I seemed like an incredibly supportive mom but I was secretly failing my trans son
“I’m transgender. I’m meant to be a boy. I chose Oliver as my new name.”
There was nothing my 12-year-old could say that would shock me more.
I couldn’t bring my mouth out for words, but my heart broke as I watched this sweet baby with blue eyes, blonde hair curled up in the opposite corner of the sofa, clutching a pillow for dear life, as if to offer it. Some protection from my response.
but why? I had recently come out as a lesbian, and his older brother had fluidly gender-identified for a while, so he sure didn’t think I’d turn him down?
I said, “Of course I support you.” And I mean it.
But I meant I supported him I conditions. I thought this was a trendy move, and I really didn’t think this was permanent. I would know. I’d see something. I hugged him and said, “I want you to know if you’ve changed your mind about this, it’s okay, and you don’t have to decide anything now.”
Scramble, I tried to understand this. He recently hit puberty and loathed it, hiding any evidence and refusing any attempt I made to party. Any conversations were quickly shut down, which she attributed to him being more private than his sisters. Perhaps this new surge of hormones was miserable?
I racked my brains, looking for any further hints that this new revelation was, in fact, real. The transgender kids I know showed early signs of avoiding traditional gender expectations with protests emerging as early as 4 or 5 years old. We didn’t have any of that. What if my pre-teen refusal to embrace womanhood was because our small town didn’t offer enough versions of womanhood in which he could see himself? What if my child isn’t transgender, but instead, I’m just a bad feminist role model?
The truth is that while many transgender children feel that their gender does not correspond to the gender they were assigned at birth from a very early age, others can begin to realize that they feel “different.” when they approach puberty It may end up being kept a secret for years. Years of living in a body that doesn’t feel right.
I searched second-hand stores and filled the closet with boxers and “boys’ clothes” in a dozen shades of blue, and stuffed a trash bag of now-disapproved clothes in my closet. just in case, I said to myself. I reminded him of his bedroom, with teachers, principals, and school counsellors.
His new name sounded strange to me. I loved his now-abandoned name, and longed to love this new word, to associate it with the person my son had become. I never had a son. How can I be a father to a boy, I worried. I filled my notebooks with rivers of letters arranged in new ways. I ran my pen over and over over the curves and loops of his new name, tracing my finger over the ink, wanting it to become familiar.
Sitting on the couch with the laundry basket, I’d spend hours folding his clothes, saying over and over, “That’s Oliver’s sock. He likes the color blue. That’s his orange jacket.” I wanted to write his new name on my tongue, my mind and my heart.
My Name Jar sat at the counter and taxed myself $1 every time I messed up. A blue plastic spray bottle filled with water appeared and he sprayed me like a naughty cat when I messed up. These were fun reminders to get this right—and I wanted to—but I would selfishly speak his old name sometimes, late at night, to myself. I missed it, but her voice now sounds like another betrayal of this beautiful son I so desperately wanted to feel loved and accepted.
I offered this double admission for several months. It must have seemed like an eternity to him. He’d see me go to school and take him to the barbershop, but at the same time, he’d hear, “It’s okay if you change your mind. You don’t have to decide now. No one will judge you.” Or even, “We’re not going to go to the doctor and make any permanent changes. You can do that when you’re 18.”
Wiggle on this tightrope of my ambivalence. On the one hand, I was very protective of him and defended him publicly. On the other hand, I desperately hoped he’d change his mind — that it was a phase — because I imagined life for trans people was hard. Single. Life is tough enough without… this, I believed. We recently lost almost everything in a house fire in the midst of a divorce. Can this little town that so gently showered us in ashes be trusted to appear even here?
A few months later, Oliver expresses interest in going to the gender health clinic at the local children’s hospital. I agree – just to see what they can tell us. It took months to get him in, and I wasn’t sure what to expect when I made the appointment. I’m embarrassed to say even as a nurse, I haven’t researched the healthcare options available. I put them all together and naively assumed our only options were irreversible surgeries and hormones that would render him unable to have children.
I had no idea that puberty blockers – gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) agonists – were the first line of defense for transgender patients. They prevent the brain from secreting key hormones involved in sexual maturation. The effect of these blockers is reversible, and they have been prescribed to young men for decades for other hormonal conditions without ill effects.
Benefit? It simply stops puberty and gives the young person time to get counseling, transition socially, and just be themselves without facing the clock in their body. Some children stay on it for several years. For Oliver, who had already begun puberty, puberty blockers still bought him—us—some time before he needed to make the decision whether to start hormonal therapy like testosterone.
I explained to a friend, who is also the mother of a transgender son, that I would not consent to anything that might affect his ability to have children. I said, “This is where I draw the line.” Hormone replacement therapy carried that risk, and I wasn’t willing to let a 14-year-old take that risk. What did I know about the life I wanted when I was 14?
“There are a lot of ways to start a family,” my friend said. “But he must be alive to do it.”
forty percent Or transgender people will attempt suicide. forty. That’s almost as bad as flipping a coin.
What would you do to weigh that coin in favor of your child?
My friend knew what I didn’t yet — that gender-affirming healthcare is broad and personalized, as well as evidence-based and developmentally appropriate. It has a team that includes social workers, therapists, child life specialists, endocrinologists, psychologists and pharmacists. Transgender teens who take hormone blockers show improvements In general mental health and general functioning after the use of blockers, a decrease in depression. Do you know what happens when depression decreases in young people?
They are more likely to survive.
a 2019 Stady On Transgender Teens revealed that 21 of 47 trans teens surveyed were suicidal before starting hormone therapy. After treatment, that number dropped to six. last Stady Two years later, they discovered that gender-affirming hormone therapy was significantly associated with lower rates of depression, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts among transgender and non-binary youth.
Nobody passes hormones like candy. The number of hoops Oliver had to jump through to get medical attention would be laughable if it wasn’t already the healthcare we were talking about. He had to prove himself over and over—with shapes, letters, time, and healers—before each new level of care was added.
Six years have passed, and my son has transitioned into adulthood, living out his authentic self in ways that continue to amaze me. The fair-haired, blue-eyed son, who once curled up on the corner of the sofa, radiated joy in his being. He’s at home in the world, creating art and laughter, creating gentle friendships and stubborn hope. Life has been hard, but it’s also beautiful and he’s here.
He was never wavered in his truth. Five years laterLess than 5% of gender nonconforming youth will revert to their assigned sex at birth.
When I look back, there were dozens of signs of gender dysphoria before Oliver’s announcement but I ignored them. He forgave me for my stumble, though it took years for him to tell me how it affected his trip. My early reticence silenced him, made him hesitate to ask for what he needed, and chose to deny himself rather than risk even a hint of refusal. He’s finally getting the radical acceptance he’s needed and deserved all along.
I thought my reluctance to seek medical attention for my son was protecting him. Instead, that medical attention may have saved his life.
Angie Best-Egler is a writer, psychiatric nurse, clinical educator, and mother of four. You can find her on Instagram at Hahahahaha.
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