Editor’s Note: The following essay was written by my dear friend, Melissa McLaren, who is the parent of beautiful twins. She perfectly captures many of the feelings we experience as parents, as we move forward on this journey with children who are gender non-conforming. Follow this link to her new blog, Nonconforming Mom.
Moving to a new state is incredibly stressful. I don’t care who you are. Even with the best case scenario of someone coming to pack up your stuff, put it on the truck, and unload it for you (which is amazing, by the way) it’s super stressful. There’s the process of finding a new place (rent or buy?), figuring out where the essentials are (every mom needs a place where she can take two hours to ‘get a gallon of milk’), possibly finding a new job for one or both of you, and adjusting to the community culture in your new neighborhood. When you have school age kids, the added dimension of finding an area with a good school just adds another layer of fun. When one of your children is transgender the prospect of moving becomes a nausea-inducing nightmare.
My husband has a job with a fairly mobile company. He isn’t required to move around but it can be a fun perk. My kids have built tunnels under feet of snow and they are currently digging sandcastles and learning how to avoid jellyfish. We love that we’ve given them these opportunities, which weren’t available in the state of their birth. But, as we move forward with our family and our lives, I’m feeling the call to return to my roots where we have the love and support from our families as we head into the often-troublesome teenage years. For us, those years will include medications to suppress my child’s natural hormones and eventually, to give her the cross-gender hormones to avoid secondary male characteristics such as facial hair and a deep voice. My daughter is already an emotional drama queen so the idea of giving her estrogen, frankly, has us fleeing to our families to help with what I’m sure will be an adventurous journey. In my head, I picture my little girl, eyes in a perpetual roll, with a curling iron in one hand and her brother in a chokehold with the other. I’ve heard the stories of the teenage years from friends with daughters. I was a hormonal, disgruntled, emotionally distant teenager once too. Not to mention that we have her twin brother to contend with though his induction into the teen years has me much less stressed. Maybe that’s a huge oversight on my part. I’ll have to get back to you on that in a few years.
As we tentatively start the process of moving to another part of the country (again) there are several factors to consider. When you are the parent of a transgender child your first concern is schools. Maybe that’s how it is for parents of gender conforming children but I bet our reasons are way different. While I care about the quality of the education my child is going to get (and I do, I have a doctorate and plan to be a lifelong university geek), my immediate concern is if the school has policies that protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender children and what does that actually mean to them? Can my daughter use the girl’s bathroom? Will they use her preferred pronouns? What will they do when she starts telling classmates that she’s transgender? Because she absolutely will. Do they have a strict anti-bullying policy that includes LGBT issues? Beyond the policies, is this type of school where she’ll be accepted, not just tolerated?
Not only will I have to scour the internet to try and find this information on school websites, I will have to call to see if schools have a counselor that is familiar with and comfortable having a transgender student on their roster. I’ll call out to the parents of transgender children in the area to find out what the REAL story is as far as bullying and acceptance. And, when the day arrives to sign them up, I’ll cut off the circulation to my husband’s fingers as I clench his hand until I can personally gauge their reaction.
At our current school, when I let them know that our daughter was transgender, the receptionist didn’t even bat an eyelash before patting my hand and telling me that it wouldn’t be an issue at all for the school. When I burst into tears with relief and actually got lightheaded and had to sit down, she handed me tissues and shared a story of acceptance to calm me down. Then, we all started singing Kumbayah in a circle. Well, not that last part. But, our story isn’t like a lot of others. We’ve been really lucky so far-really lucky. A tiny part of that is due to researching the schools, but most of that has been dumb luck and what I hope is the changing tide of acceptance we are seeing towards LGBT youth.
Once we’ve established that a school sounds like a safe and enriching environment, then we can look at academics. My other child is in a gifted program and has ADHD. He does best with a challenging academic course and a teacher who is willing to work with him on days when medication isn’t quite cutting it. So, finding a school to balance both of their needs is exhausting and often leads to popping antacids, ingesting questionable amounts of wine, and trying to talk myself out of panic attacks. And truly, you can do all the research, phone calls, and meet and greets and still end up in a bad situation. We’ve avoided it, but I know so many parents that haven’t.
This time, because we’re moving back to family, we’re looking to actually settle down. That’s been an almost mythical word in our household vernacular associated with buying a house, painting some walls, maybe even-gasp-buying a tree or something. So, the stakes in finding a good school system are even higher. We’ve avoided buying a house because we’ve wanted to remain easily mobile. But, times, they are a changing. And this mom is ready to plunk it down for a while. If I can get beyond the trauma of finding a school, then we can move on to the fun of finding a house. For us, this means trying to find an area where the neighborhood culture will be accepting of our family. I’m hoping a realtor can be of use in that regard because the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘crunchy’ don’t show up on Zillow’s search engine.
Maybe I sound like a psycho control-freak mom. But, with the statistics telling me that 41% of the transgender community has attempted suicide* (not just thought about it, but attempted it) I know that we need to surround our daughter with an environment that is loving and supportive of her.
My middle and high school years seemed pretty average and there’s no amount of money you could pay me to go back. As a matter of fact, one of my favorite aspects of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the series) is that her high school was on something called a hellmouth. Literally, high school was the mouth of hell. I think many of us can relate to that. And, yes. I just referenced Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You wish you were as cool as me.
Many of my friends have needed to move their child from their school to a safer environment. Some have found more accepting schools. Others have chosen to home school. I have to believe that the flood of states accepting gay marriage and the increased recognition of gender nonconformity in our population is leading towards overall acceptance. But, I’m also realistic. I’ve been in rooms where people used derogatory language about the LGBT community in my presence with the knowledge of our family situation. I know that anti-bullying is not the same as accepting. I know that a group of girls may not bully my daughter, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll let her into their clique. I wish my daughter was the type to be able to disregard the feelings of her peers with an indifferent toss of her little blond head. But, my daughter is fully aware with every cell in her body that she is different. She already feels apart from them. Different. She desperately wants love and acceptance from her peer group. She wants to fit in.
And, while I can do all the research, make all the phone calls, and prepare her in the best ways possible, it comes down to our culture as a nation, as a community, to love and accept those who are different from us. And I can tell you that it starts at home. Have the conversations with your kids about kindness towards others. Show them through your example. And, if a gender non-conforming child ends up in your kid’s classroom please reach out to that parent and let them know that you are accepting. Give them an encouraging word. Offer a play date. Encourage your child to be friendly. And if your child ends up being friends with one of mine, I can assure you that they will have forged a bond with two siblings who are fiercely loyal and protective of their allies. And, truly, you’ll have the undying appreciation from an over-stressed mother.
*National Transgender Discrimination Survey Report on Health and Health Care. 2010. Grant et al.