I write about all kinds of things—myth, magic, murder, the publishing world. Occasionally about abuse or depression. I haven’t yet written much about absolutely the most important thing in our world—our daughter and her transformation. It’s hardest to write about the things closest to you. For me, at least. But the many conversations I’ve had recently lead me to believe that it might help others going through this to open a window onto our experience. I hope that people can use this as a jumping off point to understand or identify or help others empathize, because, as I’m learning, transgender is more common than people realize, largely because it’s talked about so little, and almost always in private.
To begin, my husband and I had a beautiful baby boy almost nineteen years ago. I didn’t write for almost two years, because the only thing I wanted to stare at when I wasn’t working was that little face. Certainly not a notebook or computer screen. Our child was a joyful little imp, always wanting to play, usually acting as director and dramatic lead, generally some kind of superhero. Pete and I were always the bad guys. For some reason, I was usually Green Goblin. I think she liked the voice. (It’s difficult for me to even think in terms of male pronouns for her now, though not as difficult as it is for her to hear them or her old name—dead name as she calls it, which absolutely broke my heart the first time I heard it, but I digress.) She was always in costume. Always so full of life and joy that before long we’d have all the kids on the playground running around with us. A lot of kids enjoy costumes and crime-fighting as kids. I never wondered why she always wanted to be someone else.
When we moved from New York to Florida, which we did when she was just seven, she suddenly went from being the cool kid to being the new kid. She got bullied. A lot. Many of the insults hurled at her involved being called “gay”. We’re changing, but our society still seems to see that as the gravest insult. We didn’t know where the idea came from. As far as we could see, she’d never shown any interest except in girls. Back in New York, she’d had a ton of girlfriends and even a “fiancé”. (She understood that she could only have one of those and was devastated the night we wouldn’t take her to Chucky Cheese because they’d decided that they were going to get married there that night and we were ruining everything. I think she was five.)
In Florida she became a target. We’d never have moved if we’d known.
Being bullied changed her. She withdrew into herself. At one point, she only wanted to wear black without any logo or wording on it that people could use to inspire their assaults. As we found out later, she’d reached a point where she was actually inviting people to hit her so that she could absolutely not react and they’d see that she couldn’t be hurt. She developed a reputation for it, and people stopped. Administrations had done little about the bullying, despite “zero tolerance” policies, and Abby is so sweet and empathetic that when it came to a third strike for one kid, she refused to be the reason that he got kicked out of school despite the fact that he had made her life a living hell. She felt, as so many never consider, that she didn’t know what he was going through at home or what getting kicked out would do to him, so she couldn’t be a part of it.
We ended up moving her the next year from the private school we’d sent her to when the bullying first started, where she’d never fit in and found her new bully waiting, to the larger local high school where there were more kids and different cliques where she might find her place and her people. She did, and we were thrilled.
When she first came to us at fourteen to tell us that she was non-binary (she doesn’t feel tied to one gender) and pan-sexual (she loves the person, not the form), we accepted it. For one, we don’t believe that sexuality and orientation are either/or propositions, but that they exist along a continuum. However, we did wonder how much was coming from her and how much she was influenced by her new friends, because we hadn’t seen any signs at that point. I think it was partly that she was hiding her true self to fit in and partly that she was still figuring out who that was. But her new group was a lot more gender fluid. Sometimes, Abby would feel more feminine and would wear dresses to school or out with her friends. Sometimes she’d wear more masculine clothes. We didn’t know at first whether it was a phase. We hoped she’d grow out of it, not because we weren’t supportive, but because we were always afraid that people wouldn’t understand. That they’d hate and that the bullying she’d been fighting all her life would escalate into real bodily harm or even death. We couldn’t be with her all the time. We couldn’t protect her.
But we could be proud of the bravery it took to express herself, to show herself to the world. At fourteen, I wouldn’t have had the guts to do what she did and to find a way to face down and silence the haters as she had building the reputation of imperviousness.
We had some troubles with her from fourteen to sixteen as she was figuring herself out. Trouble with school, with authority, with a destructive relationship. I won’t say they were hell years, but they were close. The worst was the self-loathing. Abby was so good to others and so horrible to herself. She didn’t like to look at herself in the mirror, didn’t have anything kind to say about herself, didn’t believe anything kind you might say about her. Growing up, we used to call her “boychild” like a nickname. But she started to cringe every time we used it, and she asked us to stop. Likewise, it seemed she winced every time we used the male pronoun.
I never said anything to her, but internally, I’d chant, “Please don’t let her want to be a girl; please don’t let her want to be a girl.” Again, not because we wouldn’t be supportive and love her no matter what, but because we knew what a tough road it would be for acceptance. Not to mention surgery, hormone replacement, and a lifetime regimen of care. And we worried about the haters.
At sixteen, she told us just that. Well, she told me. Pete and I were out, and she called, asking if she and I could talk when I got home. I told her that of course we could. We were five minutes away. She met me at the door and asked if we could go for a ride. We got back into the car. She was worked up, visibly wired, and I had no idea what was coming…except that maybe I did.
She told me almost as soon as we started moving. I’m not sure exactly what I said, but I think it as something wise and pithy, like, “Okay.” From the corner of my eye, I watched all the tension go out of her. She’d been geared up, afraid but determined. And it was okay.
Or it would be. You think you know. You think you’re prepared and you’re good because you’re loving and accepting, but it’s one thing to accept something in the abstract and another when it’s your own child and you think of everything she has to face and you fear. Fear is a killer.
She wouldn’t let me tell anyone at first, but that didn’t last. It would be hard, I said, to call her by the feminine pronoun and not have people notice. She agreed. The secret didn’t last. Some people accepted. Immediate family was amazing. I won’t talk about the others. The weight that dropped from her shoulders was amazing. The relief…I’ve never seen anything like it. Having her huge secret out in the open and not have it rip apart her life made a huge difference.
But it was just the start. For one, I wasn’t prepared for the grief. No one tells you that it feels like losing your child a bit at a time. Bear with me. I know she was still there, but it hurt her to hear old stories, so we stopped telling them. Or we had to revise them to use her new pronouns, and that felt like editing out the kid we knew and loved from our history. She hated to see pictures of herself, so one by one I’d replace them or shuffle them behind other pictures, and that face I so loved was gone. Those dimples. That impish smile. The unmitigated joy. Those had been fading as she’d been struggling with herself, but now the reminders, the face that made me smile back every time I saw it, in two dimensions or three, was being swept away. Facebook would keep coming up with memories from five years ago, six, seven, and they would shred me. I’d cry every time.
Abby had started sleeping in her living room area—we have a house with a “child suite” with a little living room for the kids, of which she’s our only—rather than her room, which was a disaster. After many attempts to get her to clean it and many fights and ultimatums, I finally waded in to take care of it myself. It was a multi-all-day-every-day process to get through everything, but what I realized was that she couldn’t sleep there because it wasn’t her room. The clothes, the signed pictures, the former homework assignments all belonged to someone else, and she couldn’t sort through the reminders. Going through everything—washing it, bagging it up for donation, throwing things out or boxing them for storage—it felt like I was packing my child away. That kid I’d loved for years, that I’d held in my arms and breathed in and chased around playgrounds and… You get the idea. I was in mourning.
Prior to that, we’d found a wonderful organization called PFLAG, which is a support group for the family and friends of the LGBTQIA+ community. It’s a national organization with local chapters all over the country. We found the one in Tampa. At our first meeting and many after there was a family with a child the same age as Abby, though transitioning in the other direction. When the meeting started and we all told our stories, I was struggling to hold back tears, and Elena, the mother, told me, “It’s okay to grieve.” Those were some of the most amazing words I’d ever heard. She understood. It was okay. It was expected. I’d felt so guilty, because there my child was right there and I felt the loss. I didn’t yet see Abby. In one way my kid hadn’t changed, and in another everything had changed and I was mourning a person who was right there and I couldn’t let on. Or so I thought.
I cried as though someone had blown a hole in the dam. Abby cried too. She hadn’t understood what we were going through, which was okay, it wasn’t about me or about Pete, but now that she knew, she let us come to terms with things more on our time. We didn’t have to entirely stop telling stories or getting rid of pictures. But really we did, because we could see how much it hurt her. At least, though, we could go more slowly, come to grips with saying good-bye to one reality and hello to the next.
PFLAG helped us in so many ways. It gave us a support group, but we also learned from other peoples’ experiences and journeys. It put us so much further ahead so much faster than we would have gotten on our own. We had a wealth of resources and people we could lean on and friends and events… It’s really just an incredible organization.
Back to the transformation, about a month after Abby came out to us we marched in the Pride Parade in Tampa with PFLAG, and that was the day Abby chose her name. A month after that we found her a new therapist because the one she’d been going to wouldn’t sign off on things so that Abby could start hormone replacement therapy. Abby keeps things close and holds things inside (like with a lot of the bullying that we discovered the extent of after the fact). I don’t think she’d really shared her struggles with the doctor, so she hadn’t seen Abby’s thought process and come to the conclusions with her. We found a doctor who specialized, and he turned out to be amazing. And he led us to the doctor who started Abby on her hormone replacement regimen.
A little over two years later, Abby had her name legally changed. And now, three years later, we’re on the eve of her gender confirmation surgery. We’ve traveled to another state to work with a doctor who came highly rated and recommended, and who we liked very much when we talked with her via Skype. We met her in person today and trust her and her staff as much as expected.
This too sounds a lot easier than it was. The first time I started researching doctors, I had a panic attack, only I had no idea that’s what it was. It felt like a heart attack. Chest pain and pressure as though an elephant had sat on my sternum, trouble breathing. I was panicked and an instant away from asking Pete to take me to the hospital. Only, I don’t go to doctors or hospitals unless absolutely necessary, so I closed my computer and tried to distract myself while I waited it out. Thank goodness it subsided. It took two more panic attacks to figure out what was going on, and a conversation with the wonderful Janice Hardy to realize that the reason I was reacting this way stemmed from an incident in my childhood. Friends of my parents had a son about my age who went in for knee surgery and never woke from the anesthesia. My family has odd reactions to medications; I was afraid Abby might as well. She’s never had surgery, never been under anesthesia. Once I realized what was going on, I was able to breathe through the panic attacks and they weren’t nearly as severe, but the fear never went away. It’s been a year of breathing through sudden anxiety, being fine one moment and crying or hyperventilating the next. Not on a daily basis, but with each new step. Friends have been amazing. Close family has been incredible.
We’ve made it. We’re here.
Now we just have to get through the surgery and the recovery and supporting Abby to the very best of our abilities. Abby herself? She’s incredible. Excited. Nervous. But so amazing. This past week especially, as she approaches the date she thought would never come, she’s coming out of her shell, talking excitedly (finally) about the future. Allowing the thought of shopping for bathing suits and clothes. She hasn’t worn shorts or a bathing suit in at least four years. She feels too self-conscious shopping for clothes, so mostly wears what people buy her or I try on in her stead. It’s going to be life-changing for Abby to feel like herself and to see herself in the body she belongs in.
We can’t wait.
*A quick note, since I’ve been asked – I asked Abby’s permission before ever posting this blog! I’ve been open, though not voluble, and as uncensored as possible about our journey as we’ve gone along, all with Abby’s blessing, because we believe familiarity breeds understanding. At least, that’s our hope.