I didn’t realize you think of her as a human being
Most people who publish on the PITT Substack are parents who struggle with raising minor children (or worry about their young adult children) who are caught up in confusion surrounding sex and gender. These parents have to remain anonymous to protect their and their kids’ privacy, which totally makes sense. I admire PITT and the parents who publish here. I am not a parent, but I do have a story to tell, and I have my own reasons for remaining anonymous.
This story is about my cousin H, a 30-something lesbian who has had a double mastectomy and is on a steady course of testosterone. I’ll tell the story as briefly as I can and then get to the part where my mother had the nerve to ask me whether I think of H as a human being.
My father has an identical twin. When I was growing up as a kid, my sister and I were very close to our uncle. He cycled through relationships with various women, but he was a constant in our lives. At some point in my early teens, he married a woman, L. I never much liked L because I found her to be pretty annoying. But whatever. He loved her and that’s what mattered. L had a son, J, from a previous marriage, who my uncle ended up adopting.
J was a great kid. He was around five or so when I met him. He was fun, energetic, and excessively polite, with a thick southern drawl. He called me ma’am, which I thought was quaint and pretty adorable. When I was sixteen, my cousin, H, was born. Our families were very close. We visited each other often. I still didn’t like L, and as time wore on, it became more obvious why.
As H grew into an older kid, she hated “girl” things and adored her older brother J. J played soccer, so H did too. She loved all of the “boy” things. L didn’t like that at all. L was constantly forcing H to wear lacy dresses and putting pink ribbons on her pigtails. I have a distinct recollection of literally watching L forcing H into one of these outfits while H wailed and rebelled, screaming “No!” at her mother. H hated it. L forced it on her anyway.
At some point, my uncle decided to divorce L. She went to live with a local cocaine dealer and spiraled out of control. He kept the kids. One night when H was 10, J died in a tragic car accident. It was dreadful and my entire family was bereft. A month later, L drove herself off the road in the exact spot where J had died. Her dead body was found to be filled with cocaine and alcohol.
Understandably, H had a rough time with all of this. J had been her idol. She adored him and all that he was about. And though she had some very conflicted feelings about her mother, her mother’s relationship with a dealer and addiction issues, and her mother’s forcing her into the “girl” things, L was still her mother. Losing one’s mother is one of the hardest things a human being faces. She had to deal with it at 10.
Over the years, our families remained very close, and I have only the dearest, fondest memories of watching H grow up and become a young woman. She had some rough times, and I would like to think that I helped her through some of them.
At some point in her twenties, H came out as a lesbian. I don’t even remember her coming out, particularly, I just remember her introducing the family to her girlfriend. My very liberal family was very accepting of all of this. As far as I know, they are still together. They’re both vegans and one day in 2016, they visited the city where I lived. I invited them over for a vegan brunch, and then the three of us went to an anti-Trump rally together.
I was fully Team TERF by then, and I saw the warning signs. Since her mother’s death, H had always been very nonconforming, in the sense that she kept her hair short and had a steady wardrobe of cargo pants, tank tops, and combat boots. None of that mattered to me or to anyone else in my family. But then things went further. Not only did she refuse to conform to sex stereotypes in her appearance, but her mannerisms started to change. She started behaving in ways that were much more stereotypically masculine. In other times, none of that would have mattered to me either. But knowing what I knew about “trans,” I worried. Then her girlfriend posted something on Facebook praising Judith Butler and I knew it was over.
Imagine how silly that might sound to someone reading this in twenty, thirty, or forty years. “Her girlfriend posted something on Facebook praising Judith Butler and I knew it was over.” But I trust that readers of this Substack will know what I mean and be able to relate.
So I was bereft, but not surprised, when H sent this email to the entire family in 2017:
I’m writing to come out to you all as transgender. I have been this way since I’ve known but I’m finally unlearning enough stories to own it as my truth and ask for specific things from the people that I love. I specifically identify as non-binary (genderqueer), meaning I am not male nor female. To refer to me, it’s best to just use gender-neutral language, so instead of “daughter,” “niece,” etc., you could use “child, sibling, sibling’s child,” etc. Cousin is great and already gender-neutral! For my pronouns, instead of referring to me as “she” or “her,” I’m asking folks to use “they” or “their” or “them.” I like to think of it as what you would say when you really don’t know the person’s gender, like “who left their backpack here?” There are a lot of resources online about it all and I’m happy to share with you what my experience is, in person or on the phone. Here’s a quick resource if you’re interested: https://uwm.edu/lgbtrc/support/gender-pronouns/
I am trying to show up in my life more honestly! I’ve talked to [various relatives] about this already a good bit. Let me know if you’d like to talk, but either way, I hope to see you soon.
Most of my family members replied all, supporting her on her “journey.” I cried for a bit, then wrote her back very cautiously, reminding her that regardless of identity, she is female. Her response was simply, “My gender is not up for debate.” Knowing what I knew about how “trans” destroys families, I left it alone. She and I had a few phone conversations between then and 2019. I text her every year on the anniversary of her mother’s death, and she responds. But there has been no further communication between me and her.
She had her double mastectomy in 2018 and went on testosterone some time thereafter. I have no idea whether she has had a hysterectomy or a phalloplasty. I haven’t asked anyone, and my parents are unlikely to volunteer that information, if they know.
H is, quite understandably, very angry at her dead mother. She once made a whole YouTube video about it, connecting her mastectomy directly to her mother, her mother’s perceptions of gender, and her mother’s addiction. I strongly suspect that a big part of this is telling her mother to f*ck off. Her mother worked hard to force her into the girl box, and in her mind, this is the strongest statement she can make about refusing to comply.
My entire family knows that I am Team TERF and maintaining anything resembling normal relationships with them has been very difficult. But we all do our best.
H lives in the same city as my parents, sister (and her kids, my niece and nephew), and brother (long story as to how they all ended up there), and for years, I would travel there for holidays. Starting in 2020, going there was impossible because of the pandemic, so we were all able to avoid the elephant in the room.
Last Fall, I called my mother to tell her that I was willing to go there for the holidays if they would have me. She was open to the idea, but asked, “Would you be willing to sit down at a dinner table with her?” By “her,” she was referring to H. Even though my mother “supports H in her gender journey,” she still uses she/her pronouns to refer to her. This is in part because my mother is a stickler for grammar, but I suspect it’s also in part because she knows that H is female.
I was confused by the question and responded something like “Of course I would, why wouldn’t I?” And then she said, “Well, I didn’t think you accepted her as a human being.” I was shocked into silence, and a bit hurt.
The next part of the conversation went something like this, to the best of my recollection:
Me: Of course I accept her as a human being.
Mom: Well I’m glad to hear that!
Me: But why would you think I didn’t accept her as a human being?
Mom: Well, because you don’t accept transgender people but I’m glad to hear that you accept her as a human being.
Me: If you thought I didn’t accept her as a human being, you must not think very highly of me.
Mom: Now you’re turning this against me!
Me: What? I’m just repeating back to you exactly what you said to me.
Mom: Never mind, let’s just leave it alone. I’ll talk to Dad about whether it’s a good idea for you to visit.
I ended up not going for various reasons having to do with COVID and a death on the other side of the family.
As I reflected on that exchange with my mother, I became increasingly frustrated, and here is why: Those of us who question and challenge gender orthodoxy are the only ones who accept our loved ones as fully human beings. It’s the doctors and the psychologists who want to cut our loved ones up into pieces, and the family members who enable all of this, who don’t. Sex is a critical part of being human, after all.
To everyone who reads this Substack and especially to all the parents who are struggling with this with their children: We will get through this.