A Tribute to Transgender Lives Lost

jay ralkoJay Ralko, a young transgender man, took his life. Most knew him as the life of the party. He was fun and funny and always ready for a good time. What many never saw was the dark side. Jay suffered from bi-polar disorder. In December, he left his dog, his apartment and his friends and family without any warning. A hastily scrawled note was left for his roommate asking him to take the dog out.

Last Saturday night Jay’s friends organized an event to celebrate Jay’s life. I was asked to speak. I had never met Jay. I didn’t know his family. I had only recently met a few of his closest friends. They wanted me to speak on behalf of trans allies and share some of our story. Here are my words:

Exactly two years ago, at the age of 14, my son, who is braver than I ever imagined, came out to me. Was I shocked? Not really.

Assigned female at birth, my child was the quintessential tomboy. He preferred denim over lace, Disney heroes vs heroines, tree climbing rather than nail painting…his avatars were always male, his costumes never feminine, flowery or frilly.

When my son began asking to shop in the boys department, our outings often ended in tears. When he showed me pictures of the hair cut he wanted, I was puzzled. When he began to carry himself different and walk with a swagger rather than a sway, I noticed. And, I wondered.

So, when he confessed to me with 100% certainty that he was transgender, I wasn’t shocked.

I was, however, concerned. I was concerned for his future. I was concerned for his health –emotionally, physically and mentally. As a parent, my main goal was to help Hunter achieve this holistic health bull’s eye; if I could do this, then I was confident he would find happiness.

Hunter was only in 8th grade. His friends were blossoming into lovely young women and he wanted to hide behind layers of baggy clothing and boyish attire. I won’t lie to you – the feeling of loss at this point was pretty intense. I felt sad. I was worried. My daughter is not who she appears to be.

So, while I put my calm exterior into high gear, my insides were doing nauseating, emotional gymnastics. I am sure at some point I thought to myself, “why can’t he just be gay? That would be a walk in the park.”

Let me just say, I love my children without reservation. I cannot imagine not loving them. I would go to the ends of the earth for them. But, there is no question that being a parent is one giant unknown. You don’t know who your baby will be; I.Q, eye color, personality, temperament, straight hair or curly – we don’t get to choose any of this… it’s one big surprise.

In fact, there is very little we can choose once we make the choice to be a parent and with that comes significant responsibility. Two years ago, when my some came out as Transgender, I made a conscious choice – because I love him unconditionally, I chose to accept, support, advocate and educate on his behalf and on behalf of others locally, nationally and globally.

I asked Hunter if he could articulate what our support has meant to him. This is what he said, “I am confident about who I am. I am not ashamed to be me.” WOW. This declaration took my breath away.

As a parent, how you react to the news that your child is trans is what separates the men from the boys, so to speak. Fortunately, both my kids know that they can come to me with anything. That doesn’t mean that I approve of everything they do or that I don’t get angry. I certainly let them know when they’ve made poor choices — Coming out as transgender or gender non-conforming or gay – well, this is not about choice. From where I stand, the only choice here was how we handled things.

I must confess — I was little nervous about coming here tonight. I didn’t know Jay or his family. And, I only recently met a few of the FtMDetroit guys. As it turns out, we discovered some common connections in the community – apparently, it’s a small trans* world.

Truly, I am honored and humbled to speak to all of you tonight. My heart aches for each of you. You’ve lost a son, a friend, a brother – a cherished member of the community.

We have been very open about our journey for about a year now. The decision was made as a family that education was the key to creating awareness and acceptance. If we could save a life by telling our story we will have succeeded. As cliché as it sounds, it does take a village.

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Following the tragic death of Leelah Alcorn, who did not receive the support and understanding she so desperately needed, we created Ally Moms. The message and premise is simple. Even if your own mom isn’t there for you, there are moms out there who have lots of love to give. Ally Moms is a group of about 60 women who are mothers of transgender individuals from all over the country including Canada and the UK. We are receiving texts and calls from trans teens and young adults as well as other moms who are struggling to help their kids.

 

 

 

 

(Trans) Parent Support

Hunters artworkThis is for all you parents out there who are struggling to accept your child’s coming out and desire to transition. As a parent of a transgender teen (FtM), I feel that I am “qualified” to share these words and sentiments.

Do you know…

Parental Support Matters? Only 15% of trans youth without parental support described their mental health as “very good” or excellent, compared to 70% of trans youth with parental support. (source)

Transgender people are more than 25 times more likely than non-transgender people to attempt suicide some time during their life?  (41% vs. 1.6%) (source)

78% of transgender youth in K-12 had experienced harassment? (source)

Recently I asked my son how our support has affected him since he came out to us two years ago. Do you know what he told me? “I feel confident about who I am. I don’t feel ashamed to be me.”

WOW. Isn’t that what we want for our kids? How are they going to grow up to be healthy, productive adults if we don’t love, support, accept and advocate on their behalf. The more we speak out the more understanding there’ll be within our communities.

I get it. This is not what you envisioned for your baby as you gazed into that sweet face. Ask yourself this. Would you rather have an angry, sullen, beat down, bullied, suicidal child who is covering up their true gender identity or one that can walk with their head held high? Would you rather your child live with shame or with the self-confidence to live authentically? It is much less costly to pay for medical expenses related to hormone treatments than to pay for a lifetime of therapy.

Please — let your children know that it is ok to be who they are meant to be. Let your children know that you will love them no matter which gender they affirm. Let your children know that you will be there for them as they traverse this journey.

Please — don’t let  your children walk alone. I have seen with my own eyes what happens when a child is accepted and allowed to transition. The transformation goes far beyond gender.

When you choose to be there for your transgender child you are changing the course of their life. Please share this message.

xo

 

 

 

In the beginning (of the transgender journey)

I realize that from the outside looking in, it must seem like we really have it together. And, on many levels, we really do. We have a great relationship with our (FtM) son, he is in the process of transitioning under the expert care and guidance of knowledgeable professionals, he is accepted at school and our immediate and extended community has been nothing short of amazing.

As I spoke at length to a woman this morning, whose adult child is now transitioning from MtF, I was forced to reflect back on our own beginning. Both my kids know that they can come to me with anything. They also know that my calm exterior (when confronted with said confessions) belies the internal storm that can be brewing at any given moment.

So, how did I really handle the news that my 14 year old was transgender and what did I do?

I think, if memory serves me, I went straight for Google. Did you know that there are only so many ways you can search for transgender, gender identity, gender dysphoria, gender identity disorder (did my child have a disorder?), and hormone therapy? I googled and searched and google again. I rearranged the words thinking maybe I would land on a different result. OMG.

Hunter transition ftmHunter had been living with this information for quite some time and had done extensive research. I, on the other hand, had no idea what I was doing. My head was spinning. He needed a therapist. He wanted to start “T” (testosterone). How do we find the right experts?

My husband and I were at odds. He wasn’t convinced that this was a “done deal.” I knew in my heart that it was. We were concerned about therapy. What if the therapist tried to talk him out of being trans? What if the therapist pushed him too fast to transition? What if…

So, I dragged my feet a bit. While we are very open and “out” now, two years ago I certainly wasn’t going to post a note on Facebook looking for resources.

“Hey, FB friends, anyone know of a reputable gender therapist?” Nah…that wasn’t going to happen.

In time, I began to share the news, selectively and sporadically. I think the first person I reached out to was an old friend. Jill* had been the kids’ nanny the summer Olivia was born. She was smart, fun, creative, kind and gay. I knew she would be safe and helpful. So, that’s where I started just about two years ago.

The beginning was really rocky. Teenage hormones were kicking in. Female parts were showing up uninvited. Each day brought new challenges. We were open to the idea of our child being transgender but we really weren’t ready for all the necessary steps that needed to be taken. I think at that point I didn’t fully get it.

All I knew is that I loved my child. At this point I felt that we were fighting for his life. We were fighting for the survival of our family. Yes, the beginning was rough. If I can be the crystal ball for someone else’s beginning and shine a beacon of hope on their rocky start, I will have done my job.

*names were changed

A Mother’s Plea: Love Your (Transgender) Child

We’ve had a rough few months. Lots of ups and downs. Poor choices. Risky behaviors. Destructive decisions. Mood swings.

LOVE. It’s what makes the world go round; it’s what builds self-esteem in children; it’s what our kids need above all else. Parental LOVE.

trans loveRecently, I had the honor of speaking with a woman (I’ll call her Colleen) whose teenager just came out as transgender (FTM). This woman needed a friend. She needed some insight into her son’s “secret” world. She wanted to understand, from my perspective, how I reacted to the same news. How, we, as a family, are handling things. She also asked to speak to Hunter. To her credit, she was really trying to be open. I have to say that I was surprised by what seemed to be the most upsetting to her; her mother (the grandmother) had chosen her baby’s name at birth. Colleen was devastated at the prospect that her teen wanted to walk away from this name; this identity.

I certainly can understand the sentiment attached to a name. In the Jewish religion, we often name our children after a loved one who has passed away. This is a beautiful way to honor their memory. However, parents, our children are so much more than a name. What good is the name if they are living a lie? What good is a name if they can’t live authentically? What good is the name if they are depressed, isolated, unsupportive, suicidal, …?

This morning I read a story about a transgender teen (MtF) who jumped in front of a semi-truck because her parents couldn’t find a way to love her unconditionally. This is the second story in about a week’s time. Parents need to wake up and realize that you cannot control, choose or change gender identity or sexual orientation. Can I tell you something? My world is so much richer because of my son. I have made new friends. I am more open-minded. We have a stronger parent-child relationship.

I have trans teens private messaging me and friending me on Facebook because they need someone to talk to. I don’t know these kids. I’ve never met them. But, I am here for them; a stranger who is giving support and a safe ear to listen. One teen told me that he can’t remember when his mom told him that she loved him.

At the beginning of this rant I shared that we’ve had a rocky few months. We never would have made it through without LOVE. Maybe this sounds corny to you but I really believe that without showing my son how much he is loved and supported and accepted, we wouldn’t have made it.

Our journey is far from over. I am positive that we will encounter rough terrain in the days, weeks, months and even years ahead. We will get through it. We will do it together. To all you parents out there who are struggling…please open your hearts; love your son or daughter (or fill in other identifier) for who they are and for who they want to be.

High Anxiety

trans medYIKES. What is going on with our healthcare system?!?! I know many of you ask this on a daily basis. Our physicians are being squeezed so tight that the level of care is visibly and dramatically taking a downward plunge.

Normally I am not one to get on a soap box about anything. But, mess with my kids, and get out of my way.

It took us months to find a pediatric endocrinologist that would treat Hunter. There is one in our geographic area that has the right credentials and regularly sees transgender children. However, she does not accept Hunter’s insurance. FAIL. So, we kept looking. Finally, we found a smart, compassionate, caring endocrinologist that was willing to treat him. She didn’t have the transgender thing under her belt but had access to leading authorities and said she was willing to do what she needed to do to make things happen. SUCCESS.

Our first appointment went really well. Thank g-d. She spent plenty of time with us. She interviewed, examined, shared and committed. All was good that day. I filled out releases so she could speak to our pediatrician, therapist, school social worker and anyone else that was critical to the success of this transition.

Now it’s time for our second appointment. I pull Hunter out of school early. We get to the doctor’s office, we sign in and we wait. And we wait. And we wait. Finally, 45 minutes later we are called in. It is an hour plus from the time we walked in the door until we finally see our doctor. Now, we are late for another appointment so we rush through this appointment after waiting for more than 60 minutes.

Good news, though. She approves the necessary next steps and promises to secure the appropriate documentation from Hunter’s therapist and to connect with the insurance company. We race out of there on a high.

Well, that was exactly one month ago today. We are no further along.

I have now called the endocrinologist’s office multiple times. By the way, nothing has been submitted to the insurance company yet (one month after the appointment). I have spoken to a nurse 4 out of the 5 calls and relayed my concerns. This morning I emphasized the fact that the delay is causing significant depression in my son.

So, we wait. I am disappointed and frustrated and concerned for my son. He deserves better than this. He deserves to get the appropriate care in a timely fashion to put him on the path to emotional and physical wellness.

This is one angry mama bear. Don’t get in my way.

Victory

victoryAside from learning about things that I never dreamed I would be researching, I am learning a lot about the “loophole.” Nearly a year ago Hunter asked that we start calling him “Hunter,” rather than “Olivia.” While I choked on the name (I could hear it in my head) as it moved from tongue to my lips, we were committed to doing what was necessary for our son.

What I didn’t really think about was what would come next. When my friend (in a similar situation but about 6 months ahead of us on most fronts) announced that she went to court with her son and now he was legally “Jack,” I found my self in the midst of conflicting emotions. These kids are so young; a legal name change just felt so FINAL. And yet, somehow I was envious of how she took charge and did what she needed to do as a parent of a child who was transitioning from female to male.

We spent nearly an entire school year getting used to the new name. Little by little we expanded our vocabulary until we were using only male pronouns in lieu of the female ones that we had grown accustomed to. Summer came and with it greater acceptance and more knowledge. It was time to apply for a legal name change. It was important that Hunter begin the new school year “officially” as Hunter. We didn’t want any mistakes. It would’ve been devastating for him to sit in a class on the first day and have a teacher take attendance and look for or call out “Olivia.”

So, I filled out the paperwork and waited. Hunter was at camp and I wanted him to sign the documents. Not only did I want him to be a part of the process but I wanted him to tell me that he was 100% sure about the name. Admittedly, there was a tiny part of me that was hanging on to the familiar; I was not quite ready and it was easy to find a reason to wait.

You would have no idea how complicated this entire process is. Legal name change at the state level. Birth certificate legal name change at the state level in which one was born. Gender marker changed on birth certificate. WHOA. Not so fast…this too, is at the state level and every state has it’s own law about changing the gender marker. I went into a tail spin. What good was the name change if Hunter’s birth certificate still indicated that he was female??? According to the state of Florida (where he was born), in order to legally change the gender marker, one needs to submit an affidavit from the physician stating that gender reassignment surgery has occurred. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Many transgender individuals never have surgery for various reasons. This was crazy and unacceptable.

I reached out to a number of people and organizations (including legal teams) within my network to see if there was a way around this. Hunter was about to start driver’s ed – I had been told that once you get a permit or license it is nearly impossible to change the gender marker on the document.

Facebook at its finest … another mom, who just went through the exact same scenario, was a wealth of information.

LOOPHOLE.

The federal government, not too long ago, changed its policies regarding passports and gender markers. Too good to be true. All we needed was a letter from the doctor stating that Hunter was in the process of transitioning along with the legal name change document from the court. In addition, while the social security administration doesn’t put a gender on the card, they track it for employment purposes. So, the passport and social security card (with new name) become the legal documents in place of the birth certificate.

VICTORY… until the next hurdle.

Out of the blue…

shockingSo, I went to the dentist recently and while catching up with the dental assistant whom I hadn’t seen in quite sometime, I was thrown for a loop. She asked me about my “two girls” and I was momentarily paralyzed.

What do you do? I had a split second to decide if I would just nod or go into a short version of the long story about my second child, who definitely is not a girl. Talk about being caught off guard. WOW.

Since Hunter is not a patient in this dental office anymore, the staff is not aware of what has been going on with him. Our dentist knows the whole story and is completely accepting and supportive and even told me that he is “impressed” with us as parents and how we’ve handled everything (with our transgender son).

Certainly we have no issue sharing our journey and Hunter is very open about his transition from female to male. But, honestly, this is not really the kind of news you share when having small talk before a dental procedure. I felt the wind being knocked out of my sails.

While we are open about our son being transgender, sharing this “out of the blue” ranks up there with, “by the way, we’re getting a divorce,” or “I was just diagnosed with fill in the blank,” — by my standards, these are topics where you choose a time and place to have an honest, open, bare your soul conversation.

When faced with some “news” about a friend or family member (sometimes known as gossip) you have to make a quick decision about how to respond to the messenger; you can nod, mutter an “ah ha,” cough to hide your shock, quickly change the subject or just act as if you didn’t hear what they said. Understandably, this can be an incredibly uncomfortable space to be in…I certainly don’t want to be the one to blurt out shocking news and then not have the time to discuss, empathize or explain.

Given that I was about to get numbed up for a procedure, I did some quick thinking on my feet. Surely, this was a case where a simple nod would suffice. However, I will make sure to ask the doctor to update our family records and to inform his staff. Hopefully, this will eliminate or at least minimize future awkward, pick your jaw up from the floor, I want to disappear moments.