As I sit and drink my coffee on this beautiful Mother's Day morning, I am thankful beyond words for my son and daughter, who have been the light of my life since they were born. I couldn't imagine life without them, and wouldn't trade the ups and downs of parenthood for anything. I also can't help but think about the impact they have had on the person I am today. Today, I can't help but think especially about how my son has taught me so much about what it means to be a mother. He came out to my husband and I as transgender about a year and a half ago. At the time, I knew we wanted to do everything I could to support him, but I could never have imagine how much he would do for me through this process. This morning, I want to share what he has taught me over the past year and a half.
My son has taught me:
What true courage is
I watched my son hold his head high as he came out as the first openly transgender student in our school district. I can't even imagine what that felt like. His teachers did a beautiful job of telling students (at his request), and for the most part, students were very supportive. When they weren't, I witnessed him speak up to peers who refused to accept him and stand his ground - as a freshman in high school. I don't know if I could have done that at his age, but I am guessing I would have been too scared. I have seen him correct adults, walk into places where he wasn't sure if people would accept him, deal with people when they stare or even make rude comments ("Is that a boy or a girl") I also see the fear and strength every time he faces his serious fear of needles to endure blood tests and Lupron injections, just so his body can begin to match his identity.
To see people for more than just their assumed gender
Our society is so fixated on gender - and specifically on the gender binary (the idea that there are two genders, male and female). Toy stores are a glaring example - the pink girls' section with all the dolls and pretend makeup and the blue boys' section with the trucks and dinosaurs. When someone has a baby, chances are the first question they are asked is, "Is it a boy or a girl?" Through my son, I have learned to see people as more than their gender, and not to assume a person's gender when I meet them or even based on the sex they are assigned at birth. I have learned just how hurtful that can be to a person by watching him be misgendered over and over. I have learned that there most certainly are more than two genders, and in fact, there is a long list - non-binary, agender, gender queer, gender fluid, and many more. My entire perspective has changed, and I am so thankful to him for that. I have become a better counselor, teacher and person thanks to this new knowledge.
Lots of new vocabulary
In addition to learning about gender, I have learned countless new vocabulary terms! AMAB, AFAB, Ace, Androsexual, Aro - and that's just the A's! When he came out, I made it my goal to learn as much as I could, and every time I learned a new word and told him, he got a huge smile on his face and said, "Mom! You're learning!" He was patient and would explain things I couldn't wrap my hear around until I was able to truly understand, and it made for some truly memorable conversations. I have been able to pass that knowledge on to others, and seen the ripple effect that this can have on a community.
That even with supportive parents, mental health struggles are common for LGBTQ+ kids, and especially kids who are transgender
I already knew this from statistics such as those put out by The Trevor Project last year. But I was hopeful that through being a supportive parent, my son would not experience the mental health struggles so common for these young people. However, the impact of society - mean kids in school, adults who don't, can't or won't "get it," parents at our own district's Board of Education meetings who fight against supports for LGBTQ+ kids in schools, lawmakers across the country targeting this vulnerable population and constantly questioning whether he will be safe and accepted in any situation - cannot be stressed enough. Even with a supportive family, extended family and friend group, my son struggles. It is heartbreaking to witness.
How to advocate for my son
I have learned that I need to be a voice for my son, and in doing so, I am a voice for other LGBTQ+ kids as well. Sending emails reminding teachers of the importance of using his pronouns, updating his name and gender marker on documents and advocating for a written policy to support LGBTQ+ students in our district are all part of that. But I have learned from watching my son that the most important thing we can do is to educate people. Much of the resistance and even hate levied towards our LGBTQ+ kids is borne out of ignorance, and by understanding that and being willing to be patient and consistent in our efforts to educate others and advocate for our LGBTQ+ kids, we as parents can make a difference. I admit that when he first came out, I didn't know how to respond in the moment when someone would misgender my son. If I am being completely honest, I didn't always do it at first because it made me so uncomfortable. But I asked him if he wanted me to, and he said he did. So I had to put that discomfort aside and be consistent for his sake. Now, I find it almost to be a fun game to see how quickly I can work his pronouns into any conversation or social situation, sometimes with emphasis, to inform them and set the tone, and I don't hesitate to correct them if they get it wrong.
We had laid the groundwork of unconditional love, and when our son came out to us, it was time to make good on that promise.
What unconditional love truly is
As parents, it is so important that our kids believe that we love them unconditionally. When my kids were little, I often told them, "I love you forever and always, no matter what." As they got older, they would challenge me with lots of serious, hypothetical situations - "What if I go to jail?" "What if I do drugs?" The answer was always, "I would still love you." We had laid the groundwork of unconditional love, and when my son came out to us, it was time to make good on that promise. It is usually so scary for kids to come out to their parents. The idea that the unconditional love they've been promised might have limits is nothing short of terrifying. Our answer, of course, was, "We love you, forever and always, no matter what."
There are so many more things I could add to this list, but my coffee mug is empty and it's time to go celebrate the day. I am thankful every day for the kind, smart, witty, talented and handsome young man who first made me a mother, and for my daughter, who is an accepting, loving girl and a fierce advocate for all those who are marginalized. I hope that if any parents are reading this shortly after their child has come out to them, this blog will help them see that conversation for what it truly is - a beautiful, intimate moment where your child is truly sharing their authentic self with you for the first time, and an opportunity to show them your unconditional love and acceptance. Happy Mother's Day to all of you beautiful, loving, strong, affirming moms out there. And thank you once more to my son, who has taught me so much about what it truly means to be a mother.
Rebecca Degnan, LPC, is the founder and owner of Prism Counseling and Support LLC in CT, supporting the LGBTQ+ community and their loved ones through individual, family and group counseling and professional development workshops for schools and businesses. More information at prismcounselingct.com.
The Trans Lifeline connects trans people to the community support and resources they need to survive and thrive. 877-565-8860