KANSAS CITY, Mo. - AJ (not a real name) was a typical little boy dressed in football onesies when he was tiny, and sweatshirts and baseball caps as he grew. His parents kept his hair short as he began to walk and run. They had toys they thought were appropriate.
Debi and Tom (we're withholding their surname as a privacy issue) have two children. Their oldest is a boy. Their youngest, AJ, was, too, until they were convinced by their child. AJ started trying to convince them at age 3.
"That's the moment I could see she was playing two different roles and she knew she had to play the roles, and turn it on and off," Debi said.
Easier doesn't mean easy
Across town, there's another family experiencing similar circumstances. A single mom and her child, who is in the process of transitioning from girl to boy. Transitioning from girl to boy is reportedly easier than the reverse, but it doesn't mean it is easy.
This child is not yet a teenager. He remembers his life as a girl. He was uncomfortable. He hated dresses. He finally cut his hair short a couple of years ago. He started dressing as a boy. He felt much more comfortable -- much more himself, he said.
Since then, he's been teased, called names, excluded, knocked unconscious, hit by another student while on the bus, and no longer has a relationship with his father. He’s most emotional about this aspect. And he still worries about what's next.
His mom said she thought it was a tomboy phase. She didn't know her daughter had started telling people he was a boy. This mom found out by accident.
"Well," said the young boy, lip quivering, "I didn't directly tell her. She just kind of found out." When asked how she found out, he's too close to tears for words. His mom fills in the rest.
She found her daughter asleep with ice packs on a newly-budding chest. She was trying to stop the girl changes starting to happen.
After seeing a counselor, the boy has transitioned, which means he's now living outwardly as a boy. He's learning more every day. He attends a support group for other FTM youth. He's about to meet with an endocrinologist to start puberty blockers, he said, and plans to eventually begin taking testosterone.
This mom is trying to get used to calling her daughter a son. She's trying to get used to using "he" and "him". She still slips, but she knows it's important. Her son and the counselors say so.
When asked what he wanted others to know, this boy's quick response was weighted with young years of emotion and stress.
"That it's okay to be yourself. And it's okay to admit who you are,” he said.
NEXT: AJ begins her transition
A new daughter, age 4
Debi and Tom both refer to AJ now as "she" even when talking about pre-transition days. Pronouns are very important to people with gender dysphoria.
AJ started longing for dresses - for girl's costumes at Halloween. AJ's parents redirected their child to boys clothing and costumes.
Debi and Tom both recall how AJ started acting out: biting and mean, frustrated and unhappy - depressed, even. AJ didn't want to go to school or leave the house. AJ kept begging for girls clothes and dresses.
Both parents have memories of when they knew this might be much more than just a phase to fight. Debi remembers when AJ wanted to be rid of her private parts. She was shocked and unsure. She searched for what it could mean and a short list of possibilities came back.
Could her son be transgender?
Tom, AJ's dad, remembers the moment he realized this wasn't a phase they'd somehow outlast.
"When she was about 4, we were going to the bathroom in Target and I was holding her hand and we were walking toward the boys' bathroom. This was when she lived as a boy. She stopped about two feet from the bathroom and was like, 'Dad, I can't go into the boys' bathroom. I'm a girl'," Tom recalled.
Tom found Debi so she could take their child into the girl's bathroom.
They started letting AJ grow her hair out. They gave into AJ's fight to wear pink things with sparkles, first at home, then eventually venturing out. AJ's first time dressing as a girl in public was a birthday party.
Debi remembers no one really saying much of anything that day, but she saw a difference in AJ.
She was smiling.
That first outing in pink seemed to spark a new excitement in AJ. She was suddenly excited to go to school. She wanted to take her favorite pink, sparkly outfit for dress-up at school. Debi let him, but was called back to the school before the day was over to pick up AJ. She'd been teased. She was sad.
Debi and Tom sought counseling for AJ. They learned all they could about transgenderism, or gender dysphoria. They found Caroline Gibbs, a licensed counselor and founder of the Transgender Institute right in their own hometown, Kansas City. She helped them understand what they'd already started to suspect.
They decided they would allow their son to transition, meaning they would allow AJ to start living as a girl. They would no longer fight the haircuts and princess dresses. And they would use the proper pronouns, "she" and "her".
NEXT: What about AJ's future?
Change means loss, and fear for safety
Debi said school was too difficult after that. Other parents didn't understand. Debi did take AJ to the daycare's graduation ceremony. Her daughter had picked out a fancy new dress and Debi let her wear it.
Debi said none of the parents would even look their direction, and went the long way with their children to avoid walking near them. Her child was happy for the first time in a long time, but their life had just become much more difficult. They lost friends, and some family members still don't acknowledge AJ as a girl.
Their daughter is now 7. They allowed her to transition at age 4 1/2. It's been long enough now that both Debi and Tom say it all feels fairly normal to them, except for the threats and newfound fears.
Threats usually come from people online. People threaten to report them to the authorities, say they are unfit, and that they will rot in hell. Some threaten bodily harm or worse.
Both mom and dad have their own worst fear when it comes to their daughter. Debi's is about abduction. She gets emotional as she loses herself in describing the nightmare that clearly is familiar to her.
"I have nightmares that we are out somewhere in a crowd and she goes missing and is abducted," she said. "And then I'm telling police what outfit she's wearing and give them a description. And then it occurs to me that if a sexual predator took her thinking that she is a little girl, and gets her somewhere private and pulls her pants down and finds the wrong parts, that that kind of person is going to become angry and abusive. And want to torture her, and..."
Her eyes well with tears, but she continues.
"That's not the fear most parents have."
Dad says simply, "The biggest concern I have as a father is her safety."
He vows to protect his daughter no matter what.
Both parents also think about the future but know they have time.
Someday, there'll be dating and how best to handle that. Someday, they'll likely be talking about a surgery; they've started a fund just in case.
Neither of them have any doubts that their daughter, in her mind and her heart, believes she's a girl. The road has not been smooth, and it won't be in the future, but their daughter is happy and healthy, and that's all they want.
"At some point, as a parent you have to put your own issues to the side and say, 'they can judge me all they want. I have to look out for my child and do what's best'," Debi said, reassuring herself it doesn't matter what challenges are yet to come.
Tom's love for his daughter is clear, too. His wife sometimes points out he seems to favor her a little. Tom doesn't deny this.
"I think a lot of that is I want her to know, without a doubt, with no question in her mind, that her parents -- we love her no matter what. You just be who you are and we're going to love you no matter what," he said.
"I would rather have a happy, healthy little girl, than a suicidal dead son."