The ups and downs of parenting a transgender child

A little over ten years ago, I was driving my 15-year-old son, Gavin, home from a weekend in town with his friends. Our conversation was typical for the time, mostly about music, his friends, school and family, when he dropped the bomb. Without hesitation and with absolute conviction, he announced, “I want to be a girl.”

It really did feel like a bomb, a physical sensation of a lead weight dropping from the top of my head to the bottom of my gut. What? My easy-going, agreeable son, popular with friends, teachers and other parents had just said what?

I don’t remember what I said in response. I might have said something like, “What makes you think that?” or “Why would you want to be a girl?” I do remember that I asked about his voice, which was deeply masculine and often commented upon. I also remember what he said back to me, with the same amount of surety, “Because I feel like a woman.”

Back home, I took my husband, Gavin’s stepdad, out to the porch and gave him the news. His reaction was much like mine. This can’t be happening. This isn’t real. It’s got to be some adolescent angst he needs to work through.

Dan and I were going through what was probably the hardest time in our married life, having moved up to the mountain in order to care for his mother. She was a cancer survivor who was in the beginnings of dementia, losing her memory and her ability to drive and otherwise care for herself. She vented her rage over the phone to her sisters and other children, often inventing outright lies, resulting in vicious attacks on Dan and me. While it’s common for families to fall into those patterns as a result of guilt and helplessness, knowing these facts didn’t make it any easier.

Gavin was our emotional rock, calm, helpful and a decent student. His abrupt announcement rocked our already shaky foundations. It wasn’t one bit fair to put that much weight on a 15-year-old, but Dan and I were too vulnerable to offer the kind of support he needed at the time.

We did keep the dialog open and Gavin vacillated back and forth between trying to be true to himself and still keep everyone else happy. He had relationships with girls, one in particular that lasted into his first year of college. He also took care of himself, getting himself into the University of Colorado and starting an on-campus job that eventually led to a profitable career.

All the time, he still insisted he wanted to be a female while continuing to seriously date girls. His friends seemed to accept him as he was, while Dan and I tried to talk him out of it. Finally, he called a family meeting with me, Dan, and stepbrother Cory, where he announced his intentions to transform himself into a woman.

By now, I was determined to support my child in whatever way I could although I was still skeptical. Cory wanted to know if it was because he’d picked on him when he was little. Dan was concerned that he hadn’t been the father figure he should have been. Had I done too much mothering, I wondered? We’d shared the same bed until he was 5. (This, I’ve discovered, is NOT a bad thing and seems to instill a strong sense of security in a child). Gavin reassured us that this was his decision and it had nothing to do with anyone else. He was also getting counseling through the university health services and attending a transgender support group. This was not going to go away.

A couple of years later, living in Denver, employed and paying for his first apartment, Gavin came to Fort Collins to take me out for a Mother’s Day lunch. It was then that he announced that he would be starting hormone treatments. By that time I was ready to accept the transformation though not comfortable with it. I admitted that he couldn’t go on living a lie and promised to be there through the process. The relief on his face showed me how important it was to have me on his side.

But a parent will worry about things, like “Oh God! My kid is a freak!” and “She’ll get beat up on the street!” or “She’ll get fired from her job!” Dan’s major concern was that the hormones would eventually give her cancer or that the further physical transformations would do other types of damage. Imagine my surprise when the “coming out” to her superiors was met with more curiosity and interest than disapproval, although they weren’t willing to allow her to use the women’s bathroom until she had legally changed her name. When she called to tell me that she was changing her name to Gwyn, I was pleased. It was the name I would have given her if she’d been born a girl. She had work to do on her voice, which remained deep and male and has been one of the most difficult parts of the transformation, so far.

I didn’t see Gwyn for many months, not because I didn’t want to, but because our mountain existence makes travel to Denver inconvenient and expensive with a lot of hours spent on the road. When I was finally able to make it to Denver for a lunch date, I was met by a tall, lanky blond with a modest bustline and an otherwise feminine appearance.

She was still my kid but now she really was a girl. I couldn’t stop staring at my daughter. There had always been some things about Gavin that didn’t seem quite right, proportionally. It had seemed that his legs were too short, arms too long, head too big. Gwyn had grown into herself quite nicely. Girlie activities like going out shopping and to lunch were delightfully harmonious and I could imagine us traveling together.

I’d had a hard lesson from my husband and his mother. She had been extremely needy, possessive and controlling of her son and I wanted to avoid any of that type of behavior with mine. The mother/daughter relationship meant I could be as close to my child as I wanted to be.

But another concern was the extended family. I considered the family I was born into to be a bit of a minefield, rigidly conservative, unpredictable at best and I wanted to protect my child from hurt and disapproval. Being the oldest and a girl, it had been hard to do anything right. I felt I’d been expected to be a household appliance on the one hand and a porcelain doll on the other, never, Heaven forbid, myself. Here was someone else about to break the rules.

Gwyn, however, did not want to be protected and took it upon herself to “come out” to her relatives. The reactions she reported back to me were a complete surprise in their blasé acceptance of the transformation of nephew to niece. My mother mentioned how it explained so much about her grandchild growing up. My sister-in-law spoke of how much she resembled me at that age. Other extended family members were perfectly accepting and treated her as warmly as always. Gwyn was still the same intelligent, delightful person as always, just happier.

Society in general has been another surprise. Hardly anyone bats an eyelash. There was a scene in a shop in Denver where Dan was buying a hat. One of the salesmen, a big, black man, made a face clearly expressing a “What the hell is that?” type of reaction but remained ever so friendly. Strangers, sales people, waiters and waitress are mostly curious but never negative.

There are numerous support groups to be found online for parents who suddenly find out they didn’t have what they thought they had. In general, peer groups in this day and age, from high school to college and beyond, are fairly accepting of the gay and trans population. For all parents who are dealing with this issue I have one piece of news: My own biggest surprise was what a big deal it isn’t.

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