Editor’s note: The names in this article have been changed to protect the 10-year-old girl and her family.
Zoe never liked playing soccer with the boys.
Even before she entered first grade, she knew a boys team just wasn’t for her. Her time as a preschooler in soccer was mostly spent sitting on the sidelines, failing to find a connection with the boys who were her teammates.
Her parents were left trying to figure out what exactly was going on.
“She would just play in the grass and didn’t want to play with the boys,” her mother, Jen, recently shared from their family home in Arizona. “But Zoe would still come home and say she wanted a trophy... one that was gold and sparkly.”
It wasn’t as though the idea of running around with other kids didn’t appeal to Zoe. Coming from a family of athletes, she was naturally inclined to get up and kick a ball across a wide open field.
It was the other kids — the boys themselves — that made soccer feel like a foreign place.
“They just didn’t like the same things as me,” Zoe remembered, fiddling with her flowing hair as we chatted via Zoom. “They were very competitive. They didn’t act the same way as me.”
Plus, there was this dilemma, one that Zoe found simply inexcusable, even at age 4:
“Those boys literally had no sense of fashion.”
Her parents didn’t think too much of it at the time. They just had a kid who didn’t like soccer. At age 4, Zoe was hardly in a position to effectively articulate what her real internal struggles were.
So Jen and Zoe’s dad, Mike, trained Zoe’s focus toward other “boy things,” like Batman and superheroes. Unaware of what was bubbling inside their young child, they simply did what parents did with “boys.”
Batman vs. My Little Pony
It was a visit to Toys R Us that became Zoe’s own personal “Stonewall” moment.
To reward Zoe for good work at school, Jen brought her to Toys R Us to pick out a toy. Jen went right for the boys section, offering up some sort of Batman toy or something deemed by the store to be fit for a “boy.”
When Jen turned around, Zoe was already rounding the corner for the girls section. She didn’t want Batman, or any other superhero toy. She wanted My Little Pony.
Jen informed Zoe — who again, at the time people assumed was a boy — that My Little Pony was a girls toy, and didn’t she want a boys toy?
The back-and-forth went on for several minutes, ending with Zoe standing in the middle of the store and screaming at the top of her lungs for people as far away as New Mexico to hear:
“I don’t want Batman! I want My Little Pony!!!”
That was the first real wake-up call for the family.
“I thought, ‘whoa, get whatever toy you want,’” Jen said. “And when we got home I told Mike, I think something different is going on here. I think she just does not prefer boy-specific things. We need to let this kid grow up and let Zoe show us who she is. She isn’t who we expect her to be.”
A trip to the shoe store yielded a similar response from Zoe, with demands for the sparkly pink shoes she found. She got them.
At the time, both Jen and Mike thought Zoe was a gay boy. It was easy for them to accept, as both of them have gay brothers. A “boy” who likes to play with girls toys? They just figured they had a gay “son,” and they were ready and willing to love and accept that.
They would soon find out it wasn’t as easy as they thought.
Lessons learned in first grade
First grade was a series of revelations for the family.
Sitting on the couch one night with her parents, Zoe asked what was, for her, a nonchalant question obvious for everyone to see.
“Mom, how do I get rid of this thing between my legs?” Zoe asked. “I’m supposed to have one like yours, not one like dad’s.”
She was 6.
Zoe was also, by that time, refusing to wear “boys clothes” around the house. While she wore “boys clothes” to school — since that’s what everyone expected of her — she had a daily routine every afternoon she walked through the door after school.
“She would come home from school and literally rip off her ‘boys clothes’ as soon as she walked in, go into her sister’s closet and throw on a Belle dress,” Mike remembered. “And this was a constant thing.
“I thought, ‘OK we have something different here.’ I try to roll with the punches and I didn’t want to force an issue. And I thought if this kid wants to go in this direction, I didn’t have a problem with it. We just wanted to figure this out.”
The salient moment for the family came at an after-school event that year. Zoe wanted to, for the first time, show up to a gathering of students, families and teachers in “girls clothes.”
She had concocted a story about being her own twin sister, to throw the other kids off of her true identity. She just wanted to show up in girls clothes, even if it was as an “imaginary” person.
As Jen parked the car, Zoe got cold feet. The pressure to conform was simply too strong. Zoe took off her dress, put on boyish clothes, and trudged into the event.
Watching Zoe struggle with the pain of her decision that afternoon — and ultimately decide she couldn’t be her true self — hit Jen hard.
“I saw this desire for her to be with her peers as a girl, and the torment she was going through between what people expected of her and how she wanted to be.”
That afternoon, Jen addressed the issue with the principal. To the family’s relief, he was not just responsive but supportive. They mapped out a plan that evolved into powerful support for Zoe from teachers and school staff.
Support for a trans girl was no small thing in Arizona, where bubbling under the surface then, in 2017, was a push against transgender rights that would involve some of the most powerful people in the state.
“We got really lucky,” Mike said. “The teachers were incredible.”
Struggling with her peers and making a change
Sadly, though somewhat predictably, the other kids Zoe’s age were not as embracing. As they learned about Zoe’s identity, they made it increasingly difficult for her to be in her school.
So the family left, headed for a “fresh start” at a new school.
Yet one hurdle remained: Zoe’s birth certificate. Arizona policy mandates that schools identify a child’s gender by their birth certificate. Zoe’s birth certificate did not match her gender.
Getting a birth certificate changed in Arizona is extremely difficult, usually mandating gender-reassignment surgery. That was not an option for Zoe, at age 10.
So the family went to court. The family was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic judge to make a change to Zoe’s birth certificate. Not every transgender child or adult is so lucky. It’s not a simple nor private process, which can be a problem for these families.
“We got lucky because the judge leaned on the case with the state and said, ‘OK let’s make this happen now for Zoe, let’s get the child a new birth certificate,’” Jen said.
Now in a new school with a state document affirming she’s a girl, Zoe is free to be herself.
Talking with Zoe, she is just... well... Zoe. She’s another girl looking to play with My Little Pony, wear sparkly shoes, win a sparkly trophy and hang out with her friends.
Zoe is, as trans people say, living “stealth” — You would have no idea she is transgender. She’s just another girl. That’s exactly how she and her family want it.
She just wants to kick around a soccer ball
The next step in that confirmation is for her to return to sports — where this all began — and reclaim soccer as her true self.
She’s still aiming for that sparkly gold trophy.
Yet some elected officials and lobbyists in Arizona want Zoe stuck on the sidelines. Living just a couple miles from the national headquarters of the anti-trans Alliance Defending Freedom, which attacks trans rights across the United States, the family has an uphill battle to ensure Zoe can forever play sports as a girl.
Front-and-center is a statewide push toward a law that could cause havoc for trans youth across the Grand Canyon State. Supporters of the law have already made strides.
The effort, in 2020 represented by HB 2706, allows people — opposing parents, coaches and others — to dispute the gender of any athlete, forcing that athlete, often a teen or preteen, to undergo a physical examination by a doctor. It’s been dubbed by some the “Pull Down Your Pants” bill.
It also authorized civil litigation by any athlete who felt they were somehow harmed in any way — loss of scholarship, playing time, you name it — by the inclusion of a trans athlete in their sport.
The bill was derailed almost a year ago by Covid-19, as much of the business of the Arizona State Legislature and Governor was transformed by the pandemic that hit the United States about a week after the bill was passed in the House.
As state elected officials dig out of the pandemic, they are sure to take up the bill again, as have legislatures in other states like South Dakota and Idaho.
This family will be there every step of the way. The family is involved in legal challenges to rules and policies that target trans people.
For her part, Zoe isn’t interested in becoming some star athlete or earning a scholarship to play soccer or anything else — she also currently has expressed an interest in cross-country.
She just wants to run around, get exercise, express herself and make friends.
“It would let me try something new,” Zoe said. “The last time I tried something in sports was almost seven years ago. It would be different now. It looks super fun to me.”
Inspiring other families with trans kids
Zoe isn’t sure what her future holds, either on the pitch or in life. Being a transgender 10-year-old, life’s possibilities are simultaneously endless, inspiring and intimidating.
Yet even at 10, Zoe knows she wants to help other people find their way in life.
“One of my lifelong dreams is that from my story, and doing the stuff that I love, that other people who are LGBT may see that, that it can give them inspiration to do stuff they love.
“There are so many families out there who don’t like LGBT people because of religion and stuff. And I don’t want people who have a family like that to be scared. One of the things I want to show with my article is to not be scared, and to be who you are.”
That’s a kid, and an effort, everyone can get behind.
If you would like to contact Jen, Mike and Zoe, you can reach them via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. They are there to help anyone who might be trans, or who has a trans friend or family member, navigate their way through this world.