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.

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.