My son’s tattoo – “visible,” in Times New Roman on his right forearm – was a present from me for his 18th birthday. He is transgender, and to him, visibility is an antidote to stigma; it’s refusing what most of the world still wants trans people to do: disappear. With this word on his sleeve (his skin, really), he claims the power of being seen. It is his visibility, and not mine, but being his mother has allowed me to also choose to be seen. And isn’t this what we all want? To be seen for who we are?
My son came out as trans his freshman year of high school, after identifying as genderqueer in middle school. I believed then that being transgender meant having a bull’s eye on your back, which for some – especially trans women of color – it can. I was afraid. Since he’d shopped in the boys’ department and stuck with a short haircut throughout his childhood, I’d assumed he’d eventually identify as gay. Be whomever you want to be, I’d told him. Listen to what’s true for you. I had danced at countless queer bars, so the possibility of having a gay child felt –– dare I say it –– “normal.” Being transgender, however, felt like a risk.
I could not have known, then, that within a few years I would bask in his having the gall to live candidly. I watched him become an advocate. He wrote articles, gave speeches, mentored LGBT students. I saw his visibility illuminating a path for other transitioning kids, still in the shadows.
A mother in a support group whose son had transitioned a year before made me feel more comfortable and less afraid.
“I now see that this is who he was all along,” she said. “Transitioning allowed him to be who he really is.”
Maybe this is who my son really is, I thought.
I’d had plenty of clues, but when Evie was younger, I’d not been willing to listen. A neighbor told me about meeting him in kindergarten, when he confided, “I’m a boy.” I’d been comfortable with his choosing a neck ties for elementary school pictures, but I cringe to remember my response when he begged to be called “John” on a beach trip, aching to be recognized as the boy he knew he was. He wore baggy surfer shorts and a swim shirt. I only saw a girl, pretending to be a boy. Calling him a boy’s name felt like this was no longer an imaginary game. “No way,” I’d said, collecting the towels and umbrella and marching toward the car as if ending this day trip would end the discussion.
A decade later, he described this disconnect in a TEDx Talk entitled, “It Takes a Village to Transition.”
“Transgender individuals are often asked when they realized they were not a boy or not a girl,” he said. “But this doesn’t make sense to all of us. While other tomboys became more feminine as they got older, he explained, “I knew inside that I was a boy all along, and now I just wanted to live like one.”
Many parents hear their trans or gender nonconforming kids tell their truth, and they recoil, or deny, instead of listening. My son’s courage taught me to not only listen, but also to learn about what it takes to be brave enough to be seen as who one truly is.
As parents, we often push our kids. Sometimes it’s for top-of-the-class grades, or to excel in sports or the arts. We then behave as if their accomplishments are ordinary –– even assumed –– when they succeed. Neither makes sense to me. I didn’t push Evie to be an advocate, nor do I pretend to be modest. Instead, I revel in his bravery. When I joined him in his truth, it was an opportunity for me to be visible in my truth, as well: a mother who’s love for her son allows her to learn from his courage.
One year, for the local pride parade, my son tied a transgender flag around his shoulders, letting it float behind him like a cape. It was a steamy day in June. The year he wore his cape it was so hot that I watched from an air-conditioned bar, waving as he walked by, his pink, blue and white striped flag buoyant, visible in a sea of superheroes.
Sarah Priestman is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the Hudson Review, Entropy, and The Washingtonian, was noted in America’s Best Essays, and has been honored with the DC Award for Literary Nonfiction and the Barry Lopez prize for Creative Nonfiction. She recently completed the Camino de Santiago in Spain and is planning to walk the Camino in Portugal this spring.