My 21 year old son recently came out to me that he identified as a she. Over the phone. He said, Mum, can you get down to Melbourne soon? I need to talk to you. I said, Why? Is it because you’re going to tell me you identify as female? And he said Yes.
I didn’t tell him that I cried as we talked. I walked wildly round the house trying to find a quiet place (our house is on a busy road and in no way sound proofed) as I listened to my boy coming out to me – not coming out that he is gay, because I don’t think he is, but that he is, inside, a woman.
My ability to articulate my complex emotions about this change is very poor. I love my youngest child. So much. He was always the son I felt I had to protect, even as he was the stoic, quiet one, who never complained and rarely made a fuss. From an early age I sensed a gentleness in him that needed care and nurturing, but there are only a few times when I can pinpoint a moment that made me think, Hey, I think this one is different. He suffered from childhood asthma – quite badly, and we frequently did the midnight run to the emergency department as his asthma attack worsened. Luckily his attacks were slow building, so one could tell how far along before we had to do the hospital run. The medication he took was effective, just not quite effective enough. At age 6 he nearly drowned, and I blame myself for this – an inattentive moment, a carelessness about the safety of my children. He spent several days in hospital recovering from that and a simultaneous asthma attack. In his final 18 months in primary school he broke his arm 3, maybe 4 times. All at school. I should have sued. But he was stoic, quiet, uncomplaining.
I remember he used to love textiles and soft furnishings and I would occasionally buy him fabric offcuts from Spotlight, which he sewed into cushions. For special events he bought me love heart gifts, boxes shaped like love hearts, beautiful little gems. As a young boy he frequently ideated suicide, which I always assumed was a response to his mad father attempting it when my son was very young. Throughout primary school he made many friends but as he entered high school those friendships dropped off and he became a recluse, withdrawn and seeking cave-comforts: sleep, dark rooms, and too much computer gaming. He wore horrible, horribly dreary clothes. Grey cargo pants and dark t-shirts, trainers and sweat tops. For years. He would wear the same 5 pieces of clothing until they wore out. I tried to get him into jeans but he would have none of it. I couldn’t understand why he chose to wear the most hideously unattractive clothing when he himself was a remarkably handsome, slim young man.
People saw his fear and reclusiveness and saved him, many times. His last high school music teacher and home room teacher. His grandparents. His auntie. His sister-in-law. They all saw, as did I, a young man who had difficulty getting out of bed, who was always tired, who was afraid to go and get a job. Who was afraid of the world.
And then, after he had spent 2 unhappy years living with his father and brother in a tiny inner city flat, working in a dead-end job and studying sound engineering, something snapped. Last year, in September, he finally told me how unhappy he was living with his crazy dad, how awful it had been and how miserable he felt. That was it. I took action. In November I told my other son and his girlfriend that my youngest was moving in with my grandparents for a year. They were aghast, upset that their own plans were being stymied by someone else. But it was the best thing for all of them. Within a couple of months they too had gone, leaving their out-of-work, mentally-ill, self-medicating father to man up and pay his own way at last.
And then, a slow transformation began. Something in my son came alive again. It began when he asked for a kilt for his birthday. My husband and I were overseas and bought him two, plus a sporran and socks. We had bought him Doc Martens for Xmas, so I felt we were just completing the process. Of a punk-based kilt-wearing 80s retro look. Wrong boots, it turned out. Over the next few months, as his school work declined and he had more and more trouble getting out of bed he spent more and more time playing with his appearance. And by the time he visited in July, he was wearing a very beautiful black lace shift dress and stockings. With Doc Martens. Gorgeous.
And I realised at that point that something was really going AWOL. He wanted a different hair colour so I treated him to a fabulous hair-do – flaming pink – and we enjoyed an evening of makeup fun prior to going out to dinner in Noosa. He looked a million bucks and was the happiest I had ever seen him. And I was thinking, OK, I think he might be undergoing something odd – maybe he is transgender?
I sought advice from a work colleague who walks the interstices between straight, gay and queer, who knows everything one needs to know about this, and we talked in her office, with my boy there, sort of mute (because I am bossy and needed to articulate MY feelings about this change), but clear in his mind that what he was experiencing was a life-altering one. And it was ok. It was ok that he was there, talking about this, because he was with me and I could see how he was, and it was easy while he was in front of me. My mind could process this change.
But then he went back to his preferred home town and I was stuck here, busy with work, married to my wonderful guy, and unable to see my son or witness his journey. Except that over time his FB posts got weirder and he started looking at transgender community sites and HRT and surgical intervention. And I realised he was serious and that this was permanent.
And then, last week, he finally told me over the phone he identified as female. Rather, I told him that I thought he was becoming female and he agreed. And he told me he wanted to change his name, to remove his father’s made-up surname and create his own. All of a sudden I could hear intelligence in his voice, a lightness I hadn’t heard before and a way of talking that was – well – more open and free sounding, deeper in meaning and just plain smarter.
And I cried for grief and loss and fear and longing, feeling like I was losing my boy, my little man, and I cried for joy and relief and pride that my son, who had hidden himself for so long, finally revealed himself to me. I realised, gratefully, that we live in a time where he can express his femininity without too much repercussion. That we can begin to understand transgender people and not label it evil or sick, that we live in a country that is remarkably free of hatred and violence against ‘others’, despite media commentary stating the contrary. And I was so proud of him, his courage in admitting his insides don’t match his outsides.
But I grieve. I grieve for the perceived ‘loss’ of my boy and his identity, as he forges his identity anew. I am angry and confused about my feelings, angry at him and confused about how I feel about the changes my son – my SON – will be going through in order to become my daughter. I am fearful that his current feelings are because finally he has a sense of ‘belonging’ and that his need to belong is so powerful that it transcends his own sense of self. And I am aware that as he heads down this path that my path will also intersect with the interstices and cracks in humanity – the different ones, the strange ones – the ones like my son, who will become my daughter.
My dear friend Al succinctly identified the crux of the issue. He wrote to my son, simply and eloquently stating: The person I know and care for is independent of the body your soul inhabits. Mate, I’m humbled by the strength you have shown in making your decision to be who you really are.
But right now, despite my pride at his courage and stoicism and strength, I am still angry at my son and worried and very afraid. Because I feel like I am losing certainty. And to be uncertain is a very difficult place to live in. Which must be how my son has lived for a very, very long time.
Don’t get me wrong. My son is having professional help. He is now on antidepressants and has counselling twice a week. I am about to seek counselling too. Because I cannot yet make sense of this. And I need to. For him. Or, should I say, for her? And despite my grief and fear and anger and uncertainty, I support his decision wholeheartedly. I support him. Because he is my child, he is alive and I love him.