Behind the Curtain: The Reality of Gender Transition in a Family
I have heard it said repeatedly, ad nauseam:"As long as they are happy and being their true self…" This is what well-intentioned friends and acquaintances say when I drop the trans bomb in their laps—that my son, suddenly, out of nowhere, at the age of 24, announced he is a woman, and not a man. That was almost 3 years ago and life has been, well... a journey is the best way to describe it. I am writing the story of this journey down for one reason only: So others can understand the depth and breadth of how transition affects a family. I do not want your sympathy. I only want the same compassion you allow those undergoing a transition. Or parents who have lost a child.
Our story is basically the same as other parents' stories of their child's transition whether it started when the child was 8, 18 or 28, whether the child is male or female. Whether you immediately affirmed, questioned or were critical of the decision. Whether you held their hand when they came out of their double mastectomy surgery or you cried all day wondering from 2000 miles away if they survived their facial feminization surgery. I know this first hand because I am involved with parent support groups and hear these stories. I hear parents doing the mental and emotional gymnastics required in their situations, to support their child, while also trying to protect and defend them.
As a parent, you are damned if you do and damned if you don't. If you supported medical transition and your child years later detransitions, they say, "Why didn't you say something? Why didn't you stop me?" And when you express concern over medicalization and the dangers and rushing into treatment, you are told you are transphobic, unloving, evil, emotionally abusive and hateful followed by months or years of estrangement. We have been told by medical professionals, pro-affirmation websites, and society that, if we do not completely support our sons’ decision to transition, then they will commit suicide. Just think about that for a moment. It is navigating a minefield.
What no one tells you is that the son we have adored for almost 25 years no longer exists. And his removal from our shared family history and lives is self-inflicted. He has erased himself. We cannot talk about him in the past unless we want to be accused of deadnaming and misgendering. We cannot reminisce about family vacations, the sports he played, the things he said or did. But I had a son, not a daughter. Speaking his new name and gender is an affront to us. It feels like a punch in the gut every time I hear it.
I was asked just the other day how I view our situation. Have we lost a son and gained a daughter or have we lost a son and gained a stranger? It was a very insightful question from an acquaintance that does not have a child caught in this nightmare. Here is my answer: We have lost a son for whom we cannot publicly mourn. Our family has lost a brother, cousin, nephew, grandson and friend. This new "girl" is nothing like the person we used to know. Along with his identity change, his character and personality has changed. His actions and words are so unfamiliar to us that it is like having a stranger.
There is a huge misconception about what transitioning is all about, at least for those of legal age. Transition isn't a fairytale where everyone lives happily ever after. If it was, then there wouldn't be tens of thousands of detransitioners. When my son called and announced his transition to my husband and I, we asked him not to rush into medicalization (i.e. hormones and surgeries). We asked him for time to allow us to catch up and understand how he came to this decision because this was totally out of the blue. None of us saw it coming. Not even his girlfriend of 4 years.
Our son did not like being questioned about his decision and promptly cut us out of his life. He was estranged from the family for 8 months. He was coached by his new trans community that he didn’t need us, that he had a new, better family now. He was advised by his new “family’ to only make a certain level of income so that he could be eligible for medicaid and other government funded subsidies. He stopped working and then claimed that he was not able to get side jobs because the world is transphobic. He took self defense classes because he was now female and therefore a victim of male aggression. He spent most of his days training his voice to be more feminine. He practiced walking "like a girl". Endless hours each day were spent on clothes and makeup. The cocktail prescribed of estrogen, progesterone, T blocker and antidepressants kept him in tears and in bed. He wouldn't answer texts, emails or phone calls. He didn’t thank us when we sent him a birthday present. He didn’t acknowledge our birthdays. He didn’t even call when his grandma died.
He became a very hateful, bitter and cruel person. He was not anything like the son we raised. He posed for highly sexual and provocative partially nude photos and posted them on social media. He talks about becoming a model and getting a "sugar daddy". He partied his days away, keeping himself numb. He lost his girlfriend because she no longer wanted a "lesbian relationship". He developed unhealthy eating habits and is now most likely anorexic, although we have no way of addressing that issue. He had facial feminization surgery thanks to the tax payers of New York.
He claims he is happy but, despite that claim, we can see that he is isolated, with very few friends. He continues to be depressed and lonely. His life is performative. It must be exhausting. My heart breaks for him. He needs help but will not receive it because society believes he is being his "true self.” I wonder how this can be ignored while everyone pretends that all is well. Society doesn't care about him, but I do. He is my son regardless of his age. It is obvious he is in pain and suffering. But we are not allowed to talk about it. That would be transphobic. Expressing concern for our child is being turned into hate speech.
Almost 3 years into this journey he is now talking again, but I’m not sure it’s any better this way. We are constantly walking a fine line. We are not allowed to ask questions or talk about his health or life decisions. If we say one thing that is perceived by him as trans critical, we are promptly cut out again. What we have is not a relationship, it is a set of hard fast rules that must be obeyed.
It’s like a stranger moved in and evicted our son, and we all are required to pretend we don’t notice, like when a lead actor is changed mid-television series. We continue to tell him how much we love him. We do and always will. He is forever a member of our family and we all suffer alongside him. What is so hard to explain is the pain we all feel when trying to find their family member behind the surgically altered face, behind the chemically altered body, behind the unnatural voice and body movements, behind the makeup and clothes. We can’t help but wonder: When this stranger moved in, where did our son go?