Ever since he was two, my husband and I have suspected our son was gay. For all the superficial reasons at first – he loved Barbies, ballet dancing and dressing up like a fairy. We figured this was not unusual in a family dominated by women, but when it continued long after most boys moved on to football, laser tag and crushes on girls, we thought it could possibly signal something more. And if he was gay, so what? A lot of our friends are gay, we both come from open-minded progressive families, not a big deal.
So why, then, when my son hit puberty, was he suffering so much?
When my son turned 12 last year, he transformed overnight. I don’t mean he shot up 5 inches or his voice dropped 2 octaves. Those things happened, too. I mean he went from a joyful, funny goofball who loved to dance and draw to a sullen, withdrawn child who slept all day and had no enthusiasm for anything. Puberty hits different kids different ways, but when he started talking about how everything seemed black and he couldn’t imagine a future for himself, I admit it scared the hell out of me, even if I suspected I knew what the root of the problem was.
Understanding my child’s uniqueness
After much talking, consulting a good therapist and encouraging him to open up, my son finally came out to us. Not as gay – which he is – but as trans. It seems ridiculous now to say this was a shock to us, yet it was. Although I always counted myself as an LGBT ally, I’d only met a couple of trans people in my life, and then only briefly. While the struggle of trans people has gotten a lot of attention in the US lately, it still isn’t very much talked about in France, where we live. I, like many, was confusing my son’s sexual and gender identities, which are not the same thing. And given how confused I was, it’s no surprise that my son was, too.
I will freely admit it took a little time for my husband and me to get our heads around this new information. What did this mean for the little boy I gave birth to and raised? Would he disappear and a stranger take his place? Did I need to start calling him by a different pronoun and different name? I wanted to move slowly, to protect him from the possible negative reaction of others. My husband’s response, while being 100% supportive, was slightly different. He saw it as a problem that could be solved and wanted to begin preparing for medical transition or else it would be more difficult for him later on. But was this what our son actually wanted?
When most people hear the word “trans,” they think of transsexuals, people whose gender identity is in sharp contrast to their biological sex, but the trans umbrella also includes many other categories, including genderfluid, cross-dressers and a whole spectrum of identities that do not fall into the male-female binary.
For the moment (because it still may evolve), my son identifies as genderfluid (non-binaire in French). Or, as he likes to put it, he’s a “part-time lady”.
He does not exactly feel trapped in the wrong body but being a male 100% of the time doesn’t feel natural to him either. Sometimes he wants to wear make-up and dresses and be a girl. Sometimes he prefers sweats and sneakers and being a boy. He really doesn’t care what pronoun we use or what name he’s called, he just wants to be himself.
Now a year later, after more therapy, educating ourselves and especially listening to our son’s needs and desires, many of our initial fears have subsided. I have learned much more about what being “trans” means and the multitudes that word contains. (A good starting place is Irwin Krieger’s “Helping Your Transgender Teen”).
Brave new world
I still worry about my son when he goes out in a dress. All it takes is one angry or fearful person to do him harm. But we’ve realized that stopping him from expressing who he is was doing more damage than good. A lot of people comment on how “brave” he is, but he doesn’t see it that way. For him, it’s just who he is and the people who don’t like it are the ones with the problem. Which doesn’t mean it’s always easy. We’re lucky to have a school principal who is supportive but there is still a lot of judgment and apprehension from some teachers as well as students. Kids who used to be his friends no longer want to hang out with him and are quick to pass on nasty things they’ve heard others say.
Naturally, this is hurtful, but there is no going back for him or for us. And I do not want to dwell on the negative aspects of our experiences. In fact, having a trans child in our family has enriched and inspired me in many ways. For one thing, it’s made me a more active ally. As a lazy introvert who hates crowds, I’m not much of a joiner. So while I regularly donate to progressive causes, I rarely go to meetings or attend marches. My “activism” has therefore been pretty passive. But I’m slowly learning to put my mouth where my money is. That means educating myself about the history of transgender people from Roman Emperor Elagabalus to 18th-century French spy Chevalier d’Eon to 20th-century activist Marsha P. Johnson and beyond.
I now deliberately seek out the work of trans artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers, whose work may or may not center around gender. I started a campaign to get more diverse books into our school library and discussed the idea of starting a club for LGBT students (this being France, the administration works slowly). This may not sound like much, but hopefully, these baby steps will lead to greater strides in the future.
Another valuable thing I’ve learned from this experience is who my true friends are. There’s no better way to learn who’s really on your side than when you go through a big life change. For some, that might be illness or a family death. For us, it was telling people our son is trans. Luckily, both my husband and my immediate families have always been supportive, but there were a few surprises when people saw him in a dress for the first time.
The friend for whom I figured it would be no big deal blurted out, “You let him go out like that?!” The elderly cousin whose reaction I feared took one look and shrugged, “Whichever way.”
I discovered that many of my friends already knew a trans person – a friend from college, the child of a colleague – and offered to put us in touch, which was essential in helping our son connect with other happy, comfortable-in-their-skin trans people. Mainly, it’s been gratifying to learn I have so many supportive people in my life willing to open their hearts and extend their hands.
Standing proud of who you are
Finally, going through this adventure as a family has made me a better parent. Parenthood is not something I ever dreamed of, and frankly, there have been times where I’ve felt like a failure to both my children – I’m too impatient, I put too much pressure on them, I don’t listen enough. This experience has taught me to ease up, to accept them more for who they are, not who I’d like them to be. And maybe to be a bit less hard on myself too.
Binary thinking divides people into male and female, but also successes and failures, good and bad. I’m learning to embrace fluid, the complicated swirl of colors that make up each one of us. We’re more open with each other now, sharing our doubts and fears, but also more vocal about having each other’s backs. My daughter still snipes at her brother for not flushing the toilet or hogging the computer, but she would fight you to the death for his right to wear lipstick.
Best of all, in the past few months, I’ve found my dancing, drawing, fun-loving goofball child again. In the immortal words of drag icon RuPaul, “Can I get an ‘Amen’ up in here?”