I’m waiting alone for my food at an art museum café, when I feel a hand on my shoulder. It’s Linda, someone I’ve talked to at museum events for a decade. She’s in her mid-seventies and has spiky neon-red hair. She’s a fun personality, though she can be pushy and rude. “Kathleen. Mind if I join you?” she says, already pulling up a chair. She sets down her order number that’s clipped to a small holder.
“Katrin,” I remind her. She always gets my name wrong. “I’m glad for the company,” I say, and at that moment I am.
Linda and I quickly touch on the recent rainfall and a new restaurant that had opened in the neighborhood, before she hits me with a personal question. “Kathleen. You have a teenager who’s transgender. How is that working out?”
I tense. When did I ever discuss my son, Noah, with her? Mutual acquaintances in our city’s community of artists must have mentioned it. “Everyone in my family is doing great.”
“Is your child taking hormones?” Linda asks.
Why do people always feel they can ask that? I consider how to deflect her intrusive question when a server brings our tuna sandwiches. Linda rips open her bag of potato chips with a crackling sound, dumps the chips on her plate, and starts eating. I bite into a pickle. Is this conversation going to be sour, too?
“You know I’m a busybody, Kathleen,” she says. “I’m not going to make judgments. I’m just interested in learning. I don’t know any transgender people.”
Rather than take offense, I can see this as an opportunity to teach someone who genuinely wants to learn. My goal with Linda is to remain calm, steady, and self-assured, as I try to be with family, friends, neighbors, and school administrators when having the same conversation. Three years ago, when my daughter first became my son, I carried around an index card of rehearsed lines to use. The most difficult thing about having a transgender child is to advocate his needs to a general population that cannot understand our situation and, worse, criticizes my parenting.
We talk, drink our water, and eat our sandwiches and chips. I tell her about Noah’s episode of severe depression at age 13, and his subsequent recovery after he transitioned. I tell her about the measures we’ve taken for our son to feel good about himself: Noah receiving a hormone-blocker at 14 to stop his menstrual cycle, and how he began testosterone injections 2 years ago, at 15.
Our table, perpendicular to a glass wall, looks out to a long, rectangular pool lined with black tiles. Its foot-deep, still water reflects one of the museum’s outer walls, the leafless trees, and the gray sky. The serene view steadies me.
Linda’s nostrils quiver. “But aren’t these changes permanent? What if Noah should decide to be a girl again and want children?”
With one hand I massage my tight neck. “It’s very unlikely Noah will ever change his mind. Most trans people don’t,” I say. “I’ve gone to conferences and heard the world’s leading doctors in transgender care present the research findings. Once teens start on hormones, the odds are about 300 to 1 in favor of continuing.”
Then, without warning, the horrid “what if?” enters my mind like a fog. Worries start to envelop me. If Noah ever does revert to being female, he’ll still be hairy and have a deep voice. If he wants to become a biological parent, he may have trouble doing so. Will he blame me?
Like mercury in a barometer, my mood starts to drop. I’m entering a low-pressure system and can almost see the clouds rolling in. Rain is on the way. I shouldn’t have started with negative thinking.
“It’s hard to talk about some of this.” I eat the last of my potato chips and set down my negative thoughts with my empty bag.
“Did Noah have surgery? We don’t have to talk about it,” Linda says, “though I’m dying to ask.”
I take a long breath. Here we go again. Many people I hardly know ask me about my child’s genitals. It’s embarrassing. Several years ago when Noah socially transitioned, I’d overheard one of his 13-year-old friends ask, “Are you going to get a weenie?” I didn’t expect adults to regularly pose the same question about my son. It’s a huge invasion of privacy, not to mention rude.
I look into Linda’s prying eyes and wonder if I can hold steady. “Ask what?”
“What do the surgeons do?”
My left shoulder rises again. I consider what to say. Yes, Linda is tone-deaf, and aggravating, but I don’t detect a judgmental viewpoint. So, in an unemotional voice, I relate how a biological male can undergo “bottom surgery” in which the penis is transformed into a clitoris and vagina. As for biological females, I say, most don’t undergo “bottom surgery”; so far, science has not perfected a way to create an artificial penis, and the surgery takes multiple steps and leaves significant scarring. “The trans boys can have ‘top surgery,’ a double mastectomy. . . .”
I stop there, as I think of Noah on an operating table last summer, being put under, when a surgeon used liposuction to flatten his tiny breasts.
I turn away to look at the pool. The air almost feels electric. At any moment, it seems, objects may fly through the air: napkins, straw wrappers, an empty potato chip bag. In my imagination, a high wind rises. The table lifts and crashes through the glass wall.
Linda should have known better than to ask rude, personal questions. She should have minded her Ts and Es (testosterone and estrogen). Actually, I fault myself for allowing her to upset me.
“No more talking about this,” I say. I’m hunched over with my fingers spread spider-like over my eyes.
But wait. The table hasn’t moved. There isn’t a storm. I’m still sitting here at the art museum café. I look up. Linda’s bejeweled fingers reach out, clutch my own. “I understand,” she says.
“Do you?” I pull my hand from her grasp. “This is what people always tell me. I hear versions of it again and again. I understand. I have a cousin who’s gay. As if that fact was of any relevance.”
“Touché. Maybe I don’t understand,” Linda says. She inclines her head and frowns, as if the remark created a sadness in her. Her voice softens. “What do I know? I’ve never had children.”
For the first time today, I’m feeling for Linda. Clearly some of her rudeness covers her vulnerability. She’s let her guard down. I no longer feel on the defensive.
Linda’s theatrical mouth turns up at the corners. “I’m getting a mochaccino,” she announces. “What do you want? I’ll treat.”
“A chai latte. Thanks.”
I take a long breath and exhale. A natural disaster averted. Linda rises to get our drinks, puts her hand on my shoulder, and I feel her rings pressing into me. “You’re my hero.”
“I appreciate the compliment,” I say, nodding in her direction. “But it’s not how I see myself. Half the people out there think I’m a monster. They think that what I’m allowing is unnatural, immoral. The other half thinks I’ve achieved greatness. A hero. Neither is true. I’m just doing what I have to do, so my child can have a life.”
Linda goes to the counter. In my mind, I hear a distant rumbling of thunder. Then it’s gone. Not only has the sun come out, but now there’s a sense of expansion and peace. By the time Linda returns with a large slice of chocolate cake and two forks, I’m feeling a steady, more easygoing companionship with her.
I taste a mouthful of rich, bittersweet cake. The server comes with my chai latte, which is steaming and frothy and smells of cinnamon. I show Linda photos of my children on my iPhone. I’m boasting like any other mother now. “Noah is at the very top of his college-level biology class. He’s also taking college-level chemistry and calculus.”
“He’s so handsome!” Linda says.
I beam. We look at pictures of Noah hiking, laughing with friends, taking a big bite out of a gigantic pastry, posing in a car with his driver’s-education teacher. As we finish our conversation, Linda and I join together in a vision of my son radiantly happy and succeeding in whatever he wants to do in life.
She holds up her fork and gives me a mischievous look. “Kathleen, look at what you’ve done to your child. You’re a monster!”
At that, we share a laugh.
* * * * *
In Noah’s room, in addition to the usual teenage clutter, dirty socks, paperback fantasy novels, a half-eaten bag of chips, there are the accoutrements and necessary devices of the transgender life. Button-up straight-line shirts, Levi men’s slim-fit jeans, testosterone in a vial, disposable syringes and needles (18 G needles to draw up the T and 25 G injection needles), alcohol swabs, a milk carton that serves as a sharps container. All this has become the new normal.
He still, though to a lesser degree, grapples with depression, and I sometimes struggle with a need for approval from the outside world. We persevere. There’s a passage I like in The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo: “Imagine if birds only sang when heard. If musicians only played when approved of. If poets only spoke when understood.” Noah’s life work is to learn to be himself and find joy in the process. And it is both his task and mine to teach others not to judge and devalue us.
* * * * *
This essay marks the tenth and final piece in my series. I thank the editors of Literary Mama for skillfully helping me to shape my words and generously giving me this platform in which to speak. Thanks to you, dear readers, for sharing the journey with me.