I seemed like a supportive mom, but I let my trans son down

I seemed like a supportive mom, but I let my trans son down

  • US News
  • March 19, 2023
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“I’m transgender. I’m supposed to be a boy. I chose Oliver as my new name.”

There was nothing my 12 year old could have said that shocked me more.

I couldn’t get my mouth to form words but my heart broke watching this beautiful blue eyed blond haired child curled up on the opposite corner of the couch, clutching a pillow for his life as if he wanted to for me provide some protection from my reply.

But why? I had recently come out as a lesbian and his older brother had identified as gendered for a while so he couldn’t believe I would reject him after all?

“Of course I support you,” I said. And I meant it.

But I felt like I’d support him on my terms. I suspected this was a trending move and didn’t really think it would last. I would have known. I would have seen something. I hugged him and added, “I want you to know if you change your mind, it’s okay and you don’t have to decide anything right now.”

I tried hard to understand that. He had recently hit puberty and loathed it, hiding all evidence and resenting every attempt I made to celebrate. Any conversations were quickly ended and I put it down to him being more reserved than his sisters. Maybe this new hormone surge was just miserable?

I racked my brains for any further evidence that this new revelation was indeed real. Transgender children I knew showed early signs of shunning traditional gender expectations, with protests emerging as early as 4 or 5 years of age. We didn’t have any of that. What if my teen’s refusal to embrace femininity was because our small town didn’t offer enough versions of femininity for him to see himself in? What if my child wasn’t transgender and I was just a bad feminist role model?

The truth is that while many trans children may feel that their gender doesn’t match the gender they were originally assigned at birth, others may find that they feel “different” when they are closer to the gender puberty and possibly end up keeping it a secret for years. Years of living in a body that doesn’t feel right.

I scoured thrift stores and stocked a closet with boxers and “boy clothes” in a dozen shades of blue and stuffed a trash bag with now-disapproved clothes in my closet. Just in case, I told myself. I masculinized his bedroom, met with teachers, principals and school counselors.

His new name seemed strange to me. I had loved his now-dropped name, and I longed to love that new word, to associate it with the person my son had become. I never had a son. How to raise a son, I worried. I filled notebooks with streams of letters arranged in new ways. I kept running my pen over the curves and loops of his new name, running my finger over the ink and forcing him to become familiar.

I sat on the couch with the hamper and spent hours folding his laundry and saying, “That’s Oliver’s sock,” over and over again. He likes the color blue. That’s his orange sweater.” I was ready to stamp his new name on my tongue, my brain, my heart.

There was a “jar of name” on the counter and I taxed myself $1 every time I screwed up. A blue plastic spray bottle filled with water popped up and he squirted me like a naughty cat if I mispronounced myself. These were light-hearted reminders of getting it right—and I wanted it—but sometimes late at night I would selfishly whisper his old name to myself. I missed it, but the sound of it now felt like yet another betrayal of this beautiful son who I desperately wanted to feel loved and accepted.

I offered this two-handed acceptance for months. It must have felt like an eternity. He would see me show up at school and take him to the barber, but at the same time he would hear, “It’s okay if you change your mind. You don’t have to decide now. Nobody will judge you.” Or also: “We don’t go to the doctor and don’t make any permanent changes. You can do that when you turn 18.”

He wobbled on this tightrope of my ambivalence. On the one hand, I was very protective and publicly stood up for him. On the other hand, I desperately hoped that he would change his mind – that it was a phase – because I had imagined life to be difficult for transgender people. Lonely. Life is brutal enough without… that, I thought. We had recently lost almost everything in a house fire in the midst of a divorce. Could this little town that showered us with kindness in the ashes be trusted to show up here too?

After a few months, Oliver expressed an interest in going to the Gender Health Clinic at our local Children’s Hospital. I agreed – just to see what they could 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 that even as a nurse, I hadn’t researched what healthcare options were available. I lumped them all together, naively assuming that our only options were irreversible surgery and hormones that would render him unable to have children.

Little did I know that puberty blockers – gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) agonists – are the first line of defense for young transgender patients. They block the brain from releasing key hormones involved in sexual maturation. The effects of these blockers are reversible, and they have been prescribed to adolescents for decades for other hormonal conditions with no ill effects.

The advantage? It simply puts puberty on hold, giving the young person time to seek counseling, social change, and live as their authentic self without fighting their body’s ticking clock. Some children stay on them for several years. For Oliver, who was already hitting puberty, the puberty blockers would buy him – us – some more time before the decision would have to be made to start hormone treatments like testosterone.

I explained to a friend who is also a mother to a transgender son that I would not agree to anything that would affect his potential to have children. “I’ll draw the line there,” I said. Hormone replacement therapy carried that risk, and I wasn’t willing to take that risk with a then 14-year-old. What did I know at 14 about the life I wanted?

“There are many ways to start a family,” my friend said. “But he has to be alive for that.”

Forty percent of transgender people attempt suicide. Fourty. It’s almost as bad as tossing a coin.

What would you do to evaluate this coin toss in favor of your child?

My friend knew what I didn’t—that gender-affirming healthcare is both diversified and personalized, and evidence-based and developmentally appropriate. It includes a team of social workers, therapists, child specialists, endocrinologists, psychologists and pharmacists. Transgender teens who take hormone blockers show improvements in overall mental health and functioning and a decrease in depression after blocker use. Do you know what happens when depression decreases in young people?

They are more likely to stay alive.

A 2019 study of transgender teens found that 21 of the 47 trans teens surveyed had had suicidal thoughts before starting hormone therapy. After treatment, that number dropped to six. Two years later, another study found that gender-affirming hormone therapy was significantly associated with lower rates of depression, suicidal thoughts, and attempted suicide in transgender and nonbinary youth.

Nobody distributes hormones like candy. The number of hurdles Oliver had to jump through to get medical care would be ridiculous if it weren’t for actual health care we were talking about. He had to prove himself over and over again – with forms and letters and time and therapists – before each new layer of care could be added.

It’s been six years and my son has come of age and is living his authentic self in a way that never ceases to amaze me. The blond, blue-eyed son who once crouched in the corner of the couch now radiates joy from his being. He is at home in the world, creating art and laughter, tender friendships and stubborn hope. Life has been tough, but it’s also beautiful and he’s here.

He never wavered in his truth. After five years, less than 5% of gender-nonconforming adolescents will return to their birth-assigned gender.

Looking back, there were a dozen signs of gender dysphoria prior to Oliver’s announcement, but I had overlooked them. He forgave my stumbling, although it was years before he told me how it affected his journey. My initial reluctance had silenced him, made him reluctant to ask for what he needed, choosing to deprive himself rather than risk even a hint of rejection. He’s finally got the radical acceptance he needed and deserved.

I figured my reluctance to seek medical attention for my son would protect him. Instead, that medical care likely saved his life.

Angie BestEgler is a writer, clinical psychiatric nurse instructor, and mother of four. You can find her on Instagram at @angiebestegler_.

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