It is my pleasure to share today’s post with you. The story is written by my friend Ronelle Grier. The article appears in this week’s Detroit Jewish News on the cover. A must read. Thank you to Ronelle Grier for writing this and Keri Cohen, Story Development Editor at the Detroit Jewish News for publishing this. Read the entire story here. Detroit Jewish News Call Him Hunter
What other choices do we have in life? Well, depending on where you live, you can choose to practice your religion. You can choose whom to vote for, what to wear, whether to be in a relationship, what to have for breakfast, lunch or dinner, where to go on vacation, whom to call when you’re down, lonely, want to party or just want to hang, ….and so on. Ideally, you can choose to get married (or not), decide to have a family, what kind of car to drive, where to go to school and whether to pursue a hobby, new career path or travel the world.
Did you know that we DON’T choose our gender or sexual orientation? We cannot make someone gay anymore than we can make them straight. Transgender individuals are born already hard-wired. All we know at birth is what we can physically see. The doctor pronounces “it’s a girl (or boy)” based on whether the baby has a vagina or a penis, nothing more. Guess what? It’s really the brain that lets us know whether we are male or female. Most of the time, the brain is on the same page as the physical sex characteristics. However, for a trans individual, whether MTF or FTM, the brain and the body are in two different places (figuratively speaking, of course).
It really is not something we are used to. That doesn’t mean that we can’t accept what is. Believe me, NO ONE would choose to be transgender.
Do you have any idea what trans girls and trans guys go through? Do you have any inkling what it’s like to feel so much like a boy and then look in the mirror and see girl body parts? Can you imagine that? I sure can’t. Do you comprehend the self-hatred that a trans woman experiences when she just wants to feel pretty and feminine and sees a man’s body; a body with a pronounced adam’s apple, a beard, male genitalia and a flat, hairy chest? Me, neither.
Body dysphoria leads to serious depression and ongoing mental health issues. Who would choose this? Keep in mind that this is very different than not liking the way you look in a bathing suit, ladies.
As a parent, I want my son to experience emotional stability. I want him to look in the mirror and see a light at the end of the tunnel. I want him to know that I understand that this is not a choice.
We CAN choose to be accepting. As parents we can choose to find the right resources for our children. There are parents out there who believe that being transgender is a sickness akin to mental illness. They believe that being transgender is against the bible. Some even believe that being anything but heterosexual is as bad as being a sexual predator or pedophile. REALLY?
Showing compassion is a choice.
We are some of the lucky ones. Recently I’ve read numerous stories about trans individuals who have lost their families, friends, jobs, and social circle because they came out. REALLY? I am grateful beyond words that we have been met with acceptance and understanding and compassion and love.
Being transgender is no more a choice than one’s race or ethnicity. My son can choose how he presents himself. Together, we can choose the path for our journey.
Before our babies arrive most of us agonize, argue, assess, and advocate for the potential name options for this unborn child. No one wants to sentence their child to a lifetime of teasing (at least not intentionally) because they deemed it important to preserve some centuries old family name.
Will this child be a junior? Is there an easy nickname? If you follow Jewish tradition you’ll most likely select a name to honor the memory of a loved one. Then, there’s the Hebrew name to consider. Girl’s name or boy’s name? Modern or biblical? New age or traditional? And, if you are smart, you won’t share or ask your family or friends to weigh in. One thing is for certain, your child will not have a say. When he or she arrives the appropriate name is given; the birth certificate authenticates your choice from that moment forward.
Never did we imagine that our carefully chosen names would not be suitable for the long haul. Forever after came to a screeching halt when Olivia came home last summer from camp as Steven. Steven. WHAT? As the story unfolded, we understood that what started out as a camp joke soon became a sought after reality. Olivia loved being identified as male and the new moniker was a perfect way for her to try on being a guy.
Admittedly, I wasn’t thrilled with the name or the male identifier. Bottom line — I just wasn’t ready. I knew we were on borrowed time and at some point, in the not to distant future, we would be asked to stop calling our daughter Olivia. I just wasn’t ready.
I will tell you that I did think about new names. Even though I wasn’t ready to discuss it openly, I began to allow the thought process to germinate. One of the hardest parts of losing a name that we were all so accustomed to is that we had nick names for Olivia that represented our love and affection. Liv, Livvy, Liv-Liv, Livvy-Lou, and Lou-Lou were the most common. Old habits are hard to break.
Finally the day I had been anticipating with trepidation arrived. “Mom, can we talk about names?” So I put on my warm, accepting, I will always love you smile, and responded, “of course. What did you have in mind?”
“Well, I really like the name Luke,” offered Olivia. For a number of reasons, which I won’t get into here, I didn’t feel that Luke was an appropriate choice.
When we decided on the names Olivia Lauren, we felt they were a combination of beauty and tradition. Richard and I agreed easily on this decision. We were thrilled to be welcoming another child into our family and had no reservations about the name selection. As an aside, we were not naming Olivia after any one in our family who had passed.
In the Jewish tradition, often a baby girl will have a “naming” ceremony. She is given special blessings by a Rabbi and the Hebrew name is conferred.
We’ll, we didn’t do this “baby” naming until Olivia was five years old. My Uncle Harold had recently passed away so we thought it appropriate to find a Hebrew name that was suitable for our precious child that honored his memory. Using the “h” sound we found a beautiful name; Olivia’s chosen Hebrew name was Hila.
Why did I just tell you all this? It sets the stage for how we arrived at Hunter. Some transgender individuals take their given name at birth and use a nickname or something similar for their “new” name. Olivia didn’t want to do this. I thought that rather than a random name selection we find something with meaning.
I reminded Olivia about the connection to family that her Hebrew name shared and she was onboard with trying to find an “h” name.
Thank you Google. I searched for boy names that began with the letter “h”.
Hunter. It was simple, masculine, easy to spell and pronounce and sounded perfect with our last name.
We also chose a middle name that was exceptionally meaningful to us all. That’s another story and you’ll just have to wait.
I will never forget the day I was rifling through the pile of mail and there was a letter addressed to Hunter. WOW. This was his first official piece of mail. If you had asked me ahead of time how seeing his name in print would make me feel, I probably would’ve responded squeamishly. Honestly, just the idea of it is rather weird. However, I didn’t feel weird at all. I felt really excited. Somehow, having your name on an envelope that traveled through the US Postal system makes it real and official. Of course, I had to point out to Hunter that this was his first official piece of mail. Like any teenager, I got the head nod and shoulder shrug all in one gesture. For me, mom of a transgender teen boy, the event was noteworthy.
It took awhile for me to feel comfortable using male pronouns when referring to Hunter. Like others before me, I just avoided using he/his/him. It was “Hunter” will be home soon. Or, “Hunter” will be glad to see you…and so on. Slowly, little by little, I began to integrate the new vocabulary into my daily speak. I knew I had turned a corner when I went birthday card shopping. There I was, standing at the “Happy Birthday to My Son” section. MY SON. Now that was weird. But you know, I had to do it. I had to let MY SON know that I was proud of him and loved him and that he deserved an appropriate birthday message.
I have to admit that when I go shopping these days, I find myself drifting over to the boys’ or young men’s department. That’s right. I now shop in the MEN’s department for my SON. Yeah, I know. It’s kind of strange. There is actually a part of this that is gratifying. I like being able to make him happy. You see, Hunter really likes clothes — now. And though he is still figuring out his own style and what feels right to him, he enjoys shopping. That is pretty cool to me. As Olivia, we had many battles at the mall, in the middle of Kohl’s, at TJ Maxx, trying on party clothes, finding shoes, etc. In hindsight, I now understand what was going on.
Another first, was when we had to shop for dress shoes. That was a bit weird for me but I was up for the challenge. Keep in mind, I have lots of experience buying girlie sandals, sparkly flats, spikey heels and pink, pink, pink. But, I had never shopped for dress shoes in the Men’s department for my SON. His skinny, long, arch-less foot never really fit properly into a girl’s shoe — unless of course it had laces or came in a quadruple narrow and had a strap to ensure that it would stay on the foot. So, off we went to find the shoe of his dreams…well, maybe that’s an exaggeration. He did know exactly what he wanted though and when we found it I was rewarded with a nod, a smile and a thanks, Ima (Hebrew for mom).
As we move along this journey there will be many other firsts. I anticipate some will be joy-filled and others wrought with worry and angst. Each first feels like passing GO — sometimes you collect $200 and sometimes you go straight to _____________.
(Fill in the blank: jail, Chance, …)
When you think about the incredible, miraculous outcome from two people coming together — that perfect tiny specimen of a human being, it is truly remarkable that more often than not everything goes exactly as it should. When you think about all the things that have to go just exactly right versus the opportunity for things to go horribly wrong, it is awe-inspiring. Cells divide and multiply millions of times to create our likenesses in miniature form.As we know, there are times when the chromosomes collide and stuff goes awry. There are numerous birth defects, genetic abnormalities, physical deformities, cognitive impairments and more. And sometimes, individuals are just born into the wrong body.
I was recently asked if I had some advice for parents who want to have an open dialogue with their children about transgenderism. How do you explain the idea that a classmate who just happens to have female parts, is really a boy? It was an interesting question for me. Up until now all the feedback through the lens of kids and teens has been accepting, understanding and non-questioning.
The idea that gender is between the ears, not between the legs, is a succinct way to explain how a transgender individual can identify as male or female even though their parts don’t match up. Sometimes, we are just born into the wrong body. Being a man or a woman is NOT solely identified because of physicality.
So what if that explanation doesn’t help clarify? Well, sometimes your biological sex (if you have a penis or a vagina) doesn’t align with your gender identity (whether you feel male or female). Even if you don’t fully understand this, I hope you can agree that it is important to accept and acknowledge that we don’t live in a binary world. Being a man or a woman is not so black and white.
There are some who most likely would argue that it is less about being born into the wrong body and more about how we feel versus how we physically look. For sure, this is complicated. Actually, I’ve struggled for days trying to write something that would make sense and not sound like I was spitting out a bunch of trans propaganda.
I’ve joined a couple of transgender Facebook groups as a way to connect with other parents of trans children and as an honest, authentic way to hear from a community that I really know very little about. Here are a few things I’ve learned.
Trans men and women want to be accepted for who they are. They want to be loved. They want to love. They want friends and family connections. They don’t want their choices questioned. They want privacy.
It is not okay to ask about body parts. So, if you meet a guy (FTM) and want to know about his journey, there are lots of questions that you can ask. However, do NOT ask about his body parts. That is private. Would you want someone to ask you about your parts? Do not ask an adult trans man or woman about their sex life. Do you want people to get all up in your business about how you “do it?”
Here are a couple of links that I hope you find interesting, informative and helpful.
Keep in mind, that just as you would teach your child about someone with a physical disability, a cognitive deficit or a chronic disease, you should teach your child about gender differences. Embrace diversity.
For the most part, I am a pretty private person. I don’t put my personal business out there for all to see. It takes me a long time to decide what to share with whom. Chances are, if you’ve met me within the last few years there is lots of stuff you don’t know about me that happened a dozen or more years ago.
I can imagine that this is hard to believe. My kids would argue that everything goes on Facebook these days. It’s all superficial stuff, for the most part.
“She is blogging about her transgender son, for goodness sake. This is not someone to hold back,” one might think.
Well, you’d be surprised. And, no, I am not going to reveal all my secrets in this post. Truth is, after Hunter came out to me it was a long time before I spoke to even my closest of friends. I needed to process it. I needed to figure out how I felt about the situation and what sharing was going to feel like.
This is not really news that you bring up in casual conversation. You also don’t want to blurt out, “by the way, Olivia wants to be male.” At least for me, it wasn’t the right approach; I needed to try it on for a while.
A few years back my sister went through breast cancer. Thank g-d she is now ok. However, when she was first diagnosed, while I rushed to be with her, I didn’t rush to share the news with others. It just didn’t feel right. It took me a long time to reveal to my co-workers what was going on. Maybe saying it out loud made it more real and ominous.
When we lose someone, it is natural to want to hold on to something(s) of theirs. At item, perhaps, that meant something to them or symbolized who they were. We have pictures all over the house of our children. Hunter is probably not too crazy about the “before” pictures that are displayed. For me, those photographs represent moments in time; memories. Even if your present is different, you can’t change the past…nor would we want to obliterate it. Of course, we have made a point of adding new photos of Hunter. And as we move forward, more moments will be added to the gallery of our family’s life.
I might have mentioned in an earlier blog post that Hunter cleaned out his closet. He gave away 99% of anything that was purchased in a girls’ department. This was his way of saying goodbye to his former self and welcoming the person he hoped to become.
This purging was bittersweet for me. I looked longingly at the skinny jeans, capped sleeve t’s and various skirts and dresses purchased for one occasion or another. Wistfully, I mentally made a checklist of when I might’ve seen Olivia wear one of these outfits.
Among the cast-offs was a black, three-quarter sleeve cardigan and a “barely worn once” dress purchased for his cousin’s Bat Mitzvah party. The sweater was a favorite of his. Soft, easy to wear, go with anything, Olivia wore this over and over. The dress showed off a waistline, model-like legs and fit her to a tee.
I just couldn’t part with the sweater or the dress. They hang together in the back of my closet. I can run my hand along the sleeve of the sweater; if I am looking for something…I am always surprised when I give a tug and the dress reveals itself.
Now you know the secret in my closet.
One of the most fun things about getting a Wii was the ability to create a personalized Mii. Mine had glasses and dark hair, Danielle’s had big girly lashes and a cute, pink outfit, Richard’s sported jeans and a t-shirt, and Olivia’s — well, Olivia’s Mii was a guy. Hmmm.
When the “girls” were little one of the high end department stores had a Newborn Nursery Boutique where one could adopt a doll baby and buy newborn-sized doll outfits. It was the sweetest place. You viewed the “babies” through the nursery window and selected the one you wanted to adopt. Then, the nurse brought your baby to the changing table, diapered, powdered and dressed her and handed the precious life-like doll over to the new mommy. Somewhere, we have pictures of Danielle rocking her baby before we left the nursery. Of course, adoption papers were part of the package. This baby was a girl and was aptly named and dressed. It wasn’t long before Olivia wanted one too.
So, off we went to the Newborn Nursery Boutique to adopt another baby. Olivia chose a newborn that looked more like a boy baby and gave him a boy name. Of course, all the outfits were more boy-ish in style. Hmmm.
Simms has been a popular video game in our house for years. Both kids loved to create fictional families, build neighborhoods and villages and experience an imaginary world without much risk. I am sure by now you’ve guessed that Olivia’s main character was a pretty buff looking dude. Hmmm.
I am a creature of habit. When we go to the mall, I always park in the same lot and enter through the same store. It’s my comfort zone. I know where I am going and how to get around. (This is my mother’s influence.) So, time after time, we walked through the children’s department in Lord & Taylor as we made our way to the mall’s center court. I love this department. They had and still do have the best little girls’ clothes. Their buyer does a fantastic job. From dresses to leggings to itty-bitty newborn frilly diaper covers, it is a happy place for me. Every time we walked into the store, Olivia would stop and longing look at the little outfits…the little boy vests and suits and play clothes. She would say to me, “I love the tiny vests. Look how cute they are.” Hmmm.
My kids played with Barbie dolls. They had blond ones, dark-skinned ones, long haired ones, beach Barbie, professional Barbie, “mommy” Barbie and Ken Barbie, among others. Guess who wanted the Ken doll. Hmmm.
Looking back, I clearly see that Hunter began living vicariously through his Avatars and world of make-believe from a very early age. Hmmm.
At precisely 1:13 pm the call came. How did I know it was the one we’d been waiting for? Only identified as Ontario, Canada, it would have been a unique coincidence for the call to be from anyone other than my son.
“I’ve gotta go.” Without missing a beat and disconnecting the incoming call, I was actually able to end my current call, and accept the incoming urgency.
“Ola, Chica,” came the upbeat voice from my camper on the other end. I would take it. Would I rather have heard, “Hi Mom or shalom, Ima?” It really didn’t matter.
In the five minutes he had on the foreign pay phone, Hunter excitedly told us about the 8-day, 52 km hike with 9 others including the part where one of the counselors pulled him from certain death when he caught his foot in a crevice. Honestly, I am so glad that I hear about this stuff after the fact and am not there viewing the experiences in real time.
“I feel like I’ve known these people my entire life,” he shared when asked about acceptance and if he felt ok being open with his fellow campers.
As a kid, I didn’t really like being away from home. I was not even really keen on a neighborhood sleepover. I never strayed too far from mommy and even when given the chance to experience camp did not really find it to my liking. The idea of no plumbing and having to do your “business” in the woods definitely is a deal breaker in my world.
For Hunter, this is where life begins. He lives all year for the first day of camp. Each year gets better for him. It is his safe place; his nirvana; his Zen garden. I think the camp reunions are planned before the bus rolls into the parking lot signaling the end of yet another amazing summer. These bonds are for life.
For Hunter, a kid who needs structure yet the freedom to be independent, spending six weeks in the woods without so much as a watch to indicate a meal time, camp is the perfect place. He has responsibility and rules yet the opportunity to be carefree, explore the finest mother nature has to offer and the ability to open up and really get to know himself and others in a way that would not be possible in another setting.
Hearing his voice, I marvel at how grown up he sounds. It’s only been two weeks since he left but somehow it feels as if a lifetime has passed. I’d like to believe that he needed the call as much as I did. Of course, he took the opportunity to ask that we send food (yes they do get fed) — I am guessing what he really wants is junk food, treats, stuff to remind him that he is after all, still a kid.
Most days are filled with worry for him about one thing or another. However, today, for now, I can take a breath, let myself relax and know that he is getting what he needs. Right now, my heart is full.
PS. Yes, Hunter solved this Rubik’s cube.
I remember a day, many, many years ago, when I went with my grandpa to do some errands. I was about ten years old. The day had so much promise. I loved my grandparents more than anything and any opportunity to see them, together or individually, was met with joyous anticipation. Unfortunately, my memory is not all that great and I honestly can’t remember most of what we did that day, more than forty years ago. However, there is one specific moment of that day that stands out so vividly; I can recount what I was wearing, what was said and how that moment made me feel.
Among our stops that day was the barber shop. My grandpa needed a haircut and couldn’t wait to show off his granddaughter to the barber. We walk in (I am on top of the world) and before my grandpa could even introduce me, the barber says, “Ira, I see your brought your grandson with you today.”
Grandson?! Was he talking to us? I was MORTIFIED. I was definitely NOT a boy. I was very much a girl. That was a certainty.
In all fairness to the kindly, old barber, I was wearing levi’s (girls back then didn’t often wear jean-style pants) and had recently gotten a very short “pixie” haircut. At ten, girls and boys don’t look much different – it’s the clothes and hair that creates the perception of gender.
By the way, the barber felt terrible that he had mistaken me for a boy but I have never forgotten how I felt being identified as the wrong gender.
My son is transgender. He has known for quite a while that he is a boy. Of that he is as certain as I was at ten, out with my grandpa, knowing that I was a girl. When he goes out there is a certain amount of anxiety as to whether he will “pass.” Though his confidence builds with each passing day, I am guessing that there will always be a little voice in the back of his head questioning and wondering if people will see him the way he wants to be seen.
Try to imagine how you would feel if every time you went out, people thought you were someone other than who you knew you were. You might need to read that sentence a couple of times before it makes sense.
It takes an incredible amount of courage for a trans individual (whether MTF or FTM) to live as the gender they affirm. For Hunter, the past year has been an evolutionary process. He slowly changed his manner of dress, his hair, his visual identity.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the adults who grew up in a time when they couldn’t be anyone other than their assigned gender. Now, as adults, they are finding the courage to live differently. It is a BIG deal for a forty year old who has been living life as a man to make the hard, brave decision to go out for the evening dressed as a woman. Think about that. The next time you are out and find yourself staring a little too long wondering if the person seated across the restaurant from you is a man or a woman, remember that he or she is a human being first. The road they’ve travelled has likely been difficult and fraught with rejection, uncertainty and insecurity.
The next time you are wondering about someone else’s gender or choices, remember how certain you are of your own.