I’d been raised a girl, but knew I was really a boy. What I didn’t know was that the person I’d always called “Dad” was about to transition too. The same year I came out as Alexander, Dad came out as “Mom.”
I was driving my mom home, not yet knowing she was, in fact, a woman. I was talking for the millionth time about gender and gender dysphoria and about how shitty I felt training my friends to use my pronouns and name, teaching my school how to deal with transgender folks, etc. She nodded, offering advice on how to deal with the egregious misunderstandings of teachers and students at school. As she spoke, there was a small note of sadness in her cracking voice.
When we pulled into our driveway, I turned toward her. “I’m sorry if this is really inappropriate of me to ask, but have you ever … felt … this way? About gender?”
She looked me dead in the eyes. “I’m not gonna lie to you: I have.”
She told me about growing up, about when she was married to my biological mother and the strain being a trans woman put on her relationship with her unenthused heterosexual wife. She also recounted a familiar memory of mine from an angle I hadn’t considered — a time when she’d shaven her face clean. I was about 9 at the time and was used to her having a beard and, accordingly, made fun of her for not having one anymore. I told her she didn’t look right without it. She told me that was one of the moments that pushed her back into the closet. It was the closest she’d ever really come to trying to come out to me. I stared straight out of the windshield, seven years of guilt rushing up on me like a freight train.
I began to realize that, all these years, she’d been hiding who she was not only out of self-defense, but also because of how she was afraid I would react.
The first photo was of her up close, wearing a sensible blouse and a huge smile. The second was of her in a sweater dress and short heels, once again grinning at whoever was operating the camera, a long auburn wig gracing her shoulders. I was transfixed.
As she continued swiping through photos I touched a hand to my face, in awe of how beautiful my mother was when she was able to freely express herself. Happiness was something I hadn’t seen on her face in years. I felt as if I was witnessing something secret and sacred.
I asked her if my stepmother knew. She told me that she had known from the beginning of their relationship, and that she had even helped her pick out her name: Autumn. Autumn. She said that with a warm, relaxed smile, as if she was getting to stand up and stretch muscles that had been tight for years. I asked her what she would like me to call her: Mom, Autumn, Autumn-mom?
Somewhere in my chest, my heart broke a bit. I understood why she might make this decision: an established, higher-level job in factory work; the idea that only young people can transition smoothly; the fact that transgender women are murdered at alarmingly high rates. I knew this was a decision that was hers to make. But no matter the reasons, it still hurt to know that the happy spark I’d been so proud to see was going to be buried yet again.
I brought my parents to my first session with my new gender therapist. Pressing my knees together tightly, I explained my situation, my childhood, how I felt about my body. As my therapist spoke, I began to see something emerge in my mother’s consciousness as she was briefed on the process of gender transition. I spotted longing in her hazel eyes.
“Did you know that estrogen makes you crave salt, like, constantly?”
“Nah, but I know testosterone has me eating way more than I used to. I took home an entire pizza from work yesterday just for myself — as a snack.”
My mom’s problems were very different from my own. Sure, there were some that were comparable — weird hormone side effects, switching names, drama in the trans community — but by the time I was legally changing my name, she was just starting to come out to people. While I was ranting about callous people at parties, she was struggling with the dangers of coming out at her new job, being scared to walk home alone at night while presenting as female, and being told to “keep her transition to herself.” Our lives were very different.
As a teenager, I was exasperated at how long she was taking to transition. She was clearly miserable being anything other than who she really was; she was already starting to be read as female in public (she had been on hormones secretly for almost as long as I had been on them). Why not just get it over with?
What I didn’t realize then was that my smooth transition was built directly on the back of her rough one; she had suffered so that I wouldn’t have to. She’d been the one misgendered by the family, she’d been the one to make sure I would be safe, and she was the one who supported me when she felt she had little encouragement herself. She was the fierce support system for me that she never felt she had.
I’m now 20 and moved out. I have a decent beard and my chest is flat. My stepmother is pregnant, and my mother is happy. Watching her move about the kitchen with a glass of wine in hand, gender dysphoria was far from both our minds. Things had begun to fall into a sort of normalcy again — but this time, it was a normalcy we could both revel in.