In Texas this week, state legislators launched fresh attacks in the ongoing conservative culture war against trans kids and their families. Two bills were proposed for consideration in the upcoming session that would designate gender-affirming care as child abuse, while another bill, ostensibly targeting “drag” shows, is worded so broadly that it could conceivably ban any trans person from “performing” (acting, singing, lecturing, etc.) in any public venue open to minors.
This makes the release of the documentary Dear Noah: Pages From a Family Diary grimly well-timed.
The film, produced by NBC Out, takes a close look at Noah, a trans boy from the state who, along with his supportive family, was forced to move under the threat of investigations that began when Texas’ governor directed child welfare authorities to treat the act of affirming a kid’s gender as child abuse. The documentary begins with Noah (whose face isn’t shown directly) living with his mother and younger brother in Houston, and footage from home movies helps fill out the picture of his boisterous childhood. By the end, Noah and his mom have uprooted themselves to Colorado, where they feel more protected but also painfully far from Noah’s dad and younger brother, who had to remain behind.
Ahead of the doc’s release, I spoke with Noah’s mom, Katie Laird, about raising a trans child, the struggles of moving, and balancing advocacy for trans kids with concerns for Noah’s privacy. Katie and I had an easy connection based on our shared experience of parenting transgender youth (in my case, foster parenting) and my experience as a trans man much like Noah. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Evan Urquhart: I really loved this doc, especially the footage of Noah as a little boy. Tell me more about what he was like as a kid.
Katie Laird: Noah has always been this wide-eyed, open-hearted soul. He’s warm, empathetic, concerned about justice, concerned about fairness for everybody. And he’s so funny—he’s got great comedic timing. We watch a lot of BBC comedies and he has this dry wit, more like British humor. He’s just this lovely, interesting, funny person. [However], as we’ve been going through darker moments, there’s been an ongoing struggle with depression and anxiety. I have a teen and I also have a 5-year-old, which is like a teen and a small teen, so [there are] many complex feelings.
Noah’s so masculine in all those early shots, way before he transitioned. Were you selecting for footage of him looking particularly boyish, or was that just always Noah?
Just him! He’s always been a boy. I think I forced him to wear a dress a few times, but it was clear that that was not the right thing for this child.
There was a part of the doc where I started to tear up, and it was the bit about the notebook. Noah came out to you as trans in writing, in some kind of shared notebook the two of you had together. Why did you buy that notebook? Tell me more about that story.
Why? Because we’ve always had a close relationship, but in middle school things got harder. I knew something was wrong, but I just couldn’t get it out of him. What had happened was that he’d discovered YouTube and was finding out he was trans, finding the language for gender dysphoria. It was a thrilling time for him, and also very scary. But he couldn’t tell me. I needed us to have a place to process things with me. I’m a writer, I do morning pages, and he is too. It was just an experiment.
It seems to have worked amazingly for you in what were, maybe, pretty hard times indeed. I saw in the documentary Noah’s cutting scars. They’re actually way shallower than mine were, but much more difficult to hide. I wanted to ask about how you’re dealing, as a parent, with the fears that your kid might not be OK. And, I wanted to just slip into the conversation that I’m 44, an adult trans man, and my old scars are a little embarrassing, because I was SUCH a teen, everything seemed so intense to me, and doesn’t now; but I’m OK.
Your first response, as a parent, is fear. But we were really supported in understanding him, and what this meant, by his counselors, and the whole team around him. When a child feels so out of control and unseen, they’ll do anything to take that control back. We continue to work with Noah and our medical team on understanding what it means, his triggers, and other ways to deal with them.
There are so many layers of potential danger for trans youth. Self-harm and suicidal ideation is a real and imminent threat, when these kids are being bullied—and it is bullying—by these cisgender male politicians. It’s been very difficult, but there is nothing about my child that I am ashamed of. It’s painful to see your son hurting, but this is the reality, for trans kids. It’s one of the dangerous outcomes of this harsh political environment.
Tell me about Colorado. I know that you made the decision to move with Noah because you were concerned about the state of Texas’ decision to investigate parents who affirm their trans children for child abuse. But why don’t you tell me how you guys are doing with the move and what is life like for you?
It’s the best of times, the worst of times, like Dickens. Our Colorado reality is an exceptional, healthy environment, a community of inclusiveness. There’s hiking, craft beer, it’s very friendly, and all the resources we fought so hard to get in Houston were just available. It’s a place where there’s infrastructure built to support humans. The tough side is that this is not home, we don’t know anyone, we’re struggling with making friends. And, also, we love being Texans, we’re proud of the wonderful, warm people we come from. Texans are fighters, and as difficult and sad as this has been, we’ll keep fighting.
Hear more of Noah’s story on What Next:
One last, kind of meta thing that was so interesting to me was the decision to hide Noah’s face, but still show yours, and Noah’s dad’s. What can you tell me about that decision, and more generally about how you balance the need to protect Noah individually with the desire to make the world a less hostile place for him and all trans kids?
It was a big thing to ask of the film crew, to shoot a film about a person and not show the person. It was rooted in: I have fears for his safety. There are people who will see something like this and want to hurt him. But it was also that I wanted him to be able to walk into every room in his life just as Noah, and not be the guy from the documentary, or from the news.
I’ve had regrets, as a young mom. I was active on social media, at conferences, meetups, and I wasn’t always thinking about his not being able to give consent, not being able to consent to things like having his photos on the internet. Now, of course, he’s older. A teen can give informed consent and understand things like the outlet, the reporter. For the documentary, before, we said yes initially to a single interview. But the producers met Noah, and of course to know him is to love him, and so he became the focus for this whole documentary. It’s a fly on the wall, an unfiltered view; sometimes they filmed when he was getting out of bed, they were there before he was even awake and filmed me going in to wake him. And everything gets run by Noah, even the home movie footage, he was the, I guess, editorial cut on what he was OK with sending.
As public as parts of our lives have been [due to their activism], it’s never been this up close and personal. He’s 16 now, he’s going to be 18 soon, and I want him to be able to be himself, not just be this. He does art, he’s into longboarding, he’s going for his pilot’s license—I’m not sure what of all that made it in. There’s so much more to him, not just the trans guy.
Dear Noah: Pages from a Family Diary airs on NBC News NOW on Friday at 10:30 p.m. EST and will also stream on Peacock.