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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To Go Or Not To Go…That is the Question

From our kitchen I could hear the diesel engine roar and the chassis squeak as the school bus rounded the bend of the otherwise quiet street leading to our corner.  Monday through Friday during the school year, these familiar sounds were my cue to spring into action – to get the back door not only unlocked but also opened because Sam would be charging through that entryway within 30 predictable seconds, making a mad dash for the bathroom. An absolute run-like-your-life-depended-upon-it sprint because he hadn’t used a restroom since he left for school eight hours earlier.

And so it was for our child, as he began to transition from female to male in 7th grade. A difficult age for any kid, let alone one whose mind and biology did not match.  The more masculine his appearance became, the more difficult it was for him to relieve himself at school.  The girl’s restroom, while corresponding with his biology, was a torture chamber of verbal abuse, as the occupants would scream at his mere presence.  Even those that understood would hang their bystander heads and divert sympathetic gazes, leaving Sam feeling alone and vulnerable as he tried to make his way to a stall.  And the threat of physical abuse kept Sam from even trying to use the boy’s restroom, which is where he truly belonged.

When we finally understood the extent of the harassment he was enduring, we approached the school looking for help.  The proposed solution was for Sam to use the nurse’s bathroom, a common remedy offered by many schools across the nation, that never truly meets these kid’s needs.  In a building with three floors, having only one option in a less-than-central location, is a logistical nightmare – especially when students are expected to use the restroom during their 5 minute passing time between classes.  But even more troubling was that using the nurse’s restroom was stigmatizing in and of itself.  As soon as his fellow classmates began to notice him using the special bathroom, the under-the-breath comments, stares and giggles became more than he could bare.  For Sam, 7th grade marked the year that he began to experience chronic bladder infections, just because he couldn’t relieve himself at school.

To go or not to go…that is the daily question for my transgender child and thousands of kids like him all over the country.  The simple act of relieving themselves in the public restroom of their school – a basic bodily function and need is the source of stress, confusion, violence, endless meetings and arguments by adults and even lawsuits, just because these students identify with the gender that is opposite of their biology.

With so many important issues to focus our time and energy on as a society, worrying about who is using which bathroom seems like a colossal waste of precious resources. Especially when that worry is based on ignorance. So the next time you hear about a controversy surrounding a transgender child using a school restroom, and believe me you will, please try to imagine how uncomfortable it would be if you were not able to use the restroom of the gender to which you identified.  Really think about it.  Now, suppose you had to worry about your physical well being in a public area that everyone else considers safe. Envision conditioning yourself to not drink liquids all day to the point of dehydration so as to reduce the need to ‘go.’  And if none of that manages to open your heart and mind then I would ask you to please consider this:  how would you feel if this was happening to your child?

Posted in Bullying and Harassment, School Days | 4 Comments

The Jeff Probst Show

The butterflies in my stomach began fluttering the second I opened the email…

Hi Leslie,                                                                My name is Erica, I’m a producer on The Jeff Probst Show, a new daytime talk show. We’ve been reading about you and your blog and were wondering if you would be interested in speaking with us about the possibility of appearing on our show!

Hastily, I closed the message rationalizing if I did I would not have to consider her request.  Out of sight, out of mind, that was my working theory.  As I sat anxiously staring at my inbox, the subject line of her email  – The Jeff Probst Show – seemed to stand out from the rest as if the letters forming the words were blinking in neon red. Allowing my mind to wander, I thought about the possibility of being on his show.  Jeff felt like an old friend, having been a welcome guest in our family room most Wednesday nights for the past 12 years as we loyally watched him on his television series, Survivor.  I perceived him to be the kind of guy you could pull up a bar stool and have a beer with, but what if my instincts were wrong?

Deciding there was no harm in speaking with his producer, I gave her a call.  With each ring I whispered to myself, “Please don’t pick up…please don’t pick up,” but soon, much to my dismay, a cheerful voice greeted me at the other end of the line.  That call would set into motion a whirlwind of activities that culminated with our family’s appearance on The Jeff Probst Show, six very short days later.

The thought of sharing our story on national TV made me weak in the knees with fear, but Sam had the opposite reaction.  When I told him about the invitation he immediately said, “Let’s do it.”  Assuming he was being lured by the apparent glamour of appearing on TV, I asked him to share his motivation to which he replied, “So that we can help others.” I proceeded to describe no less than 20 worst-case scenarios that could result from our participation, but to each one he just rolled his eyes at my protective-mother madness.  Having grown up in the early era of Jerry Springer-type talk shows, I sought further confirmation that my fears were unfounded by pummeling the show’s producers with a litany of questions:

Will there be any surprise guests – you know the kind…perhaps a long lost relative we haven’t seen for years that is there to share why they don’t support our family? 

Who else have you invited to be a part of this episode and do any of these people think they can magically ‘cure’ Sam with their very own special kind of ‘therapy?’ 

Are the chairs in your studio bolted down so that no one from the audience can throw one at us?

Okay, so I admit I did not ask that last question, but the thought did cross my mind.  To their credit the producers respectfully answered each of my questions and addressed all of my concerns while exercising the utmost in patience.  So much so, that we decided as a family to take a leap of faith and agree to be on the show.  Checking our fear at the door, we stepped onto that stage, believing that if the subject was handled correctly, it would be a good forum to help spread awareness.  As it turned out, it was, and then some.

At a time when sensationalism seems to generate high ratings, exploiting the subject of transgender people could be tempting, but that was not our experience.  With genuine empathy and compassion Jeff Probst spread awareness by allowing us to share our rather mundane story of being a typical Midwest family raising a transgender child.  His line of questions helped to illustrate that the subject is very real (not a choice or a phase) and that those affected are not alone – two key points our family hoped to convey.  And perhaps more importantly, his actions demonstrated respect and acceptance for a largely misunderstood group of people.

I think Sam said it best within his thank you note to Jeff and his staff when he wrote, “…the show was so much more successful than many other attempts people in the media have made to explain what it means to be transgender.  I believe that the way you handled it, with such an upbeat, positive, and happy attitude really made the difference for the people watching.  You were all amazing role models for how the transgender community should always be treated, and when that shines through on national television, people are bound to take notice and listen.”

With his signature, down-to-earth warmth, Jeff concluded the episode by saying, “Hopefully this is a show we will look back on in 10 years and say, ‘…wow they had to do a talk show about that?’”

Our family could not agree with him more.

Post Note:  You can watch the entire episode, entitled, “The Husband Who is Now a Woman and the Daughter Who is Now a Son,” by following this link: http://www.jeffprobst.com/fullepisode/index.html

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A New Perspective on Old Traditions

Editor’s Note:  One of the best things about this crazy journey we have found ourselves on is the incredible people we have met along the way.  The following post is written by one of those people – Jen, a special mom I am honored to call my friend, whose beautiful child El is making all who know him better people by teaching us to look at life in a new way.

 

“Uh-oh Mom, look…” my 7 year-old daughter whispered in my ear as she showed me a Christmas ornament bearing her brother’s “old” name. She didn’t want him to see it and get upset.  El noticed the ornament a few minutes later and frowned. “We can get new ones for those years,” I said, hoping to avoid disappointing him further.

Our first-born child, Ella, has been telling us since age 3 that he is a boy. Over the past year we have decided as a family to socially transition him from female to male. We have been slowly changing out baby pictures in the house to more recent ones, packing away old school work, photo albums, birthday cards, and any other trace of the name Ella. Every time he would come across something with his old name on it he would ask me to get rid of it. I never throw away anything important, but I keep it out of his sight. Even though El has never been my daughter, it feels wrong to throw away things that are still dear to my heart.

We didn’t even think about the Christmas stuff. Each year my kids get so excited to pull out the bins and start hunting for their ornaments, hand painted with the year and their name. They carefully pick one out from the mall every December, and proudly hang it on the tree.  As my daughter pulled out the ornaments one by one, all except for one had Ella on it. My heart sank. I started unwrapping the pictures of the kids sitting on Santa’s lap. There was El, long hair, pink outfits, and sparkly shoes. “El, which one’s can I put up?” I ask, knowing he will not want most of them displayed. He picked the last 2 years, where his hair is short and he has his signature sports shirt on. Then there is the custom embroidered stocking from Pottery Barn I bought for both kids when they were little. “Ella” stares at me on the cute stocking with the ballerina on it. I feel sad for a moment.  Not sad for myself, but sad for my child, who already has had to endure so much being born transgender. It’s just not fair.  Why can’t we just have a normal night of holiday decorating like every other family? Why is my daughter whispering to me and hiding ornaments to make my son feel better? Why do I have to throw away his old stocking and buy a new one?

I sit in my pity party for a few moments. Then I see my husband with a razor blade, scraping off the “la” in Ella so it just says “El,” which is the nickname we call our son. I see my sweet daughter running to get the other ornaments for Daddy to fix. I hear El talk about how most of the ornaments can be fixed except the one when he is a baby. He wants to pick out a brand new one for that year. He is happy. I snap out of my temporary funk and our night of holiday decorating resumes. Being a family with a transgender child, we have learned to adapt on the fly. I see my family doing exactly this on our special night of Holiday decorating, and I am proud.

This Christmas is about new traditions in our house. It’s about celebrating our family, uniqueness and all.  I’m thankful for our children and our journey. It may be difficult at times, but it’s worth the joy and richness it has brought our family.

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The dMv Test

“Please, oh please,” I chanted out loud as I stared at the envelope with the Minnesota Department of Motor Vehicles return address in the upper left hand corner. Sam would not be home from school for another 30 minutes and I knew I could not possibly wait that long.  After a brief soul-searching moment I rationalized that he would understand my angst, and proceeded to tear open the envelope.

For most people getting your license in the mail is a non-event, the only excitement coming from seeing your mug-shot style photo for the first time and trying to decide if you will be able to live with it for the next four years.  But for Sam, we were anxious for an entirely different reason – a reason 99% of the population would never consider, but for him it was big deal.  For Sam (and therefore for me, because I love him so much), we were eager to see if the gender marker actually read:  M

Arriving at this moment was a long time in coming, and getting there was filled with many people and formalities that tried our patience.  In Minnesota, it is actually easier than in most states for transgender people to have their gender marker changed on their license.  That said, it is still a tiresome process that provided many anxious moments for our family.  We first had to obtain a formal letter from Sam’s doctor verifying that he had transitioned.  Then came the Petition for Variance.  While not a complex form, we still needed to make sure we answered the questions completely, not providing too much or too little information because if we erred either way we might be denied, or so we were warned. Done.  Now, all that was left to do was attach the original letter from the doctor to the State form, mail it in and wait.

And wait.

And wait.

Several weeks later, when we had all but given up hope, what our family now fondly refers to as the ‘Willie Wonka Golden Ticket’ arrived (sans the chocolate bar) in the mail.  The reference to Willie Wonka being that the Golden Ticket (otherwise known as the letter from the State) was hard to come by and very much coveted by people like Sam.  On official State of Minnesota letterhead, Sam was informed that he was granted permission for the gender marker on his license to be changed from F to M, and that he should bring this Golden Ticket to his road test so that the examiner could properly process his license if he passed.  Overcoming what we thought to be the biggest hurdle, we breathed a sigh of relief.

On August 17th we pulled up to the first station at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) where we met a man (we’ll call him Brad), whose job it was to ensure we had all the necessary paperwork before we could proceed with the behind-the-wheel test.  You know the drill – proof of insurance, a valid instruction permit, and in our case, the Golden Ticket.  The first station was actually a drive-thru window, similar to one you would find at your favorite fast food restaurant and as we pulled up, Brad greeted us with a hearty hello.  A jovial man, he first looked at Sam’s instruction permit and made a light-hearted joke about Sam not being able to take the test that day because it wasn’t his birthday.  “Don’t you know most kids take their driving test on their birthday?” he asked.  “Now you are going to have to wait another year,” he said, laughing at his own joke.

Must be DMV humor I thought to myself.

We watched as he inspected our insurance card, which met with his approval, and then he came to the Golden Ticket.  Ah yes, the Golden Ticket, that document from the State that ‘outed’ Sam to this man.  We were used to these types of awkward encounters, but that didn’t make them any less uncomfortable.  Scanning the Golden Ticket, Brad’s demeanor changed immediately.  He informed us he would be right back and then pulled the drive-thru window shut with a BANG.  We giggled under our breaths (a coping mechanism adopted long ago for this kind of situation) as we watched Brad pick up the phone, imagining that he was calling the Willie Wonka of the DMV, or someone else who could help him accept what that letter represented.  After several minutes he was back but still displayed a sullen attitude.  As he returned the paperwork to Sam he said, “Here you go, please proceed to Lane 1, give all of these documents to the person administering your test and good luck, SAM-U-U-U-E-E-E-L,” accentuating the masculine derivation of the name.

“Let it go,” I warned as Sam pulled forward, but the first wound was already inflicted.

Next up was Bill, the examiner who would ride along with Sam during his test.  In hindsight, we should have known things were not destined to go well when he approached our car wearing a bright yellow reflective vest similar to the kind worn by construction workers.  “Why on earth would someone whose job it was to ride in a car all day need to wear that vest?”  I thought to myself, but chose not to fixate on his choice of apparel.   The second red flag came when Sam handed Bill his documents.  Like Brad, he spent little time looking at the insurance card and permit but when he got to the Golden Ticket you could hear his mind come to a screeching halt, similar to the sound brakes make on asphalt.  He proceeded to read the letter from the State over and over again all the while shaking his head.

Emotional wound number two had now been imposed.  And with that I think Sam lost all of his confidence. Bill found a reason to fail Sam that day, for a minor infraction that could have been argued.  Dejected and angry, we headed home wondering whether the failure was caused by Sam’s nerves or discrimination on Bill’s part – something we will never know for sure.

A week later Sam retook the road test with a different examiner and this time he passed.  To be safe we decided that person did not need to see the Golden Ticket until after the test was done, which made Sam feel more at ease knowing for sure there was no bias.  Which brings me back to where my story began…while we knew we had followed all the rules in order to have his gender correctly listed as Male on his license, we have found that nothing is guaranteed when you are dealing with transgender issues.  And so on this afternoon, as I tore open that envelope I held my breath and crossed my fingers…and then jumped up and down like a child when I saw on Sam’s new driver’s license, that coveted letter ‘M.’

Editor’s Note:  The rules for changing one’s gender marker on a driver’s license vary from state to state.  The National Center for Transgender Equality has a user-friendly resource in the form of a United States map that provides the current policies by state.

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Birthday Boy

 

Sixteen years ago today my life changed infinitely for the better because you came into this world. A beautiful, healthy, 9 pound 11 ounce baby who has taught me more about life and the definition of goodness, than any other person, book or school ever could, and for that I will be eternally grateful.

Because of you…I have learned what it means to be true to oneself, even when others do not understand.

Because of you…I have found courage I never knew I had, simply by following your lead.

Because of you…I have discovered that not all things are what they seem, that not everything is black or white, nor fits into the perfect boxes created by our society.

Because of you…I understand the importance of having a sense of humor (and have come to know laughter truly is the best medicine).

Because of you…I realize that I must let go of the things I cannot change, or at the very least change the way I look at them.

Because of you…I have discovered that good trumps bad every time…it just might take a while to witness.

Because of you…I will always choose the roller coaster over the merry-go-round.

Because of you my dear son…my heart swells with pride for all that you have accomplished, overcome and become.

Happy 16th Birthday Sam – I love you more than you will ever know.

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A Sister’s Point-of-View

Editor’s Note:  Sam’s little sister Josie, who is four years younger than him is a budding writer, not to mention one of his fiercest allies.  At age 11, she took it upon herself to write the following post so that Transparenthood readers could experience a sibling’s point-of-view firsthand.

“Josie!” I heard my name being called from Sam’s room. I ran down the hall to see what the problem was. “I’m being picked up for basketball, and mom is not here to put my hair in a ponytail! Help!” Sam pleaded.  I grew accustom to helping Sam with these things. When it came to hair I was the one taking care of Sam even though I was the little sister.  Looking back I really had no idea that I was the only sister. I had no idea that Sam was really a boy. I did think that it was odd that when we went shopping we would split up and go to different clothing departments of the store. I would fantasize about the pretty nail polish when Sam was thinking of men’s cologne. When we went to Target, Sam would look at the men’s deodorant as mom evaluated electric razors, trying to convince Sam to shave her legs.  I would always be asking girly questions to which Sam would shake her head and say, “I don’t know.” Hand me downs were usually a let down for me. Mom would clean out Sam’s closet in the spring and give me a bag overflowing with clothes that Sam had outgrown. I would look over all of them but was always disappointed. Inside were always boy shirts that were boy colors and were usually souvenirs from some place that we traveled to as a family or would have some sort of sports team mascot on them.  Not exactly what I would consider girl’s fashion.

“Why is your sister wearing boy’s clothes?”  Questions from my classmates were the worst part for me, especially when Sam started to transition. After we began to use male pronouns, more and more questions would come about. When I thought that I couldn’t take it anymore I decided to tell my best friend.

“Casey, you know my sister right?” I could feel my heart pound out of my chest.  I didn’t know what the reaction would be when I said that Sam was transgender. “Well she’s a boy. Sam is transgender and she is becoming a male.” I closed my eyes and then opened them to a smile. “That’s cool,” she said, and then skipped off to class. When I shared that experience with my mom she first asked how Casey reacted. “She was cool about it,” I said. As soon as the words escaped my mouth I could see a sigh of relief flush over my mother’s face.

I would never learn from my older sister how to do my hair or makeup, especially now that I have a brother and not a sister. The sister that was supposed to teach me girl things and to uncover the secrets of the world for me was never really there to begin with. But we are happy together as a brother and sister and I feel lucky to have such a good role model no matter what gender he is.

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Bedecked

Editor’s Note:  A special thanks to Victoria Redel for allowing me to share her beautiful poem, which I am sure will tug at the heartstrings of parents far and wide.  Touchingly penned, her words capture what many of us have experienced raising our brave children.

Bedecked

Tell me it’s wrong the scarlet nails my son sports or the toy store rings he clusters four jewels to each finger.

He’s bedecked.  I see the other mothers looking at the star choker, the rhinestone strand he fastens over a sock.

Sometimes I help him find sparkle clip-ons when he says sticker earrings look too fake.

Tell me I should teach him it’s wrong to love the glitter that a boy’s only a boy who’d love a truck with a remote that revs, battery slamming into corners or Hot Wheels loop-de-looping off tracks into the tub.

Then tell me it’s fine – really – maybe even a good thing – a boy who’s got some girl to him, and I’m right for the days he wears a pink shirt on the seesaw in the park.

Tell me what you need to tell me but keep far away from my son who still loves a beautiful thing not for what it means – this way or that – but for the way facets set off prisms and prisms spin up everywhere and from his own jeweled body he’s cast rainbows – made every shining true color.

Now try to tell me – man or woman – your heart was ever once that brave.

 

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Facing Fear…And Having Dinner With Him

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.

 

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