Like parents the world over, the Jégous of rural, conservative Quimper, France, always did their share of worrying. They worried because Patrick, the oldest of their three sons, liked playing with stuffed animals and hated sports. They worried when shy Yannick, five years Patrick's junior, was ostracized at school, and when Mikael, the youngest, was bullied. But when the real trouble came, as is so often the way with trouble, it came in a form the parents hadn't dreamed of. On a sunny September day in 1980, Patrick, 18, informed his parents that he was a transsexual and wanted to become a girl.

"It was like being told your child has had a serious accident," Marie-Pierre, 49, remembers. "You think, 'What can we do, what will he become?' " Maurice, 49, a gruff man who has been a lifelong soccer player and is a heating maintenance supervisor at a local psychiatric hospital, was hit harder. "It felt like having a mountain fall on my head," he says. "It was unbelievable."

It was also just the beginning. Six years later, a month after Patrick's sex-change operation, Yannick told his parents he wanted the same procedure. Recalls Maurice: "I yelled, 'I have to go through this again?' It was enough to make me drop dead on the spot."

"It didn't scare me as much the second time," says Marie-Pierre.

Today the Jégous' oldest child lives, as Dominique, in an apartment near her parents' tidy house in Brittany. Yannick, 21 and renamed Alix, remains at home, awaiting medical permission for his or her (the Jégous still use male and female pronouns interchangeably) surgery. Both Maurice, who for a long time could not bear to look his new daughter in the eye, and Marie-Pierre have become staunch advocates of their children's right to choose their own genders and identities.

"We want to tell other parents, 'Don't reject your children,' " she says. "They're suffering, and they need us."

"I have always done what I had to do to defend my children," Maurice says simply.

And that is why the members of the simple, traditional Jégous family, seemingly against all odds, are closer now than they ever were, and why this is a story about several transformations.

As far back as she can remember, Dominique Jégou felt desperately out of place as a boy. Sweet-faced and vivacious, he adored tea parties and the company of little girls and shrank from members of his own sex. "They picked on me because I was effeminate," Dominique says. A psychologist the Jégous consulted when he was 9 dismissed his difficulties as "immaturity," but his agony only increased with age. "At school, the kids would torture me, puncture my bicycle tires," Dominique says. "I cried all the time. I'd escape by dreaming of what I wanted to be as a girl—the nice little house, the nice little husband. I was very romantic."

Although the brothers never discussed such things, Yannick was enduring almost the same torments. He too preferred playing with girls and, he says, "School was a constant crisis." He took refuge in drawing and then psychotherapy, which eased his shyness but did not change his feelings.

During these years, Maurice and Marie-Pierre were scrimping to send their sons to good parochial schools. The family was close, but there were problems. Maurice, a member of Quimper's championship soccer team, was bitterly disappointed that both boys loathed sports. "I wanted them to play soccer like me," Maurice says, and his wife adds, "Maybe even professionally. A father dreams things like that for his son." Dominique, without rancor, says, "Papa and I never got along."

The day of revelation for the oldest son came when he saw a TV show on transsexuals and felt a shock of recognition. "Before that I thought I was a hermaphrodite," Dominique says. Finally, on his 18th birthday, he wrote his mother a note. All she recalls of it is the sentence, "I am a transsexual."

Marie-Pierre was distressed, but Maurice was furious, confused and torn by conflicts. "I asked a friend, who's rather military in his attitudes, what he would do in my situation," he says. "He said, 'Kick him out.' But you can't act against your children."

"It's easier for a mother to accept her children the way they are," Marie-Pierre says, soothingly.

Both parents eventually promised their support; their acceptance was slower in coming. Patrick got the necessary medical permission for his operation and began the presurgical requirement of living for two years as a woman. He took hormone treatments and was thrilled with the results: "I had breasts, my skin changed. It was wonderful."

Split between their loyalty to Patrick and their own disappointment, his parents did not find it wonderful. Marie-Pierre developed rheumatism and back problems. Maurice grew depressed, and he found it increasingly difficult to deal with Patrick/Dominique at all. "I didn't want to be a bad father, but it was a revolt at an unconscious level," he says. "I couldn't talk to anybody about it. When I talked to Dominique, I felt like she answered me in Chinese." Then Dominique was fired from her job in a pastry shop. "The patron said her workplace wasn't the Cage aux Folles," says Maurice. In 1985, depressed because doctors were delaying her operation, Dominique slashed her wrists with glass. She was hospitalized, then committed by Maurice for 10 days of psychiatric observation. Finally, in March 1986, Dominique underwent the four-hour operation in a Paris hospital.

Despite the pain, it was a dream come true—"a correction, not a mutilation," Dominique says. Marie-Pierre was pleased as well. "She'd been so tortured," she says. "She was finally at peace." But Maurice was devastated all over again. "When I came home from the hospital, he didn't even look at me," Dominique remembers. "I thought, 'Never mind, he's suffering more than I am.' "

Maurice had only a month to adjust before Yannick made his declaration. He had recognized his own transsexuality long before Dominique declared hers, but, he says, "The day I heard my parents talking about what Dominique had told them, I thought, 'That blows it for me. There can't be two of us.' " In subsequent moments of despair he considered castrating himself with a knife. At last he wrote his own letter, four pages long, saying that he too had "this problem."

Maurice immediately stormed down to the office of Yannick's psychotherapist, waving the long letter and demanding "What's going on here?"

"The therapist said my reaction showed I was concerned and that was positive," Maurice notes wryly. Later, when he had calmed down, he told Yannick, "We'll do whatever we did for Dominique. It's only fair."

As it turned out, Yannick/Alix's request for an operation has run into more roadblocks than Dominique's; he still does not have medical permission. His doctor has suggested more therapy, and "he says I'm too tall to be a transsexual," the 5'10" Alix says sardonically. "He's got a fixed idea of what we should look like. He's creating his own race of transsexuals, the perfect little Parisiennes."

A measure of serenity has finally returned to the Jégous family. Dominique, now a pretty, extroverted young woman, is happily living with Daniel, 24, an apprentice electrician. "I told him right away what my situation was, and he saw no inconvenience," Dominique says. She and Alix, estranged not long ago—"It was as if she thought I copied her," Alix says—are close again. Alix's masculine hands and long, varnished nails suggest her in-between status, but she has found a career direction studying at the Beaux Arts school in Quimper. She, too, has a boyfriend, a 41-year-old divorced man whose devotion impresses Maurice. As for Mikael, 16, he has reassured his parents that the family trauma will not be enacted in triplicate. "I don't feel I have that problem at all," Mikael says. "And I think I'd know by now."

The ordeal is by no means over. Dominique's efforts to change her legal status to female have twice failed in court. But Maurice is now his children's most loyal supporter. It is he who is gathering the evidence for Dominique's appeal, and he who will pay the legal fees of more than $10,000. "I just think the judges might take Dominique more seriously if they know her old man's behind her," he says. "They say Bretons are stubborn as donkeys, but I say we're a little smarter. The doctors, the magistrates—we'll convince them in the end. And if I can give my children a second birth, I'm happy."

—By Kim Hubbard, with Cathy Nolan in Brittany