In my defense, I was still in a state of denial. Well sort of. Sam was 10 years old and deep down we knew what we were dealing with, we just hadn’t said it out loud that often, and when we did it was only between my husband and me. That was the same year Oprah aired her first show on transgender children. As I recall, the carefully scripted promotion for an upcoming show caught my attention from the get-go, simultaneously scaring and luring me with the information she promised to share. Information that I knew I needed but didn’t want to hear.
“Be sure to watch next Thursday when we air a special show on children born in the wrong bodies.”
Her calm voice made the subject seem as common as her shows on a favorite book or a notable celebrity. And so I tuned in.
I remember not wanting Sam to see the show, thinking, foolishly, that if she wasn’t really transgender I did not want to give her any ideas. Oh, if it were only that simple. In her room down the hall she was oblivious to what I was watching as she conscientiously worked on her spelling words for the next school day. Still worried about her hearing the show, I sat with my nose two inches from the television with the volume set on low. Before me was a 15 year-old named Jake, a child that was born female but had transitioned to being a boy, who bravely told Oprah his story. As the details of his life unfolded on air the fear in me escalated until I felt like I couldn’t breathe. To put it bluntly, Jake’s story scared the hell out of me because it so closely resembled our own.
“Wait! There are kids like that out there?” Sam eagerly asked, her voice coming from behind me. So immersed in the show I had not seen her enter the room, the excitement in her voice giving me another jolt of fear.
“NO! I mean…NO!” I stammered, as I nervously looked for the TV remote control. Finally finding it laying under the coffee table I hit the power button so haphazardly that the TV clicked off and then on once again. My clumsy actions resembling a corny slapstick act that you think never happens in real life, I cringed as the show came back to life in front of us. Pressing the off button a second time so hard it nearly became embedded within the remote control, the TV screen finally went to black as I said to Sam, “You don’t understand what you just saw. It wasn’t what you think, now go finish your homework.”
To say that was not my proudest parenting moment would be an understatement.
Fast forward five years to June of 2012 and I find myself sitting at dinner with a group of new friends in Philadelphia, where we are all attending the Trans Health Conference – one of the largest and oldest conventions in our nation catering to transgender issues. Assembled was an unlikely cast of characters – some parents of transgender children (three moms and a dad), a 21 year-old college student and the Executive Director of TransActive, a national advocacy group based in Oregon. Across the table from me was the college student, who also happened to be transgender. For the next two hours I sat there totally engrossed as this young man, who was confident, engaging and completely secure with himself, shared his background as well as his current and future aspirations. As I listened to him speak I felt an overwhelming sense of hope, thinking to myself that if Sam grew up to be even half as balanced and happy as this man I would be elated.
Just then the mom sitting next to me leaned over and said, “Jake is being modest. Why don’t you tell Leslie about being on the Oprah Show?”
I sat frozen, not with fear this time, but with shame because I knew in that instant it was him. The child who provided the first unwanted affirmation that Sam was probably transgender. The boy who so courageously shared details of his life on the Oprah show, which left me numb and frightened. The kid that scared the wits out of me five years earlier. And now, here he was in front of me, a young man whom after just a few short hours I had come to admire and even hoped my child would emulate someday. For that I was ashamed. Ashamed that I had given in to the fear when I first heard his story, because that fear was only based in ignorance. Once I got over the shock I shared how I had seen that show and apologized for being afraid. Gracious and kind he said he understood and allowed me to laugh at my stupidity as we reflected on what a small world it truly is. Jake gave me a newfound hope that night for Sam’s future by just being himself. And he not only allowed me to face my fear, but also gave me the honor of having dinner with him.