Marlo Mack’s podcast How To Be a Girl is a sensitive and honest exploration of the joys, fears, and struggles of raising of a transgender child. Earlier this year, Marlo and her seven-year-old daughter M (both pseudonyms) met transgender actress Laverne Cox (“Orange Is the New Black”). The story and photos of that meeting had a brief flare of online virality. In a recent episode of the podcast, Marlo (who also blogs at gendermom) talked about what happened after that meeting, as M began to understand that the world can be a difficult, even dangerous, place for transgender people like her. Below is a transcribed excerpt of that podcast.
(A note about formatting: In her podcast, Marlo frequently edits two pieces of audio together contrapuntally. We’ve tried to reproduce here the interplay between her post-Laverne Cox story and a bedtime story request from her daughter.)
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A few minutes later, Laverne burst into the room. My daughter had picked the right doors. Laverne waved a big Hollywood wave to the room, and flashed a big Hollywood smile. She was wearing a blue and green dress, almost the same colors as my daughter’s sundress, and in heels she was almost twice as tall as my kid.
She was so much taller that, at first, I don’t think she really noticed the little girl who was blocking her path, who was just standing there, looking up, waiting to be noticed. And then Laverne looked down at her and smiled and said, “What’s your name, honey?” And my daughter told her her name. And Laverne nodded and started to turn away. And then my child said, “And I’m trans.”
I could hear people all around me gasping and saying, “Did you hear what that little girl said?” I could see that Laverne was surprised, too. She looked at my tiny daughter standing there, and then she looked around the room and said, “Is she with anyone?”
I was standing about 10 feet away snapping pictures, and I was too flustered to turn on my recorder or to say anything intelligible to Laverne. But I stepped forward and I think I said, “I’m her mom,” and thanked her for being a role model or something. And then Laverne bent down and gave my child a hug, and I heard her say, “Remember, honey: transgender is beautiful.”
Marlo: “What was the coolest thing about meeting Laverne Cox?”
M: “Well, the most exciting thing was that I actually got to hug her, and she didn’t want to do hugs because she didn’t want to get sick, but I was just like, ‘Laverne, I love you!’, and she was just like ‘How could I say no? You’re so cute!’, and then she hugged me, and I was really excited. Super, super, really excited!”
I wrote all this down and posted it on my blog, along with photos of my daughter with Laverne. A few days later, the story blew up. I heard from People magazine and the Today Show, and the photos of my daughter with Laverne Cox were suddenly everywhere—even on the home page for Time magazine. Friends from all over the country saw the photos and recognized my child and wrote to me. I had made sure that none of the photos showed her face since I didn’t want her to be identified, but my friends who already knew she was trans could tell that it was her.
I got an email from an editor of a website aimed at young women. It’s called Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls—and yes, it is that Amy Poehler. They wanted to interview my daughter about meeting Laverne Cox. I left it up to her to decide, and she said, “Sure.”
We set up a time for a woman named Alicia to interview her over the phone.
Alicia: “Hi! How are you?”
A: “That’s good. It’s so nice to meet you over the phone.
M: “Right, it’s nice to meet you too.”
A: “I am so honored to be your first ever interview person. You’re a very impressive young lady.”
It was a pretty exciting time. I gave a lot of interviews, too. I even heard from a literary agent about representing me to publish a memoir.
A: “I was talking about you at the office the other day, and everybody was so impressed by you and wanted to meet you and talk to you. Do you sort of understand why people are so, you know, excited about your story?”
D: “Maybe because my mama wrote about me on her blog, and I guess I sound really fun and nice and exciting? I don’t really know.”
It felt great to know that people were supporting us and wanted to hear our story. I felt really hopeful and so proud of my daughter.
Alicia interviewed me, too. But there’s a part of the story that I left out when I talked with her. It didn’t make it on my blog, either, or the Time magazine website. It’s what happened right after my daughter met Laverne Cox, when we were driving home through the dark and rainy night and I heard a question come from the back seat. It was “Mama, what’s a coma?”
Marlo: “So, what kind of a story do you want?”
M: “Something with no problem – with nothing going missing,
no one being sad or left out, just like, just like a happy life.”
Before I bought tickets to the event, I emailed the event organizers to ask if it was going to be appropriate for a 7-year-old child. They said, “Yes, definitely!”
M: “Let’s say, Miss, Miss, Miss …
But there were parts of the talk that were definitely not appropriate for a young child.
M: “Mrs. Squeak!”
I tried to distract her and cover her ears during those parts.
Marlo: “Who’s Mrs. Squeak?”
But of course doing that just makes a kid listen more intently.
M: “A mouse!”
She didn’t miss a thing.
M: “Do a story about Miss Squeak.”
I told her that comas are when you get hurt and your body sleeps for a while to try to get well.
Marlo: “And you want the story … ?”
M: “No problem! Just tell it about a happy life.”
She said, “Mama, remember that stuff Laverne Cox said about those transgender women getting attacked?”
M: “I do not like stories with violence or problems.”
Marlo: “I don’t either.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I remember.”
Marlo: “So you don’t like stories that have sad stuff in them?”
And she said, “That’s horrible.”
M: “No, I don’t.”
I agreed with her. “Yes, that is horrible.”
M: “When I have nightmares, I do not like stories with problems.”
And then she said, “I wish I were born a girl, so it won’t happen to me.”
Sometimes you have to lie to your children.
M: “What I mean by problems …”
I told her that that bad stuff definitely wouldn’t happen to her.
M: “It’s not like, big problems, like wars and fights.”
She wanted to know why it wouldn’t. How did I know that it wouldn’t happen to her?
M: “But problems like little problems.”
She’s seven years old.
M: “Like something going missing or somebody feeling kind of left out.”
She’s too young for this.
M: “Or something like that.”
She needs to feel safe, and it’s my job to make sure that she does.
Marlo: “But a small problem.”
M: “Like one of like the smallest problems.”
So I told her that those bad things that had happened to transgender women
M: “Now don’t tell me a lot about it.”
only happened in bad parts of a big city that is really, really far away from where we live.
M: “Maybe something like a little tiny bit sad,
like a girl not getting to buy something
at the store she really wants to.”
She wanted to know which city.
M: “And then the exact next day, she just gets to buy it.”
I wish I’d had the presence of mind to invent a city, but instead I blurted out the name of a big city that I’ve never visited and I’m pretty sure we won’t be visiting anytime soon.
M: “Something kind of like weird, like that.”
I said, “Detroit.”
My child said, “Let’s not ever go to Detroit.”
Marlo: “You want me to tell a happy story?”
M: “Yeah, just like about something happy.”
And I promised her we wouldn’t.
The reality is that my child is unlikely to be a victim of the kind of violence that Ms. Cox spoke about. She’s a privileged white kid living in a progressive part of the country. If she wants, I can afford to pay for hormone treatments in her teens that will let her avoid all the things that testosterone does to the body: a low voice, an Adam’s apple, broad shoulders, the physical markers that can call attention to trans women and make them objects of derision and violence.
Plus, we have people like Laverne Cox on the cover of Time magazine now, which means things are starting to change. Right? So she’s probably going to be safe. Right?
But there’s something else about my child’s words during my car ride home that I can’t stop thinking about. It strikes me as incredibly significant. I wonder if you noticed it. I think it says everything about who she is, and about who Laverne Cox is, and who all those transgender women in “Detroit” are.
Do you know what I’m talking about?
It’s this. When she heard that being transgender could mean that people might want to hurt her, that being a transgender girl could mean she might get put in a coma, or worse, she didn’t say, “Okay, forget it. I’ll just be a boy instead.” That didn’t even occur to her as an option. Even when her life was potentially on the line, being a boy was unthinkable, unfathomable, impossible—like saying, “Okay, forget it. I’ll just be a turtle instead.”
The only solution she could come up with was to wish that she had been born anatomically female; to wish that she could be a girl who wasn’t transgender, but undoubtedly still a girl. Because whatever it means to feel like a girl, to peer out at the world with the eyes of a girl, to walk the earth knowing in your bones that you are a girl—whatever it actually means to be a girl, she is one.
Alicia: “Do you have anything that you would want to tell other girls out there who are trans like you?”
M: “Well, if you want to be a certain gender – if you’re a boy and you want to be a girl, or if you are a girl in your heart, then just be a girl. Just try your best to just be a girl. I mean, if you want to be something, then just be it. If you want to do something, do it. And I want people to be how they want to be.”