The Power of Language

Editor’s Note:  A 12th grade final assignment was the impetus for Sam to pen this moving essay that I am proud to share.  This marks the first of hopefully many essays Sam will contribute in this space to provide Transparenthood readers with a glimpse of what it has been like for him growing up transgender.

Heading off to debate camp, it did not really occur to me to worry about my safety as a transgender teenager staying in the dorms of a New England University for five weeks.  As with my previous two years of camp, I was assigned a room in the boy’s dorm — the world knew me as a 16 year-old young man from Minnesota starting his fourth year of debate and none of my fellow campers needed to know any thing more.  But this time was different: the quick peak that my mom and I took into the bathrooms to confirm there was enough shower privacy did little to prepare me for the emotional toll that my friend’s language would have on me.

Sticks and stones will break my bones but can words really hurt me?

On the second day, I was walking through the quaint, one-street downtown with my roommate, feeling relieved that we already seemed to be quite compatible.  Then he looked at me and said the unthinkable: “Man I was SO worried that I was going to get a gay roommate, I’m just so relieved that you aren’t gay.”  A rush of logic preceded my emotions rendering me silent as his bigoted words hung heavily in the air – silent so that I would have a safe place to sleep for the next thirty-four nights.  Then, I was ashamed that I didn’t stand up for what I believe in, for the rights of my family and friends, and for my own humanity.

Sticks and stones might break my bones but words will hurt me even more.

After orientation activities and dorm festivities, a group of eight guys from around the country, including me, effortlessly became a tight knit pack of friends.  We quickly formed an inseparable group that I am conflicted about to this day;  in a span of just a few days, I heard every one of those guys make gay slurs and jokes.  Every time I heard them, I felt as though they were hurling stones at my weakening armor.  I felt as though they were joking about me, and would hate me if they “found out.”  I knew that they respected me, but I was left to imagine their world tilting off its axis upon discovering my secret.  It took me a few weeks to even stand up to their homophobic language – if they are all using gay slurs, how could I stop them by myself while feeling personally victimized?

Sticks and stones could probably cut my skin but words will render me speechless.

When these guys started making intersex and transvestite jokes, I felt powerless and realized that their words affected me more because of the respect I otherwise had for them.  I lay awake at night and asked myself several questions over and over again: What would they think of me?  Could we be friends if they knew?  Without even knowing about me they made me feel weaker than ever before, as I did not have any power in their spaces.

Sticks and stones could sting for a little bit but words can take away my agency.

On the last night of camp, my roommate was telling me that he had to explain what LGBT was to his parents, “…there are gays, and lesbians, and bisexuals… and then there are transgenders.”  Continuing on with his story he said, “My mom was really confused about transgender people so I just said, ‘yeah there are freaks out there like that.’”  Half of me really just wanted to make him uncomfortable and tell him right then and there that I was transgender.  The other half of me wanted to get the hell out of there and never look back.  If it had not been the last night of camp, his words would have driven me to find a different place to sleep.

Reflecting now, I feel conflicted about being their friend.  They had complete power over me without knowing it because they made, what they thought to be, harmless comments, but in reality, they were comments that made me question my capacity for friendship going forward.  They made me question my capacity to hold social positions, and worst of all, they made me wonder about the power of my voice, as I felt like I was yelling for help on a deserted island.

Your sticks and stones will never hurt me, but your words hit me at my core, and they hit hard.

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The Shopping Trip

Tucked in the front pocket of my jeans was the list handwritten in purple ink, the color chosen specifically because it always made me feel better. A completely mundane list by anyone’s standards — the kind most shoppers entering Target that day might be carrying.  But mine was different for a reason no one would have ever guessed, and only a few people — mostly those who had walked in my shoes — might truly understand.

Toothpaste. Shampoo. Cat litter.  Storage containers. Paper towels. Laundry detergent.  The most basic of items, but in reality, five of these were decoys.  Diversions in the form of innocuous sundries, to convince me this excursion was not out of the ordinary; that what I was purchasing was routine.  But it wasn’t what I was buying that made this shopping trip seem so surreal.  It was the why.  The reason I was there was what pulled at my heartstrings as I grabbed the red cart with one rattling wheel and headed deliberately into the store.

Proceeding down the main aisle, the flashbacks began almost immediately.  Like a made-for-television-movie, each memory corresponding with a department of the store, the only thing missing being a melodramatic soundtrack to accompany the scenes playing at a dizzying pace in my head.  Passing child-size mannequins holding bedazzled miniature purses and wearing girl’s clothing in varying shades of pink, I swallow hard to dislodge the lump that has formed in my throat.  It was here, just a few years earlier, that I remember receiving some of the first clues from our gender nonconforming child, that there was a disconnect between her mind and body.  Simple conversations that always led to arguments followed by tears as Sam rejected wearing anything feminine the store had to offer.  “Boys don’t wear dresses,” she would explain matter-of-factly, while I tried in vain to convince my five year-old daughter otherwise.

Accelerating the pace to escape the discomfort the innocent attire elicited, I come upon racks of boy’s apparel.  The rough and tumble wear always a magnet for my little girl who knew she was really a boy.  “But I want Spiderman underpants,” her young voice echoed in my mind, the words evoking feelings of sadness even after all this time.  “Can I wear swim trunks like Dad this summer?” Sam would ask, holding the boy’s swimsuit bottoms up to her waist for me to approve. But that approval did not come easily.  Instead, I averted the gaze of those eager, puppy dog eyes, which accompanied her naïve requests to wear the boy’s clothes featuring footballs and hockey pucks- the only type of clothes that made this child feel whole.  Rationalizing it was my job to stand firm, to remind her she was really a girl.

Fast forward six years– after extensive research, and doctor’s visits and counseling sessions — I am now on a shopping trip that represents the start of a journey down a different path for my child, and the beginning of a new chapter for our family.  “Here in Aisle 22, of all places,” I laugh nervously to myself at how strangely funny that seems.  I am here to buy a container that will be used to store the last remnants of proof that our first child was born biologically female.  A hoarder by nature, all the mementos I had accumulated over the years were nothing but painful reminders to Sam that his mind and body did not match.  And it was time for them to go, or at least be hidden from view, as he began to truly live his life as a boy.

“Throw them all away,” Sam instructed, but I could not bear the thought of discarding my child’s history.  The Girl Scout Brownie vest adorned with Cookie Super Seller patches.  A framed birth announcement proudly proclaiming Samantha Carole’s arrival.  Sports trophies with girl figurines bouncing basketballs and holding bats.  Art projects emblazoned with her feminine given name, carefully created by tiny fingers wrapped around a favorite green crayon.  An “I’m The Big Sis,” tee shirt worn to the hospital on the day our second child was born.  And the photos…oh yes, the photos.  Gathering them from the fireplace mantel, taking them down from our refrigerator door, and removing them from all the nooks, crannies and bookshelves where they had resided throughout our home for the last ten years, probably hurt the most.  But I knew these artifacts needed to be packed away so that Sam’s true identity could not only survive, but also thrive.

“It’s hard to decide when you have this many options,” a young mother standing next to me amongst the sea of plastic containers offers, breaking my train of thought. A little girl no more than four years of age sits in her cart, tenderly holding a faded brown bear that has obviously been loved.  I smile and nod, remembering once more those early days of Sam’s childhood and I am suddenly overcome with a sense of relief.  Relief because I finally recognize this trip does not represent a loss, but rather another step in the direction we must travel together to help him become whole.  In that instant I understand the magnitude of his sense of self and my heart wells with pride knowing he has already achieved something many people will spend a lifetime trying to accomplish.  At about the same tender age as the child before me in that cart, Sam already knew who he was and has never wavered from being true to himself. Indeed, this was not a good-bye, but rather a long-awaited acknowledgement of the person my beautiful child has always been.  His whole life ahead of him, he will now continue on with his head held high and his family proudly by his side. As a parent, I could not wish for more.

 

Editor’s Note:  This essay was a finalist in the second annual Notes & Words Essay Contest and was chosen to be published in the upcoming anthology, Nothing But The Truth So Help Me God:  73 Women on Life’s Transitions, which will be in bookstores on May 3rd, 2014.


 

 

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Knock On Wood

I can’t remember exactly when it became my mantra, but somewhere along the line I abandoned all reason, turned my back on logic, and succumbed to superstition.  The kind of superstition learned on the playgrounds of my childhood, where chanting a particular phrase would make everything all better, or protect you from harm, depending on your situation.

“Circle, circle. Dot, dot. Now you have the cooties shot.”

If only it was that simple.

“Find a penny pick it up all the day you’ll have good luck.”

That one always seemed to work — as long as you found a penny.

As a mom of a transgender child, I found the need to reach deep into this medicine cabinet of protective sayings.  To rely upon the prescription strength that came with that simple, yet all-encompassing verbal immunization:  Knock on wood.

Learning that our child was transgender, I found myself transformed from a rational human being, to a mother fraught with worry. An all too common state of being, I quickly learned, for parents like me whose children knew at an unusually young age, that there was a disconnect between their mind and body.  And so I adopted that familiar incantation from my youth, using it on a daily basis as an insurance policy for the worries and fears I had for Sam that were accidently spoken out loud.

In the early days it went something like this…

I’ve read the research studies that have found less than 2% of gender variant kids actually grow up to be transgender.  What are the chances Sam will fall into that category?

Knock on wood.

Just because she insists on getting the boy’s Happy Meal toy doesn’t mean she really thinks she is a boy.

Knock on wood.

They didn’t intend to exclude Sam from the birthday party.  Those parents could not be that cruel to an eight year-old child, could they?

Knock on wood.

It doesn’t mean anything that she wants to wear boy’s Super Hero underpants.

Knock on wood.

Those classmates will eventually come around.  They can’t possibly bully and ostracize Sam forever.

Knock on wood.

I’m so tired of the stares and whispers.  We are going to send a letter to all of our friends and family explaining that our child is transgender.  Just think about it, what’s the worse thing that could happen?

Knock on wood.

And as Sam got older, there was a new set of concerns to ward off…

I’ve spoken with a lawyer familiar with Judge Rosenbloom and he said she is fair.  I know Sam is only 14 but I’m sure she’ll grant our petition for a name change from Samantha to Samuel.  How could she not?

Knock on wood.

Don’t worry honey, I’m confident the TSA agent won’t notice that the name on the passport is Samuel but the gender marker is still an ‘F.’

Knock on wood. 

I called ahead and found they have a unisex restroom on the third floor of the museum right behind the dinosaur exhibit.  If we confide in one of the field trip chaperones, I’m certain they will escort you there without the other kids finding out.

Knock on wood.

The full body security scanner at the airport can’t see everything, right?

Knock on wood.

We are headed back a second time.  There is no way we will get the same bigoted woman at the Social Security Administration who refused to change his gender marker after pointing to Sam’s crotch and asking if he had had surgery, “…down there.”

Knock on wood. 

He wouldn’t really try to kill himself, would he?

Knock on wood.

Yes, I suppose you could say these three little words have become my daily devotion.  A type of prayer for Agnostics like me to recite when ordinary situations most people take for granted become challenging.  Common events such as being invited to birthday parties, using public restrooms and making friends, that don’t come easily for my son Sam, merely because his mind and biology don’t match.  And so for what it is worth, I will continue uttering these words while at the same time tapping on the nearest piece of lumber (often times that being my head).  Because I know in my heart that if I keep repeating this phrase, all of my worries and fears for my beautiful child will never come to be.

Knock on wood.

Editor’s Note: I was honored to have this piece chosen to be a part of The Naked I: Insides Out play that was produced by 20% Theatre Company Twin Cities.  The world premiere on February 13, 2014 featured contributions by over 75 queer, transgender and allied artists.  A treasure of the arts not only in Minneapolis and St. Paul, but also nationwide, the 20% Theatre Company is committed to supporting and vigorously promoting the work of female and transgender theatre artists, and celebrating the unique contribution of those people to social justice and human rights.

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Wanted: 80,000 People to Change the World!

Inside Out – The Documentary is a feature film that will follow the lives of five transgender and gender non-conforming children and youth for one year.  On Valentine’s Day Inside Out launched a 30-day campaign asking 80,000 people to donate $10 – the price of a movie ticket – to fund the film.

This campaign marks the first time in history a community of this size has come together to fund a documentary. Achieving this goal will make a newsworthy statement about the breadth of support for transgender and gender non-conforming people, deliver a strong message about the size of the film’s audience that no distributor or festival can ignore and most importantly make a positive difference in the lives of transgender and gender non-conforming children.  Please join me in supporting the production of this very important film!

Website:        www.insideout-thedocumentary.com

Facebook:     www.facebook.com/InsideOutTheDocumentary

Twitter:           @InsideOutTheDoc

 

 

 

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Renaming A Rose

Editor’s Note…I’m pleased to share another wonderful guest post written by my friend and fellow mom, Jacqueline Friedman Shepherd. She perfectly captures the feelings many of us experience when we face having to change our children’s names…an event none of us ever imagined needing to do, yet an important part of helping them bloom.    

This is a story about a name.  Two names, actually.  But, at its heart, like all good stories this one is about people.  But I didn’t know that as I sat in the courtroom that day.  The judge was serious and, for a moment, I wondered if he was going to deny my request.  He looked from the papers in front of him, back to me, then back to the papers.  Finally, he cleared his throat and said, “I’ve read your request.  This seems to be in the best interest of the child,” then turning to the court reporter he said, “In the matter of the minor child Lucille Ruby Jane, I grant a name change.  She will henceforth be Moshe Louis Armstrong.”

When we found out that our second child was going to be a girl, I was ecstatic.  I had been picking out names since I was a child.  I had tattered copies of Beyond Jennifer and Jason that were highlighted, underline and dog-eared so much that you would think I was the mother of 42 children by the time I was sixteen.  My boy names were classic and easy and my husband and I had effortlessly settled on Solomon for our first baby.  Girl names, though, those were something else.  I needed my daughter to be a wild-eyed gunslinger who never backed down from a challenge.  Her name couldn’t be common, it had to be Mitzvah, Ramona or Penelope. I wanted it to make people pause for a second when they met her and think, “This girl might grow up to be the next President of the United States.”

Unfortunately, my husband had other dreams for our daughter.  Apparently, he wanted her to be a stripper.  The names he came up with (which I will not mention because I don’t want to offend anyone else who’s parents gave them a stripper name) were atrocious.  Every name I came up with he shot down as “weird” and every name he came up with forced me to describe the unsightly fate of a girl named ______________.

I will spare you the boring details of how we finally settled on a name, but know that is took forever and it involved family trees, websites and begging.  Miraculously, we settled on the name that we both agreed described the most kick-ass girl we could imagine: Lucille Ruby Jane.  Lucille sounded good with Solomon and brought to mind Lucille Ball and Lucy from Charlie Brown; both pretty tough broads.  Ruby was an old family name from my husband’s side and Ruby Jane together was a nod to my mother, Mary Jane.  Jane was perhaps the most important of the three because it honored many aunts, grandmothers and friends named Jan and Jane – all who are exceptional women.

Our Lucille Ruby Jane lived up to her name.  She was a mad beauty with thick, blonde hair, flushed cheeks and full, red lips.  Her beauty was undeniable, but it was juxtaposed by her constant drool, her crusty nose and the fact that she could speak like a six year old by the time she was two.  She refused to wear a shirt, loved hats and shoes and greeted everyone with a wet smile.  She was exactly the wild child I had imagined…except for one thing.

The day before first grade started, I met with Lucy’s teacher.  The first thing she said to me was, “Ruby Jane is the coolest name I’ve ever heard.”  Ms. G was almost six feet tall with black spirals sprouting out of her head and a smile that made me think we’d drink whiskey together someday.  I brought a collage of Lucy’s life with me as a visual aid to show her that I had birthed a “normal” child and that I had dressed her in pink and done all the right things.  My mind flooded with visions of my loud baby girl who had become withdrawn and twitchy.  I could picture the heartbreaking way that she walked with her head down, clenching and unclenching her fists nervously.  I am rarely uncomfortable in social situations, but I could feel myself blushing as I stared at my hands and said, “Lucy thinks she is a boy.  She looks like a boy.  She’ll pee her pants before she’ll go in the girls’ bathroom.  I just thought you should know.”

Without skipping a beat, Ms. G shrugged and said, “I’ll just take the signs off our classroom bathrooms. We don’t need one for boys and one for girls anyway.”  I could have cried, but I’m not a crier.  Ms. G sat back in her chair, relaxed and easy, and asked if I could give her any research or reading I had that would help her help Lucy.  I wanted to jump up and hug her, but I’m not a hugger.  So, I gathered my things and left with an indescribable hunch that things might end up okay.

The years between potty training and first grade had been awful ones in our house.  The fact that Lucy started introducing herself as Ryan when she was three was the least of my worries.  At four, she changed it to Amigo and insisted that we all call her that.  By that point we had three children and I was horrified that people would think I had sons named Solomon, Abraham and Amigo, but Lucy threw two hour tantrums about the seam of her socks being crooked on her foot, so Amigo was fine with me.  She had a boy haircut, wore her brother’s clothes and it was easier to let strangers think she was a boy than to introduce her as Lucy anyways.

So, it came as no great surprise when, halfway through first grade, Ms. G mentioned at conferences that  Lucy was writing other names on the top of her papers.  Judah. Max. Ladimir.  She also mentioned that the other kids in the class called Lucy “he” and that she would be happy to do that, too, if it was okay with us.  By that point I had done my research and found friends in the right places who had helped confirm that Lucy might very well grow up to be a boy (which is its own story and deserves its own essay, but this isn’t that story).  It was time to find a new name.

As Solomon, Lucy/Ryan/Amigo and I sat down in front of the computer, I firmly stated that it had to be an Old Testament name.  I suggested Malachai, Samson and Jonah.  My children are nothing if not half their father and they immediately started pitching a case for Nimrod.  Much like the first time around, we went back and forth forever until finally we had settled on Moshe (Hebrew for Moses – pronounced “Moe-shee.”).  And for a middle name Moshe wanted Louis Armstrong.

Louis Armstrong?  We weren’t big jazz fans.  I wasn’t even sure how Moshe knew who he was.  I bought him a kid’s biography and told him he had to read it first.  It took a while, but finally one night he came out of his room, book in hand and said, “I’m done.  And I want my name to be Louis Armstrong.  He helped get rights for black people and he had a really hard life, but stayed positive and happy.”  I couldn’t argue with that.  Moshe Louis Armstrong.

I went into the school the next day to tell the school that Lucy was going to go by a new name.  Everyone at the school had been so nice and understanding that, by this point my fear was gone.  When I told Ms. G she threw back her head and laughed, “What a great name for a great kid! You guys are the best.”  The new name seemed to free my wild, opinionated child from a mental cage and, almost overnight our lives became easier.  Moshe’s friends switched names immediately and our entire family, though slightly slower, came along too.  There were no more fits about socks.  There was no more anxiety about heading to school each day.  Who knew a name was such a big deal?

We moved last summer and decided that it was time to legally change Moshe’s name before third grade.  I gathered all the legal paperwork.  I had Ms. G and some family members write letters explaining that we weren’t insane and that the name change was in Lucy’s best interest.  I was nervous that the judge would decide I was a terrible parent and deny the name change, but he didn’t and I left the courthouse that day feeling strangely victorious and sad at the same time.  Lucille Ruby Jane no longer existed.

A few days later I sat having tea with my dear friend Marge.  I told her how surprised I was at my sadness.  Maybe it was because I had chosen a name that had all my hopes wrapped up in it?  How had I ever been so naive and innocent as to think that I could dream up a child and it would turn out that way?  Marge, who was infinitely wise, smiled at me and said, “None of our children turn out the way we hoped they would.  If you’re doing it right, they turn out better.”

She was absolutely right.  You never expect to have a three year old that will tell you she is really a boy, but isn’t that what I was hoping for?  A daughter who would stand her ground and be herself no matter what? Moshe is the kind of kid that always does the right thing, has a wicked sense of humor and takes better care of his younger brother than I do.  His friends are some of the best kids I’ve ever met, he compliments my Matzo ball soup and he wants to live in a treehouse with his parents when he grows up.  He’s way cooler than the daughter I had hoped to have. Moshe Louis Armstrong is at least as kick ass as Lucille Ruby Jane would have been.

A couple of months ago, Moshe got a letter from Ms. G.  In it was one of those paper fortunetellers that kids make.  As each flap was lifted, Moshe read them aloud to us.  The first one said, “I’m having a baby!”  The second one said, “You are my favorite student EVER.”  The third one said, “She is due on January 26th.”

And the fourth one said, “Her name is Ruby Jane.”  I’m not a crier, but I may have teared up a little.

 

 

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Parts Unknown

Severe pain in my 17 year-old son’s abdomen brought us to the ER last week.  One of those situations everyone dreads, but if you are transgender there can be an added level of anxiety when the medical professionals you are dealing with aren’t current on trans healthcare. Such was the case for us, beginning at the reception desk.

“Name and date-of-birth,” the harried man says through what looks to be bulletproof glass.

Providing the information requested, I nervously wait for what is coming next.  Predictably his brow begins to furrow as he stares at his computer.  Without looking I know what is causing the confusion.  On his screen is Sam’s pre-transition female name because we had been in this particular ER years ago and that information remained in their database.

“Samuel?” he asks in a perplexed tone.

I hold my breath as flashbacks of this same scenario begin playing in my head…at the orthodontist, school, bank, library, community center — basically any institution, organization or business that had Sam’s birth name, Samantha, in their computer system before it was legally changed to Samuel.

My first instinct is to lie if he asks whether Sam has a twin sister named Samantha, which is usually the conclusion people reach to explain why they have an obviously male bodied person in front of them but a female name listed in their database with the same address and birthdate.  A white lie in this instance seems justifiable and easier than telling a total stranger that Sam is transgender, then waiting for the uncomfortable silence that ensues as the person processes what I have said — outing him to not only this person, but also to the people in line behind us, who usually then begin to stare and whisper.  It’s happened too many times to count and today I would give anything to avoid the situation.

He continues to study Sam, then his computer screen, and then Sam again.  As if admitting defeat, he shrugs his shoulders, pounds out what seems to be a novel on his keyboard and tells us to take a seat.  I breathe a sigh of relief knowing this could have easily gone the other way, as it has so often in the past.

Next up is the triage nurse.  A woman wearing white orthopedic shoes, which seem premature given her young age, who ushers us into a small sterile room to take Sam’s vitals and discuss his symptoms.  Protocol dictates that she also determines what, if any, current medications he is on, which we openly share.

“Testosterone?” she repeats in the form of a question.  “Why are you taking that?”

Sam’s tired eyes anxiously dart in my direction, signaling that he would like me to answer this question on his behalf and so I explain, “Sam is transgender.”

“Ohhhhhh,” she replies unfazed, which actually makes me feel better because I assume she is familiar with the term.  That assumption, however, is quickly thwarted by her next query.  Gazing at her computer screen searching for an appropriate code for this piece of information she asks, “Would that be the same thing as  t-r-a-n-s-s- e-x-u-a-l-i-s-m?

In awe of her ability to simultaneously elongate and slaughter the word, I say, “Sure,” trying to put an end to this line of questions for Sam as quickly as possible.

As if on cue, George, the burly ER nurse assigned to Sam appears, his mere presence saving us from the awkwardness of the moment.  A regular Superman in scrubs, George shows us to an ER bay and immediately goes about his usual routine.  Getting Sam settled on a hospital bed he gently asks, “Have you ever had any surgeries buddy?”

Sam’s eyes fixate on me, the telepathy between us stronger than ever, and so I answer for him by saying, “Double Mastectomy.”

George glances at me looking slightly perturbed and says, “I’m not asking about your medical history mam, I’m asking if your son has had any surgeries.”  Now most people at this point might be horrified, but we learned a long time ago that being able to laugh is a trait that will get you a lot farther in these types of situations.  And so I let out a little chuckle and say, “Yes, I know, I am answering for him.  Sam is transgender.”

Just as I am making a mental note to purchase a better bra given the fact George obviously thinks I have had a double mastectomy, the ER doctor announces his arrival by sliding the privacy curtain aside. I assume someone along the way must have brought him up-to-speed, but unfortunately I am wrong. The doctor begins to examine Sam’s abdomen during which time the fact comes up that Sam is transgender.  With that revelation, he quickly removes his hands from Sam’s body, as if he has received an electric shock.  Looking completely surprised, he admits out loud, “I’m not up-to-speed on those issues – do you still get a period?”

We might have been able to laugh at this question too if it wasn’t so humiliating.  There was no bigotry or maliciousness in the question, but that didn’t make it any less difficult to hear.  Deep down we knew the doctor’s intentions were good, but his bedside manner left much to be desired.  Knowing this question hurt Sam’s psyche just as much as the physical pain searing through his stomach, I jumped in to provide a quick Transgender 101 overview on his anatomy and medical history.

Following emergency surgery to remove his appendix, we faced another educational moment when the night nurse handed Sam a portable plastic urinal.  Staring at the container I thought Sam might start to cry and so I assured her I would help him to the bathroom.  Once he was situated I rejoined her in the room and asked if she knew Sam was transgender.  Just a year out of nursing school, her immaturity showed as she released a nervous giggle and said, “Yes, but I didn’t know if that meant he had…” Implementing a rudimentary form of sign language, she waved her hand in front of her crotch to finish her sentence.

We entered parts unknown that night when we checked into the ER, and to our surprise, some of Sam’s medical staff were along for the ride.  While Sam had someone who could advocate for him and speak on his behalf, many transgender people do not, which makes them even more vulnerable when seeking medical attention. We share this experience not to shame, but to shed light on the fact that education and training are still greatly needed to ensure trans patients receive the same respect and level of care as everyone else.

Post note:  To learn more about healthcare facilities throughout our nation that have adopted policies for LGBT equity and inclusion, check out the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Healthcare Equality Index. 

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Can You Hear Me Now?

I usually flinch when people marvel at how accepting we are towards Sam, because that wasn’t always the case.  As a young child he told us he was really a boy until he was blue in the face, but we plugged our ears and let fear be our tour guide.  We depended upon society’s Tomboy label to explain Sam’s choice of clothes, type of play and masculine demeanor.  And we clung to unsolicited words of advice from friends who proudly proclaimed being just like Sam when they were young.  Women who now wore flawless makeup and lace bras under form-fitting dresses, while sporting gemstones on perfectly manicured fingers.

Even when we started to realize that there might be something more going on than ‘a phase,’ as we also used to wishfully call it, we still did not move swiftly to help Sam transition — a fact that makes me wince.  While everything about him screamed, “I AM MALE,” we made him dwell in an in-between hell, insisting on waiting ‘…just to make sure.’  And we didn’t just drag our feet.  Instead we got fitted for cement shoes that kept us firmly planted in the middle of this sea of denial, because quite frankly, we were too scared to admit out loud what we already knew in our hearts to be true.

One of the tactics I employed back then was to try to convince Sam that it was okay to be masculine and female, erroneously thinking he just didn’t want to be a girly girl.  I bought him books proclaiming “Girls Can Do Anything,” and stopped asking him to wear dresses or anything pink, but all of these efforts fell on deaf ears.  And then I heard about a camp for 12 year-old girls that emphasized science, technology, engineering and math – subjects society historically only encouraged boys to pursue.  A camp that replaced traditional activities such as making friendship bracelets and arts and crafts with classes in physics and electronics. I remember thinking (and hoping), this was a camp that might just show Sam it is okay to be a girl.

The concept was simple.  Campers would spend the week learning how to build their very own remote controlled boat.  Along the way the girls would be exposed to the science and math disciplines behind the creation of this watercraft.  The week would culminate with the girls racing their boats against one another in front of an audience made up of parents and teachers.  I could not have hoped for a less feminine camp if I had created it myself.  Or so I thought.

We arrived early the last day to get good seats on the bleachers overlooking the pool where the boats would race.  As the girls marched in I squinted to see what was in their boats.  I must have been mumbling my confusion because a mother next to me said, “Oh look, aren’t those dolls cute?” I could still see her lips moving but didn’t hear anything after the word ‘dolls,’ knowing how repulsed Sam must have been when they handed him what was intended to be the captain of his boat.

Yes, as it turned out, well-meaning camp counselors thought it would be fun to give each girl a Bratz™ Doll, encouraging them to style their hair and customize their clothes so the dolls would look glam as they navigated their maiden voyage.  If you are not familiar with Bratz dolls, perhaps sharing their tagline, “The only girls with a passion for fashion,” will give you an idea of their target audience, of which Sam never was, nor ever would be, a member.

At the starting line my eyes went from boat to boat, where I could quickly see that the dolls were manifestations of their proud young owners.  Mini-Me’s that had perfectly styled up-dos, make-up applied to highlight their already exaggerated plastic cheekbones, and outfits tailored by the campers that would make even Ken and Barbie blush.

And then there was Sam’s doll.

To my horror, sitting in Sam’s boat was a Bratz doll that was dreadfully disfigured.  All of her hair had been chopped off, and by ‘chopped’ I do not mean trimmed down to a clean crew cut.  No, the hair on Sam’s doll had been haphazardly hacked leaving small tuffs amongst completely bald spots.  To this day I have no idea how Sam customized the Bratz attire to look like a man’s suit, but I imagine it entailed several painstaking hours and a lot of duct tape.  But what was most disturbing was the beard Sam had drawn on the doll’s face with a black marker.  The sight of this bearded lady was so jarring I felt like I had been hit upside the head with a 2X4.    This time the hint was unmistakable.  A ‘can-you-hear-me-now?’ moment that I will never forget, delivered by a child who was at his wits end.

The 2X4 in the form of a doll had finally made me accept the fact that Sam was a boy.  Not a girl going through a phase or consciously choosing to act this way, but a young boy whose mind and body didn’t match.  That day I retired my “It’s Great To Be A Girl” speech, embarrassed and guilt-ridden for dragging my feet for so long.  And going forward we let Sam know with words and actions that we understood and that we heard him loud and clear.

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Far From The Tree

Editor’s Note:  I am pleased to feature the following post written by Mary Moss, an incredible parent from New York that I had the good fortune to meet last year.  Mary describes herself as a feisty single mom to a terrific 14 year-old boy who just happens to be transgender, but she is a lot more than that.  Mary is also a founding member of the New York Citizens for Transgender Rights (NYCTR), a regular contributing writer on transgender issues for the New York Timesunion.com, and moderator of a private Facebook group for parents and family members of transgender kids.  Committed to spreading awareness, Mary and her son Chris have filmed television specials for French audiences, participated in an Australian documentary and they recently appeared on The Katie Couric Show. I feel very lucky to be able to call Mary my friend.

When your child is born, you are full of hope, joy and a vision for their future. You may hope your son shares your love of baseball or your daughter shares your love of ballet. Your heart is filled with promise of a better future for your child. You see yourself in that child.

What if your vision is not even close to a reality? What if your son had no interest in baseball and your daughter hated ballet? What if the apple fell very very far from the tree? What if your daughter was really your son?

That very topic is covered in author Andrew Solomon’s book: Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. I met Andrew when my son and I taped the Katie Couric show. Andrew was one of the guests and he astonished me with his brilliance.

Andrew’s powerful book covers the very real occurrence of children being very different than their parents expected, very different indeed. One of the chapters in his book covers transgender children.

Andrew’s book discusses one the most valuable lessons I have learned raising a transgender child and that is that you must let go of all expectations of your child. Children are not extensions of their parents. Parents must learn to accept their children, as they are not what they expect them to be. It is the true lesson of unconditional love.

Andrew says it’s all about love and acceptance. He stresses the importance of parental support for transgender children. He says “many families love their child but aren’t able to accept who their child is. Many of them, if they can keep the love alive, can get to acceptance”

I realized through my son’s transition that it was my son’s heart and soul that I loved not his gender. His heart and soul wasn’t affected by him transitioning. If anything it grew even deeper and more beautiful in my eyes.

Songwriter Mary Haskell wrote: “Nothing you become will disappoint me; I have no preconception I’d like to see you be or do. I have no desire to foresee you only to discover you. You can’t disappoint me.”

I believe we all long to be truly accepted as we are not as others expect or wish we would be. We all want to be loved and wanted for who we are. We all want to belong. If I can do anything for my son I will feel a success as a parent if he grows up never doubting my love and acceptance for him. That would be my greatest joy.

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The Dance

The wedding invitation came addressed to our entire family, a detail that made me cringe.  A daughter of dear friends was getting married and the honor of our presence was requested, or so the invitation proclaimed.  Deep down I knew the sentiment was sincere – that they truly did want our family of four to be their guests – but that meant subjecting us to a host of potentially awkward situations.  Situations I just didn’t want to face.

The year was 2010.  Sam was 13 and had transitioned a few months earlier, but many people in our lives had yet to come face-to-face with him living as a young man.  They knew because we told them or the grapevine had, but experience taught us that knowledge does not eliminate the uncomfortable feelings that accompany those first post transition meetings.  It’s that proverbial elephant-in-the-room type of occasion, but without a handler holding a whip to keep the situation from escalating into a stampede of embarrassing looks, comments and actions.

The majority of guests would be people we did not know, but I assumed the few we did would not know what to do or say.  Exaggerating their delight in seeing us, being overly apologetic about using the wrong pronoun, and head-to-toe glances at Sam when they thought we weren’t looking were all exchanges I thought we would have to contend with, not to mention the uneasy stares that would ensue when he used the men’s restroom.  All acts of human nature not malice, but never the less stressful for all involved.

I flirted with the idea of having our children stay home, rationalizing it would be easy to explain their absence given the crazy nature of teenager’s schedules at the end of the school year.  But that would have been a white lie that I could not live with, not only because we would have been betraying our friends but also because of what that would have meant to Sam.  An old soul, he would have known before that excuse left my mouth that I was trying to avoid a potentially hurtful event.  Avoidance was not how he lived his life and because of that I knew it was not how I could live mine.

So we went to that wedding and my husband and I were just as proud as any other parents to be accompanied by our children.  Mingling with guests at the reception we accepted compliments from strangers about our well-mannered son and daughter.  Joining our friends, not one batted an eye or let on in any way that they were affected by Sam’s transition.  And just as I began to breathe a sigh of relief, Sam made a simple request that challenged my internal fortitude more than I could have ever imagined.

“Can I have a dollar?” he naively asked and then continued, “…the dollar dance is starting and I want to dance with the bride.”  Not wanting to let on I was afraid, I handed him a dollar and held my breath.  With his head held high our son, dressed in a sport coat, crisp white oxford shirt, tie and dress pants, with men’s shoes rounding out his chosen attire, made his way confidently to the dance floor to waltz with the bride.

Still sitting at our table, I threw back the wine remaining in my glass and waited for the liquid courage to take affect.  Slowly I turned to face my preconceived fears, but none of them had materialized.  To my surprise I found my son arm-in-arm with the bride on the dance floor.  With a grin from ear to ear on both of their faces, they danced across the parquet floor completely at ease.  No one was laughing.  Not one finger in the crowd was pointing.   There were no whispers or stares.  And the world did not fall off of its axis.  The only commotion was coming from the photographer who wanted to capture the moment before the bride changed dance partners.  Not because she was dancing with a transgender person – he simply wanted to photograph the bride enjoying the reception with one of her young guests.

That dance taught me a lot about Sam and myself.  His sense of self and ability to honor his true identity at such a young age is an example to emulate.  He was doing what felt natural for him, for the 13 year-old boy that he was, without worrying about anyone else.  Living with fear and navigating by avoidance simply were not a part of his nature, and clearly would never be – a fact I find comforting and reflect upon with pride.  And as for myself, well, I discovered that as we continue dancing through life, I would be better off following his lead.

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The Meeting

My husband and I stand to leave, the allotted 30 minutes over almost as if they had never happened.  So much to explain in such a short amount of time, we feel rushed and wonder if we really got through…through to Sam’s teachers who will now be in the position to help make his next 175 school days tolerable or a living hell.

As I shake the science instructor’s calloused hand I hope he really understands.  His snow-white hair would indicate he has been at this profession for quite a few years, and I expect that has jaded him. Did he take it to heart when I described how gut wrenching it is for Sam to hear the words, “Pick a lab partner”?  How hard it is to be put in that position because he’s been there too many times before, knowing it always ends the same way with him standing awkwardly alone while his classmates eagerly rearrange their metal chairs, clanking them together as they slide the seats across the room to be close to their pals.  The odd man out because nobody wants to be paired with that kid who “…used to be a girl.”

“Glad to have met you,” I say to the young woman, not yet thirty, who teaches English.  Going beyond the handshake she ventures to give me a hug and I am filled with gratitude for the simple gesture.  Perhaps it was because of the way she maintained eye contact when no one else would or maybe could. Shaking her head with empathy as we described Sam’s struggles to fit in, I felt a connection and hope that she is a mother too, because then she will tuck him under her wing and protect him from harm for the 50 minutes he is in her class.  At least this is what I want to believe because it is too hard for me to imagine anything else.

Saying goodbye to the gym teacher we can see in his unsympathetic eyes that he thinks this is complete crap.  Already outfitted for the day with a standard issue whistle and stopwatch around his neck, we are wasting his time.  Checking his watch 15 minutes into the meeting we are not confident he understands much less cares, but we need him to at least try to pretend because Phy Ed is so stressful for Sam.  Choosing teams.  Lining up in girl’s lines and boy’s lines. Changing clothes in a locker room that does not fit with the gender in which he identifies — all psychological mine fields for our child, who is not yet equipped to protect himself from emotional harm.

We can sense the band director feels our angst, but when she gets back to her office will she remember the seating chart for the horn section is crucial to Sam’s well being?  Does she recall that a fellow band member began calling Sam “It,” last year, under the direction of his parents? Encouraging their son to use the term whenever referring to our child because “It” wasn’t conforming to their, albeit ignorant, understanding of gender. “Please remember not to sit him next to Brian,” I whisper to myself, silently willing her to oblige.

“Thank you for your time,” we say, trying to convey one last time with words and body language how much we appreciate whatever they can do for Sam, but I am afraid we sound insincere because we are emotionally drained.  We know they are overworked and underpaid and we cringe at the thought of adding anything more to their plate.  As we head out the door, I notice the cold, institutional steel framed clock hanging on the wall, the same model that was in my junior high thirty years before, and think about the long and lonely eight hours my son has ahead. And I hope one last time that his teachers truly understand they are not only providing Sam with an education, but more importantly they are serving as a lifeline while he is in their care.

 

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