Giving Birth to a Unicorn: When Your Child Comes Out as Transgender
I thought I was liberal. I thought I'd evolved from the person I was in my youth: conservative, religious, and specific to this post, a hater of gays and lesbians.
It's been a long and frequently shameful road to the person I am now (or the person I thought I was now). The person I am now truly believed that I was a good person, a someone who accepted the LGBT community wholeheartedly.
I mean, I sign petitions, I cheer when a state legalizes gay marriage, I shake my head in sadness while listening to NPR reports about hate crimes, I raise the children to abhor prejudice, to accept all. I talk to them about gay people: They're not hurting, converting or waging war on anyone; they just want to be treated with equality, to love, to live and let live, I preach. Hearts not parts, I parrot to them. When I repeat a news story about a gay teen being bullied at school, the kids are shocked that anyone in this day and age would give a damn about alternate sexuality. It truly isn't an issue for my teens. Like many of the kids their age, they view the LGBT issues as a done deal; the battle's over, why are we still talking about it? We accept them, enough lecturing, move along already. It makes me so happy. It gives me hope and I love that. I feel so helpless and angry lately with politics and religion and the are-you-kidding-me-with-this-endless-nightmare of an economy. When I think of the kids and their genuinely accepting life philosophies, it warms me to the bottom of my cynical toes, it really does.
Does this generational lovefest sound too cozy and smug? I hope not. I'm being as sincere as I've ever been in my life. I care about this issue. Letting go of my upbringing, my prejudices, has been a work in progress. I get reminded of my limitations often. I still I have wake up calls like a wet washcloth being slapped on my face, the shock of my habits and prejudices hitting me with their cold, uncomfortable weight. But I do try, and I do care. I guess I figured that was enough for a vanilla hetero. I'm on the right road, moving forward, that's the important thing, I tell myself.
Cue the screeching record sound, right about now -- because it turns out I'm much, much, MUCH more limited, more prejudiced than I ever imaged myself to be.
To wit: My firstborn, my daughter, has told me she is a gay boy trapped in a girl's body. She tells me she has felt wrong her whole life. She says she is a trans man (she's twenty).
This revelation was in a therapists office, and I feel I handled the initial news quite well. Inside Me was reeling as if someone had swung a bag of bricks at my head. Outside Me told my child I loved her, that I'd always love her, that our family didn't work without her, that none of that was going to change. We left the office together and got ice cream from the shop next door. I was keenly aware that everything I did and said was enormously important, at that moment and in years to follow. We both don't actually like ice cream, but the shop felt like a lifeline of normalcy and it felt like we both needed it, frankly.
I remember that everything felt quiet, like a bomb had gone off and damaged my hearing. The store music seemed to be coming from far away, the customers seemed weirdly two dimensional. I remember my child smiling. I remember she seemed more limber, more relaxed than she'd been in a while. She went home and texted friends in her college LGTB club, smiling as she typed. I remember that she'd told me she was in the group as "straight support." I don't remember anything more, even though that night was only a few months ago.
And then we went about the small details of our life as if nothing had happened. I still kissed her goodnight, we still watched TV in the evening, we still talked about school and movies and friends. We didn't talk about the purple elephant in the room. The more time that passed, the less I accepted it. I'd lie in bed at night and say "boy, boy, boy, son, son, son" and weep. I'd remind myself that I was evolved, that I didn't let outdated religious dogmas dictate my life and mind, and I'd weep again. This didn't feel like a LGBT problem, a social issue; this felt like my child had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. The daughter I've loved forever was going to leave me forever.
Her gender was inextricably part of HER, dammit. Her, not him. She loves animals more than anyone you've ever met (no exaggeration), she loves nature and fairytales and art and the color pink. Oh, how she loves pink. She painted her room bright, in your face pink, she constantly wears bright, in your face pink lipstick. She grew up saying that she had no patience for modern girls who shun pink. Pink is more of a life-is-beautiful philosophy, for her. She is petite and slender but has unusually lovely curves that a Victoria's Secret model would envy. She has longer eyelashes than most women with mascara, high, rounded cheekbones, and pretty, bee-stung, rosebud lips that have been envied and commented upon since birth. She likes yoga and tennis and finds other sports unfathomable and unlikable. I know how this "girls are pink and boys are blue" sounds. I do. I tried so hard to leave behind the sexism and gender roles of my conservative youth, to buy toolkits and little cars, along with stuffed animals and dolls for Christmas, but her entire childhood has been so damn pink. She required it, she directed it until it was as pink as she saw fit.
Needless to say, when my pink girl says she's a pink boy (her words), I didn't understand.
I understand when a gay man says he loves another man. I understand when a woman says she loves another woman. I understand when a bisexual says they love both sexes equally. Dammit, I DO. But I have never let my mind linger, for more than a confused moment or two, on the idea of transsexualism. I know what the 'T' stands for in LGBT, I just didn't realize I had built a wall around that letter; a wall with bricks and barbed wire and two by fours nailed over the window. In my mind it was so rare, so unique, that it was a unicorn. Why would I dwell on it? It didn't exist, at least not in my little world.
Life is funny. It turns out that I've given birth to a unicorn.
I hit that barricaded wall in my mind but hard, and after the little birdies stopped circling around my head, I tried to ask questions. So many questions, and none of them made their way out of my tear-clogged throat. I'd begin to ask something, but would have to turn my back and fuss with the dishes or the fridge or pretend to be engrossed in something outside, while I turned the question into something mundane as I got myself under control. I'd spend night after endless night looking up support groups, information, medical studies, psychiatric advice, something, anything to re-calibrate the blurry shock that I couldn't shake from my mind.
She's a girl. She's a boy. She's my daughter. She's my son. I tried to shape the words while weeping in the shower. I realized I was saying it wrong: he's my son, I'd practice. He, he, he, HE, HE, HE, why can't I say HE? I couldn't. I still can't.
I'm failing my child. That's what I try to say now, my child, not my daughter. I'm failing my child. I'm not doing this right, I'm not doing it well, I'm not doing it fast enough.
Ironically enough, the entire reason I started on a different path, the path of trying to embrace and accept LGBT people, is because of this child. I'd been raised to believe that AIDS was a condemnation and curse alike for gay people. That they were not just sick, they were bad. That they proselytized and campaigned in a twisted attempt to convert us straights. That they went to darkest, deepest hell. I'd been raised by mostly loving parents and community who believed this wholesale, and I didn't see any need to question it.
Until I got pregnant with my first baby. I was about six months pregnant, and watching a movie called Twilight of the Golds. It was about a family with two grown children, a gay son and a straight, pregnant daughter who was married to a scientist who has come up with a way to genetically test for the gay gene. The family is more or less accepting of the son, but regards the possibility of a gay baby with horror, and encourages her to do the test so she can terminate the pregnancy if it tests positive.
Looking back, I realize it's a remarkably average movie. It's well-acted, if not terribly well-written, but it literally changed my life. I remember looking down at my belly toward the end of the film and thinking, I don't care if you're gay or not, little one. I also remember thinking, I'll kill anyone who hurts you, I mean it, I'll absolutely destroy them. And then I thought, huh, how about that. Those thoughts and feelings were absolutely unprecedented in my fenced in mind. It was probably the first and last time I changed a deeply held belief system literally overnight. I had my bigotry in one hand and the life of my child in the other, and it was no contest. It doesn't sound like much now, but it was earth shattering, then.
Like I said, ironic. I promised my child that sexual orientation wouldn't matter, I promised I'd protect her from anyone hurting her, and I'm falling short on both commitments. She changed everything then, and she's changed everything again. I managed the change, then, just fine. I'm not managing nearly so well, now.
I've heard so many Coming Out stories, from heartwarming to heartbreaking, and when I'd hear of parents kicking children out, disowning them, putting them in re-orientation camps, I'd think to myself, never, I'd never do that, ever. It was settled, then. In my mind, I'd open my arms, my heart, my home to my gay child and their friends. My home would be safe, welcoming, above all, accepting. But I knew I'd never have that moment, because my daughters have been utterly crazy about boys from almost birth. My parental reaction to Coming Out would remain out of the game, so to speak, sideline support for my children's friends; cheering on the positive stories, giving them a reliable place to vent outrage and sorrow for the bad ones.
I'm in the game now. I'm kicking my cleats against the bench, trying to figure out the rules, itching in my ill-fitting uniform, watching some of the parents play gracefully, skillfully, joyfully. For myself, I'm a complete absence of grace, skill, and joy. I can no longer watch and admire as others do hard and important work. I'm sickeningly afraid but I have to step up. To say that I'm afraid of failing is laughable understatement. For this specific child, this matters almost more than anything I've ever done, as a mother and as a human being.
I'm trying to understand how a body might not fit a brain, how a soul can wander as lost as a ghost, wanting so terribly to fit in the right set of skin and bones but never succeeding, haunting themselves forever. I'm trying to imagine life as an endless, tragic Freaky Friday. I'm questioning why I can accept the most outlandish, fantastical combinations of hearts and minds and bodies in the scifi and fantasy novels I adore, and yet I can't stretch my mind enough to call a daughter a son. When she points to herself and says, this isn't me, my mind reels. Of course it's you, I want to say. I look at myself and try to imagine not fitting, not feeling right. It doesn't work, I identify too strongly as female. I've never been particularly delighted with the specific characteristics of my body, but never have I felt wrong. I keep coming up against my bigotry, my limitations, time and again, because I just cannot grab hold of my mind and stretch it enough to fit this new world of wrong bodies. How can you feel like a boy, if you're a girl? I try, and I fail. Idiot, I tell myself. The way you think and feel isn't The End All Be All Guidebook for How People Should Be. I try again. It doesn't work, again.
I ask myself if I would have been disappointed if I'd had a baby boy. My knee-jerk denial has a hollow ring to it. The fact is, I was thrilled that my first-born was a girl. Having a newborn felt like the most remarkable Christmas gift ever; having a girl felt like every holiday rolled into one. When my second child was a girl as well, I was equally thrilled. I have loved having daughters more than words can say. When I hear people complain about the difficulties of raising girls, I always keep my own counsel, because speaking for myself, I consider the pros to so far outweigh the cons that it isn't even worth the time listing them. But, I ask myself if I'm actually having a problem with the idea of loving a son, and it isn't that I have a problem with it, I don't think I do, I just have no experience with it. Especially a gay son. An incredibly feminine, sensitive, artistic, delicate gay son. It is completely beyond me, I have no context for this.
Lately I find myself feeling resentful toward families with "just gay" (I know) kids. Why the hell isn't my kid "just gay," I fume (I know, I know, it sounds terrible). I could deal with that so happily, so easily. No scary body modification, no new names, no different pronouns. Why can't I have that, I grieve. Why?
I finally started asking questions a couple of weeks ago, when I felt I could get the words out. I wobbled, but I didn't cry, thank goodness, and I asked about surgery, hormones, pronouns, whether to tell extended (extremely religious) family; I asked question after question after question.
Because my child is still the remarkably kind, patient human that they've always been, they were patient, and understanding. Godallmighty, were they understanding. When I said it feels wrong to say he, it upsets me that you're looking for a new name, I'm trying to get my head around this but it's harder than I would have ever believed, they were kind. I said, it's like you can see colors that I can't and because you can see them, I'm supposed to see them, too, but I just can't. I told them that I find it incomprehensible that they not only identify as a male, but a gay male. They tried to explain the difference between gender and sexuality, and they were kind about my ignorance. They then said, don't worry about pronouns. Other trans people get upset about them, but it's okay, this is new. You're okay, they said. I said, when I think of you, I think of a girl, to stop that thinking makes me feel like you're leaving me, that the girl is dead and gone. I'm here, they said. I'm here.
Do you see? She's taking care of me, when I should be taking care of her. I'm cold comfort, because all I can say is, I love you, but I'm struggling with this. My child keeps saying it's okay, mom, it's okay. No one in the entire universe ever had such a child full of light and love and endless, endless kindness.
I'm trying to be better than this. I'm trying to be as good as they are (I want to say, as good as she is, it sounds so right to me; I cannot, cannot say, as good as he is... maybe someday, but not now, not today). I owe this child, at the very least, equal patience, equal kindness. Saying "I love you" over and over is well and good, but when it's constantly followed by "but I'm having a hard time with this," yeah, not so lovely.
In a storm, you shelter under something solid, you hold on to permanent things. So I'm holding fast to what I do know, what I understand in my heart, my bones, my very skin: I love this person more than life. They've been a gift from day one, a treasure, an unexpected blessing beyond compare. There is nothing wrong with them, nothing lacking in them, the only lack is in me. I had a sea-change once before, I've got to believe I can do it again. I damn well will do it again. I'm going to get there, because the alternative is hurting my child, and I promised I wouldn't do that, twenty one years ago.
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