Hallel does a backwards roll in the living room as their mother watches. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Hallel does a backwards roll in the living room as their mother watches. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

'I Just Feel Like Myself': A Nonbinary Child And Their Family Explore Identity

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It’s 7:30 a.m. on a school day. Two parents are racing to get their three young children dressed, fed, packed for the day, into coats and out the door when 6-year-old Hallel runs downstairs, crying.

Ari, Hallel’s father, is the first to intercept the distraught child and ask “what’s wrong?”

The answer launches a journey these parents never envisioned, described by words they’d not heard and questions they never thought they’d ask. We’re only using first names for the family members in this story due to Hallel’s age.

The journey starts with a “let’s pretend” game. As Hallel explains it, little sister Ya’ara wanted to play “parents.” Ya’ara decides that she’ll be the mommy, and Hallel will be the daddy. Hallel protests. Ya’ara insists: Hallel is a boy, and therefore must play daddy.

“But that doesn’t feel right,” Hallel says to Ari, between tears, “cause I’m a boy-girl.”

Shira, Hallel’s mother, says she copes well in a crisis. In that moment, she packaged the news away for later.

“I was like, ‘well, we love you whoever you are, give me a hug,’ ” Shira remembers telling Hallel.

For Ari, “it felt a little bit like getting up to the top of a rollercoaster, like, OK, now it's going to begin. I don’t know exactly what's going to happen next, but what I do know for sure is that this is happening.”

To clarify, Ari and Shira had known for some time that Hallel was not a traditional boy. If they bought action figures, Hallel preferred female characters. Hallel would watch fairy movies one day and draw dresses, then dress and act more like what they expected from a boy.

“For us that wasn’t a problem,” Ari says. “There’s lots of ways to be a boy and lots of ways to be a girl. But at the back of our mind it was confusing.”

The family sits together in the living room. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The family sits together in the living room. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

At one point, the parents kept a tally. Shira says she was relieved when Hallel seemed more "boy-like" for a while.

“ 'Hallel is acting very girl-like today, but Hallel has acted very boy-like in the past week,' ” Shira recalls saying, “ 'so maybe that’s going to stick.' ”

When Hallel made the boy-girl announcement, Shira says the family finally had an explanation that made sense. But she wondered, “Is that an option?”

Both parents had read about people who are transgender but didn’t know anyone who’d made the transition from male to female or female to male. Shira and Ari were not familiar with the term nonbinary, which refers to people who don’t see themselves as strictly male or female or people who move between genders. Hallel’s self-described status as a boy-girl seemed like it might resolve years of confusion.

Hallel's father reads them a bedtime story. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Hallel's father reads them a bedtime story. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“It felt really right,” says Ari. And now, three years later, “it still feels really right.”

But Hallel’s identity triggers new worries. They surface one night while Shira and Hallel cuddle at bedtime.

“How did you feel when you first realized that I was a boy-girl?” asks Hallel, now age 9.

Shira pauses, then answers slowly.

“I was kind of scared because I just wanted you to have a normal life. I didn't want things to be super hard for you,” she tells Hallel. “Abba [a Hebrew name for daddy] and I knew for a very long time before you said anything that something was a little bit different about your gender. So we were not going to force you to fit in a certain box. But I think when we first found out, we were nervous because we want things to be easy for you.”

“... We were not going to force you to fit in a certain box. But I think when we first found out, we were nervous because we want things to be easy for you.”

Shira

Shira has a version of that question for Hallel.

“Can you tell me what it feels like to be a boy-girl?” she asks.

“That’s hard,” Hallel says. “I just feel like myself, and that’s it. I don’t feel that different from anybody else.”

“So, what about you is a boy?” Shira asks.

Hallel’s voice rises slightly: “There’s nothing specific for boys or girls. I just feel like a girl, as well as a boy.”

Shira tries again, a few days later, with the same questions. This time Hallel ends the conversation quickly.

“Too complicated,” Hallel says.

That might just summarize the family’s life as they begin to tell friends and acquaintances that Hallel identifies as a boy-girl.


Finding Community Support

In May of 2018, a few months after Hallel’s gender revelation, Shira shares the news on Facebook:

Here are some things I would like to throw into the Facebook stratosphere instead of telling anyone directly. ...My child who was born a boy tells me he is a boy/girl. This is okay most of the time because we are mostly happy and mostly secure and have wonderful supportive friends and family who don't see gender as a barrier. ... Sometimes I go places where people don't know our family and I get questions which come from a good place but they are hard to answer: '... What are you going to do when he hits puberty? Shouldn't you be telling him who he is instead of allowing him to figure it out?' ... The best advice we have gotten is to follow our child, and that is what we are doing. ... Not in my wildest dreams did I think I'd be struggling with these issues. ... Control over our children is an illusion and I'm glad I learned this lesson early. Still I am so happy with the family we are.

The illusion, Shira says, started when she and Ari saw an ultrasound image and began imagining life with a son and who the child might grow up to be.

“Clearly, it was nowhere near what I envisioned,” says Shira, “not the least of which is also Hallel being on the autism spectrum, which has created another wave of difference in our family.”

Hallel is doing well now but understanding their autism diagnosis and working to help Hallel cope with sensory overload was the parents’ main focus during Hallel’s early years. At some point, Ari and Shira learned about the higher incidence of autism among people who are transgender and nonbinary. They struggle to understand how the two overlap in their child.

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"Control over our children is an illusion and I'm glad I learned this lesson early. Still I am so happy with the family we are."

Shira

“It’s very confounding,” Shira says. “And hard to find a community where Hallel feels at home.”

The parents take Hallel to special needs camps and spend a lot of time explaining nonbinary. They go to nonbinary meet-ups and routinely have to leave because the noise and commotion is too much for Hallel.

Shira’s request is for compassion.

“I literally grew somebody who I thought was a boy in my body. I gave birth after three days of labor ... so if you think you’re having trouble with my child’s gender, imagine what it's like to have concerns day in and out about whether this child is going to be OK when they grow up,” Shira says. “When people raise objections it really, really hurts and it makes me mad.”

But these parents know that people with the best of intentions will still make mistakes about Hallel’s gender and even more often, Hallel’s pronouns.


Pronouns And Patience

Hallel asked Shira and Ari to stop using “he” and start calling Hallel “they” about a month after the boy-girl declaration.

Little sister Ya’ara has had a hard time using they, as have Hallel’s grandparents, some friends and teachers at Hallel’s school.

Ari, who studies linguistics, says people frequently struggle to change the pronouns they use because those words are deeply embedded in our brains; we repeat them so much more often than nouns or verbs, for example.

“We say ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘they’ or “it” in almost every single sentence,” Ari tells Hallel one morning, “so we have a lot of practice using a pronoun in one way, kind of like walking. Imagine if you had to walk in a new way, it would probably take some time, right?”

“Like walking backwards?” Hallel asks.

“That’s right,” says Ari.

Hallel puts on their gold sneakers to go to the playground with the family. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Hallel puts on their gold sneakers to go to the playground with the family. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Ari tries to be patient with himself and others who coded Hallel as a boy from birth and subconsciously default to that mental path now when speaking about Hallel.

“However much we might want to, even when we have the intention to do something, we have the underlying linguistic machinery that is actually making the language happen,” Ari says.

Hallel has a suggestion for grandparents and others: “Refer to me as a group of people.”

“Do you remember what grandma said to you, the way that she helps to remind herself?” Shira asks Hallel. “She thinks of God. She feels like God is very universal and not a he or she, but more a they. And so she thinks of God when she refers to you.”

Hallel’s parents have heard questions about using “they” to refer to a single person. But Ari says there are many instances of language changing to fit social customs, take the royal “we” or the current common use of “you” as a singular pronoun, even though we say “you are.”

With excitement, Shira shows Hallel a news story about Merriam-Webster naming “they” the dictionary company’s word of the year.

“Wow, wow,” Hallel says in between mouthfuls of waffles.

“Why wow?” Shira wants to know.

“It's just really new that something like that’s happening,” Hallel says.

New still, yes, but familiar to many members of Generation Z and millennials, who say they know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns.

“Wow,” Hallel says again. “Maybe, like, next year, ‘they’ will be in the dictionary.”

"I think it is in the dictionary already," Shira tells them.

“Already?” says a wide-eyed Hallel, their voice trailing off.


Coded Clothing

Hallel likes colorful clothes, especially those with pictures of animals.

Ari estimates Hallel wears dresses about a third of the time, clothes that might be seen as boyish about a third of the time and clothes that don’t read as either gender for the remainder. Hallel’s curly blonde hair flows to about mid-neck.

“When people first see me they think I’m a girl,” Hallel says.

The family gathers in the entryway of their house before heading out to the playground. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The family gathers in the entryway of their house before heading out to the playground. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Sometimes Hallel or one of their parents will correct people who make the wrong assumption, but not all the time. Explaining boy-girl, nonbinary or “they” to everyone who calls Hallel “she” in the grocery store check-out line or on the street or at a public event would be exhausting.

“I don't blame them. It's new,” Hallel says. “The first time, I’ll let it slide.”

Dropping Hallel at school in a dress was hard for Ari, initially.

“There was an internal squeamishness,” Ari says. “I realized it's just because it was different and something I wasn't used to.”

Watching Hallel has changed that.

“They have taken such pride in who they are and in telling people,” Ari says. “And Hallel’s friends have completely embraced Hallel. I'm very grateful to their families for not pulling them back because this is something new or different.”


Bathroom Schedule

Hallel estimates they’ve been told “about 50 times,” mostly by kids at school, that they’re in the wrong bathroom.

Hallel uses green hair chalk from their sister’s salon kit. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Hallel uses green hair chalk from their sister’s salon kit. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Hallel looks in the mirror to see the hair chalk they put into their hair. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Hallel looks in the mirror to see the hair chalk they put into their hair. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

They have a system for deciding which bathroom to use.

“On Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays, I go into the boys’ or men’s bathroom. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday, I go into the women’s bathroom. And on Sunday, I just go to whatever bathroom’s to my right,” Hallel says.

"On Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays, I go into the boys’ or men’s bathroom. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday, I go into the women’s bathroom. And on Sunday, I just go to whatever bathroom’s to my right."

Hallel

Sometimes Hallel’s parents intervene. Hallel can use the bathroom of their choice in Massachusetts. But laws vary from state to state.

“Remember when we were in the airport in Hawaii, and I said, ‘Hallel, you're wearing a dress. I don't think you should be going into the men's room even though there's no line.’ Remember that?” Shira asks.

“Well, I really had to go,” Hallel says.

“I know,” says Shira, “but I was just nervous that you would not be protected in the bathroom.”

“But I thought all those questions became laws,” says Hallel. The family campaigned for the 2018 ballot Question 3 in Massachusetts, which passed, confirming Hallel’s right to use a bathroom aligned with their gender identity.

“We know that you're protected in Massachusetts, but we have to do our research to understand what the protection is in other states,” Shira explains.

“Well, everyone in Hawaii is nice,” Hallel says.

Hawaii is among the states with laws that specifically protect transgender people in public accommodations.


'Now Is Now'

In addition to legal concerns, there remain big questions for Hallel and their parents.

In a few years, Hallel will begin preparing for a coming-of-age ceremony in the Jewish faith, using Hebrew, a language that doesn’t have a gender-neutral pronoun. Hallel plans what they are calling a “bart mitzvah,” combining a boy’s bar mitzvah and a girl’s bat mitzvah.

“But what is that going to look like when the whole ritual is about affirming yourself as a Jewish male or a Jewish female?” Shira asks.

Hallel will be defining a new place for themself within Judaism as they approach puberty, a time when testosterone will deepen Hallel’s voice and make irreversible changes in the bone structure of Hallel’s face and other areas of the body.

“We’ve started to talk with Hallel a little bit,” Ari says. “Hallel very much understands that there are male bodies and female bodies, and on the basis of this conversation Hallel says they feel comfortable with having a male body. So that’s where we are right now.”

Hallel and their mother talk in Hallel’s room while doing an inventory of their clothes. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Hallel and their mother talk in Hallel’s room while doing an inventory of their clothes. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Ari and Shira are getting some help for Hallel through a program at Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters for LGBTQ+ youth. Within the family, by the way, Hallel is a brister to two younger sisters, merging “brother” and “sister.”

Shira looks forward to guidance from someone who can help her understand life as a nonbinary teenager and adult.

“I am very worried about what Hallel’s future will look like,” she says. “My kid affirmed who they are, and ... I decided to accept them. But what’s that going to look like when Hallel is 11, 12, 13, in adolescence? I hope it's gonna be wonderful. I don't know, though.”

Ari says he has a lot of confidence that Hallel will be OK, based, in part, on the culture he sees among the college students he teaches.

“My students are very comfortable with the idea that people don’t have just male and female genders, and I think that says a lot for our future,” Ari says. “I’m personally very hopeful that Hallel will live in a world where they can be who they want to be.”

Shira laughs as Hallel places a laundry basket on their head. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Shira laughs as Hallel places a laundry basket on their head. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Hallel swings a T-shirt over their head while they and Shira organize clothes. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Hallel swings a T-shirt over their head while they and Shira organize clothes. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Shira has heard people ask: "Why are all these kids now being trans? Or why are all these kids now being nonbinary?"

“With Hallel, this is who they envisioned themselves to be, and we just didn’t put hurdles in front of them,” she says. “That may be the case for more kids who are trans and nonbinary; their parents are just listening to them.”

Hallel has lots of projects underway with Legos, a podcast, baking and a comic book series they sometimes imagine will lead to fame and fortune. But they don’t spend much time thinking about the future.

“I’ll know it when I live it,” Hallel says. “I don’t really want to think about that stuff because now is now.”

Hallel places their remote control car on to the ground while playing in the playground. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Hallel places their remote control car on to the ground while playing in the playground. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

This segment aired on April 1, 2021.

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Martha Bebinger covers health care and other general assignments for WBUR.

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