How my Daughter Became my Son

A mother sees her child through gender reassignment surgery

In retrospect, I have no idea why I was drawn to buy and devour Amy Bloom’s beautiful collection of short stories, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You. Not only did I buy it; but I also sent E. a copy at school, telling her how wonderful it was. This was several years before my child announced she was transgender.

The very first story in the book is about a mother accompanying her child for sexual reassignment surgery. That story still brings tears to my eyes because it’s all about the power of unconditional love for our children.

E. started the conversation about being transgender by leaving her copy of the very same book on my bed with a Post-It saying, “This is about me, except for the bottom surgery. We need to talk.”

Truth be told, I had been dreading this announcement for about two years. Historically, E. had communicated things about herself, and her life, by talking about people other than herself. I imagine it was a way of seeing how I reacted before she spilled the real beans all over the floor.

When E. finally told me about her decision, she’d been doing research for a long time and came to me with a plan in place. This plan included taking off her fall semester to visit friends studying overseas. She had already selected a surgeon for her “top” surgery and had a January appointment tentatively booked at a hospital outside of Chicago. She also informed me that I was not coming along on the surgery trip — a very wise move on my wise kid’s part. A wonderful friend was going with her and that was that.

We were very lucky to have that summer pretty much to ourselves. I asked all the questions other mothers ask, especially, “Why can’t you just be a butch lesbian and forget all this medical stuff?” She explained that gender wasn’t the same as sexual orientation: gender is about who you know you are and orientation is about the people you’re attracted to. I listened and didn’t quite understand, but I made like I did and headed for the Internet. I was calm, in fact, I was so calm that she kept telling me I had to find a shrink because I couldn’t possibly be so OK.

But actually, the more I read, and the more people I reached out to, the better I felt. Suddenly her past behavior started to make sense. My very smart kid had been having a hard time at school, had been experiencing insomnia, and had been put on mood-stabilizing medication. It was frightening for me to see my formerly focused, outgoing child hide in her bedroom and become more sullen as the days passed. I was the mommy and here was something I couldn’t fix — the ultimate failure for a Jewish mother. Could this be what that was all about? Was this the reason she would occasionally tell me she was “different” from other people in our family while she was growing up, but would never explain why? And, was this why she had come to me at least three times when she was much younger to ask if she could change her name, and the new, proposed names were all gender-neutral, like Pat, Lee, or Ricky? Who would have ever guessed that these were attempts to tell me that she was, in her brain and heart, my son and not my daughter? At the time, it was too far off my radar to even be considered as a possibility.

She told me about the TransKidsFamily website and I joined. Dave Parker, bless his heart, a member of the listserv and then President of PFLAG-TNET (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays-Transgender Network) introduced me to the woman who was the NYC Trans-Coordinator, and we spoke on the phone. She was terrific, and sane, and “normal,” which was extremely comforting. I devoured information from any source I could find. I read Jamison Green’s terrific book, Becoming a Visible Man, and his handsome author photo became my psychic friend.

Looming ahead were the hardest days I was to experience: E.’s time abroad traveling though Europe. Here she was, heading for a trip where she would be going through airport security many times, looking very much like a young man. I was almost brought to my knees with terror in those post-9/11 days, when having proper identification was the watchword of everyone’s faith. Would she get pulled out of line and interrogated?

Humiliated? God forbid, strip-searched?

These were the days I didn’t sleep every time I knew she was flying from one city to another. And in the end what happened was… nothing. She was always treated properly and no differently than anyone else. With all the awful stories we hear about gay bashings, and with Matthew Shepard still fresh in the minds of the gay community and their allies, my relief when E. came home was overwhelming.

As that fall drew to an end, there was a consultation with the surgeon on the calendar, which was combined with a trip to visit friends at school. E. came home with very positive feelings about the surgeon and his staff and excited about the surgery. When that date finally arrived, I sat by the phone all day, thinking about every cut, scrape, and bloody injury that my child had ever suffered. I was unable to bear the thought that someone was removing parts of her body, and afraid that she would be in pain and suffer. And so it came as a welcome surprise when we spoke that night, and through a slightly medicated haze she said to me, “I feel great, and thank God they’re gone!” It was an important turning point for both of us.

The surgery healed well and quickly, and three months later testosterone injections began. We filed for a legal name change for E. at the urging of an attorney friend who said he would step in if we needed him. We didn’t. With each new, corrected piece of identification, I rejoiced because I felt my kid was becoming safer and safer in a strange world full of uncharted territory.

The great disappointment was (and continues to be) that we couldn’t get a corrected New York City birth certificate. The city had been on the verge of changing its guidelines for transgender people, then backed off at the very last moment — a fight that continues to be waged. And the most exciting moment came when a new U.S. passport arrived by Priority Mail, with his new, legal name, indicating that E. was male.

Unlike many parents who, with good reason, mourn the loss of a son or daughter when they transition, I’ve never been to that place. There was a brief time when I felt like my child was slipping away from me, going through something I didn’t understand and couldn’t help with. That was terrifying. But I remember the first time someone asked me if I had children and I was able to answer, “Yes, I have two wonderful sons.” How very special that felt!

And so, E., who had become a “he” along the way, causing us to grapple with the dreaded pronoun problem, graduated from college with his correct name on his diploma, and with his extended posse of friends fully intact. He stayed with the terrific young woman he’d met in college (when it looked like they were both lesbians) and then got a job as a high school teacher. They were married last summer in a wedding so filled with joy that you can feel the happiness pouring out of the photos.

I believe that transgender people suffer from something akin to a birth defect (although I don’t like the word “defect”), and we made a correction. As with many transgender kids, once the corrections are even begun, the depression and other emotional problems start to disappear. I didn’t lose my daughter; I got back my smart, resourceful, and caring child, in a very slightly altered form. I couldn’t be more grateful.

Judy Sennesh, mother of two wonderful sons and their wives, facilitates support groups for PFLAG NYC, one of which is for parents with transgender children.

Excerpted from “A Blessing in Disguise” by Judy Sennesh, in Transitions of the Heart, edited by Rachel Pepper. Reprinted courtesy of Cleis Press.


Casual Coming-Out Comments
by Catherine Tuerk

People often ask, “Why do I have to tell people that I have a gay child?” My answer: Most people assume that everyone is straight, and that all our children are straight. It is up to us to help set everyone “straight.”

How does a parent come out to acquaintances and the world in general? It doesn’t have to be high drama. All you need is a Casual Coming-Out Comment. Often, in response, people will share a story about someone they love who is gay. Casual comments help them begin to come out. The payoff is great! Contrary to popular opinion, it IS everyone’s business that families include gay people. Only when gay people can be safe and have full equality will it no longer be everyone’s business.

Here are some ideas for things you can say if you have a gay son or daughter.

Question: How’s your daughter?
Casual coming-out comment: Well, you know our daughter is gay and for the first time in her life she is truly happy.

Question: How was your weekend?
Casual coming-out comment: We went to Rehoboth. It’s such a great place. It’s especially nice because it is so welcoming to gay people. And when you have a gay son like we do, you appreciate such things.

Question: How did you like the election outcome?
Casual coming-out comment: I’m glad Ms. X won. Our daughter is a lesbian, and Ms. X seems to support the rights of all people.

Question: How was your vacation?
Casual coming-out comment: It was wonderful. We went overseas, and since we have a gay son, it is always interesting to see how gays are treated in other cultures.

Question: What are you doing these days?
Casual coming-out comment: Well, in addition to my psycho-therapy work, we belong to a wonderful organization called PFLAG, which stand for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbian and Gays. It’s a great organization where we learn how to support our daughter and advocate for the gay community.

Question: That’s an interesting button: “Homophobia Hurts Families.”
Casual coming-out comment: Thank you. We have a gay son, and my husband and I hope that the next generation of young gay people will have it easier if we can help eradicate homophobia.

Question: Why do you have a pink triangle on your bank check?
Casual coming-out comment: I have a gay child and I want to support the gay community in any way I can.

Question: Why did you leave your synagogue?
Casual coming-out comment: When my son came out as gay, we needed to find an emotionally safe place that was fully affirming and welcoming for gay people and their families.

Adapted from Mom Knows: Reflections on Love, Gay Pride, and Taking Action by Catherine Tuerk (2012).