Debi Jackson realized her child Avery, born male, was transgender when she was only 3 years old.
“She was requesting to wear princess dresses during play time, associating with female characters in cartoons and movies, fighting haircuts and wanting longer hair, and wanting her fingernails and toenails painted,” Jackson, 41, tells PEOPLE.
The Kansas City, Missouri-based trans rights activist says there were actually signs that Avery was transgender as early as age 2.
“She had a fascination with wearing jewelry, and we have found really old photos that show her sitting with her genitals tucked away,” she says.
However, Jackson was unfamiliar with what it meant to be transgender, so didn’t know how to interpret the initial signs.
“We thought these were signs that we had a gay son,” she says. “Eventually there was more, including an obvious discomfort with her body and tucking of her genitals, a growing sense of depression, an obsession with death, and questions about getting a second chance at life in a new body.”
Eventually, Avery – now 8 – told her parents that she’s “a girl on the inside.” At that point, they consulted with doctors and therapists to figure out next steps.
“We knew we had to trust the process, and trust the doctors and therapists that changing clothes, hair and pronouns never caused anyone permanent damage,” she says.
Jackson began allowing Avery to wear princess dresses and girls’ clothes at home, eventually allowing her to wear the items in public too.
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The transition was not an easy process for the family, and Jackson had her doubts that they were doing the right thing.
“[Our concerns were], is she crazy, are we crazy, are we making a huge mistake in listening to what she is saying and allowing her to transition?” she says. “The only reference I had to anything regarding transgender people were Jerry Springer-esque shocking stories. I was afraid we would be judged as parents. I was afraid she would be bullied and teased. I was afraid she’d end up unhappy and hating us later.”
To complicate matters further, Jackson and her family are Southern Baptists and Republicans, and found that their family and friends from those communities did not approve of letting Avery live as a girl.
“Our family felt pretty isolated,” she says. “The Southern Baptist Church condemns the support of trans identities. We didn’t know and couldn’t find any other families with trans kids near us. We lost most of our friends.”
The sacrifice was worth it for Jackson, who saw a complete turnaround in Avery’s temperament.
“She went from hating preschool, and fighting getting dressed and leaving the house to being the happiest, bounciest kid who couldn’t wait to take on the day,” she says. “The depression and acting out stopped. The obsession with death and dying went away. Her confidence has grown and she really blossomed.”
Jackson hopes her openness about Avery’s transition can help other parents of transgender children.
“I want them to know that they aren’t alone,” she says. “The more we talk and the more we share, the less frightening and taboo having a trans child becomes. Education and support are key. We need to stop being so invisible so that others can be less afraid.”