My Children Are Trans
Translation Jo van Kemenade
Photography Joyce Cuunders
In conversation with ‘Mama Barb’, mother of two transgender children and owner of a webshop catered to lgbtqi+ people.
When I came out as non-binary transgender, a whole new world opened to me. I started exploring the trans community, especially online, and went looking for others who were like me. It was amazing to find so much recognition and validation. I was curious as to how other trans people had experienced their coming out, and how their parents, brothers, sisters and friends reacted. For example, my parents didn’t think it was a big deal, which I almost lamented because it had been such a big epiphany to me. Others reacted surprised, and some others dismissive.
In my online search for the experiences of other non-binary and binary transgender people, I came across Barbara, a mother of two trans kids, who, when her kids came out, started a webshop: MumBarb. There she sells products for transgender people, because: ‘I don’t only want to provide support mentally, but also in a practical way.’ I was curious about her experience with her children transitioning, and Barbara enjoys talking about this, so we arranged to meet up for a conversation.
A cheerful woman with blonde hair and a big smile opens the door and greets me warmly. It is Barbara. She lives in Huizen with her four children and husband, on the corner of a row of terraced houses. Two of her children are transgender: Tom, 11 years old (he/him) and David, 21 years old (she/her). She has two more children, Noa, 24 years old (she/her) and Ace, 18 years old (she/they). I’m offered a cup of tea and a rainbow chocolate and sit at the table with Barbara.
Two of your kids are transgender, since when have you known this?
‘With Tom we knew it promptly. From the moment he could talk he was wondering why he didn’t have the body of a boy. I didn’t register it as an issue then, until I saw that it was making him depressed. Picking out clothes in the store for instance was a genuine issue: he wanted to wear boys’ clothes but was also aware that people saw him as a girl and expected him to present and dress like a girl. We gave him as much freedom as possible in what he wanted to wear and what he wanted to play with, but still he experienced the social pressure. When people addressed him as a girl, he often replied stiffly and would then tell me: ‘That is not who I am’. At the point that he remarked that the gender marker in his passport should be changed when we were going on a holiday, I knew: this is really serious. If these things are preoccupying you from such a young age and are making you that unhappy, then we have to do something about it. We opened up the conversation with him and told him that if there were things he would like to change, we would make sure that it’d be possible. From that moment onward we’ve started using a different name per his request, bought him different clothes and cut his hair. With Tom’s consent we then told the people who we thought should know that he’s trans.
David, Barbara’s other transgender child, has opened up about her being trans in the last two years.
‘We never picked up on any of her feelings of being transgender, so it was a surprise when she came out with it. David, like Tom, has autism, and she finds it difficult to express her emotions. She was already chatting with other transgender people who encouraged her to be open about it. The fact that Tom was living life as a boy helped David believe a transition was also possible for her, but it was only after Nikkie de Jager came out that she picked up the courage and told us. It was like thunder in a clear blue sky. The first thing I thought: you’ve been carrying this around for so long! I started to doubt myself. Had I done enough to make her feel safe? We talked about this and she said that she had felt safe, but that she had still found it very hard to tell us. That’s why she kept it to herself for so long.’
How do you feel about being the parent of two transgender kids?
‘Tom’s transition has made me so happy and proud, because it’s amazing to see him flourish like this. Many other parents had something to say about it: “Should you be doing this, he is still so young”, but I didn’t care about that. He was finally happy and to me, that was all that mattered. He has been so sad and even depressed, because he wasn’t the person he felt himself to be. Now he is, and that makes me happy, too. As natural as the process of Tom’s transition was, David’s has been a struggle. And it is difficult: she is trapped in a man’s body. Being two meters tall, having a big shoe size and a deep voice. She looks in the mirror and sees a ‘dressed man’, that’s emotionally and mentally very taxing. We try to support her the best that we can. We registered her with the gender clinic right away – the wait is two to three years – and we have girls’ nights with the family, for instance. Noa, Ace and I have shown her how to do her hair and how to make her make-up look good. But, she has a lot of dysphoria and that is really hard to witness. You want to be there and do something, but that’s not always possible.’
How does your husband feel about the ‘trans’ subject?
‘My husband is quite matter of fact about it, he doesn’t think of our kids being trans as a big burden or problem. He offers support where he is able and always looks for solutions. He is supportive, understanding. We make a good team. He always comes along to the appointments at the gender clinic. He doesn’t really deal with the young people who come here, he leaves that to me. But for him it’s fine that we often have an ‘open house’ and he completely supports the initiative of the webshop.’
Do you think that parents of transgender children also go through a transition in some way?
‘I didn’t experience it that way. My nature is to be really ‘going with the flow’: if there is an issue, we’ll deal with it. For me it was flipping a switch, and that was it. Sometimes I read in facebook groups for parents of trans kids that they struggle with the fact they will never have grandchildren, or that it feels like they’ve lost their son or daughter. I don’t see it that way: you can still have grandchildren and you did not lose your child: they are still your kid. After Tom came out, for instance, I finally did have my child the way they were supposed to be. I did experience that there is a lot of external pressure. People somehow feel like you’re ‘common goods’ once you have kids: everyone gets to butt in all of a sudden. Some people believe you shouldn’t stimulate or encourage young kids when they signal that they are transgender, because they are too young to ‘decide’. However, to me a feeling is never stupid or weird, it’s true to the person feeling it. So I’d rather explore what that feeling is and how we can deal with it together. The feeling might change, yes, but how we’ll deal with that, we’ll see when we get to it.
Do you think parents of trans kids would benefit from more support and coaching?
‘For some parents I definitely think it would be good to have guidance. I myself didn’t feel like I needed that, but still I’m also in Facebook groups with other parents of trans kids. It’s nice to read the stories and experiences of others. I did notice that with organisations like the gender clinic of the VUmc, you are never asked as a parent how you experience the transition process of your child. The focus is on the child and not on the parents or the family. I think there is room for change there. I think there is still a lot to be gained anyway in regards to gender dysphoria, being transgender and how we deal with that as a society. The waiting lists are much too long, there is too little access to healthcare and help, there are too few products available and there is so little representation in the media.
Barbara started setting up a webshop with products for transgender people in 2021. She hopes to open up the online doors by the end of the year*. The name of the online store is Mum Barb Webshop.
‘That name was given to me by the young people who visit our house regularly. They call me ‘Mama Barb’. It’s always a full house here. We have lgbtiq+ identifying friends of my kids over daily, sometimes only one, something four, five, six. They sometimes also come by when my kids aren’t home, to come talk to me. Some of them don’t find the support or understanding at home with their parents that they do feel with me. Some of the parents know and are happy that their kids can talk to me, and some parents don’t know, or don’t know yet. The kids have questions or want to share things, and here they feel safe. My kids like that their friends feel so at home here. They are my ‘extra’ kids, and I’m their ‘Mama Barb’.
What do you hope to achieve with the webshop?
‘I love being able to give mental support, but it must also be possible to do something practically. Through the conversations I’ve had with ‘my’ youngsters, I saw that there is so much still missing. That’s how the idea of the webshop came about. They would regularly tell me they wanted a specific product, but that it wasn’t available in the Netherlands. They’d order it abroad, it would take ages before it’s here and it costs a lot of money. This needs to be different, I thought. These are products that these kids really need. The same way that they need food, they need these things in order to be themselves. And I want to help them with that, so I posted a questionnaire on social media to map what products are in demand. Within three days I had more that 140 responses: apparently there is a lot of need for these products. People are waiting for this.’
‘I then started talking to suppliers and producers, to find out how I could access these products and how I could start developing certain new products. An example of this is the MTF underwear: nothing like this existed in the Netherlands yet. You can order them abroad, but not here. They are underwear with a packer, which also give you the shape of a vagina. From the questionnaire it became clear that there is demand for that. So I started investigating how I can offer that in the webshop. I had two samples made and asked on Instagram if there would be two people willing to test these underpants. Within 30 minutes, my inbox exploded. I sent the samples to the first two people that responded, and asked them for their feedback. I can like something myself of course, but if it’s not comfortable for the user, then it doesn’t benefit anybody. I want to optimise and add to the product range together with the users. I also put that on my website: let me know if you want anything, and I’ll do my best to get it into the webshop.’
‘Even though I really want to offer everything that people need, I am still a starter. I’m starting out with a small product line and will expand this bit by bit. To start, there will be mostly binders, binder tape and nipple protection, MTF underwear and bras, packers and the pride and progress flags. I hope to add to this soon with, for example, a good STP (stand to pee) packer for trans men, multiple kinds and colours of binders, and make-up to make you look more masculine. I would also like to offer more products for trans women, because there is relatively less available for trans women than for trans men. Alongside the MTF underwear I would like to offer more bras. Breast prosthetics are often heavy and silicone tends to tear easily, so I’d like to develop something for this. All other ideas and wishes are more than welcome: tell me what you need and I’ll do my best to get it.’
‘I really hope that one day it’ll be common to say: “You’re looking for this or that? Go to Mama Barb!” and that transgender people visit my webshop and social media and feel safe and at home. That together we expand the supply of transgender products in the Netherlands and make it more accessible.’