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.

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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.

 

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.

 

Notice the Moment

journalA couple of weeks ago I had the honor of presenting a writer’s workshop to parents of transgender kids. “Telling your story, one moment at a time,” was the title. The purpose of the conference session was to help parents find the space to acknowledge their own journey.

Ally parents are their child’s staunchest advocates. They rush to fix, mend, support and rescue. It often becomes too much about shepherding their offspring along a journey without paying any attention to what is happening along their own parallel path.

The experience with this amazing group of people was incredibly moving, impactful and powerful. For some, they had never been able to share their story with anyone. The tears flowed easily but not without pain as they imagined the little moments that touched them along their journey as their child transitioned.

Last night, as I was wasting time on Facebook, I had one of those moments. As I began the final countdown to Hunter’s homecoming and thinking about how much I was beginning to miss him, a photograph showed up on my newsfeed. It was a picture of Hunter (actually Olivia) from four summers ago, at camp with one of his best friends; looking back at me is this beautiful child flashing a carefree grin. This freedom can only be known by those who embrace, love and can’t live without overnight summer camp. Seeing this picture was a “take my breath away” kind of moment.

As much as I’ve accepted Hunter’s transition and never really looked back or grieved, coming face to face with my camper’s happy, go-lucky image gave me pause. Parenting Olivia was difficult. She was complicated and angry and emotionally distant. Often, I didn’t know what I was doing. I got lost in rage and sadness. There were times that I was so incapable of keeping it together that I thought my heart would beat itself right out of my chest.

Other parents of transgender children talk about grieving the child left behind. I understand it, but can’t relate. Rather, I find sadness that I have a child that had to live hidden for such a long time. I wistfully wonder what our journey would be like if Olivia didn’t have to suffer the indignity of going through a puberty she didn’t want; a puberty that belied her identity.

Perhaps, I don’t grieve the loss of this daughter because what I got in return is so much better.

That photograph, though, was wonderful and strange all at the same time. She looked comfortable, relaxed, happy; in her element. There was no hint of dysphoria or discontent. I searched her face for some sign that things were not right; some sign that gender identity and anatomical sex were misaligned.

Nothing. Not one inkling that this smiling face was hiding a locked chest of secrets that would remain hidden for two more years.

Four years ago (almost to the day) I was waiting for a different child to come home from camp.

Becoming Male (Part 2)

Is 16 years old too young (for top surgery)?

This is the question I posed the other day to a group of people who are connected to the transgender community either by being the parent of a trans* son or who are actually transgender themselves.

A lively discussion ensued. Here are some of the comments:

“Mine had surgery at 15. Life just keeps getting better for him since then.”

“We’re proceeding with the surgery whether the insurance pays or not.”

“We are hoping to schedule next year. My son will be 16. For us it makes sense. I hate to see him binding, in pain and covered up in the summer on the hot days.”

“These years are so important never mind having these extra detours and they sit in their room feeling so bad.”

“We are doing surgery next month at 16 1/2. The past year the binding has been kind of bad. So we decided not to wait and just going to pay.”

“My son is 12. In the beginning I said we’re not doing anything till he’s 18 since I really struggled with these issues myself. Seeing him cry the other day in the Old Navy change room because he can’t find a simple tank top broke my heart.”

“My son is 16 and had surgery yesterday. He’s doing great and healing “abnormally fast” according to the surgeon.”

dani hunterThere were many more comments and lots of conversation. There was not one dissenting opinion. These kids are suffering. They know who they are. They know their gender identity. In most cases, transgender individuals have known from a very young age that they are different. Even the youngest kids, who didn’t have words to articulate what was going on, didn’t know the word transgender, could say, “I’m a boy or I’m a girl,” regardless of their biological sex.

A 16 year old (ftm) who has been waiting for years to become a young man is definitely ready for top surgery. Yes, it’s a big, scary step. Yes, it upsets me to think about my child in a hospital, for any reason. However, I know that Hunter needs to do this. It is one step closer to being whole. It is one step closer to having a body that matches his gender identity.

There are skilled, specialists who perform this surgery in various cities around the country. Florida, Boston, California and Ohio are some of the destinations for surgery. We will have to travel for consults and for the actual procedure. Then, you have to stay in the destination city for up to a week before you get clearance to go home.

Ideally, we would like it to be possible for Hunter to have surgery before going off to college. Next summer he will be 17 and it will be his last summer before graduating high school. He has already started a special fund to raise money on his own. He is saving a percentage of his allowance to go towards the fees which are on average about $8500 (this doesn’t include travel and local accommodations). He will also babysit and do various odd jobs to contribute. We, of course, will do what we can to help.

Before he left for camp Hunter asked if he could create a gofundme account to help with the expenses for top surgery. Then, his sister offered to write the story for him which I thought was such a beautiful show of support and love. It took her a little while but eventually she came around and now fully accepts her “little” brother as the guy he is and just wants to see him be happy. Danielle knows how painful binding his breasts has been (both emotionally and physically) and hopes that one day soon he can be one step closer to living as his authentic self.

Hunter is one brave kid. He’s shared his story publicly because he knows that others will have the courage to be themselves when they realize that they are not alone. He has found tremendous strength by reading the stories of other trans* masculine individuals and I know he’s watched hours of YouTube videos about transitioning that have been immensely helpful.

I’ve certainly never done anything like this before and am much more comfortable helping others than asking for help. But here goes.

Here is the link to the fund. http://www.gofundme.com/wnfqh.

If you are able to help in some way, not matter how small, it will make a big difference in Hunter’s life. We have been so fortunate that our son is supported. I am grateful each day for the community that has embraced our son and the journey he is on. Top surgery for Hunter will be life altering.