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.

Vulnerability Creates Change

I just returned home after an inspiring week in Houston. Four days at the Creating Change Conference pumped me up for a two-day speaking engagement at BP.

Over 4,000 people attended Creating Change, the National Conference on LGBT Equality. This was my first Creating Change conference and I was blown away by the people I met, lessons I learned, and sense of community I felt. In fact, my only disappointment is that I’m returning home from the conference with the autographed copy of our book that I hoped to give Laverne Cox. I was a fan of Laverne’s long before the conference, but after her inspiring keynote speech the word “fan” does not capture the love, respect and appreciation I feel for this powerful woman.

I remember how I felt years ago, when I was coming to terms with the fact that my son is transgender. My love and support for him never wavered, but I struggled to envision what his life, his future, would look like. Who would love him the way he deserves to be loved? Would others see the heart, soul, and promise inside of him? All of the gifts and qualities that make him so special are still inside of him, but would others be open to seeing those qualities?

I am grateful to Laverne for being a “possibility model” … for using her powerful voice to create change and for showing me what the future can look like. If you have not seen her inspirational speech, I highly recommend it.

And Laverne … I look forward to the day we finally meet so I can hug you, thank you, and give you this book!

Laverne Cox at Creating Change 2014

My final conference workshop on Sunday was called, “The Key to Your Story is Vulnerability.” What a perfect transition!

I spent Monday and Tuesday at BP sharing my family’s story with their employees. The presentation in Houston was live-streamed to the company’s remote U.S. and international locations.

I often start my presentations with a Brené Brown quote – acknowledging the vulnerability I feel at the onset of sharing our family’s story and explaining my belief that through this vulnerability we experience connection.

“Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection”

~ Brené Brown

My hope always is to connect with the audience on some level, whether it be as a mother, a sister, a friend, or an engineer. Through that connection others can experience our journey and hopefully understand how and why we would support our child’s transition from female to male at the age of 15.

It was especially fitting to kick off with a Brené Brown quote in her hometown of Houston. My audience knew and admired her. Thankfully the vulnerability quickly dissolved into connection. At both sessions there were audience members in tears. The questions, conversations, and hugs that followed were priceless. Tears and hugs are not something I would expect in a corporate setting, but the connection made it comfortable.

One woman raised her hand and said, “Brené Brown would have been proud of you if she had seen your presentation today. Your vulnerability is beautiful and your message and story are so important.” As she thanked me, she burst into tears.

One of my favorite comments came from a gentleman who said, “Throughout your presentation I was waiting to see a photo of your son. Now, at the end of your session, I am so glad you did NOT show us a photo because what I’ve learned from you is that your son, and all transgender people, are beautiful souls—people with hearts, loves, and lives just like me. I don’t need to see what he looks like. It doesn’t matter what the outside package looks like. We are all souls and we all matter. Thank you for sharing your story and reminding me of this.”

I can’t say enough about the positive experience I had at BP. This company deserves to be celebrated for inviting me in to share my story, and for creating an environment where employees can bring their whole selves to work.

By embracing our vulnerability and connecting with others, we can all create change!

Safer People, Safer Spaces

Earlier this week I attended a terrific program called “Safer People, Safer Spaces.” This 3 hour training, offered by the LGBT Resource Center at Syracuse University, was attended by students, faculty, staff, and community members.

True to the course description, this training was as close to comprehensive as could be provided in that amount of time. The facilitators incorporated many different activities which engaged all of us to better understand and develop our sense of allyship.

spss-stickerI was so moved to see such a diverse group of students, faculty, staff, and community members who were willing to give up 3 hours for this training. Students received no credits; this was not a course or job requirement. Each attendee simply had a desire to give of themselves to better understand others… and become a better ally.

At the conclusion of the training we discussed the “Statement of Allyship” embraced by the Center:

Statement of Allyship
Allyship is a process built through relationships; it requires commitment, understanding, hope, and humility. We believe allyship also requires a dedication to continuous self-awareness and self-exploration. Recognizing and understanding the pervasiveness of privilege and oppression, both across and within identity groups, is integral to ally development. Allies are accountable for the influence and impact of their actions to the broader social world, and our goal is that allies will ultimately join in efforts to achieve liberation.

Given that the training was offered by the LGBT Resource Center, and that most of the learning outcomes and activities centered on becoming a community of allies for people with marginalized genders and sexualities, I took particular interest in noting that the Statement of Allyship does not mention LGBT, gender or sexuality.

You may have noticed that the Mission Statement for the Ally Project also doesn’t mention or restrict being an ally only within the LGBT community.

Granted, we became passionate allies after learning our son is transgender. We were blessed to find countless allies in the LGBT community who guided and supported us through what was, at times, a very difficult and painful journey. Through our experiences we also learned first-hand of the inequities, injustices, and discrimination that still exist in the LGBT community. All of this led to our decision and commitment to help raise awareness and bring about positive change… and we became passionate allies.

It is convenient to become allies to those communities most near and dear, but all too often we, including myself, are guilty of limiting our minds and our good intentions to only those communities.

Finding love and compassion for all is a higher calling for allies, and so at the Ally Project our definition of an ally is purposely much broader and does not unduly restrict application to only the LGBT community. If we can look beyond our differences and consider how we treat all people… and have compassion and openness to all regardless of how we or they identify… we have hope for a world where nobody is marginalized or oppressed.

Kudos to the LGBT Resource Center at Syracuse University and kudos to everyone who attended the Safer People, Safer Spaces training!

Words of wisdom and compassion deserve to be shared.

Lateral Love

“Cultural identity is not just an add-on to the best interests of the child. We would all agree that the safety of the child is paramount. No child should live in fear. No child should starve. No child should live in situations of neglect. No child should be abused. But if a child’s identity is denied or denigrated, they are not being looked after. Denying cultural identity is detrimental to their attachment needs, their emotional development, their education and their health. Every area of human development which defines the child’s best interests has a cultural component. Your culture helps define HOW you attach, HOW you express emotion, HOW you learn and HOW you stay healthy!” ~ Bamblett and Lewis 2006

View original post