TRANSGENDER | LGBTQ | FAMILY
My Trans Son: One Mom’s Journey
From “my little girl” to “my handsome young man”
My son shares some of his journey in this story, but this post is mostly about my journey as his mom: the concerns I had, why I had them, and how he helped me move beyond them. Most of my objections came from my own experience. That’s where being a parent starts. I felt it was okay to start there, but if I ended there, wasn’t I just a bad parent?
Supporting my trans son took some time. What finally got me there was realizing he’s my child, the child he always was, the child I taught, who taught me, who I had fun with, and who I had arguments with. Gender is not trivial by any means, but it isn’t the thing that defines him to me. I didn’t lose “my little girl.” He was my child, my oldest. He was more a person than a girl at any point to me.
But reaching this point took some time.
He can be whatever kind of girl he wants to be
I’m in the LGBTQ continuum myself, which presented some confusion when he first told me.
When I was 12, I hated being a girl. This was in Iowa in the 1970s. I had not heard of “lesbian” let alone “transgender.” I was a “tomboy.” I played sports with the boys until they got too big for me to compete with. Then they spent time with girls who looked and acted the way girls were supposed to, and that wasn’t me. I had nothing in common with other girls and the boys wanted nothing from me anymore. My early teens were the worst few years of my life.
In time, I learned I was gender nonconforming and found I loved being a girl, when I could be the kind of girl I wanted to be. I love being a woman now. And I love other women. I’m proudly feminist, and on occasion, I’m even an angry feminist of the stereotypical kind. So when my daughter — who I was going to raise to be a proud independent feminist woman — told me she was a boy, I said, “No you’re not! You’re just gender nonconforming. Except for those two weeks in 4th grade when you wore Hello Kitty clothes in a valiant test of your convictions, which I was proud of, by the way. Don’t worry, honey. You can be whatever kind of girl you want to be!”
See, that was my experience. I hated being a girl because I didn’t like what was expected of girls.
Being all philosophical (we homeschooled before high school, which prepared us for deep discussions), we got into what gender really is and why it matters what others think. My son was clear with me, and I must give him credit. No, he told me. I’m a boy. It’s not about what I want to do; it’s about how I see myself and how others see me. I am a boy, and I want to experience life as a boy.
But I wasn’t done.
He might change his mind
Of course, I want to help and protect my child. Part of that is protecting him from himself. I feared he would make this decision and regret it later. Again, personal experiences informed my concern.
When I was 14 years old, I skipped school so much I had to take summer school classes. I skipped because I believed everyone hated me. I heard them talking about me all the time, and I was terrified — seriously phobic — to even enter some classrooms. I wanted to drop out of school. I tried to talk my mother into allowing me to quit or go to an alternative school (there was no homeschool at that time). I made threats and was prevented from doing anything permanent.
In other words, I was crazy. No, really. That’s the word. I was paranoid and imagining things as a highly sensitive, hormone-surging adolescent with a very big brain. When the fog finally cleared, I recall wondering what all the to-do had been about. By late high school I was partying with friends, dating, and off to an Ivy League college.
So, thank god no one let me make a permanent life-altering decision when I was 14.
That was especially important for me because I became a mother late in life. It wasn’t until I met my third spouse when I was 37 that I decided I wanted children. Being pregnant was the most deeply spiritual time of my life. It has given meaning to everything else. Having children is the single best thing that ever happened to me. So, the greatest experience of my life, which I dismissed out of hand and never wanted until one moment at 37, would not have been possible if I had made a body-altering decision at 14.
When my son and I were talking about these issues, social media had blown up with TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) who warned and threatened. I also had friends telling me about detransitioning (regret and attempts to undo the changes of transitioning). I carried all these worries into our discussions. Why couldn’t he just live like a man, dressing how he wished, assuming a new name, and leave the chemicals, surgery, and official documents out of it?
Then a friend’s daughter died. She was 23. Unimaginable. But I did imagine, and then I realized that my son might not live to be 37. What if he lived to be only 23 and never had the chance to be himself because I forced him to plan on being 37 and changing his mind like I did?
On the other hand, maybe he would, indeed, live long, and maybe he would, indeed, regret his choice, and then what? How many choices have I made that I would change, but I live with the consequences? How much risk should I allow him to take?
Finally, I get it
As a parent I knew a lot about my child, but the question I asked was whether he was mature enough to make a permanent decision. Child psychologists and medical professionals have more experience with child development, so I looked to their expertise to provide therapy and feedback.
What I heard from two therapists, a psychiatrist, and an adolescent endocrinologist was concern for kids who experience depression and attempt suicide if forced to maintain an identity that makes them dysphoric. My son was severely dysphoric about his chest, and we had a few months of real concern for his safety as we came to our decision. In the end, the aftermath of top surgery alone profoundly changed his life. The depression and isolation that had overtaken my adolescent, who was once an exuberant child, disappeared in weeks and never returned.
I finally got it that my experience isn’t his experience, and even more important, it doesn’t matter whether I ever understand his experience or not. I had to accept it. I had to believe he knew himself better than I knew him.
My son wanted to come out to family and school, change his pronouns, change his name, take testosterone, and have top surgery. After more discussion and some time in therapy, we agreed we would start taking these steps one at a time.
The following steps took place over three years.
Pronouns, name change, and bathrooms
We started using different pronouns at home.
Requesting extended family do this was a big step, but we did it. The first reaction among some was “I will never call her a boy!” and my response was “Oh, yes you will.” When he changed his name, again I heard, “I will never use that name!” and again my response was “Oh, yes you will.” I had been called “Terry” all growing up and requested everyone call me “Teresa” when I reached high school. No big deal. They call me “Teresa” to this day.
Some members of our family had religious objections and made inappropriate solicitations to him. By that I mean, they contacted him without my permission to shame him. We had little to do with them at the time and certainly won’t going forward. This essay is about our personal journey, so I won’t write much about the religious and political arguments against trans people expressing who they are, except to say those arguments are nothing less than sophistry used to control the patriarchal power structure.
We are fortunate to live in a liberal oasis in a conservative state. The high school he attended changed his pronouns on documents. His school counselor helped him speak with his teachers to request a new name and new pronouns. He had no trouble with any of the staff.
The school was putting in a non-gendered restroom, but my son still used the boys’. In fact, he used the men’s restrooms wherever we went. I remember the first few times I saw him go there (men’s) when I went here (women’s). My heart raced with fear. I almost panicked imagining what might happen.
Let me tell you, that was a feeling that was to recur over-and-over for the next few years as he took one step after another. I mean, every step he took, I had to take with him, and I’m not nearly as brave as he is.
I have compassion for parents who have difficulty taking these steps with their kids, because it’s clear to me how scared they are, and not just for their kids but because of them. They fear rejection and castigation. As a parent of a trans kid, I was being called to take on society, and I had not nearly enough self-confidence and conviction to stand my ground. Thankfully, my son is a good role model.
Dress, testosterone, top surgery, birth certificate, driver’s license
He began to dress more clearly masculine, including vests and ties, which gained him some admirers.
The local university has an LGBTQ Clinic. It took six months to get an appointment, but he got testosterone approved. He continued to see a therapist who had to give written approval for top surgery at the university, and he had to be on testosterone for a year, as well.
The surgeon who performed the procedure was LGBTQ affirming but he was retiring soon, and the clinic wasn’t sure who would replace him. My son was squeezed in as the surgeon’s last surgery. The surgeon made sure to provide a doctor’s letter confirming my son is male.
We applied for a new birth certificate with new name and gender. A few months later, he received the new birth certificate, and we used that to change his social security card and driver’s license.
Those previous few paragraphs are a quick summary of a process that included a great deal of paperwork and money, but I didn’t want to drown readers in detail.
We have been fortunate in many ways: living in an area with LGBTQ support, living near a university hospital with LGBTQ resources, having good insurance, and an above-average income. We hit the goldilocks zone. Most trans kids don’t have these resources and opportunities. That’s why the current movement in conservative areas to deny them and their parents help is so heinous.
When he left our home, new worries surfaced. How should we navigate college? Dormitory or apartment? Roommate or single? Another of my fears was coercion and rape. This wasn’t the first time I worried about this.
I hope everyone is aware of the terrible statistics about rape and violence against trans people. Those concerns are real and never far from my thoughts. But long before I knew the statistics, I was concerned by what I saw from a more common adolescent boy-girl dynamic.
When my son first started this journey, he was in junior high school. He was presenting himself as a boy, but the other boys knew him as the girl they had grown up with. There were situations where I worried that some of his friends would take advantage of his desire to be one of the guys to gain access to his girl body. But my son never wavered in presenting who he was to anyone and what he wouldn’t put up with. He had walked away from friends when he needed to.
I worried about the same thing in college, but as his first year in college is coming to an end, he has a cis male roommate who doesn’t really care what’s under his clothes. He’s made friends with kids all along the LGBTQ spectrum.
My trans son educates me
The fluidity of gender and sexuality is new to me. I don’t often have the words to discuss the concepts, and when I try, I often feel embarrassed and may even offend. The knee-jerk reaction is to resist the necessity to learn, but that’s cowardly, and if there’s one thing my son has taught me, it’s how to be brave.
My son knew he was trans since he was young, but he just didn’t have the words to describe it. Like many other trans people he’s known, he discovered the term “transgender” online, but it wasn’t a big realization. It was just a “finally” moment. He finally had the word for what he had always known about himself.
The next thing he knew, he was looking up post-transition photos. No matter what else happened, one day he was going to look like that because he already looked that way on the inside. His inside self, how he pictured himself in his head, was never as a girl. He could never visualize himself as an adult woman. In fact, he’s an artist and has been drawing himself as a boy and a man since he was very young.
He tells me his way of being trans isn’t the only way. Some people could never transition, wanting to remain their birth sex but presenting as another. They can transition from a she/her lesbian to a he/him lesbian. They can transition fully to male then present as female. They can be agender and transition to any point they feel comfortable.
The terms “transmasc” and “transfem” are not new concepts, but they are new terms to help describe gender experience. The terms and identities are growing beyond the dictionary definitions. A lesbian can get top surgery, hormones, change their name, go by he/him, but still identify as female and lesbian. With all the evolution of LGBTQ+, it’s important to separate the person from the label.
My son doesn’t mind sharing his experience, especially when he can help other trans people and their parents navigate this complex process. But also, he doesn’t feel compelled to share it, either.
In the middle of this transitioning process, I wanted to be supportive, so I made an effort to learn how to speak about it. I wanted to be respectful to how he saw himself and wanted others to see him. (I tend to be glib.) I focused on “trans” all the time. He appreciated my effort but said he just wanted to be a boy. So now I don’t automatically say my oldest is a transman.
Because he’s just a man.
And if you want to know what kind of man he is, I can tell you he’s an honest, curious, hard-working, intelligent, creative, and compassionate man. What else matters?