This was the hand-written message at the bottom of a Christmas letter from my Great-Aunt. Look how she first wrote “her,” then used white-out and wrote “them” instead. It brought tears of gratitude to my eyes.
Being transgender does not mean what I thought it meant. It doesn’t mean today what it meant when my kid first taught me. In fact, the definition is probably changing right now as I write this. All the media coverage I’ve seen on the challenges transgender people face did not prepare me for the challenges their parents face. That process has been like swimming through an emotional stew, dipping into and out of the murky grey sea of sex and gender, pride and shame, loss and reward.
Thank the gods I became a parent. The best, best, best thing I ever did to help my own education as a human being was to have a child. I’m sure I would have learned more with more children, but this only child has helped me grow much closer to the person I always wanted to be.
Considering that I can be a difficult student, I am lucky that Tara is the one who is teaching me what it means to be transgender, and how to treat a transgender person. It is one of the hardest things I’ve ever learned in life. I was raised by a religious mother and a conservative father in tiny, rural communities. This type of upbringing around the world tends not to be supportive of alternate definitions of love, family, sex, and gender. And while my people are good people, I did not have the opportunity to learn about these topics. I am deeply ashamed to admit that when I was 18, as Tara is now, I was outspoken about how homosexuality didn’t make sense in nature, and so shouldn’t be taken seriously. I had never even heard of transgender people then, and I’m certain I would not have been accepting of them.
The most common questions I get when I say that my child is transgender, is “Female to male, or male to female?” And “Has your child had an operation yet?”
Just like them, I yearn to place people into simple categories, binary if possible, and assign distinct characteristics to them, so I can know where I stand and then move on to the next category. Categorizing people was probably really handy on the savannah when humans were only recently upright and spent most of the day surviving. But in the 21st century it gets in the way. It got in the way when Tara finally told me they are transgender.
Strangely, rather than the day when we talked about what it means to be lesbian, it was the day Tara talked to me about being transgender that finally forced me to consider that this was not a phase. Instead of exploring the idea of homosexuality for a couple of years, then drifting back to heterosexuality as I expected, Tara just kept going farther from the norm. Not that I was actively insisting that my kid was heterosexual, I just hadn’t given it any serious thought. I had decided everything would ‘work out’ in the end to something that would make sense to me, and in the meantime it wasn’t important enough to dwell upon.
About two years before that, middle-schooler Tara had asked, in tears, in an apprehensive voice, “What if I’m a lesbian, Mom? What does that mean about me?” This question didn’t scare me because the categories were easy: females and love. Those are two words I am used to defining. I told Tara to stay away from a label like “lesbian,” and just stick with the facts. “You like girls, that’s all it means about you. And liking girls doesn’t change who you are.” The girl-crush thing persisted, and I wondered whether it was my fault for making my kid that way, because I can never seem to find the right man for myself.
But see what I was doing there? I was judging Tara, doing exactly what I had done as a teenager: dismissing the preposterous idea, assuming it was a phase, assuming it was not important, assuming it was something I could have caused, waiting for Tara to turn out ‘normal.’ What kind of subconscious unsupportive messages was I sending to my own child? I am appalled at my own behavior.
The day of The Talk, I sat on Tara’s bed while they explained that a dictionary definition of “transgender” is a person whose gender identity does not correspond to that person’s biological sex assigned at birth. It can mean a person born a boy feels like a girl, or vice versa, but does not necessarily mean that.
Gender is a person’s individual awareness or identity or role that they fill. Sex is a person’s physical anatomy. Tara was born with female anatomy, but explained they did not feel female. And the startling part: they do not feel male either. Tara asked me on that day to stop using the pronouns “she” and “her,” and to use “they” and “their” instead. They do not even feel as though their gender is fixed, but that it moves from day to day. “Think of a spectrum in the shape of a triangle,” Tara told me with wisdom, clarity, and calm that belied their 16 years of life. “On one point is a concentration of female qualities, one is male, and one is no gender. As you go toward the middle of the triangle, you move away from one gender and take up parts of the others. I am somewhere in the middle, and on some days I feel more female, some days more male, and some days I don’t feel either. I cannot predict how I’m going to feel, but usually I can tell when I wake up in the morning.”
I asked how this is different from what everyone feels. Doesn’t every person feel a little female some days, a little male some days? Tara was certain that it is not the same thing, but had a hard time clearly explaining the difference. For a time we settled on this concept of change, of “fluid gender,” and later we used “gender neutral.” I asked if they thought their gender would always be in a state of flux, or if the changes are a part of trying to figure out who they are. Tara said they didn’t know yet. There was a period where Tara got completely fed up with both male and female, and began identifying as “agendered,” meaning neither male nor female. Even within the very tolerant community that Tara has built around themself, there was pushback. People simply hate vagueness.
Tara’s current preference is “non-binary gender,” to emphasize the fact that gender is not either-or. But I still struggle to grasp the real meaning of Tara’s identity. They say that it is hurtful to be thought of as female or male. “Each time a person calls me ‘she’ isn’t that bad, but what happens is that after a series of people thinking of me as a girl, all day long, it becomes very painful. So uncomfortable that it hurts.” I asked, “How is it different from when, for example, people make incorrect assumptions of me because they see me as female,” I asked. “They think I am not smart enough or strong enough to handle something. How is what you feel different from that kind of pain?” Tara answered that they can’t really explain the difference, except that when it happens, they feel two distinct reactions. One is that the person wrongly assumes they are female, and two is that the person wrongly assumes they aren’t smart enough or strong enough. “They aren’t the same reaction, they aren’t the same kind of hurt.”
It was over two years ago, The Talk, and the trauma of it lingers. I won’t kid you: I was stunned. I was so confused that I couldn’t even begin to respond to Tara. My questions along the lines of “Aren’t you simply giving a high-falutin’ name to what everybody feels?” were based not in love, but in trying to flush out the proof that it was not real. I was mostly in shock, but at least able to recognize that this was a pivotal moment in my child’s life. The only thing I could do was to help Tara get it out and to feel safe talking to me. I said, “Tell me more about that,” when I wasn’t sure I could handle hearing much more. The more Tara talked, the more I felt part of my world breaking apart and falling out from under my feet. Out of loss.
I don’t know if I can explain it, but my love, respect, and appreciation for Tara never wavered. In fact, I was a bit in awe of the kid for having the presence of mind to initiate this conversation with me, and to stick with it while I was so obviously gobsmacked. But I was flooded with a profound sense of loss. It felt like I lost my child that day. I lost my daughter. The one I had constructed in my mind because…well, how was I supposed to know I had to keep my mind open to something else? I just assigned “girl category,” and filled in all the rest.
For the next few days I was in a deep depression and I experienced a very real grieving process. I felt sorry for myself. I cried and cried. It was so hard to explain it to friends, “I have to give up who I thought my child was, and give up the future dreams, like marriage and children. There will be no giggling over boyfriends, not ever. Well, of course Tara can still get married and raise children, but every bit of it will be different than what I had imagined. Not that it’s bad…it’s just…confusing. And unexpected.” My friends, bless their hearts, gave me hugs and didn’t quite understand what I believed I was giving up.
My own child was not who I thought. Sixteen years of a relationship based on misconceptions. It really, really hurt to face that.
“I can be physically attracted to just about anyone,” Tara corrects me today. “I could easily have a boyfriend one day and children. It’s just another vagueness of my future I am not sure of. My non-traditional identification stems from gender and sex, and also how I choose to appear and how I define my romantic relationships.” Just for context, Tara’s been in a relationship with another transgender person for three years, so the boyfriend comment is more to make a point. “Brynnen are you Tara’s boyfriend?” I asked, “Yes,” they answered without hesitation. And it was a relief to laugh.
Two years later, we are the same tight team we have always been, and – get this! – I am actually not assigning Tara into a gender category in my mind so much anymore. I didn’t realize it was possible, but with time, I am able to give up “female.” I am getting much better at using the difficult pronouns, which for a somewhat OCD grammar-freak, is extremely difficult when I’m constantly using a plural pronoun to describe a individual person. I am doing better at using “them/they” at work and with relatives and acquaintances. Without exasperation or anxiety, I can respond to their confused questions, calmly explaining that I am only talking about one person, and Tara prefers that I use those pronouns.
I am not over it. I hate it that I am not. Who knew I would so stubbornly cling to my traditional upbringing when I have made it a point most of my life to be as open-minded and tolerant as I can possibly be?
But I am not sorry for myself anymore, which allows me to give more of the emotional validation that my kid needs from me. I’m on board, and I actually get irritated when I fill out forms and have to check a box to identify myself as male or for female. These days, I often check male, to be difficult, because I’m finally starting to understand how frustrating it could be to live in a binary world. And I’m done thinking of it as a phase. This person who has been right next to me all these years, is actually way more genuine and brave than the one I gave up.