Updated: Jul 29, 2021
By Gretchen Rath
There is absolutely no way to prepare yourself to hear the words, “Mom, I’m transgender”. When I heard (or actually read) those words I had been openly and actively accepting of the LGBTQ+ community for a number of years. I was the “cool aunt” who my niece came out to before anyone else in the family. I was the mom who hosted and accepted my children’s friends, lending my accepting ear and reassuring words.
But in 2013, when Ryen told me that he was transgender I had no idea what being transgender was, and even less understanding about where to begin with raising a trans son. While my first words were, of course, that I loved him and supported him – after that, I feel I failed him. And although I’m sorry to say that my memory is not that good, to this day he can tell you exactly what I said. But I know that I did not speak what he needed to hear and that it hurt him.
The problem was not that I didn’t want him to be his true self. In fact, the problem was that I DID want him to be able to live as the person he felt he was inside. I wanted what every mother wants, for him to be happy. Yet I had no idea how I could help him with that. As a single mom with very limited income and no community of support (including from his father), what he was telling me about sounded foreign and quite expensive. And so I panicked. I told him that I just couldn’t imagine how we could possibly make any kind of transition happen…and that he might just have to “live with things as they were”. I will always regret those unhelpful words spoken out of sheer frustration and fear.
I am amazingly lucky to have two wonderful and understanding children. Ryen’s older sister, Megan, is also LGBTQ+. Since Ryen has come out, they have each graciously taught me everything I needed to know and shown unprecedented patience for the older generation (me). You cannot go into this with the attitude that you are the parent and therefore know more than your child. Remember, this may be new and shocking news to you, but your child has been grappling with figuring this out for a good chunk of their life. At the point that he came to me, my son had been using the internet for most of a year to research everything he could about being transgender. Eventually he realized that he had memories from when he was three or four years of age which indicated he didn’t feel right in his assigned gender. Most times, a parent can be assured that plenty of thought has been put into their child’s coming out statement. Try to keep that in mind and respect their brave choice to share with you their vulnerable thoughts and feelings.
The details of our family’s journey are similar to those of many others who are trying to navigate transgender care for minor children. At the time that we started, finding doctors, therapists and other support often felt tricky and overwhelming. Remember that communication is key! There was a point when we realized that I was waiting for my son to make the next move – all while he was waiting for me to make the next move. Once we realized that, we worked out a timeline to better keep things on track. There is a lot of waiting involved in getting hormones, name changes and surgery. The feeling that the process wasn’t going fast enough brought on dysphoria for my son. Having a written timeline helped us focus on goals and gave him deadlines for each new milestone. Now my son has transitioned and is living as his true self, which, like any twenty-something, is ever-evolving.
I know many parents who find it very difficult to find their own place after their child has come out. We are often not ourselves a member of the LGBTQ+ community that our child identifies with and sometimes we have lost connections from our lives before. I still find myself struggling with feelings of isolation from family and those around me.
I am openly proud of both of my LGBTQ+ children. They are who I live for. During the first year or so of Ryen’s transition I was often told about what a great mom I was or how this must be so hard on me. People complimented me on how I was handling his transition so well. Those comments bothered me because it seemed that, in our world, the opposite reaction is what is so expected; and just loving my kid was considered something above and beyond. I felt I needed to keep a wall up, preparing for hurtful comments from well-intentioned but often misguided people. I thank God for my association with Mama Dragons, which allows me a healing and freeing space where I can drop that wall and just be. We all deserve a place where we don’t have to hide that part of ourselves. A place where we can do what we all know is most important – to just love our kids.