Raising a transgender kid is a lot like jumping the ocean waves. Most of the time, it’s an experience of extreme joy and happiness. You rise up and float down and it’s all a blast. There are those moments when you turn your back, bear the impact and then let the laughter explode as those waves unfold behind you and you realize you are still swimming. It thrilling and connected to the world in way that feels big and important. It is, in the true sense of the word, awesome.
And then sometimes you get taken under and you can’t see what’s in front of you and you don’t really know where you are. Fear takes over as the sand swirls in front of your face. You struggle to get your bearings. You are lost.
Most of the time, we live in the joy. E is such a happy kid and is so loved and accepted. Our community supports us, as does our family. E hasn’t lost one friend over his trans identity, and his world has only grown with the love and respect people feel for him. We are carried by this positive energy.
A few weeks ago, I attended an amazing event: Gender Conference East in Baltimore. Families like ours gathered together and that beautiful energy was all over the place. Kids were meeting other kids like them, sometimes for the very first time. Parents too. Their heads were close together as they shared their stories. Before they even tell the details, we know. We live it too. We listen anyway and eagerly; it is a gentle release to know others who walk our paths. There were many friends made that weekend, many positive and excellent moments shared.
There was also a lot of information. I got to meet with a legal advisor about the steps needed to change E’s name. Dads convened to unpack what this experience is like from their perspective. There were sessions on working with your school, balancing out your faith journey, talking to your gender non-conforming teens about sex. It is one thing to sit at your computer, googling this stuff, bleary-eyed and cyber-connected, late at night. It’s an elevated experience to have the flesh and blood experts sitting in front of you, answering your questions, along with other parents with the same concerns.
The focus for me was on medical stuff. It’s an area that I know the least about, beyond exactly where we are with E. I was eager to learn about all the medical advances that surely have been made in the recent months and years. I don’t know what I was thinking. I was optimistic.
One session I attended was on surgeries for transgender individuals. It’s important for me to note that not all trans people desire to surgically change their bodies and that doesn’t make them any less connected to their identity than those who choose surgical interventions. But I know that surgery is something of interest to E, so there I sat. Two super smart and super talented surgeons stood before us, sharing stories and images of the surgeries they perform, the way it makes them feel to help trans people achieve the bodies they want. The medical terms, the surgical options they were describing were so big and magical you could almost see the words floating around the room. Vaginoplasty. Phalloplasty. Metoidioplasty. Orchiectomy. They went through it all, “male to female” and “female to male”, top and bottom.
A pause here to acknowledge all those terms (male to female and female to male, top and bottom) make me squirm. They seem to reinforce a limiting gender binary and also dissect people into body parts. “Gender reassignment surgery” “Sex affirmation surgery” “Gender confirmation surgery.” They all seem to miss the mark. These are humans with beating hearts and complex, nuanced feelings.
So. One thing I learned is that all of these surgeries are incredibly difficult, tender, complicated, precise. There is a lot that can go wrong. It is hard to qualify what success is in this arena, but it seems that people looking to align their bodies to a female identity are able to achieve that outcome pretty well. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not an easy cut, snip, flip and there’s your vagina! But it seems to work out pretty well. For people like E, aligning a body with a male identity is a whole other thing. There are no good answers. There are answers that are, for lack of a better word, okay. And okay kind of sucks.
That was my honest reaction. I think E imagines that when he is older he can have surgery and have a male body. A “typical” male body. It’s what he wants.
Here’s the part where I start really evaluating that. E is male, so therefore doesn’t that mean his body, whatever it is, is male? Can’t there be variations on the male body that feel good and right? Can these surgeries get trans men to a place that they are happily connected: identity body and soul? Do they even need surgery to achieve that? Is it enough? Is it too much?
There is the undertow. That crazy scary twist where you can’t find the ground to place your feet.
I was happy for the lunch break after that where I could tread water for a while. And eat.
The last session of the day that I chose to attend was on fertility. I was glad to hear that this is an area of medicine that is progressing at breakneck speed, because currently, our options are, like surgeries, not very good. Kids like E would have to get to Tanner Stage 4 in their pubertal development in order to have viable reproductive material. Google Tanner Stage 4 for females. When I did and showed E, he raised one side of his furrowed brow and said NO WAY.
Without mature eggs, fertility discussions are very sketchy and very expensive. Medical procedures and tens of thousands of dollars to cryopreserve immature cells which may or may not ever be able to be viable. For a person who may or may not ever want to use them.
They showed us this video. It bowled me over. The power of it. The complexity. The grief. The loss. The strength.
Once again the waves are overhead. I’m trying to push through and orient myself. The entire drive home I’m twisted up in the water and sand. I know if I can just find the sun I can swim toward it. I pull into my driveway and E runs out to greet me. There it is. My son, my sun.