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I didn't see him coming. I didn't have a little girl who looked or acted in any way like a boy, and my early-adolescent Sarah was tiny, with flowing hair, painted nails, and a continuous stream of boyfriends. Sarah was a little sister, the younger of my two daughters, a niece, a granddaughter.
I'm writing this essay while looking at two pictures of the same person. One is an old picture of Sarah when she was thirteen years old, her beautiful self smiling back at me. Next to this picture is one of my son, before testosterone, but after coming out as transgender. This is a photograph of my wonderful boy, now with short hair, the same big, brown eyes, wearing his signature leather jacket and looking into the camera with confidence and a broad grin—someone I would not have missed knowing for anything in the world.
When Sarah was seventeen, I picked her up from an out-of-state summer arts program and watched her say good-bye to a friend who addressed her as "Sean." Sean. This was the first time I had heard the name my child had chosen for himself, and it is probably not an exaggeration to say that at that moment a tectonic plate shifted under my feet.
Acknowledging this name was important, I knew. But I was in complete panic, and it was like that for a while as Sean patiently (and not so patiently) educated me about what he had been experiencing and what he knew to be true about himself. He also had certain requests, one of them being that I say "he," "him," and "his" when referring to him. For some parents, "mastering the pronouns" may feel enormously challenging, but by using these identifiers, I feel like I have won Sean's respect.
I was very active in my children's lives, yet Sean's transgender world was something I refused to educate myself about, at first. I shied away from reading or watching anything on the subject of gender identity. I didn't look into support groups or seek out parents of transgender children. Yet when someone suggested that Sean's identity was "just a phase," with the intention of consoling me, my back went up, and I found myself defending my new son and praising his courage.
I was counting on my child to guide me. He seemed to be educating everyone around him, all the time, yet this was a lot to ask of such a young person who was only just learning who he was. To have to blaze a trail as trans in an inner-city high school, in addition to educating his own parents, must have been very difficult for him. But Sean was a good and able teacher. And so it seems especially poignant that he is now in graduate school studying to be a teacher. He is also an activist for transgender rights.
Does the path from birth to transgender ever follow a straight line? Sarah had come out as a lesbian at age fifteen. We were all sitting around the Thanksgiving table at my mother's house. I had recently divorced my husband of twenty years, and we were spending this day with my extended family. Sarah sat to my left and her big sister to my right.
Toward the end of the meal, Sarah climbed onto my lap and asked if we could go around the table and each say what we were most thankful for. As her turn approached, she said something about school, yet I could feel her petite frame vibrating with emotion. When everyone was done, she grabbed her sister's hand under the table, took a deep breath, and asked, in a wobbly voice, if we could go around the table again because someone might have left something out.
Everyone became quiet as we each, again, found something to be grateful for, waiting for what was obviously something important from Sarah. This time around, she said that she was grateful that her parents had "come out" as unhappy in their marriage, because this gave her permission to come out as gay. The table was stunned into silence for only a brief moment, and then my family rose from their seats to hug her.
I was dazed, but not confused. Through all the boyfriends and the lipstick and the sparkly nail polish, something had been transpiring for Sarah in middle school. She experienced a kind of persecution that was too ugly for her to talk about for much of the time. There was a rumored girlfriend among her succession of boyfriends. Former friends taunted and tortured her. She and I talked about so many things, yet this area seemed too tender to probe. Looking back, I can't figure out whether this sensitivity was mine or hers.
Sarah was "out" now, but something hard to name was still deeply out of reach for me. What I didn't realize at the time was that this something was really a someone. It was Sean, and Sean was most definitely within reach for my daughter.
She found him by listening to that voice that so many of us have learned to ignore amid the din of expectation and assumption. I was ignoring what was probably screaming at me as Sarah experimented with her hair, which was the most visible and perhaps safest way she could express her gender identity. The long hair became a bob, then a Mohawk. We went shopping for clothing in the boys' department. I came to understand that her clothing was not a costume, not something she was trying on for size, and that her female parts were not a secret she was keeping. She was bending gender.
I could be an ally in this process that had no name, or I could be someone to avoid. I chose to keep my focus on my child and not on the larger implications and issues. Sarah slowly built a second family of support in a "trans-friendly" community nearby and made abiding friendships there. Yet I didn't feel supplanted. Mostly what I felt was grateful.
When Sean turned eighteen, he decided to go on testosterone as he left for college. He had been seeing a therapist and was excited to take the next steps in establishing his identity. I was terrified of talking with him about this, instead asking myself the question that had become all too familiar: Will I say the wrong thing and lose communication and trust?
I went ahead anyway, reminding myself that we were both sailing in uncharted waters. I asked whether using testosterone for decades might lead to major health complications and perhaps even premature death. His answer was one of the more poignant things a mother can hear from her child: "I'd rather die than have to live any other way."
For me, one of the hardest things about Sean's transition has been the loss of Sarah. I have experienced deep grief about this, and I would continue to do so if not for the experience of my friends who have actually lost children to illness or accident. That perspective has been invaluable. And it is not lost on me that for his part, Sean still willingly and lovingly recognizes me through all my many changes.
The hard part is right there when I am confronted with a flooded basement and discover that early photos of Sarah have been destroyed. I have saved old phone messages that Sean, pre-testosterone, has left me. These are rare echoes of a sound I will not hear again. Along with testosterone come permanent changes—in voice, in body, in personality—and I don't want to lose the evidence that Sean existed in another form.
It is probably that reluctance to let go of Sarah that comes to me in my dreams, for she often appears in my dreams. At first, these "sightings" were extremely upsetting, but now I recognize them as part of my own transition. Nothing prepares the parent of a transgender child, and nothing prepares that child. For me, that's the good news: there's no rulebook.
It's hard to write about all of this, mostly because it feels like I'm unpacking a huge suitcase full of unopened letters I have not wanted to read. Recently, though, I've found opportunities to use my voice, this essay being one of them. I've also discovered an amazing group of parents of transgender children who meet regularly, a place where I can have a direct experience of how common and how utterly divergent our experiences have been on this parental path. And yet another major opportunity to "come out" as the parent of a transgender child was one I made for myself: I conceived the idea of an art exhibition entitled Continuum: Gender Identities, and curated it for a local gallery. The show included fifty-three artists from around the world, working in a wide range of media, expressing themselves on the subject of gender. The event encouraged the "big conversation in a small town" that I was craving, and the reception and publicity it received was overwhelmingly positive. All these opportunities to express support for my child tell me that, finally, I'm ready to unpack the suitcase.
What I keep coming back to in my head is that there is nothing "wrong" with my child. There is everything right with discovering the core of yourself—something that so few people, of either gender, manage to accomplish.
Those questions of what I could have done differently, and whether I caused my child to be transgender, diminish both me as a parent and Sean as the magnificent person he is. My son is here and now, and I am too.
* * *
Nancy Moore is a working artist, and a book editor and proofreader. Moore is an artist member of the Silvermine Guild of Artists in New Canaan, and is on the board of the Ridgefield Guild of Artists in Connecticut. She is the proud mother of her two heroes, Emily and Sean.
Excerpted from Transitions of the Heart by Rachel Pepper Copyright © 2012 by Rachel Pepper. Excerpted by permission of CLEIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Foreword Kim Pearson xiii
Introduction Rachel Pepper xvii
Sean Nancy Moore 1
Discovering Raffi Marion Freedman-Gurspan 7
Dear Friends and Family Barbara Gurr 13
A Hard Road Mary Lou Houle 23
A Twin Story Melissa McLaren 28
My Name is Alba Alba Nubia Lopez Gomez 35
One of Life's Surprises Brenda Lee 43
A Blessing in Disguise Judy Sennesh 50
I Wish Her Happiness Most of All Dana Lane 57
Hatch, Mister Sister Mary Doyle 60
Jenna, Now John Ingrid Charbonneau 70
Silly Ma Ma! I'm a Boy Kate Levy 76
Transition Mama Kathleen Finn 85
Our Story Sharon Brown 91
From AM to PM Georgia Meyers 98
Living Between Two Worlds Anonymous 102
He is Finally Living His Dream Betti Shook 107
I'm not Isabelle, I'm Isaboy Tracie Stratton 111
We Have All Come to Peace With It Sue 118
My Daughter Was Always Different Ann Ferraiolo 124
Am I Doing the Right Thing? Jennifer L. Kahler 129
My Princess Boy: An Interview with Cheryl Kilodavis Rachel Pepper 137
Ceeb Debi Russell 142
Kid Chrysalis Amy Marsh 146
Transfamily Michelle Schnur 152
Camp I Am Diana Wilson 158
To My Child Geraldine Boothe 164
Still the Same Soul Rebecca Lewis 171
Jim and Kat Leslie Keeney 175
My Son is Ivan Michael Marie Stouffer 181
When I Knew Ann Lynn 186
What I Didn't Say Anna Randolph 190
Resource Guide 200
About the Editor 204