“hey Mom, I’m trans.”
Author’s note: in the time since I wrote this story, my kiddo has honed in further on their identity, moving to more of a nonbinary identity with they/them pronouns and the name Alistair. As you know, identity is a journey. I will leave the story as-is as a reflection of a piece of their history and their journey, though I am also saying, right now, Welcome to the world, dearest Alistair. We are always here for you.
My goal has been to get this story out during Pride Month this year. Because I’m proud of my child — of his resilience, his humor, his joy, his struggles, his ability to befriend others, his kindness, and his commitment to being truly himself, regardless of the cost.
Here I sit at the end of June, after multiple drafts, in the quiet of a sleeping house, determined to finish. Today my child returned home from an 8-day church camp, where he is and has always been loved and affirmed for who he is. He walked in the door this afternoon, tired, ebullient, blissful, and hoarse (from screaming and crying he said — screaming the songs they sing loudly, and crying because of the sweet sorrow of parting from friends after a wonderful, wonderful camp session). He feels good in his own skin, in his “out” identity. How grateful I am for this!
This retelling of his coming-out story of 2.5 years ago is offered with his permission. He’s almost 15 now. To respect who he is now, I use one of his current pronouns (he) throughout — but please understand as you read that he was assigned female at birth and that the day described here marked his transition away from “she.”
January 5, 2019. We’re on our way back from a winter family gathering at the beach, where we celebrated my parents’ golden wedding anniversary. I am tired, but content. Marc is driving, thank goodness. Our twelve-year-old, the youngest, is riding alone in the back seat as big brother is helping to drive his grandparents. There are some hours of travel ahead, so I settle into a comfortable haze, my mind drifting alongside the forests and fields that blur through the window.
My phone dings.
It’s E, texting from the backseat.
I am jarred out of my snoozy state, my thoughts suddenly racing: How can we have this conversation when I can’t see your face? (Maybe you need me not to see your face. Maybe you need not to see mine.) What does trans even mean to you? How long have you known? Why were you scared?
Of course you were scared. This is huge.
I’m glad you decided to share it with me.
Marc is changing the radio station and talking to me about … something. I can’t follow his words. I am trying to absorb E’s text, an act that feels like filled-to-bursting followed by rapid dissolution, papier-mâché in water, salt in suspension. I am afloat, adrift. Then, my heart anchors me, its determined rhythm repeating “nevertheless, nevertheless.” Love is all. Love is the center.
I take two long, slow breaths. Though time seems to have slowed, I need to respond quickly, can’t leave my kid hanging at such a brave, tender moment.
Slow and careful is probably not exactly what E wanted to read in this moment. I hope he also heard the togetherness of let’s, the devotion and presence of figure it out. We’re here for you, kiddo, always.
In moments that take my breath away, I like to lean on the wisdom of Treebeard, one of my favorite characters from The Lord of the Rings. “We must not be hasty”, Treebeard says. Yes, let’s slow this all the way down, I think.
And yet, putting this conversation on hold until I can wrap my mind around it is not what my kid needs or wants right now. How can I bridge the gap between my need for reflection and E’s need for my undivided attention in this moment?
First, calm the whirring mind. Ask questions. I need to understand this. E probably needs to tell me about it, too. He initiated the conversation after all, and for all that I am surprised and rattled, I am also deeply honored and humbled by his confidence.
Opposite gender? My poor kid. How long has he felt like this? Meanwhile I had not even an inkling. This is the child who had always appeared to inhabit girlishness quite comfortably, with a little pirate sauce on the side. Age three was long spiral curls and a favorite play-dress collection with leggings for trouble-free tree climbing. Age six, a lavender sparkle unicorn shirt and extensive stuffed animal collection. Age nine, memorizing the entirety of Hamilton down to the set directions. Always a sketchbook in hand, always a knitted raccoon hat on head, always with an entourage of girlfriend besties.
I understand and embrace that people express gender in all sorts of ways. I’m just saying that as mama to a child assigned female at birth, I had never detected the least hint that my kid wasn’t perfectly comfortable, even happy and relatively carefree, as a girl.
This is the child who came out to us at age eleven as a lesbian (it wasn’t a big surprise, and not a problem), and later the same year identified as bisexual when he realized he liked boys too, then pansexual, then possibly demisexual. So many words and concepts! I wasn’t sure my 6th grader really knew what they all meant, fully, but it made sense to Marc and me that E was considering possible identities and figuring out where he fit in. On some level, I told myself, sexual attraction is idealized or somewhat theoretical at that age, a reality that is felt, but not yet informed by much experience at age 12 (or at least we hoped so, as his parents). That was my way of understanding the continual change: my child was still figuring himself out.
But trans out of the seeming blue? Not a girl at all? My head is spinning. The feeling of dissolution I mentioned earlier wasn’t so much about destruction (and certainly not about having something “done to me” by my child), but instead about complete reorganization — the sense of myself coming completely apart almost at a psycho-cellular level, my perceptions having to dissolve entirely in order to be reassembled, to understand my child in a new way.
We roll on through the countryside. My silence has a shape: stunned, stoic. Also, committed to E’s well being, determined to learn and understand.
A couple more miles go by. My mind is slowly wrapping itself around gender dysphoria. I would later learn that the DSM-V defines gender dysphoria as “a marked incongruence between ones experienced/expressed gender and primary and/or secondary sex characteristics” as well as an array of possible desires to be rid of primary and secondary sex characteristics related to one’s assigned gender, and/or to gain the primary and secondary sex characteristics of another gender, and/or to be treated and regarded as another gender.
But in this moment, in the car, I am still learning. What does gender dysphoria mean to my child? And what is the next layer down? What else do I need to know and understand?
I don’t wish, I just feel. I think I am starting to grasp the nuance. I begin to perceive that for E, this resides at a deeper level than wishing or wanting. He doesn’t want male parts per se, but feels that something is out of place, that the world would be right, and his body would be right, if it were male rather than female. I think am beginning to comprehend, a little.
We had been seeing Nicole for awhile, and she was always affirming and warm. E had talked with her about the emergent sexual identities mentioned earlier but to my knowledge had not brought up being transgender. E was correct that the main goal of this therapy has been to help manage some pretty intense anxiety, and more recently to help deal with the recently diagnosed autism that seems to be at the root of much of the anxiety. It is truly draining for E to work as hard as he does to mask his differences and carry on in environments (such as school) that assume a neurotypical norm. I wish for E’s sake we had known about his autism years ago, as we might have gotten some help and better school strategies before he was a preteen. I can only imagine how much his anxiety might be compounded by the feeling of being “different” not only neurologically, but in gender identity as well.
Here are some words I regret: “we need to not make big quick changes.” One of my strengths is thinking through things carefully, and one of my related weaknesses is wanting to move too slowly. Thank goodness for a road trip, time in the car, and a heart that was clear about needing to keep pace with my courageous, self-honest child.
We would go on a shopping spree for boy clothes the next day and would book an appointment for even shorter hair. We also started immediately learning to use his pronoun and new name, Felix. I will admit I slipped sometimes at first. Old habits are hard to break. I hope Felix can forgive the early days when I was scrambling to catch up.
Felix’s doctor was encouraging and understanding though I admit we still walked more slowly into binding than Felix really wanted. His doctor was concerned about potential restrictions on breathing (especially for a kid with a history of asthma) as well as harming growing tissues. So we started with some sports bras that flattened out his figure more or less. Within the year, though, after considerable reading and research into Felix’s favored binder company, I felt comfortable with him trying those in an appropriately roomy size. Felix seems pleased with the results, and has been very conscientious about not wearing his binder full time (not sleeping in it, for instance, and leaving it off while relaxing around the house).
I’ve gotten sick of not telling anyone struck me to the core. I recall the anger and frustration that surfaced in Felix so frequently at age 11. Though with Felix’s autism and anxiety diagnoses we thought we understood the origin of his intense and difficult feelings, I have to wonder in retrospect how much of this was also tied to the pent-up-ness of not being able to be his true self. Though we continue to struggle and muddle through the challenges of parenting a young teen on the spectrum, I do observe that his comfort in his own skin seems to have increased over the past couple of years, and I imagine that this is at least partly due to the relief of being acknowledged as the boy he is. And for all the struggling and muddling, we also experience a great deal of delight in his imagination, his quirkiness, his tender love of our pets, his steadfastness as a friend, his prodigious talent as a graphic artist, and his uniquely Felix way of seeing the world.
There I went again with my “long slow” process thing! I confess that I leaned too hard into my commitment to deliberate action. It was part of my “don’t be hasty” way of approaching new information. In reality, we saw the therapist and the doctor as planned and quickly transitioned to masculine pronouns (which have by now, 2.5 years in, shifted to a number of acceptable-to-Felix options including masculine and nonbinary pronouns), as well as calling Felix by his chosen name.
I now see this as a coming of age, Felix’s naming of himself. Would that we all had this opportunity! How powerful and empowering it is to identify yourself, to name yourself, to decide who you are and to share this with your community.
The names we gave Felix at his birth meant Life and Light. They represented for us the hope, love and joy we had in our youngest child, the miracle of him. After pregnancy losses and the death of our first son just short of age two, our last two children, both healthy and thriving, are nothing short of miracles to us. Felix’s birth names represented the miracle.
Felix’s chosen name means happiness. It seems only fitting that he should take the miracle of himself, and his own life in his clearer identity, and name it “happy.” I can think of nothing better or more honoring of his wild and precious life.
Welcome to the world, Felix. Welcome to your new life. We’re always here for you.