Transgender means a person does not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. About 1.4 million American adults identify as transgender, according to recent research, though comparable data is not available for children. This may be partly because transitioning—a process during which people may change their hairstyle, name, preferred pronouns and the way they dress—can take years. Some children also start hormone blockers to halt the onset of puberty.
That is what Bowman's son, Ari, who was born with a female body, has done. This means that Ari will not menstruate or develop breasts, preventing the possibility that he might have to receive a mastectomy later and from enduring what would be a damaging psychological experience, his mother said.
More than 50 percent of transgender youth attempt suicide, according to a 2007 study by New York University researchers.
"When you force kids to go through the wrong puberty—that's when they get depressed," said Alisa Bowman, who lives near Allentown, Pa.
Bowman has been talking publically about her son's experience, ever since Ari's Sept. 12 speech before the East Penn Board of School Directors was posted on her Facebook page, getting media attention ranging from the Huffington Post to Buzzfeed. Ari and other advocates for transgender rights addressed the school board after a classmate expressed fears about changing in the locker room with gender nonconforming kids.
"As my mom likes to say, 'People are afraid of things that they don't understand,'" Ari told the packed meeting. "I hope that you understand what being transgender means. It doesn't make me any less or any more. It makes me me, and no one can change that."
His mother recalled how before his transition, people would often mistake Ari for a "little dude." In first grade, the female students wouldn't let Ari use the girls' bathroom because he looked like a boy.
Eventually the Bowmans found Michele Angello, a therapist in Wayne, Pa, who works with trans children and adults. She recommended that Ari move forward with his transition. The Mazzoni Center, a Philadelphia health provider that focuses on LGBTQ communities, initially helped the Bowmans pay for hormone blockers, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year. Eventually, Ari will start taking testosterone.
Now in seventh grade, he is doing great.
"He's in all honors classes, and he gets close to straight As," Alisa Bowman said. "He's happy. He's well adjusted. He's going to be in chorus. He does kung fu. He is a normal, thriving, over-achieving kid. When people say he's mentally ill, I think, 'Really?'"
Olson's initial findings, which were published published in the journal Pediatrics in February, indicate that transgender children's identities are as deeply rooted as those of their cisgender peers and that those with social and familial support show no higher rates of depression than two cisgender groups: their own siblings and age- and gender-matched controls.
"There is now growing evidence that social support is linked to better mental health outcomes among transgender adolescents and adults," Olson said in an interview.
Ari has certainly benefited from the affirmation he gets from his family and community. So has for Ally Long, 10, who also lives in the Lehigh Valley.
"She has been letting us know since early, early, early on," Jessica Long said of her transgender daughter.
During a family vacation in Cape May three years ago, Ally wore girls' clothing in public 24-7. She completed her social transition soon afterward. A photo taken on the first day of school this year showed a pigtailed Ally in blue dress and sandals, hand on her hip, pure happiness on her face.
Jessica Long said that she, her husband, and their older daughter did go through a sort of "grieving period" as they said goodbye to Colin and welcomed Allyson full time. But seeing how happy Ally was in Cape May convinced the entire family.
Ally's sister, Makenna, even made a video to help people understand Ally's transition.
"Seeing the person she's developed into and how many friends she has and how at peace she is—it's beautiful," Jessica Long said.
The next step will be deciding if and when Ally will start hormone blockers, which have helped Eowyn Botney, an 11-year-old transgender boy from Fanwood, N.J., by suspending his adolescence until he is ready for cross-gender hormone treatment.
"He wanted to start testosterone last year, and I said, 'How many kids in your grade have full-grown beards?'" Eowyn's mother, Margaret Botney, said in an interview.
When Eowyn was 10, he attended Camp Aranu'tiq, a New Hampshire retreat for gender nonconforming children and their families. As they were about to go swimming, Eowyn "ripped off his shirt and screamed, 'I'm free!'" his mother recalled, describing this as an "aha!" moment for the family.
"I have a trans child who is just completely-out-of-the-box-different, so I'm realizing that all of the ways we categorize people and classify people—it's really destructive to ourselves and to a society that is trying improve," she said.
Professor Olson hopes to expand her work with the TransYouth Project to examine the challenges that transgender children face as they enter adolescence. Her team is recruiting a "wide diversity of kids," Olson said, "boys who feel like they're boys but love princess dresses to kids who feel like they are both boys and girls on the inside."
Courtenay Harris Bond is a freelance reporter and journalist in residence for the Scattergood Program for Applied Ethics of Behavioral Health Care.