Blinded by Gender
They couldn't see her trauma, only her identity
This story is according to Michele’s testimony. I have verified aspects of the story and looked at court documents that support it. I am using the child’s legal name and pronoun associated with her sex, for clarity.
The FBI found 15-year-old Sage on Sept. 2, 2021. She had been kept in a locked room, where she’d been held captive and trafficked for sex after running away from home just over a week before. When the authorities called her mother, Michele, they told her she and her husband Roger could pick her up the next day at Waxter Children’s Center, a girls’ detention facility in Laurel, MD, where she’d been sent after she was kept in the hospital overnight to administer a rape exam.
So Michele and Roger, overwhelmed with relief, drove from Virginia to Maryland to get her first thing in the morning, their car stuffed with blankets, pillows, her favorite stuffed animals and snacks.
They arrived at the detention center (“a nice term for ‘jail’,” Michele said, noting there were no criminal charges against Sage), but were told they would not be allowed to see their child, let alone hold her in their arms, with no explanation. Instead, they’d have to appear in court at 4:00PM.
They had no idea why.
In court, Michele and Roger were deemed abusive and denied custody, informed that they couldn’t bring the child home. The reason? They had been inconsistent about using Sage’s preferred pronouns, or the name she’d been going by for three weeks.
For most of her life, Sage had been a happy and well-adjusted child, despite her very rough start in life. Her father had died when she was six months old, and her mother was in jail. It took Michele, her biological grandmother, a year to wrest her from the foster care system and adopt her, and by that time she’d been in six foster homes. But she grew up healthy, joyous and sweet, and the family was extremely close.
By the time she was in a private, Christian middle school in Virginia, Sage was a straight-A student, artistic and musical. But around age 12, when she started going through puberty, things began to change. “All the kids at that point were, you know, ‘I’m trans and I’m gay and I’m bi and I’m this and I’m that,” Michele said. “So she did start to question her gender. At almost 14, she did want to be a boy.”
This was just before the start of 9th grade, and although her parents didn’t understand it, they supported her. Michele took Sage to buy boys’ clothes. Roger dyed her hair purple, and Sage, Michele said, was ecstatic.
Sage didn’t want to return to the Christian school, and transferred to a public school. After a year of remote school, she started her first day of high school dressed as a boy, but not, to the parents’ knowledge, identifying as one. There, Michele discovered later, the school had secretly socially transitioned Sage, facilitating her name change to Draco and pronouns to he/him; Michele only found out when she picked up a hall pass with the name on Sage’s floor. The teachers and school counselors hadn’t shared this information with Michele and Roger, and neither had Sage. The school finally talked to Michele when Sage had tried to use the boys’ bathroom and a couple of boys started bullying her there. That’s when the teacher called with an incident report.
In her short time at the school, Sage was bullied horrifically about being trans. On the bus, “One kid said, ‘I’m going to rape you and prove you’re a girl,’” Michele recounted. At first, the school didn’t believe her, but when a counselor had a camera mounted on the bus, it proved Sage right. And despite the fact that she’d been in therapy since age 12, “My kid just broke,” Michele said. That’s when Sage ran away. Michele had only known about the new name and pronoun for a week and a half.
The details about what happened to Sage remain cloudy thus far. Michele believes that Sage was groomed by adults online who identified as transgender, or pretended to, promising they’d be her family now. Sage was picked up by one of them and transported across state lines to Washington, D.C., and then to Baltimore. Sage told Michele later that the man shot up heroin in front of her, then put her in the backseat of the car and raped her, taking her virginity. He left her with another man who brought her to his “family,” a house in Baltimore where she was kept in a locked room and raped repeatedly by partying men. Sage was made to clean up after them.
Michele doesn’t know how the FBI found her, or even exactly how the attorney and judges decided that Sage shouldn’t go home with her own parents. At the hearing, Michele told me, two of Sage’s school counselors from Virginia took the stand via Zoom and testified that Michele was abusive for not affirming Sage as Draco. Michele said to the counselor, ‘Sir, you’ve only had two sessions with my son. Maybe three. You never met with me to discuss my child nor offer family counsel.”
In the courtroom, Michele kept referring to Draco as Sage by accident because it was still all so new. The judge got angrier and angrier, according to Michele. “I’m in tears. I’m crying. He’s getting frustrated. Roger is 72 years old. My husband, he can’t remember to call her [Draco] either,” she told me. “And we’re trying to explain to the judge that we don’t care that she’s transgender. We don’t. Roger’s the one that let her pick out a hair color and color it purple. She wanted purple hair….We’re just a little traumatized, your Honor. Our kid just got sex trafficked.”
This is a good kid, they told the judge. She just had some gender issues when her body started to change, because that’s what happens to kids. Michele has been a volunteer CASA (court appointed special advocate) for foster children since 2015 and has worked with foster children, struggling and lost in the system. She pleaded with the judge that it was not a gender case; it was a trauma case. She said it so much that the judge ordered her to not say it again. The judge, she said, declared her a hostile witness. According to Michele, he said: “This is not a sex trafficking case. This is a transgender case.” Michele said the court informed them that because Sage wasn’t a state resident, she couldn’t be offered trauma care.
Michele and Roger were informed that they would be investigated for abuse by both Maryland and Virginia, and couldn’t bring Sage home until after a court hearing to determine their fitness. In the end, she told me, there would be 17 hearings before Sage’s parents could get her back, and by that time she’d endured another nightmare.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this sentiment—that a child’s gender issues matter more than anything else—is damaging. Kids with complicated mental health issues come out as trans and then the adults around them don’t attend to anything else about their struggles. The Cass Interim Report, which aimed to improve the standards of care for young people with gender dysphoria, noted that many children’s complicated mental health issues are being flattened into a singular diagnosis, so that only gender issues are seen or treated. Cass calls this “diagnostic overshadowing.” Per the report, “…many of the children and young people presenting have complex needs, but once they are identified as having gender-related distress, other important healthcare issues that would normally be managed by local services can sometimes be overlooked.”
Meanwhile, many in the courts are assuming that affirmation is the only appropriate model for a child identifying as transgender, and that not affirming constitutes abuse, despite the fact that there’s no legal precedent, no justification. Parents who are confused or skeptical or slow to adapt, or even who refuse to affirm a social or medical transition because they don’t believe it is the best thing for their child, are marked as unfit. Several of them have lost custody, to devastating consequences. Families have been scarred by these experiences.
None of what happened to Sage mattered to the adults considering her case. No one considered the historical context in which kids like Sage are coming to see themselves as transgender in reaction to disliking puberty. Nor did they consider the familial context, a girl with a tough history. Nor the situational context, in which a girl was bullied, trafficked and repeatedly raped. The powers that be, controlling Sage’s fate, controlling Michele and Roger’s family, could only see gender, and could only see the parents as abusers for not affirming Sage in one specific way. “How do you prove that you accept your child as a transgender?” Michele said. “You just tell them, you know, I accept them. I can’t remember the name right now because she’s only come out as a boy three weeks ago.”
The judge could have sent Sage back to Virginia, to a therapeutic residential program, but Sage’s Maryland public defender felt that she should stay in Maryland—that her transgender identification made her an exceptional case. The judge agreed. She could not even go back to her home state. Because Sage was identifying as transgender, they had nowhere to put her immediately, and kept her in juvenile detention. When Michele returned for a second hearing, she begged for Sage to be removed from the jail to a more appropriate environment.
The judge agreed to send Sage to a children’s home in Maryland, where she was put in the boys’ section. “Here’s this kid on the boys’ unit with a female body. So they start abusing her there,” Michele said. Eventually, Sage was moved to her own private room, within the boys’ unit.
She was there for three months, often communicating with her court-appointed lawyer. Sage told Michele that the lawyer coached her to say that her parents were abusive because they wouldn’t accept her as transgender, and that they made her cook her own meals since she was eight. The former was untrue, but the latter part was accurate: they taught her how to cook, and cooked with her, to help her be more independent. “Roger would teach her how to make apple pies,” Michele said. “This attorney turned everything good into something abusive so they wouldn’t let her come home.”
It took months before they were cleared of all wrongdoing by DSS in Virginia and Maryland. All the while, Michele was prevented from visiting or contacting Sage. She couldn’t even call her to say happy fifteenth birthday. Michele felt like she was losing her mind, but she was determined.
Sage went to public school in Maryland, wearing a GPS tracking device on her leg. Michele believes she started taking drugs during this time, growing increasingly despondent. She began to go by Justin. Three months later, Michele received a call from the social worker in Baltimore: Sage had gone missing. “What do you mean missing?” Michele told the social worker. “She was put on your watch and had you sent her right home, she wouldn’t be missing. She’d be in a therapeutic facility had they given her back to me,” Michele told them. She and Roger were devastated, terrified.
Someone had helped Sage get the GPS off her leg and she somehow boarded a bus to Texas, where she was trafficked again; a man created pornographic images of her and physically and sexually abused her, once again selling her body for sex. Though the local authorities, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and the FBI had all been notified that she was missing, Michele said the authorities in Baltimore wouldn’t let the Texas police track Sage’s phone because she wasn’t linked with any crime. The way they found her was through a stranger’s help—an Instagram friend of Sage’s who gave Michele a tip. “He goes, ‘Michele, I just got a thing from Sage that she took a picture of a crow on the hood of a car, and behind the car was a convenience store.’” He called the Texas Marshall, who figured out where the store was, reviewed the footage, found the man’s car.
Michele flew to Dallas the next day, not even knowing if she’d find Sage. By the time she’d landed, the authorities had rescued Sage and brought her to the hospital. At last, they were reunited.
Sage is now in a therapeutic home back in Virginia, finally working not on surface gender issues but on complex trauma issues, though they still affirm her and call her by her current chosen name. Though the abuse charges levied by both Maryland and Virginia DSS were dropped, Sage is still not able to come home yet. Her relationship with her parents is stronger than ever, but it will take a long time to heal. “We’re all working on it,” Michele said. “She’s, like, blocked out so much. Every Tuesday I zoom with her and the therapist. We’re kind of getting into the meat of it now. So we’re starting to pull out some of the stuff that happened to her. And there’s some things they won’t tell me. That’s how disgusting and horrible it was.”
Although this is a particularly egregious example, this kind of story is not uncommon. Sage’s horrific tale is simply another example of an ideology blinding the adults who are supposed to be—and want to be—helping children, rendering them unable to treat trauma because all they see is transgender identity, committing more to serving a political idea of gender than treating individuals. “I begged and begged and begged these people: This is trauma. This is not trans,” Michele said. In other words, she was fine affirming Sage or Draco or Justin, but that wouldn’t help with the horror of what the child had been through. “Where was the trauma counselor when the FBI brought her in saying that she was sex trafficked?” Michele said.
This well-meaning savior complex has gone awry, turned in on itself until it saves no one. It’s a bastardization of the research that shows that familial support is integral to the mental health of LGBT children. Demolishing the family unit doesn’t create support; it only makes children more vulnerable. Sage’s family was actually supportive, or as supportive as they could be considering how little they knew. No matter what, Sage would have benefitted from having her loving family around her, helping her deal with the trauma she’d endured.