Recently the world lost Leelah Alcorn, a trans girl who felt too unsupported, too misunderstood, too tormented to go forward. Leelah died of homophobia, specifically transphobia, and bluntly: that’s wrong on more levels than I can count. Sure, I feel judgmental toward her parents for their lack of support for their daughter. But it’s relatively easy to feel judgmental, and much harder to figure out how to help. I want to try to help, so I’m imagining one possible scenario, step by step. To avoid a confusing array of pronouns, I’ve chosen to write about a young person with the body of a boy, whose gender identity is female. However, I think the issues will hold true for a transgender boy or girl, female or male, and for his or her family.
I’m imagining the conversation:
“Mom, can we talk?”
“Sure.” (Uh oh. Torpedoed a test? Drugs or alcohol? Speeding ticket?)
“I don’t know how to say this.”
“Okay, whatever it is, I’ll help you through.”
“I know I look like a boy, but I feel like a girl.”
Thud of silence.
In that instant, we’d be launched on a new trajectory, a hairpin turn, a lightning-bolt surprise journey.
I imagine my first reaction would be shock that my most basic assumption about my child was wrong, and always had been.
My boy is a girl?
In an instant, my confidence in my parenting would be shaken to the core.
What else have I missed?
The guilt would hit, with anger on its heels. I’d feel guilty that my child had carried this alone for so long, and at the same time angry that she had kept something so huge from me for so long. I’d feel guilty for missing something so fundamental, and furious at her for slamming me with this magnum-force news bulletin.
Breathe. Just breathe.
I’d try to steady myself, because even though something huge would have changed, much would not have changed at all. She would still be my child – the same values of decency, the same wicked sense of humor, the same love for chocolate, the same conviction that okra and garden snails and Vaseline are biologically related and equally unfit for human consumption. She’d complete physics assignments with the same ease, continue her struggle reading music, and remain strikingly unable to complete a sentence without saying “like” or “y’know”. My child would still be my child.
Then the doubts would hit again.
This can’t be happening.
I’d remember my son, actually my daughter, as a newborn. Our first relationship to our children is through their bodies. We hold them, feed them, change them. We feel their foreheads for fever, and rock them to sleep in our arms. We develop a powerful bond with the body of our child, a physical and emotional connection, bone-deep. The foundation of our entire relationship stems from our child’s body.
That foundation misled me, betrayed me.
Then I hope I’d put on the brakes. My daughter did not mislead or betray me, and neither did her body. My own assumptions about her body did. I’d remind myself not to take it out on my child, and in turn, I’d ask her not to blame me for giving her a body that doesn’t match her identity.
We can get through this.
I’d feel a moment of calm, a quiet confidence. Then my emotions would surge, and run rampant. I’d be mortified to find myself up to my eyeballs in “wrong” feelings -- politically incorrect, insensitive, hurtful, bigoted.
Did I do something wrong, make a terrible mistake that caused this?
Feelings don’t always make sense, or follow the rules of rationality. I’d try to be patient with my own “wrong” reactions. Does that mean I’d accept these wrong feelings, welcome them? No. But I’d allow myself the time I needed to process this new situation, to blaze an emotional trail. And as I struggled, I’d be surprised to realize that in some ways, my world had become a lot easier.
So much makes sense that I didn’t understand before.
I imagine that part of my reaction would be relief. I’d remember things my son did and said, which puzzled me at the time. I’d now realize that was not my son, but actually my daughter acting and speaking, and her behavior and words would make sense. I’d feel guilty that I didn’t follow up at the time, and possibly save my daughter years of pain and confusion. I’d wonder if I could ever forgive myself.
I never thought I’d be dealing with this.
At that point, I hope I’d pause, and begin to regain perspective, because that sentiment is felt by every parent, many times, in raising children. Kids are full of surprises, and the one sure-bet for parents is the unexpected. I hope my sense of humor would kick back in, to steady me, and I’d be able to smile at my emotional clumsiness. I’d feel the beginnings of a stronger bond with my child, a bond of truth and authenticity.
I love her so much, but I need support, and so does she.
I’d reach out. I’d talk to friends. I’d also find a new community of people who shared my experience. I’d encourage my daughter to do the same. No secrets, no shame. I would certainly encounter ignorance and bigotry. Worse, my child would be hurt at times by misguided people who’d feel a push to lash out. I’d be unable to protect her from being hurt, but I’d make sure our home remained a safe haven.
I hope that if my child ever came out as Transgender, we’d stand side by side. If I needed to cry, that would be okay, as long as I left room for her tears. I would try to accept my full reaction, and support my daughter through her full reaction, not allowing my emotions to eclipse hers.
I’d mess up, sometimes badly. If needed, I’d apologize. I’d ask questions. I’d learn. I’d encourage my daughter to do the same. I’d fall so many times I’d leave skid marks. But whether on our feet or on our asses, even shaken to the core, we’d love each other.
We’d go forward as a family, a newly configured family – with a daughter instead of a son. Sometimes we’d walk tall; sometimes we’d stumble. We’d hold out our hands, helping each other regain balance. We’d talk. We’d eat our favorite foods, and enjoy our favorite activities. We’d have fun. Like always. Because we’d still be the same people, only we’d understand each other with a new clarity.
We’d figure it out.
Rest In Peace, Leelah Alcorn.
Amy Kaufman Burk is a novelist and blogger. She has written two novels, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable and Tightwire, both on Amazon’s Top Rated List for LGBT Literary Fiction.