My daughter, my son, myself

The following essay, written by the founder of TransParent Canada, appeared in the Globe and Mail newspaper on August 22, 2006. Joan received responses from folks from areas as far flung as Nova Scotia, Yellowknife, Idaho and Ireland.

At this year's Toronto Pride Parade, I searched in vain for a young man who last year stole my heart and redirected my life.

A year ago, I marched in the parade with the St. Catharines, Ont., chapter of PFLAG (formerly known as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), the first time I had participated in or even attended this empowering international festival of sexual and gender diversity. We members of PFLAG, easy to spot with our sensible footwear and clothing, wearing sun-hats, provided an amusing contrast to many of the parade onlookers and participants, especially the spirited delegates from TNT (Totally Nude Toronto) dangling their participles a few units behind us.

The life path that took me to this in-your-face street party was one that I never would have imagined almost three years earlier. But at that time, our firstborn child, whom we had loved as a daughter for 18 years, gathered up astonishing courage to disclose that he'd believed since pre-school that he was male.

It would seem that this daughter, whom we'd often joked was the son we'd never had, was really the son we'd always had.

Our son's exit from his closet changed nothing. And it changed everything.

Our love for him was undiminished, but our memories were ambushed.

The photos and family portraits of this blond, blue-eyed child provided no "clues" to our son's new (to us) identity. Even the recollection of our obstetrician's first words -- "Congratulations, you have a girl!" -- were difficult to reconcile.

For months after our son's revelation, I was yanked between elation and grief. One day I'd be crowing "My child is finally happy! Now it all makes sense!" and the next day I'd be sobbing over the "death" of my daughter.

In those early days, our son was the only "trans" person we knew. We were acquainted with no other parents walking this walk. A thorough search of our local library yielded zero copies of Trans-parenting for Dummies.

And as loving and supportive as they were, members of the local PFLAG chapter admitted they couldn't fully identify with our situation.

Where were all of the other trans parents? Guilt and shame were added to the emotional maelstrom when I concluded that other parents were stronger and clearly not in need of support.

We gained our strength from neighbours, friends and many family members who were overwhelmingly supportive when told of our new dynamics. Members of our Unitarian congregation applauded when we told them our news.

I told these open-hearted folks that I was experiencing the same feelings I'd had when I was pregnant with my son: anticipation, wonder, excitement, anxiety, curiosity. I even had stretch marks, but this time they were all in my headspace as I broadened and deepened my understanding of what it meant to be fully human.
However, some people were horrified. With an outrage born of religious zeal, they vowed to never accept our "abomination" son. (Their reaction raised the question: WWJH? -- Who Would Jesus Hate?) Our son and his younger sister learned the hard way that proclamations of unconditional love are not always what they seem.

That jolt of intolerance awakened my inner angry mama-bear. It distressed me that some people were so fixated with the plumbing below the belt that they ignored the human heart beating in my child's chest.

The idea of forming a support group for the parents of trans children began to wriggle its way into my brain. Perhaps the reason I hadn't met other parents was because they felt the same shame, disgust and embarrassment that some of our relatives did. Were they as uninformed about trans issues as I was? Were they held captive in their own closets by fear and because they had no one to whom to turn?

But I'm ashamed to say that the idea of a support group waned over time. Our family had survived -- let others deal with their own problems.

And that's when I met the thief of my heart at last year's Toronto Pride Parade.

The young man grinned and waved when he saw my hand-lettered neon sign -- "I Love My Trans Son" -- and started jabbing his finger into his chest, indicating that he too, was someone's trans son. I waded into the crowd, sign and all, to give this stranger a hug.

We embraced for a very long time, and then he whispered: "I wish my mom had been as understanding as you."

The aching sadness and loss in his voice was undeniable, and my heart splintered. By the end of the parade, I'd resolved to form TransParent, a peer support network to unite the parents of trans children so that together we may share and celebrate our children's journeys to authenticity.

I had hoped to see my friend at this year's parade, to embrace him once again and to tell him that with the love and encouragement of a multitude of people, TransParent is growing and evolving.

I'm already looking forward to next year's parade. With commitment and determination, we'll achieve full equality, dignity and justice for our Pride children in the same way we'll finish the celebratory event -- with heads held high, one step at a time.