January 16, 2017

We don't even know if he's straight yet

"We don't even know if he's straight yet."

This is what a friend whispered to me the day my first child was born, back in 1996. Our baby Ethan wasn't even 24 hours old, and his doting grandma had just suggested that he might grow up to marry a friend's newborn baby girl. At the time, I rolled my eyes at grandma but bristled at my friend's response. First-time dads can barely figure out which way to tape on a diaper; this "friend" could keep her insinuations to herself.

Twenty years later, I now think that every doctor should say that same phrase to every newborn's parents. Maybe not immediately after recording the Apgar, but at least once before they leave the hospital with their tiny squirmy poop machine.

Why? Because it reminds new parents that even the most "obvious" assumptions about our children could easily turn out to be wrong. Through the years, I've remembered that whisper and used it to check my expectations. My son doesn't like soccer? I'll get over it. My son has one weak eye and needs an eye patch for a while? He'll be fine. My son wants to join the military? Well... all right, I guess I'll get over that, too.

As for being straight, well... Ethan did in fact grow up to like girls.

He also grew up to become a creative, smart, artistic young woman named Emma. Emma came out to us as a trans girl about a year ago, and although the physical transformation will take a while yet, in our hearts and minds she is fully Emma. Medical records, tax returns, and job applications still say Ethan, but those will be corrected in time.

The people I've told about this, they praise me for being supportive and accepting. They tell me it must be hard for a parent to go through such a thing. And I can testify they're right. It is hard. It's hard to watch your child suffer with the choice of living in the wrong body, or living with prejudice and discrimination. It's hard to visit your child in a lock-down psych unit because depression drove them to the verge of suicide. It's hard to take 20 years of habits and expectations, and turn them inside out. But it has never been hard to love Emma, or to feel proud of her. Those are and will always be easy for me.

"We don't even know if he's straight yet."

That one sentence, whispered 20 years ago, may have been the preparation I needed as a parent to understand that my assumptions and expectations will not always be right, even when they seem obvious. Like "It's a boy."

Last week I introduced myself to a delightful young trans woman, a barista at one of my semi-regular coffee shops. She began transitioning a few months ago. I simply wanted to say hello and offer a few words of support. I'm glad I did; we only had a few minutes to chat, but she's very sweet. Unfortunately, her parents weren't able to accept who she is. Instead of realizing their assumptions about her were wrong, they reacted as if she had broken their trust.

If only the doctor had told them, "We don't even know if he's straight yet," they might have been better equipped to understand that her transition has nothing to do with them. Of course it makes them uncomfortable, but their discomfort is irrelevant. Their discomfort simply represents the gap between their expectations and reality. Reality doesn't change just because you wish things were different. But expectations can be changed.

Believe me, it's damned hard to discard assumptions you've carried for 20 years. If you accept that those assumptions were wrong to begin with, however, it becomes possible.

We are all just stumbling through life, figuring it out as we go. I don't know the right way to be the father of a trans woman. Twenty years ago, I didn't know the right way to be a father. All I really know is that it involves love and patience and acceptance. And I think I can manage that, especially for my own child.

This blog post is my first public reference to Emma's transition. Some of you who have known Ethan may be shocked and unsure how to respond. That's okay. No response is necessary. If you feel a need to say something, comment or DM or email or call. It's all good.