A few months ago, I got an email at work from Peter, one of the software developers my company had hired to design our smart phone app. This is what it said:
Since we last talked, I am about half a year into a gender transition and am now living full-time as a woman. Please refer to me as Kate from now on. This is my new email address.
I wrote Kate* back to congratulate her and told her about my five-year-old trans daughter. We made a date to meet later that week for dinner.
As we eat our Thai food, Kate tells me about her transition. “My brain loves estrogen,” she says. She tells me how happy she is, how right things feel now after so many years of everything feeling all wrong.
Looking across the table at her, she seems so young and vulnerable. She reminds me of a teenager, and in a way, she is one: I’ve heard that transition can feel like a second puberty, with all those new hormones coursing through your body. Kate’s teen self is a bit self-conscious and awkward: She’s trying out new styles (she admits she’s pretty obsessed with clothes), forging new friendships and romances. “I’m boy crazy,” she says, giggling.
She feels like a little sister. Since I’m in my forties and she’s in her mid-twenties, I’m nearly old enough to be her mother, actually. I feel very protective of her – this fledgling woman out in the big, bad, transphobic world. Violence against transgender people is no myth and the statistics are appalling. I don’t like the idea of this newly minted girl walking around the city alone. Having lived her entire prior life as a man, does she realize how vulnerable she is? Kate reassures me that she has mace in her purse at all times.
We also talk about my daughter, M. – born apparently male, but identifying consistently as female since she could form the words to tell me so. “Just let her be herself,” Kate says. “Don’t judge her.” I listen closely. Kate knows something about my child’s internal world that I will never quite understand.
“Are you jealous of M.?” I ask her.
“How could I not be?” she says. “She’ll only have to go through one adolescence – the right one.”
Kate tells me about a newly formed group of local transgender activists. A few weeks later, I go to one of their evening meetings. I’m the only “mom” in the room, and perhaps the only cisgender person there as well. I am nervous about how I’ll be received. But when they learn that I am there in support of my daughter, I’m given a round of applause.
“I wish my parents were here,” one person says.
“Oh Lord, I don’t!” says another. We all laugh. I hug myself and think, Someday I’ll tell my daughter about this night and she’ll understand how much I love her.
I sign up to volunteer for an upcoming event, where I meet more people like Kate, who transitioned in their teens, twenties, thirties. I meet one of them for coffee and she tells me about how happy she has been since she married her beautiful wife. She wants to hear all about my daughter. “Heck, I have a penis, too!” she says. “You can tell her that.” She even offers to babysit.
Up until this point, my interactions related to my child’s transgender “issue” have been limited to my support group of parents of young transgender kids. We gather monthly, led lovingly in conversation by an adult trans guy who never judges us and always has Kleenex at the ready.
We compare notes and fret and sympathize and welcome the newbies who are just beginning to realize that perhaps this isn’t just a phase after all. The majority of us started out as clueless as the average American is about transgender identities, which is, as you can imagine, a cluelessness of epic proportions. But God love us, we’re trying.
In this group I have made new friends whose compassion and advice have changed my daughter’s life – and mine – for the better, forever.
But it’s not the same as making friends like Kate. With Kate, I have found a solace I never found among the other cisgendered parents, as we huddle together like nervous chickens, hoping for safety in numbers but admittedly barely able to fathom our precious chicks.
When I’m around Kate and my other new trans pals – strong, healthy, confident thirtysomethings who have no doubt that they’re going to change the world – I realize how much of my fear has been based on that age-old enemy of courage: ignorance. While there are some very real dangers to fear (transphobic violence among them), most of my fears have been exposed for the rubbish they are: phantoms born of circus-side-show-style sensationalism (think Jerry Springer) and – perhaps even worse – silence: an obliterating silence about the fact that transgender people exist at all.
The reality is that my new trans friends are living lives chock-full of the same kinds of boring problems I face: Bad bosses, lame boyfriends, allergies, acne. In many cases they have also endured a host of persecutions and terrors that few cisgendered people can contemplate. And yet, they’re doing… OK. They’re muddling through this life just like I am. I think about this and say to myself: “Yeah, my kid will be alright.”
I took M. to meet Kate for pizza. Kate was obviously not very at ease with kids. She seemed a little nervous about talking to M. But M. dug Kate. She kept getting up from her chair and walking around the table to hug her.
Kate had told me I could tell M. that she was trans, too, so I had mentioned to M. that Kate “was living as a boy until last year, when she realized that she was actually a girl.” Was that why M. was so drawn to her? My kid is not generally the huggy, affectionate type with strangers. Was she picking up on the same vulnerability that I had seen in Kate and trying to take care of her? Or was she claiming her as one of her own?
On the drive home from dinner with Kate, M. said, “Can we have that lady over to play soon?”
“You bet, kiddo.”
*Kate and Peter are pseudonyms to protect my friend’s privacy.