From Boy to Man: Hope for the Future

resized imageSo, for those of you who’ve been following my blog, CallHimHunter, you know that I have a transgender child. To be specific, my son, assigned female at birth, told me that “she was a he” about three and a half years ago. Since then, we’ve actively been supporting Hunter to enable him to successfully transition and live as male.

When he first came out to me I knew that I would support him and help him in any way that I could so he could be a happy, healthy, productive member of society. I wanted him to be his authentic self and to live in a way that would accomplish that. What I didn’t immediately embrace was the idea of medical intervention. I didn’t know anything about being transgender so the idea of hormone therapy was frightening, to say the least. The “surgery” conversation was not yet on the table but I knew that Hunter was not willing to live with his “girl” parts indefinitely.

I haven’t been one of those parents who spent any time grieving for a daughter who is gone or for what could have been. Sure, there are moments of feeling wistful; perhaps the sight of a photo from years back or the memory of my two girls playing together bring up feelings that I can’t do anything with. If anything, I feel so grateful that I have a teenager who is loving, confident, and outspoken and not ashamed to be who he is at the core of his being. It doesn’t get much better than that.

We’ve worked hard to get to this place. We’ve had a lot of support and cheer-leading from all over including some unexpected places. And, Hunter and I have somewhat of an unspoken agreement; we each do our part to help his transition along. For more than a year he has talked about “top” surgery*.

*This is the removal of breast tissue and the masculinization of his chest. It’s a necessary surgery for most trans-masculine people. And, it means no more binding. The long term effects of binding aren’t good and often leave trans guys with bruised ribs, inability to take deep breaths or exercise properly.

There were a lot of considerations. This was a big step in Hunter’s transition and deep down, I knew that if I dragged my feet at this point that I was just delaying the inevitable.  However, we needed to figure out how to pay for this (insurance was not going to cover any of it) and which top doc was the most affordable and closest geographically which would minimize travel expenses. Also, in terms of timing, this summer was ideal. He was too old to be a camper and having spent the last eight summers away at camp, he needed a distraction. Next summer he will be eligible to be a counselor and any school break didn’t seem long enough for a full recovery.

THE BIG DECISION

So, after going for a consultation back in February with Dr. Daniel Medalie (Cleveland Plastic Surgery), we committed to helping Hunter achieve his goal – finally having a male contoured chest that would allow him to go shirtless at the beach and really start to feel like a young man. When the surgeon’s summer schedule opened up we grabbed July 21 as The Day. The countdown began.

For Hunter, it seemed as if the day would never come. For me, it was coming too quickly. Then, one day in mid-June I received a call from the doctor’s office. It seemed we had overlooked a very important detail when we booked the surgery date. The Republican National Convention was scheduled to take place in Cleveland the week we were to be there. As an aside, the irony was not lost on me. Dr. Medalie’s secretary called letting us know that due to the RNC, there wasn’t a hotel room in sight. We could come and go on the same day and keep the surgery date or, we could reschedule for four days later.

Well, I don’t know about you, but driving back and forth (nearly eight hours in the car) in one day seemed exhausting and not practical. Not to mention the fact that on the way home we’d have a kid who just had major surgery. We could not predict how he would be feeling and it felt like a risky choice. Naturally, Hunter didn’t want to push the date off but we overruled the decision. We booked a new date and immediately checked hotels to be sure that we had overnight accommodations.

A FEW DAYS BEFORE SURGERY

I was a nervous wreck. All I could think about was “what if something goes horribly wrong?” I have spent the last 40+ months helping my child transition; supporting evolution from the daughter I thought I had to the son he was meant to be. I was terrified that I would lose him. There, I said it. I did not grieve the loss of a daughter; I celebrated this human being who was so brave and unique and complex. The thought of getting to this point and losing (my child) was more than I could bear. I played mind games. I pushed down hidden meaning and foreshadowing in every conversation, TV show and article. I was on the verge of falling apart.

JULY 25

Fast forward to the morning of the surgery. I am sitting in the hotel lobby waiting to head to the surgery center; I’m finishing my coffee and texting my friend (who became my lifeline at the very beginning of this journey and is one of the most level headed people I know) – I tell her how worried I am. I reveal to her that the idea of anesthesia is so frightening that I’m a basket case. She calmly tells me in her kind, ER doc voice via text, that I have nothing to worry about. That they “will watch him like a hawk.” This is what I needed; my emotions were spiraling out of control. I couldn’t let my neurosis get in the way of this momentous event for Hunter; he deserved this day and was entitled to my full support and as much positivity as I could muster.

ONE DAY POST-OP

I’m not sure where to begin. The mash-up of emotions is both overwhelming and affirming. Two days prior I couldn’t imagine this day; couldn’t let myself overcome the complexity of fear and apprehension. On this long awaited day, we revel in relief and I, once again, take on caregiver-in-chief. Hunter slept through the night which was a blessing for him and for me. Neither one of us had slept much the night before and we both needed some rest.

Because Hunter’s chest was covered with bandages and a compression vest we couldn’t see the surgical results. We just had to trust that the team performed their magic as anticipated; we would have to wait a few days to actually see the results.

THE BIG REVEAL

After being home for just a few days, we headed out early to make it back to Cleveland for a late morning post-op appointment. I am beyond excited for this. Hunter is tired, irritable and complaining of boredom from the backseat. One would think he would be jumping out of his skin with anticipation. Until now, all my energy has gone into getting Hunter to this point. The advocacy, the unconditional love, the blogging, the creation of Ally Moms, and the formation of Stand with Trans – it’s all been for him…and for all the Hunters out there in this world who need to know that they are who they are and that they matter.

Without fanfare, we are shown to the exam room by Mary, Dr. Medalie’s nurse. Almost immediately she begins to undo Hunter’s compression vest (worn to hold bandages in place and protect the stitches and delicately placed nipple grafts). Once the vest was open she gently removed each drainage tube. One big hurdle down. Then, ever so gently, Mary peeled back the surgical foam that was adhered to his chest guarding Dr. Medalie’s skilled craftsmanship. Finally, the sterile pads are lifted. And, just like that we are treated to the most beautiful sight; Hunter’s man-chest is revealed. I could feel the warmth of raw emotion envelope me as I blinked back tears of joy, love and relief for my son.  This marked a new beginning for my brave, powerful child who, under no uncertain circumstances, knows who he is.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Hunter is starting to talk about life after high school (senior year is coming up). He can now see himself having a future. He can see himself as an adult male making choices about family, career and life. Take a moment to think about this. Envisioning a future is a concept that most of us take for granted. For trans teens like Hunter, their dreams about a future are pretty laser focused on being able to live as their true selves. Until that can happen, any other conversation about life beyond the present, is nearly impossible.

For more resources and a list of surgeons, check out Stand with Trans.

You are enough

kindnessThis morning, as is my habit most mornings, I scroll through my Facebook feed while drinking my coffee. I love the “memories” feature. You just never know what will pop up from previous years. Often it’s an experience or a moment I’ve forgotten all about and when I see that photo or post, I’m brought right back to that day. Generally, the memories Facebook brings me are of happy times spent with people I care about. We are laughing. The kids are doing something silly. Our puppy was delighting in just being.

Today, the memory was a little different, but so very apropos. This was the message shared with me, “The best gift you are going to give someone — the permission to feel safe in their own skin. To feel worthy. To feel like they are enough.”

A couple of years ago I was invited to speak at a memorial service for a young transgender man whose life was cut way too short. I was honored to tell my story and to let people know that I was the parent of a trans teenager and an ally to the community.Following the program, a few people came up to me and introduced themselves. Each had some connection to the trans community either through family, friends or lived experiences.

Darnell Jones was one of the individuals who introduced himself that evening. He was a pharmacist; he offered consultations on hormone therapy to those who were considering hormone therapy in order to medically transition. Darnell was an active ally to a community who had gotten so used to judgement and the need to hide, he was seen as a self-less angel; one who could focus on and support any population he chose – but he chose the transgender community. He needed them as much as they needed him. Darnell never judged. He was full of love and acceptance, kindness and generosity. Today, Darnell Jones was laid to rest. Over the past year he struggled with the ravages of a disease that was more powerful than his will. He soldiered on for months, laying out plans and a foundation for his organization’s next steps, knowing he wouldn’t be here to see how it all played out.

Darnell gave people permission to “feel safe in their own skin.” He made everyone feel worthy and “like they are enough.”

By the way, Darnell was a black man. An educated man who preferred calculus over sports as a boy. A pharmacist who, after 30+ years of practicing his trade, was awarded with Pharmacist of the Year.

Today, the news of a young black man being murdered – a man with no record or a history of violent or criminal behavior — has haunted me. His four year old daughter watched him get shot to death. And, as if that wasn’t enough, her mother was handcuffed and the two were put into the back of a squad car. What if a young Darnell Jones was pulled over with a broken taillight? What if life was taken from a young, black, Darnell Jones? The transgender community would not be where it is here in Metropolitan Detroit. His children would never have know the love of someone whose practice was to love unconditionally without judgement, ever. What is Philando Castile’s daughter going to grow up with? What if his traffic stop ended with a warning to get his light fixed? How many lives might he have touched?

Hold your loved ones tight. Love without judgement. Parents — those who are struggling with the news that your child is transgender — I know you’re out there. You gave life to that child once; when you love no matter what, you give life a second time. Help your children feel like they are worthy, like they are enough.

Darnell, you will be missed. I hope I’ve learned enough from you to help carry on your legacy of kindness. Philando, I’m sorry.

Transitions and Milestones

graduationI had the honor and privilege the other night to see my friend’s oldest daughter graduate from high school. The graduate’s mom and I have been friends since my family moved from the town I grew up in to a suburb a few miles away. We didn’t have the perks of technology that today’s kids enjoy. In the mid- 70s, moving seven miles away from all that you knew was a big deal. I was not happy…ok, for real – I was miserable, lost, isolated and angry. I don’t think my parents had any sense of what I was going through. Did helicopter parents even exist back then?

(I’ll come back to these emotions)

The first friend I made at my new school was in Madame Hawley’s French class. Something just clicked. I was the “new girl,” the outsider. My new friend “belonged” but marched to her own drummer. She polished her nails in class, wrote letters to friends she’d met at camp (yes, she had stationary in her giant bag she toted around) and generally, did not participate in French class.

Over the years our friendship ebbed and flowed. We experienced life’s highs and lows together; weddings, births, deaths, milestone celebrations and more over the last 40+ years (YIKES). But, we’ve always found our way back to each other. At this point, the connections are familial and so important. So, for me, seeing her daughter graduate from a prestigious, college preparatory high school and overcome all the drama and heartache that often accompanies this time in one’s life, was so very special. Really, so much more so than when her mom and I received our diplomas.

As I sat in my cushioned theatre seat waiting for the commencement to begin, I became acutely aware of just how precious each and every moment is. There is no guarantee that we’ll see the next event or experience the next milestone. Life is short. Family time is THE MOST IMPORTANT TIME.

For the past two years I’ve read way too many stories about trans* people who commit suicide because of lack of acceptance, understanding and support. I’ve heard from transgender teens who are afraid to come out to their parents. These kids walk around miserable, lost, isolated and angry much of the time. If they’re lucky, they have someone who notices. It might be a parent. It might be a teacher. It might be a best friend. People who identify as a gender other than the one in which they were assigned at birth are at a disadvantage from the get-go. Their bodies and brains are out of alignment. For some, the answers are not clear cut. My son once revealed in an interview that he “was always the weird kid.” Imagine walking around every single day feeling like the odd man out? Imagine always feeling different; never feeling like you fit in?

This life we are given is a compilation of moments. We don’t know how many there are or if there is a next moment coming. Broken families need to seize this moment to pay attention. Open your hearts. Embrace your kid who is walking around feeling weird, different, angry and unloved. Find the kindness and empathy to help them along their journey. Help your child who is struggling so they can just be a kid rather than a kid who doesn’t belong.

If you know someone who needs help or resources related to transitioning because they identify as transgender, you might want to check out this page. Also, Ally Moms are here to help as well.

 

What if…?

no-hate-logoWhat if every family in the community were so accepting (of their transgender child)? No one had posed that question to me before. What if…?

I have often asked myself this, “What if we weren’t supportive and accepting?” I can tell you this much. Without our support and unconditional love, our son would not be able to function at a productive level. He would be angry all the time. He would feel worthless. He would feel shame.

What if every family, neighbor, co-worker, politician, friend and teacher could be open to possibilities? What if we all agreed that a kinder world would benefit all of us? What if that close-minded lawmaker decided to educate himself rather than swa­ddle himself in ignorance? He could teach his family to embrace, not to hate.

Over the last three years, my life and the lives of my family members have changed dramatically. When my younger child told me that “she was a he”­­ my world turned upside down, and not for the reasons you’d think. For a very long time, we had been parenting a child who was in hiding. Some of you know how difficult that is. Each day brings new challenges – you don’t know who will emerge each morning and how you will cope, motivate, discipline or love this irritable, angry, closed-off individual.

So, for me, when faced with the news that our son was transgender, I felt like we were finally going to have some answers. Suddenly, all the behaviors started to make sense. We just had to figure out how to get the appropriate support and find the best resources possible so our son could feel “whole.”

Fast-forward three years and we have a teen who is maturing into an articulate, confident young man. He is insightful and thoughtful; he recognizes the privilege he has within our community because he is able to transition from FtM with love and support and understanding. Around him, transgender teens are doing drugs, cutting and worse. Several high school students, in our area alone, committed suicide last year.

What if we turned our back on our son? What if we told him he couldn’t be trans* or that he couldn’t live as a male? And, what if those young people who took their own lives had received unconditional love and support from their parents, their communities, their teachers? What if we went out of our way to teach kindness and compassion rather than get in the way of human rights? What if we didn’t discriminate in order to protect our own fears and insecurities?

The youth we raise today will lead us into the future. What if we extend ourselves and give them the tools to be confident, self-assured, and inspired? My wish for anyone reading this is that you take some time to ponder the “what ifs;” think about the consequences and the outcomes of your actions.

What can you live with?


For resources and additional information visit StandwithTrans. If you would like to connect with a parent of a transgender individual, you can connect with an Ally Mom.

Parenting is Parenting

I’ve heard from a number of parents recently that their child is using the “transgender” card too often; they are using it to excuse behavior that we, as parents, would otherwise find unacceptable. Fortunately for us, our son has not tried that tactic. He does however, blame certain actions on “being a teenager.” Perhaps that holds a bit more validity; we all know that being a teenager is fraught with insecurities, hormonal surges and a perpetual lack of sleep.

Recently, I put my foot down. Too much was being blamed on this life stage. Regardless of where the blame is being placed, there is no excuse for rudeness, being unkind or blatant disregard for another human’s feelings.

Because transgender teens are often depressed and riddled with anxieties, parents are afraid of putting their foot down. They are afraid of upsetting the apple cart and feel that is they impose discipline, their child will cut or worse, attempt suicide. My view is that parenting is parenting. Our children rely on us for guidance and to be their compass when they’re spinning out of control. We are the beacon of light when they’re lost; the modicum of hope when all they’re feeling is despair.

From the beginning of our journey, I made it clear to my son that we still had house rules and expectations. We weren’t going to tolerate harmful, illegal or disrespectful behavior. Our love would never waiver nor would our obligations as parents.

I’m sure there are those who disagree with my approach. It may seem heavy handed or even lacking empathy. Naturally, we each need to do what works for our own family.

Whether you are living with a transgender child or observing from the outside, let me clarify something very important. This is a difficult journey. For someone who is transitioning from the gender assigned at birth to one they fully identify with, life is complicated and uncertain. Each day brings new challenges. Everyday activities that you or I might take for granted, often become a source of worry.

airline securityConsider going through airport security. None of us look forward to the potential pat-down; the random search performed by a TSA employee with an over inflated sense of importance. However, assuming you’re not hiding contraband or have no reason to avoid the scrutiny, the process is just an inconvenience. Now, think about a trans* person who presents as one gender but whose biological sex indicates a different gender. The casual passerby might never know or question if the gender expression aligns with physical sex. However, the body scanner at the airport can detect “body parts” that are seemingly at odds with the passenger’s outward appearance. Imagine how frightening this situation must be for a trans* traveler. Just the anticipation of a problem can send someone spiraling into an abyss of undo panic.

So, when kids pull that “transgender” card, it may be well-earned. Daily life is more stressful than that which their peers experience. Some days it may be impossible to concentrate on anything requiring critical thinking because they are so hyper-focused on preserving their identity. As parents, we have a lot to remember and consider when raising a transgender child; it is different than raising a child who is cis (non-trans). But, then again, each child is different from personality to temperament. My advice is to keep in mind that “parenting is parenting” regardless of what you’re dealing with.

What are your thoughts on this?

The Inner (Trans) Circle

Someone said something to me the other day that gave me pause. It was really an AHA moment for me.

StandwithTransLogoACEAs most of you know, I’ve been an outspoken ally and advocate for transgender individuals for the past couple of years. I somehow, suddenly, found myself in the midst of a community I didn’t know. Aside from my son, I didn’t know any trans* people (kids or adults) and didn’t really understand much about many of the struggles.

Along the way, I’ve been privileged to hear some of the stories. These are riveting, touch-me-to-the-core, fascinating tales of survival. When I step outside of my world to peer into the lives of various trans struggles, I am reminded of how our choices impact every twist and turn and bumpy path we traverse throughout our lives.

My friend said, “you decided to stand with trans inside the trans circle.” I had never thought about this before. How else would I support these amazing people? I don’t ever pretend to know or understand what their life is like or what it was prior to their coming out. How could I possibly nod my head in solidarity if I wasn’t one of them?

It never occurred to me that I might be viewed as an outsider. It would be easy to pass judgment on someone that was willing to walk away from their family in order to live authentically. How could they, one might ask? But, I never asked — nor would I. I can only imagine the pain and inner torture a human being must have endured to make the life altering decision to come out and walk out.

And, while I won’t ever know what it feels like to walk in the shoes of a transgender individual, I’ve learned great empathy for anyone identifying differently than what they were assigned at birth. To always feel different, to never feel as if one belongs, to be invisible to the world as your authentic self, brings shame and erodes self worth.

My son said it best. “Your support gave me confidence so I don’t feel ashamed of who I am.”

I am lucky to be allowed in to a club in which I don’t really belong. This inner circle has opened its arms to me for reasons I can only guess. I have met some incredible people who have not only overcome immeasurable obstacles, but have risen above the fray to be important, impactful, productive role models for others (my son, Hunter, included).

The Burden of Being (Trans)

backpackingSome days I feel as if I’m carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. Between running my own business, the needs of my husband and children, community commitments, trans-advocacy and personal well-being, there are times when I just don’t know how I’ll get it all done.

I worry about doing the right thing, meeting deadlines and living up to expectations. I lay awake concerned that I didn’t return a phone call or check on a sick friend. Some nights the weight of all the worrying knocks me out cold, some nights there’s too much neuro-interference to sleep at all.

Admittedly, some days the burden of trying to please everyone is just too much. There’s guilt in wanting to just please myself.

Hunter returned home from camp a month ago.  He spent 40 days just being himself in the purest of environments, completely unplugged and unburdened except for the responsibility he shouldered as part of the camp community. He wasn’t a “trans” kid at camp. He was just himself.

The weight he carried was his contribution to the group. His back hunched under the complexity of his pack but it was a privilege not a burden to traverse the trails with his belongings so thoughtfully assembled.

If you have a transgender family member, friend or acquaintance, you need to know they bear the burden of just being. There is always something to worry about. If they are FtM (female to male), you can be sure that they obsess over clothes that give them a more masculine looking chest. If they are pre-op/pre top surgery, then the goal is to have the perfect binder/chest compression garment to insure that they are completely flat.

For the MtF (male to female) individual, there are other concerns. A post-pubertal trans woman will often worry about her voice. Is it too deep? Does it sound masculine? Is the adam’s apple pronounced? Most of us never gave this a second thought, but guys and girls speak differently. The cadence of our words are different. The amount of words that females use in conversation differ significantly than the number of words uttered by males.

Then, there’s the walk. For a trans* person who wants to express themselves as a gender other than the one assigned at birth, they often find it necessary to relearn how to walk and talk. Guys take longer strides, they don’t sway at the hips, their stance is wider, they stuff their hands in their pockets, and so on. Trans* individuals work hard to alter their gender expression and overall presentation so the public’s perception of who their are begins to match up with their own identity.

So, the burden of being, when someone is transgender, is immense. Add that on top of all of the other everyday stuff that we stress over and that pack is almost impossible to lift, let alone carry.

For additional resources, visit Stand with Trans or the Ally Moms web page.