All That Glitters Isn’t Pink

Editor’s Note:  A heartfelt thank you to Sandra Collins, for allowing Transparenthood to feature her essay, “All That Glitters Isn’t Pink.”  Originally written for Gender Spectrum, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing education, training and support to help create gender sensitive and inclusive environments for children of all ages, this essay sheds some light on what the holidays can be like for families with gender-expansive children. Sandra is the Executive Director and Founder of Bay Area Rainbow Day Camp and an 
Assistant Professor, California State University, Chico.

The maple tree in our front yard is losing its leaves; from green, to on-fire-red-to orange, they have been falling to the ground yellow. It signals that it is now the season of fall for my family in snowflakeBerkeley, CA.  

As soon as the sugar rush of Halloween has passed, the slow dull ache of anticipating the holidays begins.

Usually, the holidays for most families is meant to be a joyous occasion, a time of family traditions and a time of family gatherings. When you have a Gender-expansive child, however, it can be complicated. We have three children, two cis-gender teenagers and our youngest is a six-year old transgender girl who socially transitioned last year. She has been gender-expansive since she was two years old, wearing pink and primarily girls clothing. Her gender expression was a girl although she was born a biological boy. She did not identify as a girl until last year when she informed us that she was indeed a girl.

That has meant that for four years our family holidays have been tense to say the least. We allowed our child at the time to dress increasingly in pink. At first it was a small tutu, which expanded into a tutu plus a pink top, which became a girl’s hand-me-down dress from a neighbor, which then morphed into buying a red holiday dress with silver sparkles from Target. Now he is a she, and she has chosen a new girl’s name for herself. Gender expression has become Gender identity. Did I say it was confusing for the grandparents?

Both sides of the families were very vocal in their disapproval. Both grandfathers teased her and would say “Surely, you are going to start dressing like a boy now that you are a big boy now, right?” This continued numerous times when they visited throughout the year when we saw them at age 2, 3, and 4. And the identity switch? Oy!

At home and alone with my husband, I was an activist, a roaring and protective mama bear, angry and fierce. We prepared a letter guided by Gender Spectrum’s template and printed it out. But as soon as a grandparent (mine or my husband’s) would enter the picture, my resolve would melt. I felt unsure and tentative. Their intent wasn’t to shame, and it wasn’t so aggressive. I could see their love for my child, and I felt strange if I called them out on their bias when they were interacting with their grandchild, because they were obviously having fun together. At times their micro-aggressions were hard to call out when my own child didn’t read them.

We were in conflict about being a good daughter and son to our parents and being a good mother and father to our child. We weren’t sure about how to navigate educating an older generation about gender identity and expression and whether they were going to really listen about their grandson who was transitioning into a granddaughter.

Over the years, they bought boy’s clothes for Christmas that were obviously meant to counter all the pink dresses in which we had begun to dress their grandson. They were beautiful boy’s designer clothes. But they were a denial of who their grandchild authentically was.

I felt hurt. My daughter was wounded as well. She said, “Mom, these are poo-poo colors. I don’t like them. I’m never wearing them.” We accepted the inappropriate gifts with smiles and re-gifted them or donated them to charity. There were many unsolicited comments and advice given to help us convert their grandchild back to a boy. “Can’t you just make him wear boy’s clothes?” Or, “Why is it so hard to make him wear blue?” And yet that boy had already begun his gender journey to a girl so many years earlier. The color blue was the least of it. How did I explain to them that it was less about colors than about gender identity?

My mother, a devout Buddhist, had told me about the three Buddhist truths: the truth that can be heard, that is kind and that is timely. I talked with her about Scarlett’s evolving gender identity, and my mom became a strong ally who began to work on my father. She told me that when I was young, I had wanted to be a Power Ranger, and I had only played with the neighbor boys since I was a tomboy. She said she even made me a paper penis to wear around the house so that I could explore my own sense of wanting to be a tough tomboy who played with the neighbor boys. I knew that if I had my own gender history that had a “forgotten” gender expression of being a masculine girl, then I could also help advocate for my daughter as well.

She gave me permission to break free of needing to think of their feelings and to concentrate on my child. I knew from then on that it was the most precious gift she could have given me that year, and it was one that hasn’t stopped reverberating in my heart. It was the gift to parent a gender expansive child: to listen and to follow my child’s lead.

In her infinite wisdom, my child had figured it all out, and she announced that she was in fact a transgender girl at the age of 5. We have been following her lead ever since. Given the bravery that it takes to articulate this type of gender identity at such a tender age, both sets of grandparents now understand it. It’s been a year since she transitioned but four since her gender expression, and it’s been consistent, persistent and insistent. They no longer ask about dressing in blue. In fact, they buy girl’s dresses for presents. Happily.

It isn’t easy navigating the holidays with family when you have a gender-expansive child, but it can be done. This is what I have slowly realized as I fumbled through our daughter’s transition. You have a relationship with your parents and they have a relationship with your child. It needs to be kind and respectful. As long as it is good, as theirs was with our child (all of our conversations were always away from my daughter) I would allow the relationship. I know that I am lucky. I have friends who have had to cut their ties with family because their parents commented directly to their children in ways that were shaming and unkind. I feel for my friends, and I know they sought the help of mental health therapists, counselors or religious counsel to help them.

My advice is to be kind to yourself, your child and to your family during the holidays. It isn’t easy to learn about gender expression and identity, but it is possible. I think about the three Buddhist truths – can your comments be heard? Are they kind? Are they timely? These are three ways to gauge whether telling someone about gender expansiveness in gentle ways can be heard in kind and timely ways about a loved one during an emotionally charged time of year. I think of small steps, the phrasing “Have you considered…” and less of lectures and of shaming. If not, we chose to smile to keep the familial bonds strong.

It was our daughter’s conviction of her identity, a strong testament to her authenticity, which ultimately won over her grandparents’ hearts. She proved to them through her authenticity that she is who she is. Ultimately, the most important person to focus on is your child. After the initial sheen of (pink) glitter, the gift that I return to is the one my mother gave to me which is to protect our children by listening and following their lead.

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A Mother’s View From The Sidelines

I should have known before I pulled into the parking lot of the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) that what was innocuously being billed as a workshop session was going to be anything but ordinary. Arriving hsSportsthirty minutes early, every parking space was taken and news vans from all the local television stations circled the perimeter of the building. With their satellite poles extended to the sky, the mobile command centers vied for air space to transmit footage once they captured the perfect sound bite, optimally in time for the 5 o’clock news.

On this day, the MSHSL Board of Directors had invited the public to offer input on a proposal they had developed that would allow transgender students to compete on the teams of their affirmed gender. As a quasi-governing body, the MSHSL provides leadership and support in the areas of athletics and fine arts to member schools, which number around 500 within the state. And the proposal, while supported by many in the conference room in which we had gathered, had raised the ire of other attendees, and by God (literally and figuratively), they were going to make sure the Board and everyone else knew it.

Proponents of the policy lulled me into a false sense of security as many of them had the opportunity to speak first. Devoted mothers shared that their transgender children were just like any other student with the same dreams of fitting in and participating on school teams. A top administrator from the St. Paul Public Schools confidently conveyed that his district supported the policy 100%, and affirmed that statement by concluding, “…we welcome our students to bring their whole selves to school every day.” Lawyers proactively argued that the proposal was a compliment to Title IX federal legislation and reminded the board that the NCAA along with 32 other states already had adopted similar policies.

A sociology teacher told the Board that he rode his bicycle 25 miles in the rain to address them because, as someone who worked with teens, he could attest to how badly this proposal was needed. Looking directly at the opponents, many of whom wore buttons representing their feelings of disdain, he asked if any of them had ever met a transgender person and as their eyes diverted his gaze he challenged them to do so.

When a high school student began speaking they (the student’s preferred pronoun) openly wept sharing how much they missed playing basketball. As heartbreaking as that student’s testimony was, equally upsetting was the indifference displayed by the proposal’s opponents. With straight faces they sat unmoved as the child sobbed uncontrollably and with a quivering voice bravely bared their soul so that the Board could understand the magnitude of the decision before them.

As the mother of a transgender child I was encouraged by these supporters’ remarks, believing they resoundingly made the case for the adoption of the proposal, but then came the onslaught of speeches that would suggest otherwise to the Board. I sat in stunned silence as one-by-one our opponents took center stage to weigh in on the subject.

Many hid behind bible verses, one man going so far as to suggest that the proposal, if passed, would contribute to the moral rot of our society. Some parents screamed ‘foul’ because their daughters could lose out on scholarships if transgender females were allowed to be their teammates. And then there were those in the torch-and-pitchfork crowd that took a maneuver directly from the fear monger’s playbook, by bringing up showers and locker rooms, just the thought of which, they knew, would strike terror into the psyche of the uninformed.

Their testimonies were misguided at best, and at worst deliberately divisive. Most demonstrated a clear confusion between gender and sexuality. But the argument made by a woman who came bearing visual aids was what I found most troubling, dehumanizing and pathetic. Placing a gallon-sized glass jar filled with beans on the table, she explained to the Board that the jar represented the 99% of students who are cisgender, while a second, 12-ounce jar on the same table containing just one bean, signified the transgender student population. A population, she maintained, so small that it did not warrant the costs associated with the implementation of this policy. I felt nauseous as the meaning behind her hollow words became clear…put simply, transgender students do not matter.

My son always dreamed of competing on the boy’s football and baseball teams for his school, but knew that would never be an option for him. While his fellow students were trying out for the teams, he sat quietly on the sidelines, feeling more and more isolated and invisible with each passing year.   Without an official policy in place, we did not feel he could safely try out for the boy’s teams without experiencing serious physical and mental repercussions – repercussions that would extend into the classroom. Back then we operated under the mantra, “Choose your battles,” and this was a battle we, as a family, did not have the internal fortitude to endure.

Participating on a high school team of one’s affirmed gender should not have to be viewed as a battle to overcome. My son never had the chance to experience the camaraderie of a team sport…to learn those life lessons that can only come from sharing the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat side-by-side with young men who have a mutual passion for a sport. It is our hope that with the passage of this proposal, kids who follow in his footsteps won’t have to face this discrimination. Voting to pass this proposal is the right thing to do and we hope the MSHSL Board comes to that conclusion. By doing so, they will show our State and the entire nation that Minnesota high school sports are inclusive, and that every student is welcome and respected.   Oh yeah, and that the opinion of people who would deny any child the same rights as his peers isn’t worth a hill (or jar full) of beans.

Editor’s Note: This essay first appeared on VillageQ.

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The Power of Language

Editor’s Note:  A 12th grade final assignment was the impetus for Sam to pen this moving essay that I am proud to share.  This marks the first of hopefully many essays Sam will contribute in this space to provide Transparenthood readers with a glimpse of what it has been like for him growing up transgender.

Heading off to debate camp, it did not really occur to me to worry about my safety as a transgender teenager staying in the dorms of a New England University for five weeks.  As with my previous two years of camp, I was assigned a room in the boy’s dorm — the world knew me as a 16 year-old young man from Minnesota starting his fourth year of debate and none of my fellow campers needed to know any thing more.  But this time was different: the quick peak that my mom and I took into the bathrooms to confirm there was enough shower privacy did little to prepare me for the emotional toll that my friend’s language would have on me.

Sticks and stones will break my bones but can words really hurt me?

On the second day, I was walking through the quaint, one-street downtown with my roommate, feeling relieved that we already seemed to be quite compatible.  Then he looked at me and said the unthinkable: “Man I was SO worried that I was going to get a gay roommate, I’m just so relieved that you aren’t gay.”  A rush of logic preceded my emotions rendering me silent as his bigoted words hung heavily in the air – silent so that I would have a safe place to sleep for the next thirty-four nights.  Then, I was ashamed that I didn’t stand up for what I believe in, for the rights of my family and friends, and for my own humanity.

Sticks and stones might break my bones but words will hurt me even more.

After orientation activities and dorm festivities, a group of eight guys from around the country, including me, effortlessly became a tight knit pack of friends.  We quickly formed an inseparable group that I am conflicted about to this day;  in a span of just a few days, I heard every one of those guys make gay slurs and jokes.  Every time I heard them, I felt as though they were hurling stones at my weakening armor.  I felt as though they were joking about me, and would hate me if they “found out.”  I knew that they respected me, but I was left to imagine their world tilting off its axis upon discovering my secret.  It took me a few weeks to even stand up to their homophobic language – if they are all using gay slurs, how could I stop them by myself while feeling personally victimized?

Sticks and stones could probably cut my skin but words will render me speechless.

When these guys started making intersex and transvestite jokes, I felt powerless and realized that their words affected me more because of the respect I otherwise had for them.  I lay awake at night and asked myself several questions over and over again: What would they think of me?  Could we be friends if they knew?  Without even knowing about me they made me feel weaker than ever before, as I did not have any power in their spaces.

Sticks and stones could sting for a little bit but words can take away my agency.

On the last night of camp, my roommate was telling me that he had to explain what LGBT was to his parents, “…there are gays, and lesbians, and bisexuals… and then there are transgenders.”  Continuing on with his story he said, “My mom was really confused about transgender people so I just said, ‘yeah there are freaks out there like that.’”  Half of me really just wanted to make him uncomfortable and tell him right then and there that I was transgender.  The other half of me wanted to get the hell out of there and never look back.  If it had not been the last night of camp, his words would have driven me to find a different place to sleep.

Reflecting now, I feel conflicted about being their friend.  They had complete power over me without knowing it because they made, what they thought to be, harmless comments, but in reality, they were comments that made me question my capacity for friendship going forward.  They made me question my capacity to hold social positions, and worst of all, they made me wonder about the power of my voice, as I felt like I was yelling for help on a deserted island.

Your sticks and stones will never hurt me, but your words hit me at my core, and they hit hard.

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The Shopping Trip

Tucked in the front pocket of my jeans was the list handwritten in purple ink, the color chosen specifically because it always made me feel better. A completely mundane list by anyone’s standards — the kind most shoppers entering Target that day might be carrying.  But mine was different for a reason no one would have ever guessed, and only a few people — mostly those who had walked in my shoes — might truly understand.

Toothpaste. Shampoo. Cat litter.  Storage containers. Paper towels. Laundry detergent.  The most basic of items, but in reality, five of these were decoys.  Diversions in the form of innocuous sundries, to convince me this excursion was not out of the ordinary; that what I was purchasing was routine.  But it wasn’t what I was buying that made this shopping trip seem so surreal.  It was the why.  The reason I was there was what pulled at my heartstrings as I grabbed the red cart with one rattling wheel and headed deliberately into the store.

Proceeding down the main aisle, the flashbacks began almost immediately.  Like a made-for-television-movie, each memory corresponding with a department of the store, the only thing missing being a melodramatic soundtrack to accompany the scenes playing at a dizzying pace in my head.  Passing child-size mannequins holding bedazzled miniature purses and wearing girl’s clothing in varying shades of pink, I swallow hard to dislodge the lump that has formed in my throat.  It was here, just a few years earlier, that I remember receiving some of the first clues from our gender nonconforming child, that there was a disconnect between her mind and body.  Simple conversations that always led to arguments followed by tears as Sam rejected wearing anything feminine the store had to offer.  “Boys don’t wear dresses,” she would explain matter-of-factly, while I tried in vain to convince my five year-old daughter otherwise.

Accelerating the pace to escape the discomfort the innocent attire elicited, I come upon racks of boy’s apparel.  The rough and tumble wear always a magnet for my little girl who knew she was really a boy.  “But I want Spiderman underpants,” her young voice echoed in my mind, the words evoking feelings of sadness even after all this time.  “Can I wear swim trunks like Dad this summer?” Sam would ask, holding the boy’s swimsuit bottoms up to her waist for me to approve. But that approval did not come easily.  Instead, I averted the gaze of those eager, puppy dog eyes, which accompanied her naïve requests to wear the boy’s clothes featuring footballs and hockey pucks- the only type of clothes that made this child feel whole.  Rationalizing it was my job to stand firm, to remind her she was really a girl.

Fast forward six years– after extensive research, and doctor’s visits and counseling sessions — I am now on a shopping trip that represents the start of a journey down a different path for my child, and the beginning of a new chapter for our family.  “Here in Aisle 22, of all places,” I laugh nervously to myself at how strangely funny that seems.  I am here to buy a container that will be used to store the last remnants of proof that our first child was born biologically female.  A hoarder by nature, all the mementos I had accumulated over the years were nothing but painful reminders to Sam that his mind and body did not match.  And it was time for them to go, or at least be hidden from view, as he began to truly live his life as a boy.

“Throw them all away,” Sam instructed, but I could not bear the thought of discarding my child’s history.  The Girl Scout Brownie vest adorned with Cookie Super Seller patches.  A framed birth announcement proudly proclaiming Samantha Carole’s arrival.  Sports trophies with girl figurines bouncing basketballs and holding bats.  Art projects emblazoned with her feminine given name, carefully created by tiny fingers wrapped around a favorite green crayon.  An “I’m The Big Sis,” tee shirt worn to the hospital on the day our second child was born.  And the photos…oh yes, the photos.  Gathering them from the fireplace mantel, taking them down from our refrigerator door, and removing them from all the nooks, crannies and bookshelves where they had resided throughout our home for the last ten years, probably hurt the most.  But I knew these artifacts needed to be packed away so that Sam’s true identity could not only survive, but also thrive.

“It’s hard to decide when you have this many options,” a young mother standing next to me amongst the sea of plastic containers offers, breaking my train of thought. A little girl no more than four years of age sits in her cart, tenderly holding a faded brown bear that has obviously been loved.  I smile and nod, remembering once more those early days of Sam’s childhood and I am suddenly overcome with a sense of relief.  Relief because I finally recognize this trip does not represent a loss, but rather another step in the direction we must travel together to help him become whole.  In that instant I understand the magnitude of his sense of self and my heart wells with pride knowing he has already achieved something many people will spend a lifetime trying to accomplish.  At about the same tender age as the child before me in that cart, Sam already knew who he was and has never wavered from being true to himself. Indeed, this was not a good-bye, but rather a long-awaited acknowledgement of the person my beautiful child has always been.  His whole life ahead of him, he will now continue on with his head held high and his family proudly by his side. As a parent, I could not wish for more.

 

Editor’s Note:  This essay was a finalist in the second annual Notes & Words Essay Contest and was chosen to be published in the upcoming anthology, Nothing But The Truth So Help Me God:  73 Women on Life’s Transitions, which will be in bookstores on May 3rd, 2014.


 

 

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Knock On Wood

I can’t remember exactly when it became my mantra, but somewhere along the line I abandoned all reason, turned my back on logic, and succumbed to superstition.  The kind of superstition learned on the playgrounds of my childhood, where chanting a particular phrase would make everything all better, or protect you from harm, depending on your situation.

“Circle, circle. Dot, dot. Now you have the cooties shot.”

If only it was that simple.

“Find a penny pick it up all the day you’ll have good luck.”

That one always seemed to work — as long as you found a penny.

As a mom of a transgender child, I found the need to reach deep into this medicine cabinet of protective sayings.  To rely upon the prescription strength that came with that simple, yet all-encompassing verbal immunization:  Knock on wood.

Learning that our child was transgender, I found myself transformed from a rational human being, to a mother fraught with worry. An all too common state of being, I quickly learned, for parents like me whose children knew at an unusually young age, that there was a disconnect between their mind and body.  And so I adopted that familiar incantation from my youth, using it on a daily basis as an insurance policy for the worries and fears I had for Sam that were accidently spoken out loud.

In the early days it went something like this…

I’ve read the research studies that have found less than 2% of gender variant kids actually grow up to be transgender.  What are the chances Sam will fall into that category?

Knock on wood.

Just because she insists on getting the boy’s Happy Meal toy doesn’t mean she really thinks she is a boy.

Knock on wood.

They didn’t intend to exclude Sam from the birthday party.  Those parents could not be that cruel to an eight year-old child, could they?

Knock on wood.

It doesn’t mean anything that she wants to wear boy’s Super Hero underpants.

Knock on wood.

Those classmates will eventually come around.  They can’t possibly bully and ostracize Sam forever.

Knock on wood.

I’m so tired of the stares and whispers.  We are going to send a letter to all of our friends and family explaining that our child is transgender.  Just think about it, what’s the worse thing that could happen?

Knock on wood.

And as Sam got older, there was a new set of concerns to ward off…

I’ve spoken with a lawyer familiar with Judge Rosenbloom and he said she is fair.  I know Sam is only 14 but I’m sure she’ll grant our petition for a name change from Samantha to Samuel.  How could she not?

Knock on wood.

Don’t worry honey, I’m confident the TSA agent won’t notice that the name on the passport is Samuel but the gender marker is still an ‘F.’

Knock on wood. 

I called ahead and found they have a unisex restroom on the third floor of the museum right behind the dinosaur exhibit.  If we confide in one of the field trip chaperones, I’m certain they will escort you there without the other kids finding out.

Knock on wood.

The full body security scanner at the airport can’t see everything, right?

Knock on wood.

We are headed back a second time.  There is no way we will get the same bigoted woman at the Social Security Administration who refused to change his gender marker after pointing to Sam’s crotch and asking if he had had surgery, “…down there.”

Knock on wood. 

He wouldn’t really try to kill himself, would he?

Knock on wood.

Yes, I suppose you could say these three little words have become my daily devotion.  A type of prayer for Agnostics like me to recite when ordinary situations most people take for granted become challenging.  Common events such as being invited to birthday parties, using public restrooms and making friends, that don’t come easily for my son Sam, merely because his mind and biology don’t match.  And so for what it is worth, I will continue uttering these words while at the same time tapping on the nearest piece of lumber (often times that being my head).  Because I know in my heart that if I keep repeating this phrase, all of my worries and fears for my beautiful child will never come to be.

Knock on wood.

Editor’s Note: I was honored to have this piece chosen to be a part of The Naked I: Insides Out play that was produced by 20% Theatre Company Twin Cities.  The world premiere on February 13, 2014 featured contributions by over 75 queer, transgender and allied artists.  A treasure of the arts not only in Minneapolis and St. Paul, but also nationwide, the 20% Theatre Company is committed to supporting and vigorously promoting the work of female and transgender theatre artists, and celebrating the unique contribution of those people to social justice and human rights.

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