Over this past weekend, I attended my first conference about this whole “transgender thing,” the Gender Odyssey conference in Seattle. It’s an annual gathering for transgender and other gender-nonconforming folks, the professionals who work with them, and those who love them. As the mother of a young “trans girl,” I fall solidly and vehemently into the last category.
How was it, you ask?
The short answer: Informative, validating, terrifying, inspiring. It was a homecoming to a family I didn’t know existed for a mom like me with a child like mine.
It was also exhausting. At 8:30 a.m. on a Friday morning, I find myself riding up the escalator to the top floor of the Washington State Convention Center, bleary-eyed and hoping they have strong coffee at this thing. There’s a young family several steps above me, with two little girls – about 6 and 9 years old, I guess. Both are blond and decked out in a blaze of pink, just like every other little girl their age – including mine. I can’t help wondering, “Which one?”
It doesn’t take long to figure this out. In the registration line, I introduce myself to the mom and tell her about my transgender daughter, who’s five and a half. Her face lights up. “Lucy is six!” Suddenly, we’re hugging each other. I don’t even know her name yet.
The next three days are a blur of moments like this – tearful embraces with people I barely know but whose fear and pain I suspect I know all too well. We’ve flown in from all over the country to be a part of this, to find each other. The moms hug in the hallways as we scurry from session to session, the dads give each other supportive manly pats on the back. In the meetings, we nod furiously when another parent is talking. Yes, yes, yes! You get it! You get me! You get my kid!
For this one weekend, we aren’t strange. No one is surprised by anything we say, because they are saying it, too. No one is questioning our sanity or our judgment as parents. No one finds us, or our kids, fascinating. The sense of relief is everywhere.
This conference started out in 2001 as a place for trans adults to come together to share information and support. They later expanded to include a family version, which is what I’m attending. The family conference sessions are a mix of the practical (Trans Youth in Schools, Cross Hormones, Family Law) and the intensely emotional: I Love My Son, but I Miss My Daughter.
For many of us, the conference starts off with a session called Top Ten Fears. This one is well-named, except that I doubt any of us could limit our list of terrors to just ten.
A young dad with a buzz cut starts things off by saying that the kids at school are bullying his third-grade trans daughter. “They call her a ‘He-She,’” he says, his voice breaking. “How can they do that to my little girl? Why won’t the teachers stop them? How can I help her?” He is weeping, and soon so is the rest of the room. We pass him tissues while the facilitator tries to say something reassuring.
A mother of a teenager stands up to confess. “When my son told me he was a girl, I told him he could be as gay as he wanted, but if he was transgender, he needed to find another place to live.” The room falls silent in horror, but also in recognition – a few years earlier and without support like we’re getting this weekend, that could be any of us. That could be me. “How am I ever going to make up for everything I did wrong?” she says.
“Who will love my child?” another mother laments. “What if he gets rejected when his girlfriend finds out he’s not a ‘real man?’ Who will love him?” Around the room, shoulders slump.
But it’s not all darkness. “There is nothing wrong with our children,” the mom next to me says. “It’s the world that’s fucked up, not our kids!” She gets a round of applause. Whatever fears terrorize us, the parental pride here is palpable: Not once all weekend do I hear anyone speak about their trans child with shame or judgment.
Other sessions are more informational, and we learn things we don’t necessarily want to know, but need to: 41% of trans people have attempted suicide, puberty blockers can cost up to $18,000 a year, bullying and violence against kids like ours are a virtual given. “It’s gonna happen,” a facilitator tells us, “so you have to prepare your kids for how they’ll respond.”
A lawyer tells us about the flimsy patchwork of laws that fails to protect our children. He proposes strategies for working with schools without resorting to lawsuits. “Assume that teachers and administrators care about your children,” he says, “but that they know nothing at all about this issue.”
We talk a lot about bathrooms. Which one should our kids use at school? Little trans girls in dresses obviously can’t use the boys’ bathroom, but because they have penises, school administrators freak out about them using the girls’ bathroom. A common “solution” to this “problem” is to instruct trans kids to use the nurse’s bathroom.
“This never works,” the presenter tells us, because it causes these kids to feel ostracized and singled out, and then they just stop using the bathroom at all. “They end up ‘holding it,’ all day long, every single day,” she says. A room-full of mothers shake their heads, tut-tutting at this unhealthy state of affairs. Pity the principals who will be facing these mothers when school starts this fall!
A lot of what we hear over the weekend are things that we already know, deep in our hearts and bones, to be true. But it is still a sublime relief to have our parental instincts confirmed by the experts.
“You could no sooner stop your child from being trans than you can stop the sun from shining,” says a therapist who has dedicated her career to working with kids like ours.
“Yes,” I hear myself saying in response, under my breath, to no one in particular. Other parents around me are doing the same. Yes. Yes.
The doctor at the medical panel seems familiar. I realize later that I’ve seen her on TV. She explains the ins and outs of “blockers” to a room-full of parents experiencing what she calls “puberty panic:” The fear of experiencing the wrong puberty and its irreversible effects on the body: Broad shoulders, Adam’s apples, and facial hair would be a nightmare for little trans girls like mine, and all the statistics say this is when kids get depressed and suicidal. I take a lot of notes during this session. My child is only five, but in just a few years, I’ll need to know all about this (and figure out how to pay for it). The blockers will put puberty on ice for a little while, buying some precious time for my child to “make sure” that this is who she really is, for keeps, before we start the estrogen and, Pinocchio-like, she becomes a “real girl.”
I have left M. with a friend for the first day of the conference, but by the second day, I miss her and want her with me. The conference has a free day camp for the kids. I realize that I want M. to meet the other kids like her, that I want the other parents to meet the child I’m here for, and that I want to hold her in my arms between sessions.
When she arrives, she’s impatient to join the other kids – they’re playing princesses and pirates in the day camp. Peeking into the room, I’m struck by how conventional these children appear: The boys wear dark-hued T-shirts and have standard-issue closely cropped “boy” haircuts. The girls sport a lot of pink. In this blessedly androgynous stage of life, there’s absolutely no way to tell which kids prompted their parents to travel across the country for this, and which are their “normal,” cisgendered siblings.
By the end of second day, my mind is numb. Another mom and I skip out of the last session and leave the conference center in search of a drink. We order a beer and take a deep breath, but of course all we talk about is our kids. Hers is “going in the other direction” – what my child would call a “boy with a vagina.” And we’re as fascinated by each other’s experiences as people generally are by us: I’ve gotten pretty used to having a girl with a penis, but a boy with a vagina? That intimidates me. The mom feels the same about me: “I have to admit that I’m relieved to have a trans boy instead of a trans girl,” she says. “Testosterone is just so darn powerful, so even if he waits until he’s older to transition, he can still probably ‘pass’ as male. That’s not the case for a lot of male-to-female adults.” I hadn’t thought about that.
Then we consider my child’s “advantage” as a trans girl: It’s way easier to make a vagina than it is to build a penis. But she’s upbeat about it. “I’ve heard the surgery outcomes are getting much better,” she says. “No more manual pumps.”
I’m not really sure what other moms of five year olds talk about over a beer, but I’m guessing it’s not this.
On the final day of the conference, I attend the “teen panel.” A dozen trans teens tell their stories to a room packed with parents hanging on their every word. Sure, our children are doing OK now, under our watchful care, at the tender ages of 5 and 8 and 10 years old. But the statistics are grim for trans adolescents, with higher rates of depression, self-harm, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide than any other group their age. We’ve come to this session hoping the statistics can be outfoxed, and that these kids will tell us how.
A trans teen boy breaks down while talking about his father. “I just wish he’d see me.” I resist the urge to rush to the front of the room and embrace him. All around me, other parents lean forward helplessly in their seats.
A leggy trans teen girl in short cut-offs and a pastel pink tank top waits patiently for her turn to talk. “I really want a family,” she says. “I can’t wait to be a mom.” She has the kind of long, blond Barbie-doll hair my daughter covets, and she speaks to a roomful of strangers with an easy confidence that few of us adults could match. She says her parents have been very supportive. She says she just started estrogen and is excited about growing breasts. She says that no one at her school knows she’s transgender.
“Not even your best friends?” someone asks.
“Are you kidding?” she laughs. “It’s junior high! If I tell even one of them, the whole school will know by the next day.” She is nobody’s fool.
The conference ends with a picnic at a local park. I spot the girl sitting on a bench, and point her out to M. “Shall we go meet her?” We introduce ourselves. Her name is Hanna. She offers to push M. on the swings. They walk off toward the playground, hand in hand.
I watch them from across the park. An older version of Hanna says hello – her mother, of course. As has been the case all weekend, we skip the small talk. She tells me they’re trying to get the doctors to agree to surgery at 16; the American standard is to wait until age 18. “She’s known who she was since she was five years old! It just kills me that she has to wait so long.”
Across the park, M. is running into Hanna’s arms for a hug.
“Your daughter is beautiful,” I say.
She smiles and squeezes my arm. “So is yours.”
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Some great resources:
Gender Odyssey – This is the conference I attended. I hope to be there again next year. Maybe I’ll see you there…
Gender Spectrum – This is supposed to be another great conference. It’s in San Francisco.
TYFA (Trans Youth Family Allies) – Fantastic source of support and information for parents of kids like mine.