As I peruse the cultural heartbeat of this moment, I notice that people seem to be gaining clarity about their sexual orientation and gender expression—coming out as gay, lesbian, non-binary, transgender, bisexual, pansexual, even asexual—all at a much earlier age.
Television and film have embraced this evolution. I just finished watching the fifth season of “Billions,” in which my favorite character is the quirky, kick-ass Taylor Mason who is non-binary, both on the show and in real life. “The L Word” is a popular Showtime series about lesbian and bisexual women, now in its sixth season. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has won an Emmy for Best Competition Program five years running. And I just watched a delightful musical/drama (“Everybody’s Talking About Jamie”) about a British teen whose dream is to become a famous drag queen.
I have considered myself an ally of the LGBTQIA+ community for many years. I am an elder, cisgender, straight woman.
As this evolution has been unfolding, I, like many of us, have had to orient to the terminology—asexual, bisexual, cisgender, gay, gender binary, gender dysphoria, gender expansive, gender fluid, gender non-conforming, lesbian, LGBTQ, non-binary, queer, and transgender.
I don’t want to spend all my time defining these. You can google them. I want to focus on one of these terms because it has become very important to me—gender-expansive, and I will give you the definition of this one:
“A person with a wider, more flexible range of gender identity and/or expression than typically associated with the binary gender system. Often used as an umbrella term when referring to young people still exploring the possibilities of their gender expression and/or gender identity.”
And this describes my 12-year-old grandson, Henry.
Henry was born Ginny. Virginia to be more specific. Before I tell you about Henry, I want to tell you about my daughter, Kelly—Henry’s mom.
Kelly is the mother I want to be when I grow up. She just kind of knows how to be a kick-ass, awesome mom to her kids—encouraging them, celebrating them, advocating for them, and defending them when needed. She and I are close, and, though she moved several states away, we have a video chat habit that keeps us engaged in one another’s lives. On one of our calls, she said to me, “Ginny told me she has a crush on Sophie (name changed to keep this anonymous).”
Kelly said back to her, “Tell me about all the things you like about Sophie.” She didn’t question the fact that her crush was on another girl, just, tell me what attracts you to this girl. No making her wrong. No guilt. No trying to talk her out of it. Just curiosity and support.
This open-ended support allowed Ginny to explore the feelings around her crush and to come to the conclusion that she was bisexual.
Ginny is a student at SCAPA—School for the Creative and Performing Arts—in Lexington, Kentucky. Her teachers, the school staff, and her peers tend to be more liberal thinking than the general population of Kentucky. This gave Ginny even more of a network of support to explore her own unique place on this planet.
Her sense of style evolved. She cut her hair short, then shorter, and still shorter. Her dress became androgynous, then more masculine.
About five months after Ginny’s coming out, Kelly “scheduled” a phone chat with my husband and me. “I have an important family matter to talk with you about,” she said.
On our phone date, Kelly told us the news.
Ginny is transgender. His pronouns will be he/him. Had Ginny been a boy at birth, my daughter’s planned name was Henry. When Ginny heard this story, he decided to embrace that name—Henry.
From the time Henry entered school, as Ginny, at age five, his teachers have echoed similar feedback about him.
“Such an awesome kid.” “I wish I had a dozen Ginnys in my classroom.” “She’s very intelligent, but her best qualities are her big heart and her generous personality.” Now that he is expressing as Henry, none of this has changed. He’s still the awesome, confident, openhearted kid he has always been.
As we talked in more depth about this, here are some deeper insights our daughter, Kelly, gave us:
I’ve always said, “I had a boy, a girl and then I had Ginny.”
From very early on, Ginny was not typical in her gender identification. She was more physical than my boy ever was, and as soon as she could express herself, she asked for boy clothes. This wish was granted and she wore boy clothes exclusively for a long time. It was maybe third grade when she started mixing it up by adding in some more feminine things. From then on, she clearly had her own unique style.
As Ginny started into puberty, I would have been surprised if this child was ever heterosexual. I knew she had crushes on boys and has an ever-lasting obsession with Robert Downey Jr., but I was not surprised when she told me of her first girl crush.
As a parent, I had always hoped to create an environment in which, if my child were gay, or anything other than cisgender, they could just bring their crush home. I had hoped “coming out” would not be a thing in my home.
About six months after her “girl crush,” Ginny met me in the door of the kitchen and said, “I think I am trans.” I said something like, “Cool, I gotta make dinner.” But inside, this hurt. This scared me. This made me very nervous.
Being gay or bisexual is hard enough, but being trans? This was too much.
Here was the problem: my child’s life just became extremely more difficult and who wants that for their kid?
Dinner let me process a bit, and after dinner, I sat her down and told her of my unending love, support and admiration for her. I assured my child that nothing could ever lessen or change my love for her. We talked of pronouns and names and how the hell she, now he, would tell his very religious dad.
The very next day, he asked for a binder. I didn’t know what this was, so I googled, and more than finding out about binders, I was inundated with the fact that transgender children are more likely to kill themselves.
I was horrified. I realized then and there that support from me could literally mean life or death to my child. At this point, all hesitation left me and I became totally on board with whatever my kid was going through and what he would finally become.
One day, he came to me and said, “Now that I am trans, does that mean I can’t wear makeup?” This kind of threw me a bit, but I looked at him and said, “You, my son, get to do whatever the hell you want to do. YOU get to make the rules for you.”
Henry has taught me how crazy all our “rules” are. The fact that people have to come out is because of “rules.” I live for a time of no rules, where kids don’t have to be afraid to tell their parents who they are in love with or if they feel more masculine than feminine. I want them to just be, and know they will be loved.
Henry is, and will always be, one of my favorite people. We have conversations, almost daily, about what he is going through. He sees a therapist bi-weekly to guide him. We talk about him coming to terms with the body he has now, until he can change that. We have solved the binder issue for now, using sports bras currently, and thankful that his genetic line means he won’t have big breasts.
Henry knows and feels my unconditional love.
Did I want this? No. Did this surprise me? No. As a 12-year-old, this is an evolving situation, but all studies show that in Henry’s situation, he will, in fact, become a man someday. Although all feels normal and good now, the thought of him actually being a man feels odd.
I now completely and totally think of him as my son. Henry is a transgender boy and pansexual. If you knew Henry and how sweet and loving he is, the fact that he can love anyone wouldn’t surprise you. I do not mourn Ginny. I do not miss my daughter or what I thought her life would be like. That person is still there, just as Henry was always there too. He is my hero, and I am so proud to be his mama.
Navigating the landscape of being born a girl and realizing you’re a boy is a daunting thing to think about. How does one come to terms with the fact that they were born into the wrong body? And where’s the neat little map to follow that will guide that person toward feeling truly himself—feeling whole and complete?
A grandma worries about these things. This precious child, whom I’ve loved as Ginny for 12 years, is now telling us he is Henry. Still the same amazing kid, but something intrinsic is vastly different. How do I wrap my head around this when I live so many miles away that I can’t even wrap my arms around him?
I know about the kids who come out as gay and are discarded by their families, made to feel guilty, even sinful. I have friends who have been so repressed about their sexual orientation that they haven’t come out until they were well into adulthood. Studies show that trans teens are in danger of suicidal ideation, likely resulting from disproportionate amounts of psychosocial stress.
As I learn about these perils, I feel doubly grateful that Henry has a family, and a community, of supportive adults and peers.
This whole thing is messy. It’s far from perfect, and it is evolving, but I must trust that Henry will figure it all out. I know my daughter, and I’m confident she will research the hell out of it and do all she can to be supportive and informative. She will help Henry move into his new reality, and God help anyone who tries to victimize Henry. Kelly will kick the sh*t out of them. That’s a fact!
During our last phone chat, Kelly told me a “back to school” story about Henry.
All of his teachers were informed of his transition so that there would be no first day awkwardness, but one teacher was a sub and hadn’t been brought up to speed. When roll was called and the teacher called for “Virginia,” Henry quickly said, with a smile, “I haven’t gone by that name for a long time—you can call me Henry.”
Something tells me he’s going to be just fine.
Resources for supporting transgender teens:
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