“Can I ask you a question?”
The inquiry took me by surprise. It came from a heavyset mustached man named “Jim” who had provided tech support for my human inclusivity training session in Norfolk, Virginia earlier that morning. For the two and a half hours that I spoke, Jim hadn’t acted all that interested.
Truth be told, I had casually grouped and labeled Jim because of what he looked like—and in doing so, I had done the very thing that I teach other humans not to do. Still, because I firmly believe in showing up when asked, I responded, “Of course.”
“I have a 17-year-old son named Mick,” Jim started. “Until early summer, he was my daughter Michelle.”
These words, too, surprised me. I reacted with, “Congratulations on your new son.”
What followed was consistent with what I’ve heard from other parents of trans kids and teens—that Mick had always been “different;” that in late middle school he had identified as a butch lesbian but within a couple years, his gender identification had become even grayer; and that eventually, what had been “she” now needed to be “he.”
“My question,” Jim continued, “is whether it would be better for Mick to wait until college to transition genders. He just started his last year of high school with kids he’s known ever since grade school; I’d hate for him to lose all those friends because of transitioning. Wouldn’t it be better for him to wait until next year when he can claim an entirely new identity with people he’ll be meeting for the first time?”
Pronoun proper, it was a good question but a bit misplaced. After all, it was really Mick’s decision as to when he wanted to begin living life authentically. If that meant that some friends might not be accepting, I was sure that Mick would deem the sacrifice worth it.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said, even though I really did know. “Don’t you think it might be even worse transitioning genders as a college freshman since he’ll also have to navigate the rigors of starting college?”
Jim made a slight face. “Maybe,” he answered.
I asked about how the nuclear family had taken Mick’s coming out as male.
“My wife doesn’t say very much,” Jim replied. “I know that it bothers her but I’m not going to not be supportive of my son just to make her feel better. I also have another son who’s good with it all.”
From there I heard how despite the shock of Mick’s coming out, Jim did all that he could to understand what his son was dealing with. This included reading up on gender dysphoria and researching to find Mick the right therapist—one who had worked with persons struggling with gender identity issues.
Jim’s love for his son didn’t stop there.
“I know that Mick is going to be challenged, that things will be difficult,” he said. “We live in rural Virginia. You know what that can be like.”
“So,” he continued, “I made it clear to everyone—my wife, my son—that our home would be a safe place for Mick. A sanctuary. A place where he would be accepted regardless…”
As Jim’s words trailed off, his eyes became wet. Seeing that trigged my same response.
“You are doing all of the right things,” I assured him, trying not to choke up. “Mick is so lucky to have you. Not every parent would be as kind and accepting.”
It was true: Jim clearly was doing everything right. It wasn’t a given by any stretch, either. On the other side of the spectrum, many parents aren’t accepting and sometimes make life so unbearable that the trans child runs away. Or, it can be way worse—suicide attempts or addictions to cope. In one instance, a mother kicked her 15-year-old transgender son down the stairs—all because the son simply wanted to wear a male sports jersey.
Jim and I ended our talk with a hug. “You’re doing good,” I said. “If you ever need perspective again, just reach out.”
With that, Jim turned and walked away. Hopefully, it was with a bit more confidence than before he and I spoke.
Afterward, I thought about the powerful bond between parent and child. I know this firsthand—I would literally do anything for either of my adult daughters regardless of circumstance or cost.
Yet, for the parents of transgender children there’s an extra layer—one of loss or grieving that the child or teen they’ve known from birth suddenly isn’t who they believed them to be.
But we’re back to love. A parent’s love and a bond that should be immutable.
Just as Jim and countless other parents demonstrate it to be every day.
Ellen (Ellie) Krug is the author of Getting to Ellen: A Memoir about Love, Honesty and Gender Change (2013). She speaks and trains on diversity and inclusion topics; visit www.elliekrug.com where you can also sign up for her newsletter, The Ripple. She welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org