignoring the fact that she worked d@mn hard already.
When Kai’s teachers offered to tutor her after school to help her catch up, her parents declined because they had booked her for several “special meetings” with their pastor to try to get help with what they saw as the “phase” Kai was going through. While it was not as abusive as conversion therapy, the meetings were humiliating and demoralizing even though Kai liked her pastor as a person. Kai would have to recite Bible verses about being a “man” of God and would be forced to work through exercises on “manhood” from a book her pastor had ordered. She also had to “practice” being “a boy” by engaging in mechanic work and sports (even though people of any gender can like those things, the intent in these cases was to show her how to “man up” more).
When Kai tried to confide in her older sister about dating and get advice about how to deal with relationship and self-esteem issues, her sister alternatively ignored and shamed her. When Kai tried to work out a deal with her parents that she would let them call her Kyle and would dress in boy clothes to church and to family outings if they would allow her to be her real self at other times, she was grounded. One time her parents found her hidden stash of clothing and makeup, made a pile, and burned them in front of Kai, ignoring her pleas and her weeping.
Living a double life took its toll on Kai, and she began to display signs of depression. She slept a lot, didn’t want to go anywhere really, lost weight. Even her sister noticed, and she took Kai’s side and begged their parents to take Kai to get some help. They did – they took her to a transphobic therapist who made Kai’s pastor look like a knight in shining armor. Immersed in this negativity on a regular basis caused Kai to become even more depressed, and she developed an eating disorder. Her parents checked her into a facility for teens with behavioral problems. They, of course, checked her into the boys’ wing of the facility under the name of Kyle.
After a few weeks, Kai ran away and came back home. Her parents were angry with her and gave her an ultimatum – stop this “nonsense” right now or get out of their house. Kai felt that she had no choice. She left – and went to live with her much older boyfriend. For a while she kept in touch sporadically, but then she stopped.
Sadly, I didn’t hear from Kai for a long, long time, and no one seemed to know where she was. Her older sister told me that Kai occasionally made brief contact with her to let her know she was all right, but sadly she didn’t reach out to me or any of her other friends. Maybe she was too stressed out to have to explain her decisions; maybe she was living in survival mode; maybe she just wanted a fresh start; maybe she worried one of us might tell her parents where she was if she shared her location with us. Wherever she was, I hoped she was happy, as she had lived so much of her life unhappy.
Some years later when I was in college I ran into Kai. I was in town on spring break and had stopped at a gas station; Kai was there! I was excited to see her and gave her a hug. She felt like “skin and bones” as I hugged her, and she hugged me back and smiled. She looked tired and her appearance was drastically changed. She looked older, and she looked fragile – before she had always exuded this courage, this confidence, even if some of it was bravado. This Kai was subdued and seemed burdened and sad, and she also seemed to be pretty heavily under the influence of some substance/drug.
We talked for a few minutes. When I told Kai I was in college and what I was majoring in, she smiled broadly, and in that beautiful smile I caught a glimpse of the old Kai for a minute. When I tried to ask about her she mostly waved me off and steered the conversation back to me each time, evading my questions by saying, “That’s a LONG story; we’ll get into all that the next time we talk.” I asked for her cell phone number and she said her phone was disconnected, but that she would get it back on once her boyfriend got some money. She took my number and promised she would call me, that we would get together while I was in town. We hugged again and parted ways. She never called, and I have never seen her again.
I’m not telling this story to exploit a childhood friend. Kai’s life is not a cautionary tale, and Kai is not some statistic. She’s a person. She’s a daughter, a sister, a friend…she is somebody. She is someone who as a teenage girl cared enough about the pain of an absolute stranger to go out of her way to help. She’s the type of person who will literally give you the shirt off her back…or more accurately, the shirt out of her purse.
When we first became friends, she told me she wanted to be a photojournalist. She said that nothing would make her happier than being able to go to different places around the world, have new experiences, and take pictures of beautiful things that would make people happy. She was brilliant and resourceful and caring. She felt unsafe in school, unsafe out in the world, and ultimately she was unsafe in her own home.
Kids grow up. So much of connected parenting focuses on when our kids are young. Making them feel secure and loved and comfortable with who they are. But of what benefit is it to your child if you fight with the world to accept your child’s differences at two or five or ten when you, the parent, won’t accept their differences at thirteen or sixteen or twenty?
Parenting is a lifelong job; a lifelong commitment. Kids grow up, but your responsibility to them doesn’t disappear because they can walk, talk, dress themselves, drive. You’re still supposed to be there. Even when you don’t fully understand; even when you don’t fully agree, whatever – you don’t withdraw your love. You don’t withdraw your support. Your child may or may not crave your approval, but they would probably appreciate your acceptance.
I mean, that’s the currency of being a parent, isn’t it? That you are going to love and accept them? They don’t owe you anything. They don’t owe you choices you deem acceptable, and they don’t owe you a particular gender identity nor a particular religious belief nor a particular sexual orientation nor a particular political affiliation.
Kai was lied to. Many of us have been lied to – have been made to believe that we aren’t deserving of a parent’s love unless we perform, unless we conform. That is bullcrap. It’s the biggest lie, and sadly it is a widespread one. Children don’t owe us anything – but we, the parents, owe them.
We owe them…we owe them big time. We owe them a sense of safety. We owe them our love. We owe them understanding, or at least a concerted effort to understand even if we don’t always understand. We owe them the assurance that we will provide them with the resources they need. And we owe them our support – throughout the lifespan. We owe them all this, and probably more. Period.
If you cannot profess to love a child who turns out to be neurodivergent, who turns out to be transgender, who turns out to be non-binary, who turns out to be disabled, who turns out to be of a different faith tradition than you raised them to be, who turns out to be something other than heterosexual, who turns out to be…themselves…then you are not a parent. You are not family, and you have forfeited your right to cast judgment on the individuals your child selects to be their family of choosing – the family you could have, but refused to be, for them.
I only hope this night that through the years Kai has been able to find, for herself, that family. That family that loves, nurtures, and values her for the woman that she is. And that her life will be an endless sea of beautiful images not to make others happy, but to make her happy. For she deserves to be happy.