“This is not a tragedy,” begins author Carolyn Hays – a pseudonym used by the award-winning, best-selling author in order to give her family anonymity. Five simple, but effective, words open her memoir, A Girlhood: A Letter to My Transgender Daughter. Indeed, it is not a tragedy, but a love letter, written to her daughter, about the experiences they have endured as individuals and as a family. One experience, in particular, sets the tone for not only the memoir, but their lives as a whole. When a man from the Department of Children and Families shows up at their home in the Bible Belt to investigate a claim raised by a concerned member of the community, it gives Carolyn, her husband, and their three older children cause for concern – not just in the moment, but for years to come. The claim: the abuse of the fourth and youngest child in their home, because the child’s parents not only allow her to live her life authentically, but they do so with support and love.
A Girlhood is written as a letter specifically for Hays’ youngest daughter – a young woman who was born with male anatomy but knew, without a doubt, from a young age her external appearance didn’t match what she felt in her heart, her soul, her brain, and entire being. Hays shares moments of fear and love with her daughter, but she uses as much science as she does emotion to navigate the subject. Much like Robin Wall-Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass, Hays appeals not only to the readers’ morals, but also uses scientific data, religious practices, and historical facts to educate the reader on what it means to be transgender.
For decades Hays has painstakingly researched the neuroscience, anatomy, and chromosomes in the human body. She states, “Neurons fired away, those brilliant pistons. Within the exquisite architecture of your brain, there is a small area tucked away, like a pearl. This one region grew, yes. But in a ‘typical boy,’ it would be double in size. Yours is the size one would find in a ‘typical girl.’” Those sentences are just a few in a book filled with scientific data that is entwined with lyrical prose to help Hays, her daughter, and many others understand the vital inner workings of the human body and mind. For those who want more of the historical data, Hays also pulls information from other cultures, mentioning the indigenous peoples and civilizations around the world where gender isn’t always assigned at birth and that some societies, in fact, give a higher social ranking to transgender individuals.
What’s more, in A Girlhood, Hays speaks to her experience personally. As an educated, middle-class, cisgender white woman, Hays acknowledges her privilege in society while still validating the very real dilemmas her family faces every day when it comes to injustices against the transgender community. She doesn’t applaud their station in life, but rather invites readers to consider the struggles of those who don’t have their privilege. Hays draws critical correlations between the LGBTQ+ community and how what they are enduring now is consistent with what Black Americans have had to suffer for decades. This is her plea for empathy, compassion, and above all understanding that we are all people – her daughter is a person, a beautiful, magical girl who deserves the same rights, privacy, and respect as every other human being. A Girlhood asks society to advance human rights, not set us back.
When intolerance came knocking at the Hays’ door, friends, family, and community rallied behind Hays and her family, surrounding them with love, support, and legitimate facts about who they were. “We reached out to one of the nurse practitioners who attended your birth, a city commissioner, a social worker, a well-known psychologist, a minster and his wife, a religious studies professor. There was my Catholic mother, my legal-minded father, friends who’d known us for ages, a few of the babysitters who’d known you since birth. We got a quote from your pediatrician, a letter from the founder of your school.” The conclusion was undeniable, of course: they were giving their child everything she needed to thrive and become a happy, healthy human being.
But the battle wasn’t and still isn’t over for them and so many others in similar situations. There are struggles with insurance companies, private and public school systems, people whose curiosities lean to the perverse rather than acquiring knowledge in order to be more supportive, and, in general, a society where many still look at the lives and choices of a transgender person as less than. For instance, a doctor refers to Hays’s daughter as an “it” rather than “she” – a medically trained professional calling a human being an “it” is exactly the sort of awareness A Girlhood is meant to address and correct. This memoir is Hays’ opportunity to tell her daughter – and everyone else in the transgender community – that they aren’t less than, but whole and wonderful and capable, and they should continue to live their lives full of love and hope, versus the fear and shame many out there try to wield.
A Girlhood is a brilliant compilation of science, history, gender equality, community, culture, religion, politics, the patriarchy, and unconditional love, weaved into a narrative that is vital to our culture. The story is nothing new. It is a story as old as time, but only now is it being given the awareness it deserves. It’s about people being treated fairly and accepted for who they are, not who society wants them to be. It is about intolerance and fear and support and empathy, but most of all, it’s a story of love and joy.
A Girlhood: A Letter to My Transgender Daughter
By Carolyn Hays
Blair/Carolina Wren Press
Published September 13, 2022