Terri's Story: A Bigger Life

Terri's Story: A Bigger Life

October is LGBT History Month. To honor transgender people and their unique histories, I will be featuring transgender people and parents of transgender children all month long. Through sharing their stories, I hope to raise awareness of this amazing population of people who still struggle for basic human rights.

By Terri Ginsberg Bernsohn, the mother of a transgender son

The night my middle child was born 28 years ago, I paced the hospital room with her, both of us crying. My relationship with my own mother was complicated, and often painful, and I feared I did not know how to be the mother of a daughter and would fail her in so many ways. Now that daughter is my son, and I wonder in what ways I unknowingly failed him, by not recognizing who he was.

My children, though now adults, are exactly as they were as babies. Emma waited until 8 days past her due date, then was born in a few hours. She got her first tooth at 13 months, then a mouthful in a couple of weeks. And that’s how she did everything: nothing, nothing, nothing, EVERYTHING. Transitioning has been the same way.

Emma came out as a lesbian at 18, went to college out east, left college, traveled, moved to Berkeley and applied to art school. She was always androgynous in appearance; it was not uncommon that women seeing Em in a restroom would do a double take and check the sign on the door to make sure they hadn’t walked into the men’s room. In the Bay Area, gender seems like a very creative, fluid aspect of oneself and it’s very liberating.

Just as my youngest child was getting ready to move to Oakland a year ago, and she and I were leaving to drive cross-country, Emma called to tell me that her then-girlfriend called Em her “boyfriend” and referred to her with male pronouns. That was his whole announcement: the name and pronouns, nothing about transitioning, or being male. Emma had just started a new job and was going by Emmett. This might have been going on for a month or two, but because we were going to see him the next week, he told us. That first night I felt a sort of grieving for the daughter I was losing.  But as soon as we got to Oakland, I realized that I still had this same amazing person in my life, the one with the great smile, brilliant sense of humor and awesome dance moves.

Emmett claims that it’s only been in the last year or two that he considered himself a trans man. But there have been instances when I myself wondered if he was transgender and I would be surprised if it hasn’t crossed his mind many times before. A few years ago, he talked about getting top surgery as a queer woman. He made a friend while he was living on an island off Washington several years ago, a trans man, and I had a sense that Em was attracted to the notion. His art school thesis was a photo essay about public restrooms and gender. Clearly something was percolating somewhere. When he announced he was queer ten years ago, he said it took him so long to say it because he didn’t want it to be true, and I think it is the same thing now. He doesn’t want his gender or sexual identity to be the descriptor people use when they talk about him. You know, the way people say things like, “the gay couple who live upstairs,” as if they’d ever say, “the straight couple next door.”

My kids’ father and I divorced several years ago and it took us almost five years to be at ease with one another. Emmett’s transition, as well as his bouts of depression and anxiety, have forced us to collaborate. Only the two of us can fully understand what it’s like to be on this wild ride as Emmett’s parents.

We sometimes screw up and use the wrong pronoun, or call Emmett by the wrong name. (I think it would have been easier if he changed his name to something very different, like Will or Tom. We still call him Em half the time, and then it’s a slippery slope to that second syllable.) Sometimes Emmett overlooks our mistakes, knowing it’s a hard habit to break after 28 years. Other times he’s very resentful about it, as if we’re not accepting of his transition. In the way he looks, talks and behaves, Emmett is identical to Emma. I hope he can learn to be as patient with us as we are with him.

My father and step-mother are troopers. Of their nine grandchildren, three (so far) have come out as queer. My stepmother had the most welcoming response when Emmett called to tell her he was transitioning. She said, “The hardest thing is going to be figuring out how to change your name in my iPhone.” Three months after Emmett announced his transition, he and his younger sister officiated at my son and daughter-in-law’s wedding. This was the first time post-announcement Emmett would be seeing his grandparents and aunts and they didn’t know what to expect. But Emmett was exactly the same person, lanky, quick-witted, with that gigantic smile. He and my daughter, who’s queer and equally androgynous in appearance, wore men’s suits and matching bow ties. (An elderly relative of the bride wondered why “those two little boys” were officiating.)

Emmett, like Emma, is volatile. He gets agitated and obsessive. He’s prickly, and then can be very loving. He recently got two more tattoos, one to represent his younger sister and another to represent all the support and opportunity his grandfather has provided throughout Emmett’s life. He abruptly leaves jobs, but with his charisma and artistic talent, he always finds another, better job. A very talented graphic designer in San Francisco, he’s now living on an island near Seattle, doing freelance work and odd jobs. I would like to think that transitioning will help Emmett be more grounded and stable, coming into his own. Maybe his dramatic mood swings will subside as he becomes more at peace with himself. But I don’t think so...I think he will always be slightly uncomfortable in his own skin, ready to dart in another direction.

He’s having top surgery next month, and he decided to do it in Chicago, to be near family while recovering. He will be staying with me for the better part of a month and it will be messy. The combination of his stubborn determination and emotional fragility manifest as the mood swings of a teenager,  He’s also talking about starting on testosterone, even though he previously said he wouldn’t do it for fear of inflaming his predisposition to anger. I worry about his drinking. I worry about his cycles of depression that have landed him in two outpatient programs. I worry about his impulsivity. I worry that his romantic relationships are as dramatic as soap operas. I worry that he will never be able to get out of his own way. As her dad and I say often, “It’s hard to be Em.”

Societally, this is such an exciting time, witnessing the dismantling and reconfiguring of gender constructs. I’m the principal of a synagogue school, and even in our small community, at least 5 of our kids are trans, from age 5 to 35. Being Emmett’s parent gives me entree into the cultural conversation.

A couple of weeks ago I had a wonderful realization: Emmett, more than my other two kids, has given me so many opportunities to grow. (And I do not say that facetiously.) I have had to stretch my heart, go way beyond my comfort zone, work harder, and learn more because I am his mother. My life is bigger because of him, and certainly more interesting. The night he was born, I worried I was not up to the task of being his mother. I was wrong.

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Special thanks to Mary Tyler Mom who inspired this unique and beautiful way of honoring LGBT History Month.

photo credit: Milky way from Big Bend via photopin (license)

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