"Where's my penis?"
That's the question three-year-old Arielle Zelkind kept asking while potty training. "I told her that she didn't have one because she's a girl," says mom, Edit Zelkind. "She told me I had it wrong, that she was actually a boy."
Now 14 years old, Ari Zelkind has never strayed from that stance and recently asked to be referred to as "he." Throughout Ari's childhood as a girl, he insisted on wearing boys' clothing and having cropped hair. "I remember thinking it was weird and confusing that I couldn't pee standing up like my dad," he says now. And playing on girls' sports teams? "That really pissed me off. I knew I belonged with the other boys and couldn't figure out why everyone thought I should be with the girls."
Two months ago, Ari decided enough was enough. He began the lifelong hormone therapy of biweekly testosterone injections that will transition his body from female to male.
To mark the occasion, the family is throwing Ari a "Boythday" party hosted this Saturday at the Scripps Ranch home Ari shares with his mother and two siblings, Maia, 17, and Elijah, 11.
Priscilla, Queen of the Dessert will serve rainbow cupcakes and hors d'oeuvres. Guests can dress as a form of change, like a butterfly or one of the Transformers robots. Or, they can come as they are. "Far be it from me to tell people how to dress," quips Ari in a voice that has deepened in the past weeks. In addition to these touches, a DJ will blast a playlist of songs related to change, from classics like Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" to Churchill's 2013 hit "(You Want Me to) Change." King Missile's "Detachable Penis" also makes the cut.
Although the idea for the party came from Ari's mother, his dad was quick to get on board. The couple is divorced, but is united in their celebration of Ari's transition. "I thought it was really cool that we were notifying people in such a positive way," says Boris Zelkind. "I was like, this is great, is there going to be booze at this thing?"
But Ari's transition hasn't been an easy ride for Boris, an intellectual property attorney who lives in Carmel Valley. "I was so ashamed of my own feelings about transgender people because I knew it was wrong, but deep down I felt it was an abomination," he says. "I went to therapy, and confronting these feelings and my fears about Ari's future helped me come to terms with my horrible and negative feelings, and they melted away as I realized that he was the same beautiful and brilliant child I have always loved."
Ari's mother, a physician assistant, says she was neither surprised nor disappointed when her daughter began identifying as a boy. "I worked in hospital Emergency Rooms for many years and spent the first part of my life in Israel," says Edit. "Gender identity is not something I'm going to sweat. If my children are happy and healthy, I have no complaints."
This doesn't mean Edit Zelkind minimizes the struggles many transgender people—youth in particular—experience as they realize the disconnect between their body and soul. In fact, it motivated her to act quickly. "The rate of suicide and attempted suicide is staggering," she says, citing a report from the Williams Institute in collaboration with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, that found suicide attempts among transgender people are 10 times greater than in the general population. "When you hear numbers like that and your child comes to you and says they hate who they are, there is only one response—you help them."
Ari says he had experienced intense loathing of his female body. "I felt like I was wrong and broken, so I would shower with the lights off and change with my eyes closed because I couldn't look in the mirror." He also had panic attacks. "Everything started freaking me out, not necessarily about gender, but I just had this weird, awful fear of loneliness."
Since he started hormone therapy at the Gender Management Clinic at Rady Children's Hospital, all that has changed. "I have become noticeably happier because it's easy to be yourself when you are yourself," he says.
Ari's reaction to treatment is typical, according to pediatric endocrinologist Ron Newfield, who formed the Gender Management Clinic in 2011. It's now headed by Maja Marinkovic, another pediatric endocrinologist at Rady. Since the opening of the gender clinic more than 80 transgender youth in the San Diego region have been patients. Dr. Newfield says they see more biological females who identify as male than the other way around, but this is not necessarily indicative of the transgender community as a whole. The clinic's youngest patient is six years old, though hormone therapy does not begin until much later, after the child has undergone a thorough psychological evaluation and has started puberty.
The benefit of starting hormone therapy at a young age is that early treatment can halt puberty. That means boys born female can interrupt the development of breasts and stop menstruation. Girls born male can stop the growth of facial hair.
The risks involved with taking testosterone—either through an injection or topical cream or patch—are blood clots, liver dysfunction or abnormal cholesterol, all of which are uncommon, says Newfield.
But if there's any risk, why not just dress the part and leave the genitalia intact?
"Lots of people do that and that's cool, but there's a spectrum and I'm one of those people who really needs to make the change biologically," says Ari. "I'm not doing it for the way the world sees me, I'm doing it for the way I see myself."
Ari will not "grow" a penis, per se, but rather the clitoris he was born with will enlarge to about an inch. The hormonal treatment will not enable him to produce sperm so if he chooses to have children in the future, he and his partner will need to use a sperm donor, a surrogate or adopt. Still, Ari feels that the benefits outweigh the risks and that is cause to celebrate.
Dr. Newfield says the idea of a "Boythday" party sounds like a "great way to celebrate a new start."
Joseph Severino, a San Diego-based clinical psychologist who specializes in gender and human sexuality, agrees. "In general, any time a family is going to honor, value, validate, celebrate their kid's gender identity, it's a wonderful thing." Severino cautions, though, that parents should first check with their children to see how they want their transition acknowledged. "Some kids would welcome a party," he says. Others would not enjoy having such a personal matter being spotlighted.
Boris Zelkind says he's been doing a lot of reading about transgender issues since Ari came out, and has learned that it's important to formally notify friends and family about a person's new gender identity. "With a party, it's very clear that we're not trying to hide anything," he says. "We're saying, this is a positive thing, now have some cake."
No one in attendance at the Boythday party will be particularly surprised to hear Ari's big announcement. When he told a group of friends, their reaction was immediately supportive. "They said if anyone even remotely threatened me, they would definitely kick their ass," Ari says. He even has a girlfriend now who didn't think twice about dating a transgender person.
So why have a Boythday party if Ari's friends and family already accept his identity? "People have a lot of questions and I want to answer them. I'm really open to talking about it," Ari says.
Ari's family already gave him an early gift. What else—a "packer," a prosthetic penis he can place in his underpants. "Basically, it's a strap-on so I can pee standing up now," Ari says. "I'm using urinals and leaving toilet seat lids up everywhere I go. It's awesome."
Jennifer Coburn is the author of We'll Always Have Paris: A Mother/Daughter Memoir.