A Mother’s Plea for GENDA

Today I cried.

A gut-wrenching, mascara all over my face, sobbing cry that I know I’ll feel in my throat and stomach for a long time.

I read of yet another transgender teen’s suicide and watched footage of his heartbroken mother. Kyler Prescott, 14 years old, took his life, despite having a loving, supportive family. Kyler’s mother said she believes “there were a number of complex reasons” for the suicide, citing one of the biggest as society’s lack of understanding and tolerance for transgender kids.

My heart aches for this family, and for this young boy whose pain was so great that he chose to end his life.

I’ve read of a dozen other transgender teen suicides in recent months, and I’m haunted by the loss of these young lives. The hopelessness and despair brings back frightening memories of my own child’s torment.

Nearly five years ago my husband and I learned that the child we thought was our daughter is really our son. At 13, our son attempted to take his own life. The challenges of being transgender in our society had felt overwhelming to him, despite having the loving support of his family.

41% of transgender people attempt suicide (as compared to 1.6% of the general population.) That number goes up to 51% if they experience bullying or harassment and up to 61% if they are subjected to physical assault.

The challenge for my son, and all transgender people, is not just being born in a body that doesn’t match who they know themselves to be. The challenge is compounded by how they are perceived and treated in society.

My husband and I confided in few people at first, as we immersed ourselves in learning all we needed to learn to save our child. We supported our teenage son’s transition from female to male. The experience has transformed all of our lives – for the better.

For years I was dedicated to helping my son make the changes he felt necessary to be seen and accepted as the young man he knew himself to be. It was a long and difficult process. There was bullying and rejection and discrimination along the way. We moved to another city, changed schools multiple times, and had to educate countless people – including healthcare workers, educators, and court officials.

Many would say we succeeded. My son is now happy and healthy. He’s a full-time college student, has a steady job where he was promoted to manager, is in a wonderful relationship, and is living his life fully as the young man I now know he has always been.

For years my life revolved around helping my son be able to finally live as the boy he always knew himself to be. I wanted to help him get on with living his life and not be limited or defined by his trans identity.

I didn’t want my son to suffer and struggle until society and our laws caught up.

But my focus has changed now.

I no longer want to change my son so that society sees him as a man and accepts him. Instead, I want to change society and our laws so that he (and all transgender people) can be seen for the remarkable human beings they are.

Today, I am an advocate for change. I advocate not only for my child, but for the entire transgender community, demanding access to healthcare, education, economic security and the freedom to move about this world without fear of state-sanctioned discrimination and violence. More than that, I advocate for dignity, respect, justice, compassion and love.

ALL people are entitled to dignity and respect and equal treatment under the law.

But in New York State, all people are NOT treated equally and do not have the same protections.

New Yorkers can be fired from their job, kicked out of their home, or denied credit, service, and even health care simply for being transgender. Furthermore, our state law does not protect transgender members of our community, even though they are at a greatly increased risk of violence.

I have two sons, raised in the same home and community, by the same parents. Both are college students. Both are hardworking, loving, kind, thoughtful, and giving. Yet my two sons are not treated equally under the eyes of the law in NYS. One of my sons is protected from discrimination and violence, while the other is not.

My son is a model employee, receives customer recognition and awards, and was promoted to manager.

But his employer doesn’t know he’s transgender. If they found out and have a bias, my son could be fired despite his exemplary job performance because we live in a state and town without trans-inclusive protections.

My son works hard to afford his own apartment. But he could be evicted from that apartment, because he is transgender.

I love BOTH of my sons and it is not right that one is protected while the other can be fired, evicted, or denied services simply for being who he is.

This week I will make my 7th trip to Albany, where I will call on Governor Cuomo, State Senate Leader John Flanagan and the entire New York State Legislature to make 2015 the year we pass the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) to protect transgender New Yorkers from discrimination.

Year after year we fight for this common sense legislation. Year after year the NYS Assembly passes the bill and the NYS Senate refuses to bring it to the floor for a vote.

I believe that anyone who doesn’t support GENDA doesn’t understand it. They don’t understand what it means to be transgender or they don’t understand what this legislation is and isn’t about. GENDA isn’t a special protection. Passing GENDA will simply mean that finally, both of my sons will have the same rights under the law.

I’ll share my family’s story again and again, hoping to open hearts and minds. Hoping to educate others and help them understand and learn some of what I’ve learned—as a mother, a friend, an ally, and a human being.

I had an urgent and compelling reason to learn, because my son’s life depended on it. But our elected officials have an urgent and compelling reason to learn, too. New Yorkers are being discriminated against. People are dying. Some are taking their own lives and some are victims of violence.

We cannot wait another year. The time to pass GENDA is now.

GENDA alone will not end the tragic epidemic of transgender teen suicide, but it is a necessary step toward getting practices, policies, and protections across our state that will support not only our youth, but all transgender people.

We tell our at-risk youth, “It gets better.” It is our responsibility to make that statement true – for all of our children.

And so I’ll make the six-hour drive to Albany again, and as many times as necessary, until GENDA is passed—and I’ll advocate for dignity, respect, justice, compassion and love. In the end, I believe that compassion and love will always win.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

I recently returned from my fourth Philadelphia Trans Health Conference. This annual conference draws between 3,000 – 4,000 transgender individuals, their families and service providers.

The first three times I attended the conference, I immersed myself in workshops for parents of trans youth and surrounded myself with a community of other parents and families on the same journey. Together we listened and learned from doctors, adolescent psychologists, advocacy and support organizations, and other seasoned parents.

But this conference was different. Although I did reconnect with many of the families who have become such an important part of our journey, this year I made dozens of new friends with older trans men and women.

I had a vending table where I sold our book, Allies & Angels: A Memoir of Our Family’s Transition. My husband and I sponsored The Transcending Gender Project, making it possible for the project to travel to Philly and we shared my table at the conference. (Watch for more about this great project in a future blog post!)

Our table was next to the Fantasia Fair table. Fantasia Fair is the world’s longest running trans event. (This year, October 19 – 26, will be the 40th consecutive year that the Fair has taken place in Provincetown, MA.)

I enjoyed fascinating conversations with the Fantasia Fair representatives. In addition, my prime piece of real estate allowed me to meet and speak with hundreds of conference attendees who visited the Fantasia Fair and Transcending Gender Project displays.

I am humbled, blessed, and grateful for all of those conversations. Over and over again I heard comments such as:

“I envy your son and all of the young people here at the conference. When I was your son’s age I thought I was the only one. I never heard the word “transgender.” There wasn’t the information and resources that there are today. There was no Internet and no way for me to connect with others and know I wasn’t alone.”

“I am amazed by the number of young people and families here supporting their trans children.”

“I wish I had my parents’ support. I didn’t transition until I was 40, 50, 60…”

“Your son is so lucky. Even today, I still have to live two lives because my career or family or [fill in the blank] does not allow me to fully transition at this time.”

I want to thank each of you from the bottom of my heart. I want you to know that because of you, young people like my son are able to know who they are and live the lives they deserve to live. And because of you, parents like me and my husband are able to know how important it is to support our children … and how to best go about doing that.

You are a part of history. You are an essential stone on our path from fear to acceptance to celebration. It is because of your courage and strength and willingness to share your stories and be who you are that children like my son are able to be who they are and experience life as their true selves from a much earlier age.

We are standing on the shoulders of giants. I dedicate this blog post to all of you. My conversations and new friendships in Philly reminded me of the important role you each played in my family’s personal journey … and in the trans movement as a whole.

We needed to learn
As parents, my husband and I did not immediately jump on board with the idea of supporting our son’s transition at the age of fifteen. We needed to first learn, understand and accept three things:

  1. what it means to be transgender,
  2. whether a child can know their gender identity, and
  3. whether our child was transgender and needed to transition for a happy, healthy life. (After all, not every gender non-conforming child needs to transition.)

Each of you, through the sharing of your experiences and deeply personal stories, helped build the knowledge base that parents like me have learned from.

My husband and I immersed ourselves in research and consulted doctors and experienced specialists. Allowing our child to live safely as a male in our home throughout this process was also a huge step toward discovering and affirming his gender for ourselves.

Our research and professional consultations gave us the answers and confidence we needed to know what we had ultimately come to accept—that our son was transgender.

But while my husband and I had the medical and scientific answers we needed to accept our child’s identity, it was the experiences shared by courageous trans men and women that gave us emotional insight into the importance of supporting his transition at such an early age.

You demystified what it means to be transgender and helped us understand your feelings and experiences. We could feel your pain—not just the pain of living as a gender you don’t identify with, but the pain from years of trying to deny it, trying to be somebody you aren’t, and trying not to hurt the people you love. Your bravery in telling such personal stories is commendable.

I’m grateful for your courage because your words helped me and so many others to better understand what our children are feeling. You also helped me recognize my role as a parent in either perpetuating or alleviating my son’s pain.

By sharing your pain you helped us learn a better way
We are in a time of increasing acceptance of transgender people, but it wasn’t always that way. So many trans people missed out on a significant portion of their lives as a man or a woman because family and social norms didn’t provide for transition during childhood. It was devastating when I learned that many transgender children do not survive to be adults.

We met so many people who transitioned in their thirties, forties, or fifties … who didn’t get to experience childhood as their identified gender. It became apparent that our son still had some of his childhood left. At age fifteen, he had two more years in high school; it was not too late to create childhood memories that he could look back on favorably. We had the power to help our son experience his remaining years of high school as a male.

By honestly sharing your painful experiences, you filled us with an incredible sense of urgency. My husband and I became committed to supporting our son’s transition. We didn’t want him to miss another day of living his life, comfortable in his own skin.

You helped make clear that we had a role to play in our son’s time-sensitive transition. Initially, our approach was that of typical parents: cautious. “Alright, let’s wait and see. If after you’re eighteen you want hormones or surgery … if you’re sure you want to do this, well, then we‘ll talk about it.”

But to help our son experience part of his childhood as a boy, we realized the initial cautious approach wasn’t going to work. Through our research and consultations with professionals, we learned waiting until eighteen wasn’t necessary. At this point we knew, without any doubt, that our child was a boy. Why put this arbitrary line in the sand that he can’t start living and being who he really is until he is eighteen? Why deny him three years or more of being comfortable in his own skin? Why deny him the ability to create memories that he can look back on and feel good about?

You contributed significantly to this important understanding—that there was still a chance for our son to experience the latter part of his childhood as a boy.

You explained so well about the loss you experienced, as a transgender person, never having the childhood of your affirmed gender. Thanks to you, our son obtained his driver’s license with the photo of a smiling young man and an “M” for male, he attended the prom handsomely dressed in a suit, and he graduated wearing a cap and gown the same color as the other boys. These, and other memories, have been collected over the past four years.

Forever grateful
I am forever grateful. Your brave and unselfish actions, sharing your experiences and feelings, have contributed to my awareness as a parent—helping me more quickly provide what my child needs.

I don’t know how long it would have taken me to come to these realizations on my own. As well-intentioned as I am and as much as I love my child, as much as I read every book I could get my hands on, researched every website I could find and talked to every doctor and professional I could; without meeting others who were willing to be vulnerable and expose themselves—knowing that many are going to be critical and judgmental and mean—it could have taken me years. It’s because of your stories, honesty, and courage that I got to this place of acceptance and urgency as soon as I did.

Every day my respect grows ever stronger for those who can be so open about such personal topics, because it is frightening, vulnerable, and difficult. It’s like pinning your heart on a bull’s eye where people can take aim and shoot. You don’t know how your story is going to be received—with empathy or with arrows. It can hurt, and yet, they do it anyway.

To any parents who are withholding their support, are in denial of their child’s transgender identity, or who have drawn an arbitrary line in the sand and say, “When you are of legal age to make these decisions for yourself, then I can’t stop you.”—I ask you to consider this: Suppressing and rejecting a transgender child robs them of their childhood and adds tremendously to the burdens of transition later in life.

I urge you to listen to and learn from not only your child, but from the brave trans men and women who came before them. I developed compassion, empathy and understanding that I’m embarrassed I didn’t have from the beginning. I know that you can too.

I am grateful for the long life my son has before him, living as the young man I now know he has always been. I am grateful for how I, and my entire family, have been changed by this experience. And I am most grateful to be standing on the shoulders of giants.