Chapter 9 Turning Point as Parents

As I considered my story, I found an odd paradox: that the power of the story came from the depth of the self-disclosure.

—Donna Rose

Drew had been patient with therapy, testing medications for depression and anxiety, and allowing us, as his parents, to help him. When Drew began to seriously consider and ultimately accepted that he is transgender, Vince and I owed it to him to educate ourselves on what being transgender means.

It wasn’t easy, though. We had the same limiting beliefs many people have, who have never heard of or met a transgender person. Remember the questions from our introduction:

How could a child know who they are or what they want at that age?

What kind of parent could let their child do something like that?

I don’t care what age the person is, that’s wrong.

As parents on this journey, it was vital to separate the outside world and our own insecurities from our child’s needs. For a period of time, we insulated ourselves from the harsh judgmental voices of others. We didn’t need their skeptical, fearful commentary influencing us. Although we were also ignorant about gender identity disorder, we knew it would do no good to listen to their input—no matter how well-intentioned they might seem. We needed to immerse ourselves in research, as well as consult doctors and experienced specialists. Allowing Drew to live safely as a male in our home throughout this process was a huge step toward discovering and affirming his gender for ourselves.

We had three key questions about being transgender. The first was, “Can this actually happen where the biological sex does not match gender identity?” When we understood and accepted that this mismatch actually happens, we had to ask the next question, “Can a child know he is transgender at age fifteen?” Again, when we were satisfied that, yes, a child’s gender identity is formed in the first few years of life, the next question was, “How do we know if our child is transgender and needs to transition for a happy, healthy life?” After all, not every gender non-conforming child is transgender or needs to transition.

Vince and I are engineers. We’re the geeky, logical, fact-driven, list-making, science-oriented types, and we dove into these questions looking for solid answers. Silently, I prayed that we would find something to disprove what I intuitively knew was true. I was hoping that I would find an answer amidst the research that would let me keep my little girl.

God, let it be anything else. I can handle and support my child through anything, but please not this. How will he get through this? How will I? These thoughts consumed me.

We didn’t want this. We went through the stages—from shock to denial to damage control, and finally to acceptance. In hindsight, gaining a son is a beautiful thing and we are grateful and know how lucky we are to have him. But for a time, we grasped desperately to the child we thought we were losing.

Our research and professional consultations gave us the answers and confidence we needed to know what we had ultimately come to accept—that our son was transgender. It was real, and in our son’s case, transition was urgent. We needed to move forward.

While we had the medical and scientific answers we needed, it was the Donna Rose book, Wrapped in Blue, that gave us emotional insight. Donna Rose demystified what it meant to be transgender. Her words helped me to understand her feelings and her experience living in the wrong body. I could feel her pain—not just the pain of being a woman trapped in a man’s body, but the pain from years of trying to deny it, trying to be somebody she wasn’t, and trying not to hurt the people she loved. Her bravery in telling such a personal story is commendable. I’m grateful for her courage because her words helped me better understand what my son was feeling. It helped me better understand my role in either perpetuating or alleviating my son’s pain.

Donna Rose revealed her struggles in a way that I was able to connect with her as a real person every bit as deserving of love and compassion as anybody else. That connection enabled me to see through my social, educational, and other filters, and ultimately see gender identity as separate from one’s genitalia.

We are in a time of increasing acceptance of transgender people, but it wasn’t always that way; Wrapped in Blue encapsulated the choice before me, as a parent of a transgender son. Donna Rose missed out on a significant portion of her life as a woman because family and social norms didn’t provide for transition during her childhood. I soon learned that many transgender children do not survive to be adults. I became committed to supporting my son’s transition. I didn’t want him to miss another day of living his life, comfortable in his own skin.

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from Donna Rose was how it feels to be transgender and not be able to express your identity freely. I developed the compassion and empathy that I’m embarrassed Vince and I didn’t have from the beginning.

We became more committed to putting aside our fears and reaching out. A friend suggested we attend a chapter meeting of PFLAG, the original ally organization founded in 1972, which advocates in various ways for the LGBT community.

Walking into my first PFLAG meeting, I felt nervous. Who would be there and would I fit in? I was afraid I’d be judged. I was afraid that nobody at the PFLAG meeting would have any experience with a transgender child. Surely everybody there would be families and friends of lesbians and gays—after all, PFLAG stands for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Was I going to have to educate everybody at the meeting about what it means to be transgender and the challenges our family had been encountering?

If Vince was nervous, he didn’t show it. He accompanied me to this meeting. We were supporting each other as we always have throughout our entire marriage. Vince is always strong, even when he is as scared and as clueless as I am.

It took all of about thirty seconds before I realized I was in the right place; I was accepted, warmly welcomed, and understood. Being at this PFLAG meeting was like being at my first Families Anonymous meeting. I was in a room full of people just like me. Although all of our stories were different, we shared a common, deep love for our children, and an understanding of the difficult challenges they faced. In one way or another, each of our children had been bullied, rejected, and discriminated against. Each of us watched as they were unfairly denied experiences or opportunities that their brothers or sisters were privileged to enjoy. Each of us shared different stories of our children’s paths to acceptance. I felt a strong friendship and mutual respect for everyone in the room—and it took a matter of minutes to feel that way. I was in a good place.

Our local PFLAG chapter was small and eventually folded because the previous leaders were moving on. I considered stepping up to keep the chapter alive, but I was already co-leader of the TransParent group at the Q Center. Although the number of PFLAG meetings we attended was probably less than a dozen, the friendships, resources, and opportunities gained were instrumental on our journey. Vince and I proudly marched in our first PRIDE Parade with other members of PFLAG and we were honored to help carry the PFLAG banner.

PFLAG introduced us to a dear friend who is now like a second mother to my son. In fact, Drew actually calls her mom. While I might otherwise feel hurt at the thought of my son calling somebody else Mom, she has shown him all the kindness, compassion, acceptance, and support of a mom and has treated him like her own child.

PFLAG also connected us with another friend who referred us to the LGBT Resource Center at Syracuse University. There, we were invited to borrow a video, Call me Kade, which chronicled the life of a female to male transgender youth. I couldn’t get there to pick up the video so I asked Vince to get it. Vince was very uncomfortable going someplace new and losing his anonymity. One of the challenges we had to overcome was the fear of the unknown, the social outcome, each time we outed ourselves as the parents of a transgender youth. Not yet ready to lose his anonymity, Vince did what I would expect. He searched the Internet until he found the video. It was older and very hard to find, but he did.

Call Me Kade was another turning point in our acceptance of Drew as our son. It chronicled the transformation of someone just like Drew—a transgender boy of similar age and circumstances. Suddenly most of the scariness of not knowing what was happening to Drew or that life was somehow ruined melted away. Kade and his family had put themselves out into the public so others like me and my family could learn and grow.

Philadelphia Trans Health Conference

Although Drew knew we were there for him, it was important to show, through our actions, that our entire family was in it with both feet. We didn’t know everything he was experiencing and feeling, but we were committed to learning what we needed to learn so that we could best support him and advocate for him.

Four separate people recommended that we attend the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference (PTHC): the social worker at Golisano Children’s Hospital, the program coordinator at the Q Center, and our new friends, Karen and Jason. Four people who had already made such a positive difference in our lives couldn’t be wrong, so we made our reservations and told Drew to check out the workshops for teens. Vince and I signed up for every workshop for parents and allies, as well as several designed for educators—splitting duties when two were scheduled at the same time. Attending this conference as a family was a way to show Drew he was not alone on this journey of discovery.

I remember looking at all the workshop titles and descriptions and getting very excited. There was a workshop for everything: hormones, parenting perspectives, transitioning in school, topics of significance for female to male transition, name changes, binding, top surgery, legal issues, and so much more. There were workshops about topics that affected Drew and our family immediately, and workshops for issues that were way down the road.

It wasn’t until I got to the conference that I realized how much more there was for us beyond the workshops. I knew that going there was the right thing to do and was important, but I had no idea how much so until I actually experienced it.

By the time we attended the conference in May of 2011, Drew had already been living as a male in our home for six months. These were six intense months with a lot of growth, learning, and progress on his transition. He had been wearing a binder and presenting as a male. We had the pronouns down and told all our family and friends about Drew and his transition. We had seen a pediatric endocrinologist and Drew started hormone therapy (testosterone.) We had done and learned so much, that by the time May rolled around, I think we developed the attitude that we knew it all and didn’t need to go to the conference. The reality at the conference proved otherwise! We were just scratching the surface; we were just starting. Our experience at the conference was like drinking water from a fire hose.

Finding Hope at PTHC

For three days, the conference focused on everything transgender. As much as we had been immersing ourselves in reading and learning all we could, we were limited by what was available in Central New York as far as doctors, therapists, and professionals who had experience working with transgender people and their families. In our community, the number of transgender people and parents who have children who transitioned is small.

Everything we could need was there for us at the conference. It had a smorgasbord of specialists. You want to talk to surgeons? There’s a whole bunch of them. You want to talk to people who have already had surgery? You got it. Therapists. Educators. Lawyers. Parents. Children. Clergymen. We met all of these people and heard firsthand about their experiences. All of our questions were answered; this time not just from textbooks and research, but by sitting and talking to real people, face-to-face.

Despite me being an engineer, always seeking facts through research, I also seek insight. I need to see, feel, and have an experience. That’s how I learn and that’s how I ultimately make decisions. I don’t let my intuition and gut guide me completely, but listening to people, looking someone in the eye, and hearing about their journey enables me to understand and envision what’s right or wrong for me.

At the Q Center, I met a few other transgender people and their families, but at the conference I got to meet hundreds and see thousands. I met people of all ages, in all stages of transition, and at all stages of their life. There were people already transitioned for many years who were in their twenties and thirties, out of college, in loving relationships, married, or gainfully employed. Many were living what I consider happy, healthy lives, and I became filled with hope.

The PTHC’s gift to me was priceless: I gained another robust picture of what the future could look like for my son. For fifteen years, I envisioned a future for my daughter. Those images were now lost to me and for a while I had nothing to replace them with. I didn’t know what my child’s future would look like. The people I met at the PTHC provided me a realistic, hopeful picture of the future that awaited my son.

How TYFA has helped

My first PTHC conference was largely shaped by an organization called TYFA, which stands for Trans Youth Family Allies. TYFA’s founding members are parents of transgender youth who came together first to support each other. They now support hundreds of families. TYFA empowers children and families by partnering with educators, service providers, and communities to develop supportive environments in which gender may be expressed and respected. TYFA envisions a society free of suicide and violence in which all children are respected and celebrated.

At the conference, TYFA offered several workshops and an opportunity to connect with other parents. Many of those parents had children who transitioned before kindergarten.

I will never forget the first TYFA workshop I attended: Minimizing the Top Ten Fears of Raising a Transgender/Gender Variant Child.

One of the first things the executive president of TYFA shared as she voiced her early fears was: “Who is going to love my child?” Tears filled my eyes immediately. She said something that I had felt, but was afraid to ever say out loud. My love for Drew is so big that I don’t know how to express it in words. I know how much love, goodness, kindness, and wonderfulness is within him, and I had this same fear. I often thought to myself, Who will love my child? He is so deserving of love. Who will love him the way he deserves to be loved? I was crying, and we were only minutes into the program.

The workshop was lively. More than a hundred parents started to raise their hands and share their fears. Just like my first Families Anonymous and PFLAG meetings, I felt an immediate sense of connection, knowing others in the room had similar fears, questions, and experiences. Although we were all at different stages of our personal journeys, I now had a larger community. I was not alone.

I saw myself six months earlier in some people; brand new to the transgender issue and just learning. Some, although managing to get to the conference, were still in a state of doubt, disbelief, or denial. I saw people where we were then—several months into the journey. I had a sense of already knowing, accepting, and understanding what it means to be transgender.

I also got to see parents who were years down the road where their child had already transitioned. I could see we had an enormous responsibility to help our son through hormones, surgeries, a name change, school accommodations, transitioning outside our home. These new friends offered advice to make things easier and avoid common mistakes.

None of these steps were simple or trivial, so the help of others who had been through them was tremendous. There was so much to consider and do. For example, the name change process alone involves many steps beyond getting it approved by a court. There’s also getting a revised Social Security card, birth certificate, passport, driver’s license, school documents, insurance, and medical documents. I took for granted all the places where a birth name exists.

After leaving the Philly conference, TYFA continued to provide another vital resource: its listserv, which is a community like the Q Center, but online. TYFA’s listserv is an email list that connects hundreds of families with transgender youth. People on the listserv gave me hope that our family’s transition wasn’t always going to be so overwhelming. People were sharing how they stepped through the process. Whenever somebody meets challenges, there is compassionate support and practical help.

My local community of parents with transgender children may be small, with roughly twenty in our TransParent group, but the TYFA listserv connects me with hundreds of other parents across the country. TYFA’s listserv is a community of allies and angels, created by allies and angels.

Developed Sense of Urgency from PTHC

The Philly conference filled me with an incredible sense of urgency. Drew was still a child (although he might argue with us about this). He was still growing. He was fragile. He was learning. It became apparent to me that there was still a lot of his childhood left. At age fifteen, he had two years left in high school; it was not too late for him to create childhood memories that he could look back on happily.

We met so many people at the conference who transitioned in their thirties, forties, or fifties. They lived their childhood and young adult years in the wrong bodies. They didn’t get the chance to experience their childhood as their identified gender. We had the power to help Drew experience his remaining years of high school as a male.

I felt a need to get beyond the fact that he’s transgender and get the focus back on how he’s just a really great teenager. He’s transgender, so what? Now, let’s get on with the rest of life.

It became clear that I had a role to play in this transition. Initially, our approach was that of typical parents: cautious. “Alright, let’s wait and see. If after you’re eighteen you want to have surgery, if you’re sure you want to do this, well then, we’ll talk about it.”

Going to the conference helped me understand that my role in Drew’s time-sensitive transition was crucial. I could help my son experience at least part of his childhood as the boy he has always been. To do this; however, I realized the initial cautious approach wasn’t going to work. Through the PTHC, I also learned waiting until Drew was eighteen wasn’t necessary either. At this point we all knew, without any doubt, that Drew was a boy. Why put this arbitrary line in the sand that he can’t start living and being who he really is until he is eighteen? Why deny him two years or more of being comfortable in his own skin? Why deny him the ability to create memories that he can look back on and feel good about?

A Special Thanks to Chaz Bono

Chaz Bono spoke at the PTHC. I bought his book at the conference and read it before the trip was over. Reading his book and hearing his story contributed significantly to one of my major take aways from the conference—that there was still a chance for Drew to experience the latter part of his childhood as a boy.

What Chaz Bono represented to me, and one of the reasons I’m so grateful to him for sharing his story, is that he explains so well about the loss he experienced. He, as a transgender person, never had the childhood of a boy. Some of us are old enough to remember images of the little girl, “Chastity” on the Sonny and Cher show. Those images are not how Chaz sees himself. He created such a vivid, visible example of the years he lost; years that I have the ability to help Drew keep.

My heart breaks that Chaz doesn’t have any period of memories growing up, even into his thirties, of being who he really is. He shares in his book, Transition:

Along with going through all of the changes that have happened as a result of transitioning, I have also experienced a deep sense of loss and profound sadness for the 40 years of life I spent inside of the wrong body. In addition to the elation that I have felt while becoming the man I was always meant to be, I have had to grieve that my life is half over and I am only now feeling like a complete human being. I grieve for my lost youth, for the boy and young man that I didn’t get to be, and I grieve because I will never experience what it’s like to grow up as a man, only what it’s like to grow old as one.

In spite of this sense of loss, which has now diminished greatly, I am more grateful than words can express for my life, and am happier and more fulfilled than I’ve ever been.

I so admire Chaz for his courage to share his story publicly. He speaks so honestly about his feelings. He wants to increase awareness and help other kids have the opportunity to experience their childhood wholly, as themselves. He was brave to begin his gender transition in the public eye. By doing so, he continues to impact change and create awareness and visibility for the transgender community. As somebody who has been changed by it, I am forever grateful. His brave and unselfish actions have contributed to my awareness as a parent—helping me more quickly provide what my child needs.

Chaz helped me realize that I play a paramount role in driving Drew’s transition. I don’t know how long it would have taken for me to come to these realizations on my own. As well-intentioned as I am and as much as I love Drew, as much as I read every book I could get my hands on, as much as I researched every website I could find and talked to every doctor and professional I could; without meeting other people like Chaz Bono who are willing to be vulnerable and expose themselves in front of the whole world—knowing that a very large number of people are going to be critical and judgmental and mean—it could have taken me years. It’s because of those stories and those people and the opportunity to meet them that I got to this place of acceptance and urgency as soon as I did.

Every day my respect grows ever stronger for those who can be so open about such personal topics, because it is so scary, so vulnerable, and so hard. It’s kind of like pinning your heart on a bull’s eye where people can take aim and shoot. You don’t know how your story is going to be received—with empathy or with arrows. It can hurt, and yet, they do it anyway.

I recall standing in line at the conference, waiting to get my book signed by Chaz. As I watched him autograph books and take pictures, his kindness, compassion, and beautiful soul shined through. Many months later, I would hear from a mom on the TYFA listserv about how Chaz showed up at her door and surprised her young son with a visit. Chaz is a member of the Board of Transforming Families, a support group for families with gender diverse children. He’s just a good person using his experience to help make a difference. I want to be like that.