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 Timesunion.com, 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.

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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 | 5 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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