Not your parents transgender

This was the hand-written message at the bottom of a Christmas letter from my Great-Aunt. It brought tears of gratitude to my eyes.
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, incorporating more ideas, sharpening the concept. I’m going to share with you my rough understanding of it, from my perspective as a parent.

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 an ordeal. It’s a swim through an emotional stew, dipping into and out of the murky grey sea of sex and gender, pride and shame, loss and reward. I have to face all of the hard and icky feelings to get at the good stuff that comes with it.

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 if I had more children, but this only child has helped me grow much closer to the person I always wanted to be.

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, are “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 3 million years ago on the African savanna 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 our talk about being transgender, 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 denial. I was 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 an 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 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.

32 thoughts on “Not your parents transgender

  1. I’ve read this twice Crystal. It broke me open and I just have to say straight off what an amazing mother and woman you are! Reading this it is so clear that you and Tara have an amazing relationship – solidly based in love and trust – and no matter how many dreams are shattered, assumptions erased or ‘life as I know it’ moments torn from your grasp, there it remains: the unconditional love of a mother for a child. Your Tara is most fortunate!!

    I know that having children was the best thing I ever did. I was birthed by two people who should never have been allowed near children let alone raise them. I had no role models and was a complete wreck myself for many years. But I raised two daughters who taught me more than anyone could possibly believe and who introduced me to the experience of ‘agape’, of unconditional love and this was eventually the thing that made me whole.

    I had my own dreams and assumptions about how my daughters lives would inevitably evolve and what that would mean for me. I believed they would be the ones to raise children who would not know trauma in the home and who would blossom in the love offered by parents and their grandmother. It was quite a shock when I finally realised they were both serious about this fact – neither would ever have a child. My dreams and my assumptions lay shattered about my feet and it was a long while before I could laugh ruefully at myself and my ‘organisation’ of my children’s lives.

    Probably every mother has a story to tell of the day her dreams for her child died. Most of us not nearly as dramatic or traumatic as yours [or Tara’s]. I am certain that your sharing of Tara’s story will help so many who may be lost or alone or struggling in some way to accept their child’s gender or sexuality.

    We are all more than our gender, or our sexual preference. [Not to mention skin colour, ethnicity, religion, family, education, career, or any other aspect of socio-economic loop in].

    We are spiritual beings having a human experience and we are doing it to learn how to love. Love as in agape, unconditional, freely given, from the depths of ones being for all life, for nature, for the good of all. It’s really that simple.

    We live in an age when all the old ways are being torn down. There are those who are afraid and will not let go their fear, who shout and rage and quote scripture out of context. They will be there until they die out. Then there are those who are afraid, who are muddled, who are broken open, but who step bravely into the future any way. These are the fore-runners of a new world.

    You are strong and you are brave and you love your child.

    Thank you so much for sharing this – I salute you both!

      1. Pauline never fails to put into words what I would have tried to say. Pauline is infinite wisdom, born of experience, intellect, and a huge, huge heart.
        As I read through your post, all I could think about was how fortunate you and Tara are to have each other. What an incredible Mom you are.
        Your honesty about your fear, confusion, and the loss over the vision you had for the future endeared me even more to you.
        Even more, you offered education, compassion, and understanding to those struggling with the challenge that is parenting.
        Love to you, Crystal.

    1. Pauline, what a deeply heartfelt and personal message you have responded with. Thank you so much for the love and for telling your own story. Personally, I can see how not having future grandchildren was a devastating thing for you to have to face. Not just the kids themselves, but that you needed to see your healing come full circle, and now it’s not going to happen the way you had envisioned it. I totally understand how hard it would be to recover from that.

      Your words are beautiful and I’m glad you are the first person to respond to me. It was a difficult post for me, obviously it took me two years to calm down and to work up the courage to do it. But there are many more ideas spinning in my head than those here, and it was hard to pull out just the relevant ones. I hardly feel like I’ve done it, but your response to me is encouraging.

      I’m glad my relationship with Tara shows through. I’m friggin’ crazy about that kid. Like I said, the news was confusing and difficult for me to process, but if I could go back to the beginning and choose the exact right child for me, I would choose Tara!

      1. Referring to your final sentence: Of course you would. That really shines through this entire post. I would really hope your words arrive eventually in front of some poor parent on the brink of expelling their child from their door for the crime of being gay, or gender transitional, or bi – or any of the hundred other issues that young people face and need their parents unconditional love to help support them through. It would be a different world if we could all love and struggle to get it right so honestly and openly.

  2. Oh my goodness cousin what a revealing post. None of us are immune to the ignorance of youth. It is my belief that once informed, our character either shines like a full moon during a long winter night or it darkens from the evil embedded by years of close-minded indoctrination. Clearly, you brightened the path for others to follow.

    Like you, I never gave much thought about the sexuality of others. Frankly, I considered it none of my business. How other people chose to live had nothing to do with me so why concern myself with the issues they face. Now, it is different.

    I find myself championing their cause. Defending their right to be whomever, whenever, and why they want to be. It doesn’t change who they are. However, I do fear and worry for them.

    So many challenges. So many people who do not accept who they are. So many hurdles. So many negatives in a life that should be nothing but blank pages waiting for them to write their own story.

    I will always worry about Tara. I will always have fear. I will always love them. I will always love you.


    1. Thank you for these loving words, Cuz. I can see how you would be thinking about these kinds of things in light of your law degree. But also, you are just a good-hearted person and can see through to the important things anyway. I like how you said you “never gave much thought” to others’ sexuality. Right?! Me too, because I was assuming it was the best path. Now…jeez, I guess I still don’t need to think about the sex or gender of others, but I do need to make sure I’m not assuming. Tara told me, “One of the worst things about the holidays is that we have to visit relatives, and ALWAYS someone asks me ‘So do you have a boyfriend?’ And they are just trying to be nice and have fun, but I HATE that question.”

    1. Derrick, your support means a lot to me. It was a really hard post for me, and your words help. I told a friend of mine that because of all the confusing ideas in my mind, I felt very clumsy writing it and still feel like it was a messy delivery of some really complicated feelings. I can see by your words that I was able to get through. Thanks for your comment.

    1. Thank you so much, Jenny! I am glad to hear Tara’s and my love for each other is so easy to see in my words. You are right, Tara is supporting me too. I apologize pretty often, for getting a pronoun wrong, or calling them some female pet name, and Tara is so great. They never get mad at me (at least not to my face), and say “It’s ok. Thanks for trying.” Also, when I do a good job, Tara will thank me about it later. Like when we stayed four days with their Grandpa last week, Tara said, “I know he probably didn’t even realize you were doing it, but thanks for using my pronouns with Grandpa.”

  3. I don’t know if we can ever put ourselves in another person’s shoes, Crystal. But the greatest thing we have to offer another is unconditional love and as much understanding as we can muster. Your love and courage shines through in your post. Tara is lucky to have you as a mom. And you are lucky to have Tara as a daughter. We can’t ask for much more than that. –Curt

    1. Yeah, I guess you’re right about unconditional love, Curt. There have been multiple times when I was just so confused, that I was pretty sure I was in danger of saying something offensive just because I didn’t understand what was going on. When that happened, I tried to go on autopilot encourage-and-support mode, because I simply didn’t know what else to do. There were (and still are) times when I know I screwed up, and I have to apologize.

      I was seeing a therapist last year and she gave me another important perspective: that it isn’t 100% on me. I had been telling myself that as a parent, I had to do all of the absorbing of impact, while I did my best to protect them. But Lori told me that I was already doing a lot, just by trying so hard to do the right thing when I had never been given the tools to do it. “Tara isn’t entitled to your understanding,” she said, “but only to your respect and love and your best efforts.” She reminded me that I had come a very long way from how I was raised, and it was worth celebrating.

      Yes, thank goodness I had already done some growing before Tara decided to go all completely outside the box on me!! ha ha

      But in any case, you are right to point out that we are both lucky to have each other. We are both doing some work to make this happen. Can’t ask for a better child-parent relationship than that.

      1. Good point on how it goes both ways, Crystal. Always, in any good relationship. My respect for someone is impacted considerably by his or her respect for me. –Curt

  4. “These are the fore-runners of a new world”. No one says it better than Pauline. A wise woman there. You and Tara are on forefront of where I hoped the world was going. It’s long overdue and your sweet child is bravely leading the way. Like Pauline, I had thought there would be grandchildren. I’ve made peace with that but it was easier than what the two of you are going through. You have to teach the whole world a new vocabulary. And live through the misunderstanding of it. You both explained it so well. I truly understand the grief. The death of dreams. Now we make new dreams. I adore Tara. Those pronouns get us everytime.

    1. ha ha ha, stupid pronouns!! And I’m one of those people that’s all “Language is a living thing, blah, blah” and yet, when I am the person who has to use it differently, the sirens go off. “Whoop! Whoop! Beep! Beep! Do not confuse singular and plural.” *So* many people ask me “Oh? Who else was there?” No one, no one else, just a difficult, stinking pronoun, that’s all.

      Have you even SEEN the list of other transgender pronouns? It’s totally impressive! Tara, bless their empathetic heart, feels comfortable using they/them/their, which are words I have heard before. Some people feel more comfortable with hen, zhe, thon, and zie/zir/zes, shi/hir, hu/hus/hum…

      /whispers prayer to herself…thank you, Tara, thank you/

      Didn’t Pauline just bare her soul to us here? I am so honored to hear her story. But there is no sense in comparing her story to yours. Not having grandchildren is a very big deal, and it touches us to the core. You have overcome and soared through so many challenges that it might seem like that was a small one, but it isn’t. What you said is true, it’s the death of dreams. Pardon the melodrama, but it’s the truth. And it’s hard. And we women somehow find a way to turn it into a new story of love.

      1. Sometimes, bad parents make us stronger. Pauline hits it on the nail every time. I’m learning so much from her. We both have adult children living with us when we’d rather they get on their own again but we both are managing to make the best of it. I’m waiting patiently to see how this all unfolds. Life is full of twists and turns. It’s never boring for certain. I don’t think I can manage the new pronouns. I guess the younger generation will do it better but my heart is there.

  5. I was looking for new reading material and I stumbled upon your blog. Great post. Well written and inspiring. Looking forward to coming back and explore other ones you have.

  6. I read a paragraph, then smile with understanding….I read another, and smile with familiarity….

    I pray blessings on Tara, my Son, and all other transgender individuals – for their willingness to dissect their souls, their emotions, their bodies, their thoughts, their life paths, their gender….in order to help those of us who are parents, siblings, friends, bosses, relatives, and humanity in general – who fall under the familiar majority- male or female. Our children give so much of themselves to help us understand! I am truly grateful.

    I am grateful for my journey too – as my Son transformed, I did as well. One cannot walk this path without change. I’m happy I was able to embrace and love. There are so many parents who reject, hate, and discard. I have learned so much about humanity, my biases and fears, and overcoming evil/darkness with good/light. I am truly blessed to be my Son’s Mom ❤ Such an amazing experience 😀

    Crystal – I love the way you document your journey, and simplify difficult concepts for your reader. You facilitate positive communication and I always find comfort in your experiences as a Mother – they certainly parallel mine. I love you both. Thank you both for sharing!

    1. LaDale, one of the best conversations I had in the middle of my grieving process was the one with you. There is nothing as reassuring as being able to talk with another person who totally gets the complicated emotions I’m feeling. When you talked about your son and how you were supporting him, the love was so obvious. I could see that some of the steps you went through were confusing for you too. I find comfort in your experiences as a mother too, with a similar background to mine. We both found a way to act out of love instead of out of fear.

      I just love how you describe the sacrifices of our children to help educate us and the world around them. What a generous perspective, thank you. It makes them heroes. It makes us so lucky to be included in their amazing journeys.

    1. Yes! Please share this with as many people as you wish, Laurie. I would love it if my experiences could help someone else, perhaps with understanding or maybe even someone in the same position. It’s *so* confusing, and as Tara has said, confusing even for them. I think the reason it’s so hard to grapple with is because we have so little practice in thinking about people of a variety of genders. The more we talk about it (good for you for talking about it!), the more our brains get used to the idea.

      Thank you for your beautiful comment under Pauline’s words, and your friendship and for your open mind as well. I know that whenever life brings us together, we will be able to pick up as though we’ve been neighbors for years. 😉

  7. Puberty is complicated and confusing enough, within the bounds of stereotypical gender – Tara goes where only heroes dare to tread. I’m glad you are such a sensible and open-minded mother.

    1. Thank you Caelan, and I know you and your wife would be able to follow the same path of love if you come up against something challenging and confusing with your own kids. Maybe you have already. I appreciate your friendship and your consistent path of authenticity. It’s people like you in the world that help give me courage to be an authentic me.

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