Raising Our Rainbows

RainbowWritten by Michael Miller

Our 5-year-old son Sean is a fiercely independent, big-hearted boy who likes to get in the dirt and dig. He is strong and tough, not afraid of bugs, speed, heights, gravity, or physics in general. He likes to “battle,” to wrestle and roughhouse and knock things over.

He also likes Disney princesses, the color pink, bracelets, and other odds and ends traditionally thought of as “girl stuff.”

As Sean evolves and his personality manifests and asserts itself, we as parents increasingly find ourselves in a struggle between allowing him to be who he is — to express himself with the full confidence that we love him unconditionally and without judgment — and guiding him through society’s expectations. We know there are a lot of ugly realities waiting for a boy who prefers Barbie to G.I. Joe. We know there are known quantities such as bullies — and dangers we cannot anticipate. So while at home, Sean is given the freedom to be who he is and we use each decision he makes as a learning opportunity, we are conservative about what he wears to school — if you can define sparkly tennis shoes and pastel shirts as conservative.

There are not a tremendous number of resources for parents raising kids who may be gender nonconforming. Many sources immediately assume a deviancy or mental illness. One of the bravest and most reassuring voices addressing this journey belongs to Lori Duron, an Orange County, Calif., mom whose son C.J., 6, is the subject of her blog and new book, “Raising My Rainbow.” She details the fears, joys, triumphs and setbacks of raising “a boy who only likes girl stuff and wants to be treated like a girl.”

While our Sean is not as far down that path as C.J. is, Duron has served as an advance guide for us, her honest reporting giving us some idea of the obstacles and trials ahead.

Duron was a guest on a recent broadcast of the WSPD radio show I co-host, “Eye on Your Weekend,” and we discussed her progress and the attention her blog and book have garnered.

BarbieDuron said C.J. often got hand-me-down toys from his older brother but never expressed excitement about Hot Wheels or Legos or action figures. “He found a Barbie I had, and that was the day he came alive,” she said. “I thought it would be a phase but it wasn’t. That was the day he started liking ‘girls stuff.’”

The arbitrary labeling of colors and toys as “girls stuff” is problematic, but fighting societal definitions is like joining King Canute in ordering back the sea, as Duron has experienced.

“It was jarring to see our 3-year-old boy playing with girls’ toys, though I hate that term,” she said. “It felt off. My husband and I talked about it a lot and whether it was a phase. What we realized is that what we were worried about was what other people were going to think and say. But you can’t parent like that. You can’t parent based on the reactions of strangers. We are here to love him not to change him, but it took us a while to get to that point.

Duron said the blog and book give her a forum to react and discuss the issues without subjecting C.J. to exposure. “Online, I’m an adult,” she said. “I can choose to respond or ignore things. But in public, when someone has a reaction to my son’s painted fingernails or wearing a tutu or playing with a doll, it’s a much different reaction I have to have, because my son is watching. He’s like a little sponge. I can be dismissive or ignore it. We are working to build a confident person who understands not everyone will like his style.”

C.J. has free rein at home to dress and play as he wants to, but Duron said he is starting to recognize the pressures society has in store for him. She recently wrote that he no longer takes his pink monkey lunch box to school because a brown paper bag garners less attention.

“He chooses to self-edit when we leave the house,” she said. “Which makes me sad, but it’s protection and I understand that. Some days he feels comfortable going out rocking whatever clothes he chooses.”

Duron said there has been school bullying and community members who accuse her family of not being “good Christians” or decent parents. “We have dealt with it and I know there is more to come,” she said.

The crux of Duron’s philosophy is boiled down to a single statement in her book, “Your sex is in your pants, your gender is in your head and your sexuality is in your heart.”

What I believe Duron is teaching C.J., and we are teaching Sean, is that as long as you are being true to yourself and not hurting anyone, it’s no one’s business what’s in any of those three places.

The Journey is the Destination

Until very recently I appeared to most people a successful and conservative middle-aged white businessman. At 41 years of age, my career arc landed near the top of my field and saw me pulling in a very respectable income. Along with my wife of 12 years, I lived in a new home in a newer suburban development. You know the type: similar in style and size to the several houses surrounding it, and nestled in a quaint neighborhood complete with gated entrance and pithy street names like Serenity Drive, Tranquility Lane, and Patience Knoll. Yes, it really is tranquil where I live. Well, except for the geese and ducks squawking in the pond below. Oh, the tragedy of first world problems.

In the summer of 2012, I considered suicide. Not seriously, but serious enough. On more than one daily commute I propelled my car upward to 140 mph, and wondered to myself how long the pain would last should I collide with something. Then there were times during the day where my mind would drift to secluded places I had visited in my travels. If ever I should make a final exit, I believed it would have to be a place my beloved could never find. Though we own no firearms, I found myself discretely researching guns online. When my wife caught me one night, I plaintively pleaded “for protection” because you never know what shenanigans may break out in your gated cookie-cutter community. I also spent a lot of time simply engaging in one mindless endeavor after another. Burning through the family savings helped out a bit with that, but I could never find an escape that would last long enough to keep my thoughts buried for long.

I hated that period of my life, and am not proud of it for a minute. I hated what I was doing, and hated the torment my loved ones suffered watching my downward spiral. I hated the duplicity of keeping secrets and telling lies. I hated the daily business meetings that demanded my full attention when I was falling apart inside. Mostly I just hated me.

In October of 2012 my life changed forever. With my wife’s encouragement, along with that of a few close friends, I sought professional help. The truth is that I knew what was bothering me. In fact, I had known it since I was a child. My entire life I had been deeply ashamed of being me, and fearful of being discovered. I had seen shows like Jerry Springer and Cops, and read the hateful online comments accompanying articles about people who were different. I was afraid of being labeled a freak or pervert. I was terrified of the emotional, physical, and societal consequences of speaking my truth.

Over several months, and with the help of a therapist, I learned a lot about myself. I learned there were a lot of others like me and that it is okay to be different. I began to learn how to validate myself for simply being me. I don’t need to always be in motion, nor do I need to measure my value by some external yardstick. I am a decent person the way I am. I am an intelligent, accomplished, responsible and caring person. I value my family above the world, and hold dear my relationships and the people closest to me. I just happen to also be someone who has a deep sense of gender misalignment.

In February of 2013, I came out as transgender to my wife and several close friends and family members. Since that time I have made a determined and deliberate effort to explore what it means to be gender variant, and consolidate the duality of my prior existence into an authentic individual life. Put another way, I want to get to know the girl I kept hidden so deep inside during my youth and adolescence, and then celebrate the woman she is becoming because she is a part of me. I like to think of this as a “mid-life adolescence” instead of the more common “mid-life crisis.” I am unifying the two parts of my life into one, and celebrating who I am for the first time in my life.

On the surface my appearance has gone from clean-cut male with short hair, khakis, oxfords, and sweater vests to pierced ears, long hair, skinny jeans, and cardigans. Laser has removed much of my five o’clock shadow, and HRT will soon begin to soften and round out my features. If my coworkers at the office have noticed, nobody has really said anything. Sensitive to my financial position during my transition, I want to minimize disruptions by remaining a valued employee. I am still the first one in the office and one of the last to leave. In fact, my output on the job has never been better.

My therapy sessions, while less frequent, are also a key part of maintaining an even emotional balance. While my decision to transition and gender identity may not put me in the middle of society’s bell curve, I embrace the knowledge that I am a pretty normal person. In fact, there are a lot of people just like me. I’ve met several and you would be surprised how many are your coworkers, baristas, cashiers, social workers, bankers, and businesspersons. Some have fully transitioned and are now “stealth” to the world at large, while others are fearful of coming out due to the stigma I mentioned earlier. Some may be misinterpreted as gay, which is what I imagine many think of me (though, ironically, I remain exclusively attracted to women.)

And with that said, I honestly don’t know who I will become in the end. I think part of growing up is figuring out who you are, and paradoxically I am doing that for the second time at age 41. Even though I see a million things wrong when I look in the mirror, I no longer hate the reflection. Having survived the first adolescence, I have the prescience to realize it gets better on the other side. For now I am enjoying this journey as best I can. And the journey has not been all rainbows and unicorns, with my marriage a painful casualty of my transition. However, suicide is now the farthest thing from my mind. If anything, I now feel the brevity of life and want more. I have so much to live for, and so much I want to experience. I am starting by simply being me, being happy, and living.

Antonia J is forty-something and newly female, before which she spent much of her adult life as an alpha male meat-head. Known as Toni to her friends, she has set foot on four continents while traipsing through fourteen countries at all corners of the globe. She has served as a member of senior management at two Fortune 500 companies and an Ivy League University. Along the way she has accumulated three college degrees, lived for a time in the Caribbean and Middle East, and somehow finds herself now rooted in West Michigan (though dreaming of palm trees and ocean breezes). She is extremely grateful for a close group of amazing friends, an employer who celebrates diversity, and her fuzzy slippers in the winter.

A Letter to Family & Friends from Parents of a Transgender Child

My name is Steve.  I am a 60 year old, long hair, tattooed outlaw biker (and successful business owner).  Besides being a recovering bigot, I’m also an unequivocal believer in the power of unconditional love.  My transgender child has gifted me the opportunity to transition to a better place.  The least I can do is help others find their way there, too.  This is the letter my wife and I sent to our family and friends to help them start that process….

When a child is born the universe is affected. We may not notice the change as its order of magnitude is comparatively small. However, it is there, nevertheless.

As parents, the effect is profound. Elation, joy, concern, and exhaustion often describe a new parent’s immediate outlook on their life. Most often, the inescapable responsibility to nurture and protect although overwhelming is offset by a commitment to unconditional love. We move forward devoted to an ideal that includes our vision of happiness for our child. We remain convinced that through our love and commitment this child will actualize their potential and will do so according to the ideal we formed for them at their birth. The years go by and are filled with memories that perhaps, modify our ideal but leave it mainly whole in our minds. Then, one day this child rejects our ideal for their own.

In some cases we may fight for our ideal particularly if we are convinced that our child’s change of direction is unhealthy or self-destructive. On the other hand, if our adult child has made a thoughtful decision that must replace our ideal with their own and their happiness is genuinely dependant upon the change we will now have to accept, then what choice is left to us? We are bound by our commitment to unconditional love. To be clear, some choices are not really choices at all. It is the way we handle the inevitability of the directions we are blessed with even before we are born or those that are subsequently presented to us that best defines us.

Lately, we have faced a confusion of emotions including sadness and anger. We have resented the upset of the position we assumed our lives to be. We have had to deal with an extraordinary change to the ideal life outcome we set our hearts on for our son and eldest child.

More importantly than anything else we have recently experienced, we have validated the unconditional love we committed ourselves to before he was born. That has sustained us as we recover from the shock of something we never saw coming.

During his internship in Germany over the summer, he had time to contemplate who he really is. He told us that he has struggled with that question for most of his life but never had the vocabulary to address it. With time on his hands, he researched for answers in the solitude of his apartment overseas. In September, as the first semester of his graduating year at University of Michigan began, he told us he is transgender. Our son believes in his heart that he is actually female in spirit. For those that are unfamiliar with the term transgender please understand…there is a lot to learn. We will address some of that later and will refer you to some materials that proved helpful to us.

As parents, and particularly as the loving parents of a close knit family, we immediately expressed our unequivocal support. There were lots of tears that were initially impossible to define. We felt profound sadness but struggled to understand exactly what it meant or where it came from. We were startled, shocked and deeply confused. We struck out to find help right away so we could be certain that the outcome of this would be as positive as possible.

After our initial shock came a combination of anger, sadness and guilt. We began a retrospective analysis of our parenting to see if there was some clue we had missed or something we could have done differently that would have effected another outcome. It is impossible to imagine the guilt we felt when our boy told us he had struggled with this for so many years…alone and concerned that he was some sort of monster. He told us he worked hard each and every day to be a perfect son so God would forgive him and lift away this burden. He kept this secret to himself for most of the time we have known him. He has endured so much emotional pain alone and without ever acting out or tipping his hand to anyone. We were absolutely stunned when we realized the gravity of his isolation. Statistically, more than 30 percent of transgender children successfully commit suicide.

God blessed our child with an extraordinary intellect and emotional stability that allowed him to prevail against the pressure of unknown and indefinable forces that haunted him for so long. For those of you who know him well, you will recall that he was a 4.0+ GPA student who graduated high school at the top of his class. He was president of the National Honors Society and competed for the varsity ski team in addition to playing violin for the orchestra. He recently graduated magna cum laude at University of Michigan’s Aerospace Engineering program and has been accepted into their accelerated Master’s Aerospace Engineering program. He has never been in trouble for any reason. We have never received a phone call from an authority of any kind. He has never tried drugs, alcohol or smoked cigarettes. He has always been the “perfect son”. He later admitted avoiding situations that would have possibly or inadvertently exposed his secret. That would have included drinking. It explains why he would be so quiet…withdrawn…so often. While we noticed that behavior, it had become so normal that we learned to accept it.

Webster defines “transgender” thusly, : of, relating to, or being a person (as a transsexual or transvestite) who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that differs from the one which corresponds to the person’s sex at birth

Our son was born with male genitalia but his “spirit” is female. His condition is one of gender identity. Fundamentally, he does not identify with the sex he was born with. People who have this condition often start out cross-dressing and assuming the identity of the sex they more comfortably relate to. Sometimes, depending on the individual and their commitment to their gender identity, they will ultimately transition to their preferred gender with gender reassignment surgery. In any case, it is important to note that the individual is compelled to have these feelings and to act upon them, accordingly. In other words, they cannot help it. There is no “cure” or therapy or prayer or medical treatment. There is only the person that has always been and now needs the understanding and support of their friends and loved ones. In this case, he is still who he has always been…a loving, intelligent and compassionate person who would generously give you the shirt off his back. He deserves our love and support.

Going forward, we will be changing pronouns here at home. That will likely be a challenge at first. We have been requested to refer to “her” as Kaitlyn. That was the name we picked out before he was born just in case our first born was a girl. We loved the name we gave our son but we love our Kaitlyn just as much. Please help with this. We understand that this may be difficult for you, too. We’re here to help you in any way we can. We would be happy to recommend some books that we read that have been very helpful to us and substantially improved our understanding of this subject. Specifically, “She’s Not There” by Jennifer Finney Boylan was very insightful and was also entertaining. We experienced chuckles and tears as we read it.

As our friends and family we must expect your help and support. If you feel that isn’t possible, we understand. Please just let us know and we will adjust our understanding of our relationship with you. Otherwise, we welcome the opportunity to hear about your feelings and we look forward to sharing our new daughter and her hopes, dreams, and accomplishments.