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.

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.

Fighting for my child’s life … every day!

transgender allyI am continually left speechless by the situations I encounter on a regular basis. As a parent, I will never understand or identify with other parents who are able to turn away from their own children.

Doesn’t being a parent mean that you will love, support and nurture from conception until? Isn’t the very definition of parent synonymous with advocacy and guidance?

More than 20 years ago I gave birth to my first child at 29 weeks. Weighing in at a mere pound and a half, my sweet, precious angel was a fighter. From his first breath to his last, he fought to be here. I, as his mother, fought for his life; as his advocate, I fought every minute of every day. He needed me. How else would he get the medical intervention that he needed if I didn’t speak up?

There is section of Jewish teachings, called “Pirkei Avot.” This is loosely translated as “ethics of the fathers.” One of the best known questions posed by Rabbinical leader Hillel, is, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?” The last sentence should logically read who am I? But as Professor Louis Kaplan taught: “If you are only for yourself, you cease to be a real human being, and you become no longer a who, but a what.”

This is very powerful. As human beings, we should always be looking out for others. As parents, we have an obligation to look out for our children. What are we, if we cannot practice this basic tenet?

Regardless of what you believe, whether you are motivated by faith, guided by some spiritual beliefs or unsure of where religious teachings fit within your life, what sets us apart as humans is the ability to feel compassion and empathy.

What kind of parent turns away from their child? What kind of parent doesn’t fight with every fiber of their being to protect their child? What kind of parent closes the door on the most privileged relationship afforded by god?

I am angry. I am sad. I am shocked. I just don’t get it.

Why are transgender children left with no one to tuck them in? Why are they homeless looking for a roof over their head? Why are they killing themselves? Last week, three separate news stories reported the suicides of transgender teenagers. BABIES.

If you are reading this, please think about how you can be an ally to a transgender teen.

The trans* kids in your community need us. They need to know that people out there love them and accept them for who they are. They need to feel validated as people, as human beings. Isn’t that what we all need?

I am fighting for my son every minute of every day because I cannot imagine not loving him enough to want to be his advocate. So, I do what I do for all the Hunters out there.

Won’t you join me?

What a Week for the Trans* Community

WOW. It has been quite a week. For the past few months there have been many emails, texts and phone calls leading up to the event that occurred Tuesday evening at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield: Transgender Youth and Families, You are Not Alone.

BACK STORY

When I was a little girl my mom always made BIG birthday parties. Every kid on the block was invited and she baked, planned games, bought party favors and served lunch…all at home. Of course there was a lot of anticipation leading up to the big day. From shopping for a new party dress to choosing the right hair accessories, birthday celebrations were a big deal. On the day of the party, I would get ready and wait. The waiting was agony. Looking out towards the front of the house from the vantage point of our entry way, I wondered if anyone would show up.

FAST FORWARD

Well, some things haven’t changed. This event was a big deal. It was so important to get the word out about the needs of the Transgender youth community. I wanted to create more awareness, educate families and provide information and resources to those who needed it.

regina boone photo

photo credit Regina Boone

I distributed flyers via Facebook, twitter and email. I handed them out from my stash in my purse to anyone who showed any interest. I wrote and distributed a press release to a pretty good list of media contacts. I made calls. I talked it up. I toss and turned. I waited. Then, the Detroit Free Press called. They wanted to tell our story. “Would you be available for an interview,” Kristen Jordan Shamus, the reporter wanted to know. “Are you kidding? Of course we will be available.”

Meanwhile, the pacing, the worrying, the waiting continued. We had two professionals who committed their time to present information to an eager audience. But, who would come? Would it be a success?

Feeling optimistic, we printed 75 flyers. I reasoned that if they were leftover I could reuse them. I intentionally didn’t put a date on the informational hand-out.

The day finally arrived. People started arriving 30 minutes ahead of time…they were actually coming! And, they kept coming. Before I knew it, the crowd was spilling out into the reception area; chairs were being added. A room designed for 200 was full. I couldn’t believe it. This was beyond anything I could’ve imagined.

By the way, USA Today had picked up the Detroit Free Press story. (O M G)

The eclectic audience was made up of families, health care professionals, therapists, post-transition adult transgender individuals, pre-transition teens with their parents, clergy, teachers…WOW.

GRATITUDE

For everyone that shared news of the upcoming event, to those who sent notes of encouragement, for anyone who cheered us on during the planning of the event, I thank you. I am so grateful for what we were able to accomplish is such a short period of time. The more we tell our story, the more awareness, and understanding is spread; it’s a wild-fire of positivity.

If you or someone you know needs help, please reach out to one of our Ally Moms. There are nearly 70 woman across the country who are available for a call or text. We all have a transgender child. We all are supportive. We all can and will provide a loving ear.

You are NOT alone.

 

 

Just One Call to Make a Difference (in a trans man’s life)

respectI got a call the other day from a young trans man. He spoke hesitantly at first and then, as if his engine needed revving, built up to a crescendo as the words came tumbling forth.

He was lonely. He was shunned. He felt alone and unloved. He needed human contact. He was stuck. Stuck in a house without love. Stuck in a room by himself connected to a virtual world and the soft purr of his nuzzling kitties. Confined to a geography he could only navigate on foot.

So strong is this trans man’s identity that it didn’t seem to matter that he isn’t yet on hormones nor that he only owns a few articles of clothing that were purchased in the men’s department. He knows that inside, where it really matters, he is male.

Now, as a mother, it is hard for me to hear that this human being does not have a single family member that he can count on; that his mother is ashamed of him; that he doesn’t have a winter coat; that he desperately craves the feel of a real hug, of arms wrapped around him silently saying “I love you.”

“How can I help you?” I asked.

I told him about my new friends who have a group called FtM Detroit. This is a support network and community run by some of the nicest young men who just happen to identify as trans* masculine. With my caller’s approval, I called one of the FtM Detroit guys and told them about the situation. Now here’s the really good part — the next FtM support group meeting was 24 hours away. This community is just amazing. They found someone who lives near my caller and was willing to pick him up and drive him to and from the meeting. So, this transgender man, who has been alone, isolated, without resources, is now connected to an amazing group of like-minded/bodied individuals.

I have withheld the name of my caller to protect his privacy. He is one of thousands out there. How brave was he to make that one call? He took a chance and reached out to an Ally Mom. He wants a future that gives him independence and freedom to live an authentic life.

One call. That’s all it took to make a difference in someone’s life.

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To read more about our journey check out the other posts. For more about me, click here.

UPCOMING EVENT: You are NOT alone for transgender youth and families on March 10.

A Tribute to Transgender Lives Lost

jay ralkoJay Ralko, a young transgender man, took his life. Most knew him as the life of the party. He was fun and funny and always ready for a good time. What many never saw was the dark side. Jay suffered from bi-polar disorder. In December, he left his dog, his apartment and his friends and family without any warning. A hastily scrawled note was left for his roommate asking him to take the dog out.

Last Saturday night Jay’s friends organized an event to celebrate Jay’s life. I was asked to speak. I had never met Jay. I didn’t know his family. I had only recently met a few of his closest friends. They wanted me to speak on behalf of trans allies and share some of our story. Here are my words:

Exactly two years ago, at the age of 14, my son, who is braver than I ever imagined, came out to me. Was I shocked? Not really.

Assigned female at birth, my child was the quintessential tomboy. He preferred denim over lace, Disney heroes vs heroines, tree climbing rather than nail painting…his avatars were always male, his costumes never feminine, flowery or frilly.

When my son began asking to shop in the boys department, our outings often ended in tears. When he showed me pictures of the hair cut he wanted, I was puzzled. When he began to carry himself different and walk with a swagger rather than a sway, I noticed. And, I wondered.

So, when he confessed to me with 100% certainty that he was transgender, I wasn’t shocked.

I was, however, concerned. I was concerned for his future. I was concerned for his health –emotionally, physically and mentally. As a parent, my main goal was to help Hunter achieve this holistic health bull’s eye; if I could do this, then I was confident he would find happiness.

Hunter was only in 8th grade. His friends were blossoming into lovely young women and he wanted to hide behind layers of baggy clothing and boyish attire. I won’t lie to you – the feeling of loss at this point was pretty intense. I felt sad. I was worried. My daughter is not who she appears to be.

So, while I put my calm exterior into high gear, my insides were doing nauseating, emotional gymnastics. I am sure at some point I thought to myself, “why can’t he just be gay? That would be a walk in the park.”

Let me just say, I love my children without reservation. I cannot imagine not loving them. I would go to the ends of the earth for them. But, there is no question that being a parent is one giant unknown. You don’t know who your baby will be; I.Q, eye color, personality, temperament, straight hair or curly – we don’t get to choose any of this… it’s one big surprise.

In fact, there is very little we can choose once we make the choice to be a parent and with that comes significant responsibility. Two years ago, when my some came out as Transgender, I made a conscious choice – because I love him unconditionally, I chose to accept, support, advocate and educate on his behalf and on behalf of others locally, nationally and globally.

I asked Hunter if he could articulate what our support has meant to him. This is what he said, “I am confident about who I am. I am not ashamed to be me.” WOW. This declaration took my breath away.

As a parent, how you react to the news that your child is trans is what separates the men from the boys, so to speak. Fortunately, both my kids know that they can come to me with anything. That doesn’t mean that I approve of everything they do or that I don’t get angry. I certainly let them know when they’ve made poor choices — Coming out as transgender or gender non-conforming or gay – well, this is not about choice. From where I stand, the only choice here was how we handled things.

I must confess — I was little nervous about coming here tonight. I didn’t know Jay or his family. And, I only recently met a few of the FtMDetroit guys. As it turns out, we discovered some common connections in the community – apparently, it’s a small trans* world.

Truly, I am honored and humbled to speak to all of you tonight. My heart aches for each of you. You’ve lost a son, a friend, a brother – a cherished member of the community.

We have been very open about our journey for about a year now. The decision was made as a family that education was the key to creating awareness and acceptance. If we could save a life by telling our story we will have succeeded. As cliché as it sounds, it does take a village.

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Following the tragic death of Leelah Alcorn, who did not receive the support and understanding she so desperately needed, we created Ally Moms. The message and premise is simple. Even if your own mom isn’t there for you, there are moms out there who have lots of love to give. Ally Moms is a group of about 60 women who are mothers of transgender individuals from all over the country including Canada and the UK. We are receiving texts and calls from trans teens and young adults as well as other moms who are struggling to help their kids.

 

 

 

 

Trans*(In)spiration

Two years ago I had two daughters (or so I thought). Two years ago I had absolutely no understanding of what it means to be transgender. Two years ago I had a teenager who hated their body, hated what it represented, hated the parts that were emerging.

mother's role mother's loveTwenty years ago I wanted nothing more than to be a mother. Twenty years ago I longingly looked at the swelling baby bumps of others and wondered when it would be my turn. Twenty years ago we lost the baby we treasured and loved and nurtured – it was the worst of times. Twenty years ago we thought we would never be parents.

Fortunately, with the help of modern medicine, our dreams were realized. Nearly nineteen years ago our first daughter was born. PURE JOY. If I could have bottled that feeling and sold it to the world we would no longer know war. SERIOUSLY. I was on cloud nine.

Lately, I have been privileged to hear stories from parents, trans* teens and trans* adults (some fully transitioned and out, others not) about their experiences, good and bad and how they are coping (or not). Most of the parents who reach out are allies. They are supportive of their child’s transition and are comforted to know that there are others out there going through the same thing. Sadly, most of the trans* teens I hear from are living in fear. They are afraid to come out to their family and to live authentically in a way that would give them a “wholeness.”

This breaks my heart.

One such young adult, 20 year old “Janine” identifies as female. Her community consists of a few private Facebook support groups where she can be herself. Otherwise, at home, at work and with extended family (even her siblings), she is a he. In the privacy of her room she can experiment with make-up and dream of the day that she can be who she was meant to be. I have become her “Ally Mom.”

Can you imagine going to work every day in a costume? What about wearing a mask to every business meeting? Transgender people who can’t “come out” to their families, friends, and place of employment walk around hiding behind a cloak of secrecy. Imagine the sadness and stress that they carry around.

I feel grateful beyond measure that our family can be open and honest and supportive of our own son and the community of which we are now a part. When my son snuggles up next to me I am taken back to that first moment when I laid eyes on my baby. This is what it means to be a parent.

When Ally Moms was formed the goal was to create a loving resource for those who didn’t have access to an accepting family and support system. It never occured to me that we would now be a resource for each other. Currently, we have about 60 moms (of trans* kids) who have stepped up to be available for a conversation and a friendly ear. As a group, we are smart, educated, accomplished, caring, kind, sensitive, understanding and creative. We are women who have chosen to be mothers. We are women who have inhaled the elixir – the joy of being a parent. These women inspire me.

One year ago our family transitioned from female pronouns to male pronouns, from Olivia to Hunter. One year ago we chose to change the way we thought about our child.

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