Jake’s voice sounded like a distant hum from the backseat of the car. We’ve all been there as parents. He was talking about dance practice, telling me who sat by whom and what songs the teacher let them dance to. It was late at night, I’d been sitting in my car scrolling through Facebook for the past two hours, and I was tired of asking him, repeatedly, to speak up, speak louder, I can’t hear you!
Then as clear as a bell: “I told Emma I’m transgender.”
Panic gripped my throat, made my heart leap out of my chest. We were coming back from a practice in a place far enough away and removed from our own community and social circle that I hadn’t bothered to tell them my son was transgender. They didn’t know. They didn’t need to know, and Jake had decided that he didn’t want them to know.
“You did?” I said, as casual as possible. “Who’s Emma?”
My mind was racing. Was Emma the one with the minister father, the extremely conservative, Christian minister father? Or was she one of the kids that was part ofthe homeschool cooperative that bid its members to “observe the commandment of your father and do not forsake the teaching of your mother; bind them continually on your heart; tie them around your neck” (Proverbs 6:20-21)? Did I know her mom?
“Emma’s my best friend in the class.”
That didn’t provide any insight.
“Is she your age, one of the little kids?” So young she’d have absolutely no idea what you were talking about? She’d have no clue what the word transgender meant and I only had to hope she didn’t repeat it to her parents.
“No, she’s a big kid. A way big kid, like one of the biggest kids.”
No. Oh no. I could hear my heart pounding in my ears. The biggest kids were sixteen. They would know, and if they didn’t, they were old enough to be curious, to find out, to ask questions.
“Why did you tell her?” Deeper, tinged with fear. “Why?”
Instantly, his voice grew fearful: “I don’t know, Mommy.”
The worst question a parent can ask a child is why. Why didn’t you tell me you had homework? Why didn’t you go to the bathroom when I asked before we left the house? Why did you hit your baby brother?
It’s like that word immediately clues them in to Something Wrong and they shut down.
“You have to know why you told her, Jake.” Another useless command that parents across the world use on a regular basis. Like somehow, by insisting, really insisting, the answer will shake loose.
I glanced in my rear view mirror in time to see oncoming headlights flash in my son’s wide eyes.
He was scared.
He should be scared! That was my first thought. This was the first time we’d gone stealth. Deep stealth. Stealth, in transgender terms, means telling no one. There’s a lot of controversy about going stealth and sometimes shaming of people that choose to. I’ve struggled a lot with it myself. On one hand, for a seven year old, it’s a lot safer to just be a boy and not a transgender boy. On the other hand, I’m afraid it will make him think that being transgender is something bad. Because Jake transitioned during the school year, the choice was made for us. We couldn’t be stealth.
So when the opportunity arose, in this distant community where no one knew us, Jake said he wanted to be stealth, to be just like every other boy and not have to explain and risk discrimination.
But every time I dropped him off, I had a bad taste in my mouth. I felt like a liar, like I was hiding who my son really was. Every time I bonded with another parent over “our boys”, I felt a little like a fraud. Because in a way, I was. I was filling in the past six years of my child’s life, replacing all the she’s and her’s with his’s and him’s. I had to carefully watch and edit everything I said, and this whole pronoun and name change was new to me too, so let me tell you, it was hard. But those were my issues. I could live with those.
Worse is that every day, every practice, I lived in terror that we’d be outed. That someone would find out, somehow, and tell everyone.
Instead, the person doing the outing was Jake himself.
“You can’t just tell everyone that you’re transgender in this group. We talked about that, we agreed that if you want to tell anyone here, you have to tell me first.” I tried to sound casual, but firm. I think I came off more commanding, because the fear had not subsided in his eyes.
“But why? It’s what I am.”
Why? Why? Because they might kick him out of the dance class. Because they might consider him an abomination. Because they might attack him, verbally or physically. Because they might shatter his innocence and his confidence and the courage that I’ve always been so amazed by.
Of course, I couldn’t tell him any those things.
“Remember when I said there’s some very bad people in the world, who are afraid of people like you? Some of those people might be a part of that dance class.”
“Emma’s not a bad person, she’s really nice.”
I sighed inwardly. He was seven, everyone was really nice or really mean. There wasn’t any middle ground for my child. Emma was nice and Tommy was bad. Chocolate was good and mint was disgusting. It was good and evil, black and white. Hadn’t every cartoon and book he’d watched or read up until this point taught him that?
So how do you destroy that view of the world for your seven year old? How do you explain that there are some good people who do bad things and bad people who do good things? Not every pretty woman is nice, not every twisted crone is evil, and not every dashing Prince saves the day? How do you make a child understand that you shouldn’t mistrust everyone, but you shouldn’t trust everyone?
How do you hide the truth of who your child is, without making him feel shameful and like something is wrong with him?
I had to take a stab at it: “I’m sure Emma is perfectly nice, but maybe she’ll tell someone else, like the other kids in class. Or maybe she’ll tell her parents.”
“No, Emma wouldn’t do that, I told her it’s a secret. And so what, I’m proud to be transgender, I don’t care if everyone knows.”
“There is nothing wrong with being transgender, you should be proud. But I don’t know how the people in this class would react, and my job is to protect you. You can’t possibly know that maybe Emma will go home and tell her parents. And I don’t know Emma’s parents. I don’t know if they’re the kind of people who are good people and who think kids like you are something to celebrate, or if they’re not so good people and they’re afraid of kids like you, of all transgender people, because you’re different from them, and to them, different means bad.”
There was silence for a moment, and I began to think that we’d crossed that bridge.
Then, curiously: “Why do people think different is bad?”
“How come you turned your nose up at trying lobster when we were on vacation?” I had this one, this part was easy.
He made fake retching noises behind me. “Yuck, disgusting!”
“But you didn’t try it. It was something different and so, you thought it was something bad.”
“It was white and squishy and gross.” We laughed and I could feel the tension slipping out of me. I relaxed my death grip on the steering wheel and dried my palms. “Is it like when I was afraid to go on the big slide at the waterpark, because it looked so scary?”
“It’s exactly like that, “I replied.
“But then, I did go on it. And I loved it,” he said thoughtfully.
“So if they know what a transgender person is, they’ll realize that we’re not so scary and they can love us too?”
My heart shattered at the innocence of his question, the innocence of a young boy who saw only the good in everyone around him. I felt insanely giddy to think that he was so loved and protected and sheltered from all the evil in the world. But at the same time, I was terrified. Terrified that if I didn’t somehow make him aware, help him build up the armor he would need to survive this life, he would end up dead like so many of the other youth in this community, years before his time.
I had absolutely no words to respond, nothing I could say. In a perfect world, yes, a million times, yes. And for some people, absolutely. But how could I teach him to know the difference, without teaching him to think that there was anything wrong with him.
Because there was nothing wrong with my son. There was nothing shameful about being transgender.
I settled on a smile in the rearview mirror and his face lit up in response. My heart felt like it would burst, it was so full of love and pride.
“What did Emma say, when you told her? How did she respond?”
“She said it was cool.”
I let out a breath and looked back at the dark highway.
“Make sure to give me a heads up before you tell anyone else, okay?”
“Okay,” Jake responded and I could hear the smile in his voice.
I turned the music up a bit, blinked back the tears in my eyes and smiled a little too.
Don’t miss my video on Listen to Your Mother where I share my story of Jake’s transition.
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