The therapist present told us she understood our need to rescue. But don’t, she said.
“Walk me through it, then” one mom in the room said. “Tell me exactly what to say to my kid when he comes home crying because he is being teased. Because when I hear someone on the bus is picking on him I want to the be the one waiting at the bus stop with a baseball bat.”
She’d said what we all were thinking.
Almost every one of us nodded in agreement. Collectively, we’d heard it all. The teasing, the taunts, the bullying. Some had heard it way worse than others. Some lived with the fear of what might lie around the next bend for their children. Their small, vulnerable children. We were parents of gender nonconforming children, at least 80 strong, in a meeting room in Seattle. We did not know each other. But we knew each other’s experience and we laid bare our fears in a room full of strangers. Within the span of the first retelling of injustice hurled at one of our children, the room broke into tears. For most of us a deep well of emotion was lying just under a tenuous surface.
The therapist walked us through how to listen to hard stories from our children. She said it was easier said than done. We all agreed and laughed.
“I never thought I could be a person that would hurt a child,” another mother said, “until that kid hurt my child.” We nodded again. On that level it becomes primal, animalistic and raw. We all knew this too.
If we go straight into rescue mode, the therapist said, we might miss actually being present for our child. And what they need most is for us to be present. To feel this pain of exclusion, difference, other than with them. And it is a tall order, she said. We all nodded again as we passed a box of tissues between us.
We had driven through the night to get to Seattle that weekend in August. We’d landed late and rose early. Coffee in hand, we navigated our way to the convention center and up escalator after escalator to arrive at the conference for gender nonconforming children and their parents.
Off the last escalator, someone stopped Eliza.
“I love your outfit,” he said. “You look amazing.”
Eliza beamed in her tails suit jacket and cowboy boots. She’d chosen to wear this outfit because it was a half, half conference, she said. Any lingering hesitation I had about what the hell we were doing at this conference slipped away in that moment. And from then on we were welcomed by a whole lot of people who seemed to understand our kid. By the time I made it to my first workshop at the conference a few minutes later, I knew the trip had been worth it if for no other reason than the relief I felt hearing that mother talk about her kid and the bus stop. I’m not crazy or violent, I thought. I am just Eliza’s mother.
At lunch the first day, we tried to encourage Eliza and Lucille to go to the kid’s camp. They had been hesitant that morning to walk into a room of bouncing children.
“Looks like they are having a lot of fun in there. Sure you don’t want to go. The grown ups are just talking…” I said.
“But the boys are dressed like boys and the girls are dressed like girls, Mom,” Eliza said. “I didn’t see any other half halfs.”
I realized I had some explaining to do.
“Babe, I think most of the kids in the camp are either half half or transgender,” I said.
“But the boys don’t look like girls dressing like boys, they just look like boys,” she said.
“I know,” I said. She thought about this for a minute then flashed me a look of sudden understanding.
“So the boy in front of us in the Subway line was born a girl?” Eliza said.
“Yes,” I said. I knew because I’d been in a workshop with his mother.
“He really looked like a boy,” she said with a goofy grin.
“I know,” I said. “He is a boy.” I hoped she was following me and she was.
“What about the girl with the gold sparkly purse?” she said.
“Born a boy,” I said.
“Really?” she said. “She’s a girl.”
“Really,” I said. She was getting it.
That was the moment I think she was glad we’d made the trip. That’s when something shifted for her. And so began the peeling back the layers that would go on all weekend. In a matter of days we reconfigured what we knew about gender. We unpacked it, we picked it apart. Half the time Eliza was coloring in the back of the room but when I’d catch her eye I knew by the look on her face that she was listening. She was soaking in words she’d never heard, taking in everything in front of her. We all were. Even Lucille who was as invested as the rest of us asking questions with her heart wide open from a beautiful place of non-judgment.
“Mommy, so that girl with long blond hair, she sounded like boy,” Lucille said at one point.
So we explained puberty and blockers.
“Well, she’s a girl because she knows she’s a girl,” Lucille said. “That’s all that matters.”
It seems she was listening too.
The last session was a teen panel. I was interested to see what these teens had to say and it seemed everyone else at the conference was too because it was packed. Standing room only. There were maybe seven kids on the panel. Some were trans men, some trans women, some on hormones, some questioning. They were shades of gray in their appearance and experience. They were badasses of the first order. Eliza sat in the front row and listened as these kids talked. I saw her in each of them and I think she saw herself.
On our way back to Montana later that night, about an hour from Missoula when all the electronics had run out of batteries and things were getting a little feral the way road trips will, Eliza and Lucille took to writing all over their bodies with markers. Lucille drew strange little people with long arms and legs that usually had only one eye. I looked to see what Eliza had drawn and realized she was writing words instead.
“What’s that say EJ,” I said as I leaned closer to her arm.
And there it was like a tattoo, a badge proudly won.
“I’m half half and it’s okay.”