A Mother and her Trans Son on Finding Their New Middle Ground
"we call back and forth to each other about things that nearly destroyed us"
My mom keeps an extensive library at home, filling shelves with short-story collections or Shakespeare tomes. She’ll talk about budgeting for a trip and then some package will arrive in the mail, an order of books she totally forgot about. I was always allowed to peruse her shelves as a kid, reading anything that interested me. When I was 11 she bought me a collection of David Sedaris’s essays, in which, for the first time, I saw glimpses of myself.
Being trans and being gay are completely different things, and confusing the two has caused all of us no end of trouble. But like all identities, they do have intersections. Both face scrutiny for unwanted gender behavior; both are historically outsiders. Parents worry about boys that act too feminine, about girls who are too butch. So I marveled at the exploits of David Sedaris, this anxious young queer kid, even though I didn’t quite know why the recognition was so strong.
Nowadays, my spacious apartment in California’s San Fernando Valley has its own little queer library. It grew quite by accident: I enrolled in a gender studies course my sophomore year of college and got smacked with a substantial required reading list. Many of the books were out of print, so I found my way into the magical world of online used-book sellers. Most books for my media-centric courses demanded to be bought new, in such-and-such edition. They were dense, expensive, and, if I’m being honest, only cracked open before a test. After finals, my friends and I would line up to sell back our untouched titles to the bookstore in exchange for pocket money. But with this class, I didn’t sell the books back, and I didn’t donate them either. I liked them too much.
My used queer books arrived in dinged-up plastic bundles, dusty, sometimes with the old library cards still in the back. Most of them, whether novels or scholarly works, I had never even heard of: Out of the Past, by Neil Miller; Dancer from the Dance, by Andrew Holleran; ZAMI: A New Spelling of My Name, by Audre Lorde.
My mom cultivated this love of reading, a lifelong interest that buoyed me even when she and I were distant from each other, totally unreachable.
It seems only natural that I would compose a glossary for her, based not only on my own experiences but also my library. One of my very first trans books was the brightly colored Transgender History, by scholar Susan Stryker. Within her own extensive glossary, Stryker provides a way of looking at the word “transgender” that has stayed with me since my first reading three years ago.
Generally speaking, “trans” connotes someone who identifies with a gender other than the one assigned at birth. I was assigned “female” at birth, and now I identify as “male.” This definition is pretty straightforward and often works in opposites. Boys become girls. Girls become boys. But Stryker calls the word back to its Latin roots, away from its attachment to the physical. She writes, “It is the movement across a socially imposed boundary away from an unchosen starting [place].”
None of us chooses our starting place. It’s a sort of sister sentiment to those first lines in The Great Gatsby, “all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” Privilege is lottery and tradition. I have the privilege of being able bodied, upper middle class, white, well educated. Having the privilege of being assigned a gender we identify with is not something most people think about, because it’s something most people have. I have so many privileges, but I don’t have that one.
I love Stryker’s definition of “trans” because it recaptures the word’s true place as an umbrella term, beyond “boys” and “girls.” There is incredible trepidation that comes with moving away from your starting place toward something else. It is exciting; it is horrifying. It is this form of “trans” that not only moved me but also moved the others in my life, away, away, away, to a place where we had no reliable guides and no right words.
We loved each other but needed a translator to help us communicate, and that translator never arrived.
I did not recognize the word “transgender” as it sprang from my daughter’s lips; she came out to me in our kitchen during her final year of high school. I consider myself an urbane person, a strong advocate for equality for my many gay friends, but somehow I had never come in contact with the T on the LGBTQ continuum.
It hung there with full quotes around it, a three-dimensional thing that I am still staring at and trying to define.
In that moment, my daughter was trying to tell me that she wanted to abandon her given name and the feminine pronouns and replace them with a new thing, something more masculine and a better match for the person she saw in her own mind. Eventually, J. even gave away her body, but I did not consider such things then in that moment of confusion.
I know now, thanks to our memoir project, that Donald is not certain we should even be using the term “coming out,” since a woman who does not feel like a woman, but rather like a man in a feminine body, is the one in the closet.
We are making up our own lexicon as we go along.
As a child, J. had a real knack for making up words that begged to be included in Webster’s dictionary. While trying on new sneakers, she would complain that her socks felt “budgy” or, while eating, that some foods were “mooshie.”
I found my daughter’s knack for such invention great fun, the sign of a clever, creative mind. She ran language through her nimble vocal cords like music. When we moved from Connecticut to Baltimore, she was just 18 months old and one day chatted away with a boy of the same age from across the street who had not yet said a word. They loved being together; she, rattling off tales and songs; he, the quiet, entertained listener. He stayed silent for three years, perhaps because my daughter had more than enough language for the both of them.
Such sweet tales about my ginger-haired, green-eyed girl now sit in mental storage, rarely retrieved out of deference to Donald, who finds any call back to his feminine self very stressful. I packed away photographs, old backpacks embroidered with his old name, any trace of her. I admit I balked at doing this. I was full of resentment, even though now I realize, as J. left to become Donald, she/he needed a clean slate. The downside of my intransigence was that, behind my back, he asked his high school teachers to start calling him by his new name and to refer to him with male pronouns, something I had begged him not to do. Wait until your first year of college, I said, when the shift will feel more natural and less dramatic.
The high school embraced him immediately. Counselors stepped up, teachers didn’t hesitate; none of them spoke to me.
Dialogue between Donald and me deteriorated with each new word ripped from my daily vocabulary—daughter, she, her, girl, woman. I feared these small edits would lead to a cascade of changes.
And I was right.
Donald could not spend the rest of his life walking around asking everyone to use his male name and male pronouns when referring to him. He wanted simply to be a man and that required fundamental physical changes.
Binding. Hormones. Top surgery. The lexicon continued to expand, and I simply did not grasp any of it. Actions I labeled as rash, impatient, and even mentally unhinged, he defined as essential to his evolving— and fragile—sense of identity. If he did not want J., and there was no J., then who was Donald? If he did not craft something to take J.’s place, he was nothing. As good as dead.
Sadly, by some estimates, more than 40 percent of transgender children attempt suicide. I knew the stakes but lacked the fluency to remedy the situation. I’d use the wrong pronoun and see Donald rage. I bluntly disagreed with his decision to take steroids. He felt thwarted by me in his effort to transition from female to male. I refused to pay for any surgeries because I considered him too young to make such radical, irreversible decisions. He contemplated severing his ties with me for good.
Even the word “transition” became fraught. That’s not what Donald calls it, since he is not leaving something solid for something else. He is leaving something he feels he never should have been in the first place. He writes of his past self as though she were a sister. Can a former self be a sibling? Maybe in some “Lost Her, Found Him” dictionary that’s the one best compromise, a way to avoid the complete erasure of something I’d held as a baby and loved with a joy I will never forget.
Family members, old friends from J.’s childhood, new friends from Donald’s present, doctors, counselors, and educators all added their own terms to the Transgender Tower of Babel. The professionals in particular lacked a language that included me, the questioning parent opposed to the physical changes my child wanted to undergo. When I spoke about the grief I felt over my “lost” daughter, a counselor told me to keep such feelings to myself because my transgender son would feel judged.
The new friends, who never knew J. so did not miss her, took Donald in with a verve that startled, something I know that filled him with gratitude but which I considered a fundamental affront to my rights as a parent. These friends never spoke to me. The silence worked like aggressive body language in my life, a form of shunning that I found nearly as devastating as the growing divide between Donald and myself as he lowered his voice, removed his breasts, continued to take steroids. Judge, jury, verdict. How fitting that people, especially medical professionals, used such legal sounding terms, because when they erased my right to question, they erased my right to parent. I know that many transgender individuals face horrible harassment and marginalization, but my experience with Donald was precisely the opposite. An entire group of people stepped into his new verbal landscape and hugged his new identity with great openness and sincerity. I am now able to feel some semblance of awe at their broadness of spirit, but they went so far down that end of the continuum that they left no space for me.
Feeling like a stranger in your own family dynamic is a dangerous place to be, not only for a parent but also for transgender children, because they find themselves cut off from the only solid land they’ve stood on before building their new foundation. The whirl of people around us simply failed to see that crafting some sort of neutral space for my transgender son and me to speak to each other was the best thing they could have done with their energies. The goal should be to have the entire unit come to better terms before it’s too late, as it almost was for Donald and me.
When I asked Donald to collaborate on a memoir with me on four core subject areas that kept rising up in my life as the parent of a transgender child—pronouns and body parts; my sense of loss versus his sense of discovery; the disclosure game I felt we were always playing; and our shifting sense of rights as parent and child—I was really asking him to tap into that creative space he once lived in as a child when he made up words with such smart flair.
That book represents the neutral territory we created, where we call back and forth to each other about things that nearly destroyed us. I gained more empathy for what Donald went through and why, and he gained more empathy for me.
From At the Broken Places: A Mother and her Trans Son Pick Up the Pieces. Used with permission of Beacon Press. Copyright © 2017 by Mary Collins and Donald Collins.