Choosing love over fear

People often ask me why I allowed my son to “choose” to be transgender. As if being transgender is a choice. I usually turn the question around and ask them why they chose to be cisgender (or, to put it another way “not transgender). It usually takes them a minute to try to process the idea that my son didn’t choose his gender identity any more than they did.

Really, though, I think a better way to frame that question is not to ask me why I allowed my son to choose to be transgender, but rather, when I did choose to accept the fact that he really is a boy? When did I finally allow him to live his truth out loud? What was it that finally made me decide to use male pronouns, call him by a new name, and stare down our elected officials in Texas every time they want to regulate where my child should pee?

To be clear: this didn’t happen overnight. When two year old “Gracie” told me that he was a boy, literally the last thing I thought was that he was transgender. That word wasn’t even in my vocabulary back then.  Instead I told him that there were lots of different ways to be a girl, and that if he wanted to play Star Wars instead of My Little Pony, that was totally cool.  Being a tomboy was perfectly acceptable, and in fact, celebrated in our society.  I wanted to help him “redefine girly” and in turn, educate the whole world on the multitude of ways to express one’s femininity.

We let him pick out his own clothes, and gradually his hair got shorter and shorter. We thought we had found the perfect balance of allowing our child to express himself without denying the fact that he was still “really” a girl.

But moms have a sixth sense. And although I was okay with him wearing Spiderman t-shirts instead of sundresses, I suspected there was something else beneath the surface.  So when he was still in preschool and asked me — out of the clear blue sky — if scientists could turn him into a boy, I knew it was time to dig a little deeper.

Unfortunately, at least back then, there wasn’t a whole lot of easily accessible information for parents wondering about how to support their child’s “gender creativity.”  In fact, most of the first-hand blogs and essays I read from other parents questioning the same thing used those words — “gender creativity” — instead of “transgender,” because so little information was out there and few people really believed this was possible, especially for a child.  I pored over every article I could find, every scientific study, every news story, and every parenting blog, in a desperate attempt to uncover what it was that my little one was trying to tell me.

Years of research eventually uncovered two major themes.  First: all of us — you and I, your neighbor, your kid’s teacher, literally everyone –has a gender identity. Ask any child from the age of 3 or 4 years old if they are a boy or a girl, and the majority of them will have an answer for you. They won’t say, “I have a penis, so I’m a boy.” They’ll just say, “I’m a boy.”  These kids don’t have political agendas — they just simply have gender identities like you or me.  Cisgender people like me are the ones whose gender identity happens to match the gender they were assigned at birth.  Transgender people like my son are the ones whose gender identity doesn’t match the gender that was assigned to them at birth.  And that’s okay, because we are understanding more and more that gender is not a binary, but exists on a spectrum, and that that sense of gender lives in the brain.

What I discovered next, though, shook me to my core — because when that gender identity isn’t valued and supported by those around us, it can have tragic consequences.  A 2014 study by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 41% of transgender youth have attempted suicide at least once.  Not “contemplated” suicide, but actually tried to kill themselves.  The rate of attempted suicides among the general population is closer to 1.4% — to be clear, ANY life lost this way is tragic and heartbreaking. But when more than 2 in 5 trans kids are trying to kill themselves, this is clearly an epidemic, and one that we are almost completely guilty of creating.

You see, transgender people aren’t trying to kill themselves because they are mentally ill (in fact, a 2016 study published in Pediatrics showed that trans youth who are supported in their transitions had essentially the same rates of mental health as their cisgender peers).  Instead, they are suffering because of the way we are treating them.  Let that sink in: trans youth are killing themselves because so many of us can’t wrap our minds around the simple idea that there just might be more than one way to know your gender identity.  We’re letting our heads get in the way of our hearts.  And our children are dying because of it.

Fact: there is still no federal law prohibiting anyone from discriminating against transgender people.  Several states are trying to pass (or have already passed) “transgender bathroom bills” whose real purpose isn’t to protect women and children from predators, but to prevent trans people from participating fully in public life.  After all, how can you buy a new dress for your sister’s wedding, meet your friends for coffee, serve on a jury, or even go to school if you can’t use the bathroom?  Think about the sweet trans child who is disowned by their parents when they come out, or the trans adult who is fired from their job or denied housing simply because of who they are.  Not to mention that 75% of transgender students report feeling unsafe at school and that they are far more likely to be bullied than their cisgender peers.  Is it any wonder that so many these precious children become suicidal?

When confronted with my son’s insistent, consistent, and persistent avowals of his gender identity — and the profound sadness and anxiety he experienced whenever he was told he was a girl — I felt that I basically had two options. I could either allow my child to transition socially (names, pronouns, the way he dressed, and yes, bathroom use), knowing that he’s more likely to be bullied and discriminated against for being trans; or I could force him to continue to live in a way that doesn’t fit his true identity, knowing that my rejection of his gender identity could very likely turn him into another statistic.  When faced with those facts, I made the easy choice: I chose my son’s life over my own fear of the unknown. I chose to let my sweet child, who was at that point not quite 7 years old, to transition halfway through his 1st grade year and go back to public school on Monday using male pronouns and a new first name.  In the end, I wanted Max (as he’s known now) to define himself from the inside out, not the outside in.  And I’d rather face bullying and discrimination with my son by my side, instead of bury him because I couldn’t accept the fact that his life was different than the one I had imagined for him.

I wish I had known about websites like Amaze.org when I was seeking out resources for Max years ago.  Their cute, short videos geared towards children are surprisingly useful for grown-ups too.  This video in particular would have been crazy helpful when Max was a wee one — for years, he would dress in superhero costumes in order to avoid wearing dresses and being called by a girl’s name.  Watching this video today, it all seems so obvious to me what was really going on, but back then I was left putting all the puzzle pieces together by myself with very little help.  Thankfully there are far more resources available to parents of gender nonconforming children today than ever before, and Amaze.org is working to give parents like me the tools I need to navigate Max’s future as he enters puberty and beyond.  And I wonder: had I known about Amaze.org all those years ago, would we have accepted Max’s transition sooner?  How many fewer tears and sleepless nights could we have saved?

Max has my eyes, his dad’s goofy personality, and his own adorable smile with teeth too big for his freckled face. He’s bright, courageous, helpful, athletic, and the most popular kid in his class.  And when I look at him, I am reminded that he is just as precious and miraculous today as he was on the day he was born. Nothing about Max has changed except the words we use to describe him, but I can honestly say that I have changed for the better. My child didn’t choose to be transgender, but I have chosen to love him unconditionally.

For more resources on gender identity, hop on over to the Amaze Parents Facebook page and give them a like!  This essay was graciously sponsored by Amaze.org. All ideas and opinions expressed here are my own.

Leading with a heart: A thank you to Kathleen Wazny

In January of 2015 I filed paperwork to become a city council candidate.  About a week earlier, my child and I sat down and finally addressed something we had needed to talk about several months – if not years – earlier: he wasn’t the daughter I thought I had, but rather, he was my son.  He wanted to be called new name and use male pronouns. He was only 6 years old.

Looking back on all of this, I honestly have to say that running for city council was way harder than navigating the social transition of a transgender 1st grader.

To further complicate an already complicated family matter, it was also a legislative year here in Texas (Lord have mercy on us all).  The Texas Legislature convenes for about 6 months, once every 2 years, and tries to hammer out budgets and bathroom bills, while the rest of us all pray that they don’t screw everything up.  Which they usually do – some years worse than others.

We struggled for almost 5 years with our son, who insisted from the age of 2 that he was actually a boy, and not a girl like we all thought.  The feminist in me celebrated his gender-bending ways, and enjoyed correcting people who thought my daughter was really my son. “There’s lots of ways to be a girl,” I’d remind them.  After a while, though, I’d notice the way that Max would cringe when I would inform those random strangers about his “true” identity. I began to wonder: maybe they weren’t mis-gendering my child.  Maybe I was.

So finally, after five long years of research, prayer, and discernment, we transitioned as a family – switching from female pronouns to male ones, and changing his name from Gracie to MG and finally to Max.

And then the Texas Legislature reconvened and wanted to pass laws about which bathroom my transgender child could use at school.  As if all of this wasn’t complicated enough.

My husband, being the thoughtful person that he is, wrote a blog and titled it “An Open Letter to Debbie Riddle”.  That essay was picked up the Dallas News and ran as an op-ed a few days later.  We wondered if giving the permission to republish it was the right thing to do – it was our first time speaking publicly about an issue that was still so new and private to us, after all. But we didn’t live in Dallas, and we thought that this might be a good way to speak out on this issue while also maintaining some degree of anonymity.  We felt that if we didn’t speak up, there were thousands of transgender Texans just like our son (actually, about 145,000 of them) who could be affected by this discriminatory legislation.

That piece was published just a few weeks before a debate at Robson Ranch, a gated retirement community far on the outskirts of my adopted hometown of Denton, TX.  Despite its geographic distance, it’s in the same district as the one I live in, so the city council race that year was between myself – a then-37-year-old mother and small business owner living near the University core, and a 60-something retired grandmother and resident of that very same gated retirement community.

Robson Ranch is so gated, in fact, that they hosted a candidate’s forum and invited only the candidates from their district (Kathleen Wazny and myself), and opened the doors to only their residents.

Here I was: in the lion’s den.  Kathleen was loved and well-respected by her neighbors, all of whom had shown up for the forum to cheer on one of their own.  And then there was me – a political newcomer, living on the opposite end of town, young enough to be their daughter, but wanting desperately to hear their concerns so I could do an effective job of representing the entire district, not just my part of town.

We were each given a minute to introduce ourselves, and then the questions from the audience began. Audience members wrote their questions down on a piece of paper for the moderator to read. Kathleen and I would each take turns going first, and we’d each get a couple of minutes to speak  It went back and forth this way for a while, with the same predictable questions about property tax rates and whether or not we needed a new city manager. You know, typical stuff.

And then.

I should have anticipated it. I should have known that someone there would have read my husband’s op-ed. Some anonymous bully in that room had the nerve to ask about transgender people using public restrooms, knowing full well that I had a transgender child at home, and that acknowledging this in a room mostly full of conservatives (did I mention that this debate was hosted by the Robson Ranch Republicans?) was a sure-fire way making sure I’d lose not only the debate, but focusing the campaign on my “faults” as a mother and distracting from the real issues like road repair, funding our parks, and managing a city budget of nearly $1 billion.

While the unknowing moderator was reading the question out loud, I stared at my husband sitting in the first row and gave him a silent, panicked look. “What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?” I screamed with my eyes.  He silently screamed right back at me, “I. Cannot. Believe. They. Are. Doing. This.”

Being that this was so early in my family’s transition, everything still felt raw and vulnerable.  I know how calmly I would have handled it today, but that night it took EVERYTHING, and I mean EVERYTHING, not to walk up to that microphone, tell them to all go to hell, and run out of there with my middle fingers flying high.  This was my BABY.  How DARE you.

But for the Grace of God, it was actually Kathleen’s turn to take the microphone first.  And for as long as I live, I will never forget what she did next.

Kathleen Wazny calmly approached the microphone and said, “This isn’t a local issue, this is a state issue. And quite frankly, I think Texas has bigger issues to deal with than trying to figure out what bathroom people should be using.”  And then she sat down and saved the day.  I got up and simply said “I agree,” and when the debate ended I ran to the car, shouted every expletive I could think of, and went home to drink a bottle of wine and curse the person who tried to out my precious child in a room full of strangers.

But here’s the beautiful, optimistic thing about all of this: I know that Kathleen read that article. She’s smart, and she does her homework. I’m certain someone shared that piece with her in the hopes that she’d use it to destroy me.  She’s their local hero, after all, and there were apparently some people in that room that wanted her to win at any cost.  I can’t say I blame them – it’s politics, after all. But I also don’t have to forgive them for what they did that night.

I won every precinct that year, except for Robson Ranch. But that wasn’t enough – not by a long shot. Though Kathleen mopped the floor with me on Election Day, I know it had nothing to do with the fact that I have a transgender son. She had an opportunity to capitalize on something that was, and in many cases still is, a taboo subject among her core supporters – but she refused to take the bait, and the question never came up again for the rest of the campaign season.  My family has since spoken publicly about our transition, but we did it on our terms, when we were ready.  To her enormous credit, Kathleen stuck to the REAL issues facing our community, and left the bathroom debate to the people who could best make that decision: parents, kids, and educators.

I regret that I’ve never thanked Kathleen for standing up for my son that day. She didn’t have to do that. She could have thrown my whole family under the bus and no one would have blamed her. Politics is funny that way. But she recognized that some things are more important that politics, and reacted like a real human (and not a politician) would: with kindness, integrity, and grace.  I can only wish that our Texas Legislature would take a lesson from Kathleen Wazny, who won that race not by turning my son into a political pawn, but by sticking to the issues and leading with her heart.

 

Baby Shower 2.0: Celebrating My Transgender Son’s New Identity

The blue jellybeans were assembled in pint-sized mason jars on my kitchen table. My husband was about to head to the store to pick up the balloon bouquet while I put finishing touches on the decorations. The kids and I had made a batch of homemade chocolate ice cream, and the giant, freshly baked chocolate chip cookie was frosted in blue with our son’s new name: Max Grayson. “It’s A Boy!” read the banner across the wall and on the sign in the front yard. We were thrilled to welcome so many excited guests to our home for “Baby Shower 2.0.”

We had already thrown our child a baby shower back in 2008, back when we named him Mary Grace and thought he was our daughter. Our son is nine years old now and has been telling us he is a boy since he was two. Once we were able to finally recognize that he was transgender…

 

… Read the entire post online at the amazing storytelling website and blog TueNight.