I am not an advocate by nature. At least not an outspoken one. In the past I allowed my vote in elections to be my mouthpiece. I never wore my feelings on my sleeve, instead opting to send monetary donations to organizations that supported my views. Political signs never found a home in my yard and my car bumper has always been sticker-free. And it is safe to say no politician’s name or societal hot topic ever graced the front of sweatshirts, hats, totes or any other apparel I might be sporting. I have my beliefs and strong convictions just like anyone else, but I just never felt the need to climb onto a soapbox to share them. All of that, I used to think, was for radicals and fanaticals. That is, until we had Sam.
Having a gender variant child, we quickly learned firsthand how important our role as advocates was to Sam’s mental and physical wellbeing. From school officials and medical providers to friends, fellow students and their parents, we stood side-by-side as we explained a subject that was unfamiliar to most people and misunderstood by society at large. With every discussion on the subject, with every opportunity to share a glimpse of what it was like to walk in his shoes, we felt encouraged knowing one more person might go forward with a new appreciation and understanding for people like Sam.
So that was the extent of my advocacy until last month, when an opportunity presented itself that was on a much larger scale. An opportunity to be an advocate in front of an audience that was in a position to truly help kids like Sam if they had a better understanding of the subject matter. And so I said yes.
On October 24th I boarded a plane to Rochester, NY, armed with a speech and the start of a bad case of stage fright. I was headed there to join Dr. Ellen Perrin, a professor of pediatrics from Tufts Medical in Boston, Massachusetts, who is an internationally recognized expert in the area of child development. Dr. Perrin was invited to be a guest lecturer on the subject of children with gender atypical behavior and she asked that I join her to speak on the same topic from a mother’s point-of-view.
As the plane landed in New York I began to question my sanity, wondering to myself how I had arrived at this moment. Up until this point my advocacy had been in front of audiences of one, a much less stressful stage (if you can even call it that) than the platform I was about to climb onto. But there was no going back. As much as I wanted to board the next plane home I knew that I needed to fulfill my commitment, not only because I gave Dr. Perrin my word, but also because I believed that by sharing our story I would be helping her colleagues be better prepared to support parents and children in the same situation.
The lecture hall at Strong Memorial Hospital was large and intimidating. We arrived early enough for me to observe people coming into the auditorium, the pace of which led me to (wishfully) believe that the audience would be small, however that was not the case. We were presenting in front of Pediatric Grand Rounds I was told, which meant most pediatricians in residence as well as faculty would be in attendance. Also invited were doctors from other specialties that might find the subject of interest as well as members of the hospital’s nursing staff and pediatricians from the local community. As the clock struck 8:00am, the lecture hall, which had entrances on two floors, was full, with some people even sitting on the stairs. And as if that wasn’t enough, we were also being broadcast to remote locations for doctors who were not in the immediate area.
It was my worst public speaking nightmare come true.
Dr. Perrin led off the discussion with clinical information on gender variant children. The audience was attentive, as I expected them to be for someone who was so accomplished and well regarded. With each passing minute of her presentation the butterflies in my stomach multiplied as the cotton in my mouth threatened to render me mute. And just as I was sitting there contemplating how my knocking knees could possibly transfer me to the stage, I heard her introduce me to the audience. I had reached the point of no return.
I am not sure how I made it to the podium but before I knew it, I was standing in front of medical professionals that, to my surprise, were eager to hear what I had to say. Instead of being preoccupied (as I assumed busy doctors would be) they were actually listening, their heads nodding empathetically with each anecdote I told. My mind – the conservative protector of my actions – took a back seat to my heart, allowing me to share intimate details of our life raising Sam. Details that helped the audience fully appreciate the plight of these kids. It was my heart that shared our struggle to understand Sam’s actions and feelings from a tender age. And my heart that poured out details of our family’s frustration, sadness, hope and even joy surrounding the hand Sam had been dealt.
Speaking from the heart I reminded them that as medical professionals they might find themselves in the position of being the first person a family turns to for help, and that the tone they set with these families, who are most likely scared and confused, could have a great bearing on how they deal with the situation going forward. And I gave them a heartfelt plea to remember that for those affected it is not a phase or a choice. It is a true disconnect between mind and body and that these people need medical care that is empathetic and supportive. They need to be able to partner with medical care professionals who help their families and them understand that being transgender isn’t the end of the world, and most importantly, that they can go on to live happy and fulfilling lives.
With that I stepped off the podium, knowing I had accomplished what I had come there to do. As I took my seat I recalled words of advice we had been given before Sam was born, words that took on a new meaning that morning…
“Your most important job is being your child’s advocate. And you will have that job the rest of your life.”
My heart spoke volumes that day and as it did, I found my voice as an advocate for Sam and people like him. I never would have imagined that I would become an advocate with a capital letter ‘A,’ but that is what happens when you speak from the heart for those who might not yet have a strong voice.