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.



Posted in Guest Bloggers | 16 Comments

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. 

Posted in Medical | 9 Comments

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, 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.

Posted in Guest Bloggers | 4 Comments

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.


Posted in School Days | 2 Comments

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:

Posted in Spreading Awareness | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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.

Posted in Guest Bloggers | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Legal Documents | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments