GRAPEVINE, Texas — The first time a stranger called Marilyn Morrison a girl, she beamed.
She and her mother were picking up doughnuts for breakfast. Marilyn, a bright, blue-eyed child with Southern charm, held the door open for an older man.
“Well, thank you, little lady,” the man said.
He had no idea Marilyn was transgender.
By age 4, Marilyn already knew she was meant to live her life as a girl, her parents say, though she was assigned the male gender at birth. Her parents, Andrew and Chelsa Morrison, of Grapevine, Texas, had seen the signs as early as Marilyn could talk.
“Girl. I’m a girl. I’m a girl,” she would insist to her parents by age 3.
If 3 sounds too early for a child to express such a profound feeling, the Morrisons say they got the message loud and clear from Marilyn, now 9.
“It’s not like my daughter came to me at age 2 and said ‘I’m transgender,’” Chelsa said.
Various signs that Marilyn exhibited from ages 3 to 5 showed her parents that she wasn’t a typical boy.
Putting boys’ clothes on Marilyn was a sure way to produce temper tantrums. She had frequent questions about why she has a boy’s body.
Experts say young children can begin to experience signs of gender dysphoria, a conflict between a person’s physical gender and gender identity, as early as age 2 or 3.
The outbursts made Andrew and Chelsa wonder about their child’s gender identity. The Morrisons consulted gender therapists to help them.
When professionals confirmed their young child was transgender, they thought they were alone.
“We thought we were the only ones with a kid this young,” Chelsa and her husband recall.
In fact, they were far from it.
Support groups for transgender kids and their families have expanded here in North Texas. DFW Trans Kids & Families started with fewer than 15 families and has grown to a network of more than 200 families in the last two years.
When the Morrisons moved from Denver back to North Texas seven years ago for a job, they hoped it’d be a good place to raise Marilyn and her older brother, Miles.
But in those years, the Morrisons say, they’ve faced family rejection, bullying and public school bathroom debates. During a special session of the Texas Legislature this month, lawmakers considered a “bathroom bill” that would restrict the public facilities transgender people can use.
Marilyn’s parents didn’t imagine raising their daughter would bring such backlash.
“I thought it would be so much simpler,” Chelsa said, holding back tears. “But I will fight until I take my last breath.”
As a toddler, Marilyn reached for girly items every time she could. While at a family friend’s house, she was fascinated with the daughter’s dolls and the clothes. Hand-me-downs became Marilyn’s favorite possessions, like her pink Ugg boots and a Ralph Lauren wool dress.
From ages 3 to 6, Marilyn would sometimes dress as a girl, except in some public settings and at school. She still went by her old name around grandparents and other extended family.
Some parents of classmates and teachers empathized with the family’s struggles. When Marilyn started school, Chelsa would let teachers know their soon-to-be student was not a gender-conforming child, but more “girly.”
A teacher, who knew exactly what Chelsa was trying to say, openly told her, “Don’t worry, I have a transgender child, too.”
Those moments brought relief during the beginning of Marilyn’s transition.
Coming out to the extended family became another stress point for the Morrisons, and disagreements about what gender identity meant brought division with some relatives.
“I come from a family where it’s ‘Let’s not talk about it. Let’s not address the problem,’”Andrew said.
Friends, they say, have been the most supportive through the process.
“My friends are our family now. They’re our tribe,” Chelsa said.
Marilyn’s transition became a larger, more public part of her life in 2015. She picked her new name, continued to grow out her hair and lived life as any 7-year-old girl would.
Public awareness of transgender children and young teenagers has risen because of celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner, Chaz Bono, LaVerne Cox and Jazz Jennings, and it’s encouraged more families to speak out.
“Our families are no different than anybody else’s. If people would just understand that,” said Melissa Ballard, co-founder of DFW Trans Kids & Families. “I think a lot of the fear and rhetoric come from people who don’t know someone who is transgender.”
A fear in school
Coming out to the family was hard, but transitioning around classmates and teachers who had seen Marilyn as a boy made third grade especially difficult.
Kids on the playground would yell at her “You’re a boy! You’re a boy!” during recess. Restroom trips would be equally humiliating because the school’s rules on the bathroom constantly changed, Chelsa said, depending on which administrator Marilyn encountered.
Sometimes, in front of the class, a teacher would ask Marilyn which bathroom she was going to. She’d go home crying and say she didn’t want to go back to school.
“I don’t think there was one day out of the school year that I wasn’t calling the school, or emailing or writing about something,” Chelsa said.
It didn’t make school easier for Marilyn. She refused to use the “other” bathroom option.
A spokesman for Marilyn’s old school, Cannon Elementary, declined to discuss Marilyn’s experiences, saying he could not comment about specific students.
Meanwhile, the state’s bathroom bill debate became more contentious in 2016. Ultimately, Marilyn’s parents decided to withdraw her from school in fall 2016 and home-school her, a move that made local TV news.
“She’ll be bored, but at least she won’t be bullied,” her mom said.
Becoming a teenager
Sunday mornings at home during the summer are a delight. Marilyn gets to see her friends, no longer bored by solitary lessons. She and her 10-year-old brother get to sleep late, go swimming and ride their bikes.
Those simple moments as a child are precious when most of Marilyn’s life as a transgender girl gets complicated.
She’s facing questions and feelings that typical 9-year-olds don’t worry about. She and her parents are starting to think about what her life will be like as a transgender teen. At 9, she’s already dreading going through puberty.
Marilyn has met with a gender therapist regularly since she was 5, and specialists have raised the idea of using hormone blockers in the future. The Genecis program — which stands for Gender Education and Care, Interdisciplinary Support — at Children’s Medical Center Dallas has been another foundation of support while navigating the many medical options for raising a transgender child.
For now, a simple haircut can set off a cascade of questions and misunderstandings.
Marilyn grew out her locks for her transition, but then wanted shorter hair. She started wearing a pixie cut, only to find people referring to her as “he” again.
“So many of our kids see the social constructs: Long hair is girly. Marilyn is a little bit more braver and fierce,” Chelsa said.
Her bravery sometimes shocks her parents. Marilyn has talked about wanting to be a public spokesperson for trans kids, perhaps through a YouTube channel, since 2015. Instead, the family has traveled to Austin multiple times to speak and testify against the bathroom bill, which at one time included language requiring transgender people to use either a single-stall bathroom or the bathroom that matches their biological sex.
Any decision that’s made will affect Marilyn’s daily life.
Chelsa called testifying “an awful day.” Marilyn, on the other hand, always trying to lighten her mom’s mood, jokingly said, “it was boring.”
Marilyn’s parents are unsure whether she will go back to school.
She desperately wants to because she misses her friends. She wants to be treated like any other girl. She calls the issue “silly politics.”
“If people would just get to know me, I know that they would love me,” Marilyn said.