What Keeps You Up at Night?

This is what we asked participants in our Gender Spectrum workshop: Creating Visibility and Acceptance through Writing. In about five minutes we had a list of about 40 words that represented concerns, emotions, questions and more from parents of transgender individuals as well as trans and non-binary young adults.

The workshop was different from many of the sessions at the conference. Most required nothing more from attendees to sit and listen, take some notes (optional) and snap a few pictures of presenters’ slides. Unlike these other sessions, Janna Barkin, my co-presenter, and I did very little talking. What we did do, however, was to motivate, inspire, encourage, hold space for and support these emotionally fragile individuals so they could find their voice and put down on paper their deepest fears, concerns, dreams and hopes.

One courageous trans man wrote about how sleeping on his stomach, his preferred position, triggered his dysphoria. Sleeping on his stomach was a nightly reminder of the chest he loathes; of the puberty he didn’t want.

Another father, racked with heartache, wrote a letter to his trans daughter about how he would always be there for her and hoped there would always be a place in her life for him. His tears flowed freely; his pain was palpable.

Two moms each spoke about their trans children; ironically, they were sitting next to each other and they both are trying to uncover the mystery of parenting not one, but two transgender individuals. They are a minority within a minority.

We were privileged to witness the raw emotion of one trans man who began to cry just minutes into the session. We gave him the gift of safe space; he gave us the gift of trust.

A letter shared with us by a young mom hoping for major societal shifts, directed her wishes and desires to our country’s leader. She is desperate for a different world in which to raise her little girl who was assigned male at birth.

Many of our trans children, family members and friends don’t feel seen by us. Lack of acceptance breeds invisibility. Our goal, as presenters, was to give the workshop participants new tools to create acceptance; to show a loved one that they “see” them. We wanted them to walk away with additional skills to take on the challenges they face daily.

This workshop was a highlight of the conference for me. One participant shared that, “this was one of the most powerful moments of the weekend.” We allowed the attendees to find their voice. For many, it’s a process that doesn’t come easy and brings with it deep rooted pain. For 90 minutes, they were given the opportunity to let go, let out the pain that they’d been burying deep inside, hidden from view.

It’s impossible to know what people are carrying around. And, until you walk in another’s shoes, you will never understand what it means to be in their situation. I am mindful of the fact, that no matter how supportive I am of my transgender son, I can never understand what it means to be him, to have been born in the wrong body and always feel different or “other.”

Be kind to one another. Open your hearts and minds to possibilities. Love your children unconditionally. Every day is a collection of fleeting moments. Don’t let a single one pass you by.

 

Coming Home

My son is on a class trip with more than 50 other kids, most of whom have known him since he was in kindergarten, long before he was known as Hunter. They are out of the country, in Israel, in fact, and his roommates are two of his best guy friends. It’s really not a big deal. Except when I stop to think about it, it does seem like a big deal.

I hear stories on a regular basis about transgender boys and girls who are bullied, harassed, and shamed because of who they are. They lose friends, the families lose friends. Families turn their backs – coming out as transgender is a gamble for many. I talk about how lucky we’ve been to have support from community, friends, family, school and religious affiliation. My son doesn’t know what it’s like to be shunned. For that, I’m extremely grateful.

So, going back to this trip – four years ago he went to Israel with his eighth-grade class. He was “out” to us and to a few friends but not to the school. His passport bore his birthname and the scarlet “F” designation for female. On this trip, he had to pretend that his identity matched his identification and was assigned female roommates. While on the trip, one of his (female) roommates found out that the student sharing the hotel room was actually a boy. This girl called her parents who called the school who called the chaperones who called me. The telephone chain literally went around the world. Long distance tears and unnecessary drama of the worst kind. As a side note, this girl and my son are pretty good friends now. At the time, she just didn’t understand what being transgender meant. Again, we were lucky. Even though at the time, there was significant heartache as we tried to explain to the chaperones (who were half way around the world) what was happening, they couldn’t have been nicer and more supportive. They assured us that our child would be cared for and that “she” was safe; if anything was needed, they were there for “her.”

It was traumatic for us all but especially for our child who couldn’t be in this promised land as himself. He had to pretend. He couldn’t be Hunter but he couldn’t be the girl identified in the passport. He couldn’t bring himself to wear a dress but couldn’t wear boys’ clothes at the Kotel (sacred Western Wall). Truth be told, I don’t know if I could’ve handled things as well as he did, given the circumstances.

Fast forward four years and my son’s identity matches his passport. He is rooming with guys and can pray at the “Wall” in authentic dress. This was all impossible a few years ago.

For those of us who are cis-gender, it is impossible to know what it feels like to have a mismatched identity and expression. I will never know what it’s like to be my son nor can I presume to always know how he’s feeling or what he needs. As a parent, I am driven to advocate for my son. I must park my emotions sometimes; it’s so easy to get sucked into the vortex when things go awry. I am training myself to let things be so Hunter can learn resilience.

I hear maturity in Hunter’s voice when he calls to check in. He wants to share tidbits about the trip including details about his mouth watering lunch he enjoyed from the markets in Jerusalem. Right now, I couldn’t ask for more.

For more information and resources, go to www.standwithtrans.org or check out www.facebook.com/standwithtrans. Feel free to email Roz Keith at roz@standwithtrans.org.

To speak to a caring “Ally Mom,” or to apply to become an Ally Mom, click here.

Transgender Day of Visibility 2017

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A message to the transgender community and its allies on Transgender Day of Visibility.

I see you. I accept you. I support you. I stand with you.

You are important. You have value. You matter. You have heart. You teach us. You lead the way. You are brave.

We are here to provide community, resources, hope, love, and a doorway into the future.

Don’t let anyone tell you that you are not worthy. You are a human being. Be proud. Be safe. Be visible.

I am honored to know every one of you. You are unique. You are beautiful. You belong here.

xo
Roz Keith, President and Founder, Stand with Trans and Hunter’s mom

Dear Mr. President

protect-trans-kidsDear Mr. President and anyone else who thinks being transgender is a phase, a bad choice, or not real:

Being a parent is the most incredible job in the world. It is the hardest, most challenging job I’ve ever had. Most days, it is the most rewarding job – ever. When I stop, and think about my children, I am awash with the biggest love imaginable. My heart is full when I think about these human beings that I’m raising. I can’t imagine a world without my daughter and my son.

Four years ago, I thought I was raising two daughters…. that was until my then 14-year-old came to me and told me that she was a he. My younger child, who is now nearly 18, was assigned female at birth. All his life he felt different. He felt like he didn’t belong. He felt like the weird kid. Thank god, he figured it out and had the courage to let me in; the courage to finally tell me that he identified as male, that he was transgender.

I wasn’t shocked – BUT my head was spinning with questions and emotions and the knowledge that we would help him get what he needed. BUT HOW? I didn’t know what it meant to be transgender. I didn’t understand one thing about this. But, I was OPEN to possibilities.

That day, my job as parent got a little tougher. Could I love him enough so he could overcome the dysphoria and feelings of otherness? Could I gather enough support and resources so he could transition socially and medically? Would he be able to find a life that welcomed him? Would he have a future? Would he find love and social acceptance?

When we choose to become parents, we don’t get to choose what our children will look like or what their interests will be or their hair color, eye color, IQ, etc.

What we do get to choose is what kind of parent we’ll be. My choice was to love my children unconditionally.

57% of trans youth without parent support have attempted suicide! More than 40% of transgender individuals have attempted suicide. That’s about 8 times the norm.

When kids don’t have parent support, only 15% report have good self-esteem.

My son is one of the lucky ones. I can’t imagine turning my back on him because he didn’t fit inside some box.

A few months back I asked my son how our support has helped him – his words were so profound. He looked at me and answered, “I now have the confidence to be myself. I don’t feel ashamed about who I am.”

It’s easy to over identify with our children’s successes and failures. The achievements fill us with pride – we take on their successes as if they were our own. For some, the failures bring embarrassment and shame on the family. That shame sends a big fat message to our children and those around them. It tells them that they are not good enough. They are a disappointment. They are not worthy.

We all have hopes and dreams for our children – some days I need to be reminded that they are my hopes, my dreams, my expectations. NOT my children’s dreams and desires.

I really believe that you must love your children unconditionally. That means that you still love and support them even when their dreams are not your dreams. And, by the way, there’s a difference between loving them and approving of behavior that is destructive or illegal or dangerous. My kids know that even if I don’t like their behavior I don’t stop loving them.

As a nation made up of diverse citizens from all walks of life, we have an obligation to embrace differences. We learn from each other. My neighbor’s viewpoint may not agree with mine, but I can hear him and at least, try to understand why he sees the world through a different lens. As a nation, it is our job to ensure equality for all; access to the same learning environments and public facilities. Children in school deserve a guarantee that they will not be treated differently because they were born in the wrong body. My son’s gender is not defined by his body parts. Just because he was born with a vagina, does not make him a girl. He is a young man. He uses the boys’ bathroom at school, he rooms with the boys on class trips, he wears boys’ clothes and looks and sounds like a guy. He does not belong in the girls’ bathroom.

Over the past 4 years, I’ve learned how to be more open minded, how to accept something I don’t understand, and how to be an ally to the transgender community.

So, hug your kids. Love them unconditionally, teach them to tolerate differences and show them how to accept others even when they don’t fully understand. Support organizations such as:  Affirmations, Ruth Ellis Center, Stand with Trans, the ACLU, Equality Michigan, NCTE, The LGBTQ Task Force and others who are providing resources for LGBT youth. Reach out in your community and learn how you can be an ally. It does take a village and without the support of peers, community, friends and family, my son would not be able to walk as tall as he does.

Mr. President, I understand that no laws have changed. Title IX protections are still in place. However, by rescinding the specific guidance which supports transgender students, you are sending a message that these kids don’t matter. You are telling me and every other parent out there with a transgender child, that our family doesn’t matter. Maybe my child has an accepting school and allows him to use the bathroom of his choice. But, what about all the others who don’t have that privilege. What should those students do? Tell me.

Feel free to contact me.

Life isn’t always a picnic

3 boysRet2SMThis past weekend I participated in organizing a “family fun picnic” in a neighborhood park. The gathering was intended to celebrate families with transgender children. Allies were welcome as well as trans adults. This was the first Stand with Trans event of its kind. There were about 60 people sharing food, enjoying the beautiful summer day, laughing, exchanging stories and just being. There were quite a few families with young children who ran and shrieked and played until they were dripping with exhaustion. The older kids hung out. They made use of the skate park, tossed the Frisbee and inhaled hot dogs and cookies, not necessarily in that order.

To anyone passing by, this was just another neighborhood barbecue. Boys and girls of all ages were playing and connecting; new friendships were being formed by young and old alike. The sun was out, a gentle breeze was blowing and there was an abundance of food. We couldn’t have asked for a better day.

The truth is, this family fun day was just “another neighborhood barbecue.” It just so happens that most of the kids attending identify as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth.

Just as it’s impossible to know someone’s story by looking at a photograph, it would’ve been impossible to know that the group gathering under the picnic shelter was discussing transition (medical and social), available resources for transgender kids and school acceptance, or lack thereof.

While a photographer’s snapshot captures a moment in time and has the ability to tell a story, it is the story that the artist paints through his or her individual lens that we take away. Have you been to a museum or art gallery where you first take in the artist’s work and then read the placard? What you see and imagine is often not what is described.

When someone comes out as transgender, only that person can truly know how things are going, what is happening in the privacy of their home, or where their transition is heading. I looked at the kids yesterday with the intimate knowledge of many of their personal stories.  An outsider would have no idea.

I watched a few of the transgender teen boys yesterday. Observed them. It seems they come together like members of a secret club. There isn’t a special handshake or notes penned in invisible ink but rather a shared understanding; a common bond formed regardless that each journey is unique unto itself. There’s an authentic empathy that pervades.

As the mom of a trans son, I know what it’s like for another parent who’s just been stunned with the news of her child’s coming out. I do not know, however, what it’s like to be my son. No matter how loving and supportive I am, I will never know what he is going through. As Hunter’s mom, though, I can reassure others; let them know that they are not alone. I can’t, however, know their whole story. To anyone passing by, it seems that the family heading to the movies or to church or to the beach is just like any other.  To a family raising a transgender child they are nothing like any other.

For one afternoon, these families could let their story unfold within the safety of the park’s shelter. The photographer’s lens captures what we want to see and only reveals what we choose to share.

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.

Authenticity vs Shame

A Mother’s Unconditional Love

This post is dedicated to the memory of Leelah Alcorn. She didn’t have the unconditional love she so deserved and tragically took her own life. It’s been a few days past the one year anniversary of her death. Without her Ally Moms wouldn’t exist; one year ago Ally Moms was given life. This post may seen a bit redundant to some but it’s an important message. It was published originally in ChicagoNow.com; I am sharing it here for those who missed it. To Leelah – your life meant more than something – it meant everything.

I was feeling a tinge guilty recently. As the parent of a teen who came out as transgender nearly three years ago, I’ve spent a large percentage of that time finding resources, supporting my son, building community and advocating for trans* youth. What I haven’t done is mourn the “loss” of my daughter.

In fact, I rarely think about Olivia. It’s not that we’ve obliterated her existence. Her pictures still grace our walls and when telling stories that reference a time “pre-transition,” I usually refer to our youngest as Olivia, not Hunter.

leelah alcorn highwayIt’s quite odd, really. Life with Olivia was often stressful. From birth we had struggles. There were night terrors, food allergies, difficult behavior diagnosed as oppositional defiant disorder, reading issues, organizational challenges, academic hurdles and more. She definitely was not a “go with the flow” kind of child. The childhood outbursts morphed into angry, sullen pre-pubescent behavior that was more the norm than an occasional bad day.

She was not always the easiest child to parent. However, Olivia was ours and we were committed to loving each child no matter what the behavior. This tow-headed, fireball of a child had a smile that could light up a room. Her belly laugh delighted us all. Her agility and preference for gross motor activities earned her the label “tom boy.”

So, when Olivia told me she was transgender and identified as a boy, I was not shocked. Though I didn’t know what that meant, I was quick to articulate my support for Hunter and told him that we would be there no matter what.

By the way, this confession came at age 14; seven years earlier, while sitting in the bath tub, Olivia announced, with conviction, that she was a boy. When I asked if she wanted to be a boy, I was met with this, “No. But, I am a boy.” In hindsight, this child of mine was telling me that it wasn’t about desire but fact. It took 7 years for the subject to resurface.

Our show of acceptance was just the beginning. I had no idea that turmoil and dark days were upon us. This was a marathon not a sprint. For all you parents out there who are just coming to terms with your child’s coming out, brace yourself.

If I thought the early years were trying and stressful, they couldn’t compare to what we were about to face. My child had a secret life; a life that included private social media accounts, destructive behavior, poor choices and self-harm. In the middle of all this we were looking for resources that would save our child.

Which fire do you put out first?

Let me tell you, it took nearly two years of loving and talking and listening and reminding for Hunter to emerge. During that time I started blogging…callhimhunter was born. Then, in an effort to make sure that the Leelah Alcorns of the world would get the love they deserved, I created Ally Moms. This group of moms around the nation offers trans* kids (and parents) love on the other end of the phone. Ally Moms gives kids the ability to text or talk to a friendly, understanding mom. Meanwhile, still looking for the right resources to allow my son to emerge, we founded Stand with Trans, a non-profit dedicated to providing tools so transgender youth will be empowered and confident to live their authentic life. WHEW.

Admittedly, there were days when Hunter thought too much of our discussions focused on trans everything. He just wanted to be a kid. Who could blame him?

But then we hit a turning point. We decided to share our story publicly. Hunter was teaching our community what it meant to be transgender. We were showing families how to love and accept and navigate this crazy journey. The more we shared, the more confident Hunter became. Because there was no shame attached to being transgender, Hunter was free to be himself. There was no more hiding. He didn’t need secret accounts and hidden behaviors.

Being a parent is a choice. You cannot, however, choose your child’s personality, I.Q., hair or eye color or temperament. You get what you get. Then you start making choices regarding how you are going to support that unique individual you’ll spend a lifetime parenting. This is about unconditional love. My kids know that I don’t always like what they do or say, but I will ALWAYS love them…every minute of every day. That kind of love gets you through a lot.

My son, Hunter, is an incredible young man. He is witty and kind and creative. He is insightful, loving and loyal. He is handsome, smart and charming. His smile is a mega-watt, light up the neighborhood expression of authenticity. He is open and honest and inspired.

So, while life is far from perfect, it is a far cry from where we started. I am so proud of my (transgender) son and in love with who he is becoming, I find it hard to dwell on the past and what was. Hunter is a much better version of this youngest child of mine. Olivia is certainly part of our past but Hunter is part of our future.