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.

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.

From Boy to Man: Hope for the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BIG DECISION

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

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

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

A FEW DAYS BEFORE SURGERY

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

JULY 25

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

ONE DAY POST-OP

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

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

THE BIG REVEAL

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

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

WHAT’S NEXT?

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

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

You are enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if…?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can you live with?


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

Parenting is Parenting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your thoughts on this?

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.