The Plate-Spinning Act of Being a Transgender Parent

Stephanie and her son, Andrew. (Photo: Courtesy Stephanie Battaglino)

A little more than week has passed since Bruce Jenner’s “coming out” interview with Diane Sawyer, which was seen by nearly 17 million viewers. To many of us in the transgender and gender non-conforming community, the interview has come to be viewed as a watershed event of sorts, primarily because it has prompted a conversation about transgender people in all corners of the country. People who may not have previously been interested in transgender issues are now discussing them, whether around the water cooler in the office (do they actually still make water coolers?) or as a part of dinner time conversations at home. I’m making the assumption here that families still do, on occasion, actually share dinner together. Regardless of where they are happening, the fact remains, that they are happening — in greater numbers, perhaps, than ever before.

Venues aside, it’s clear that these conversations are contributing to the national narrative and shedding further light on the larger issues of workplace discrimination, homelessness and suicide that continue to plague large segments of the transgender and gender non-conforming community – and that’s a good thing.

Getting back to Bruce Jenner’s interview, on which I was proud to serve as a consultant, I was happy to see that the human side of Bruce’s struggle with his gender identity was captured in a non-sensationalistic way. Frankly, I had grown quite tired of all the tabloid headlines and the far-too-intrusive photos that accompanied them. It was time for an honest portrayal of what Bruce has been dealing with, and I was heartened to see that Diane Sawyer and her entire production team wanted to accomplish the same thing.

What struck me about Bruce’s story, which parallels mine to a large degree — well, except for the world-class Olympic athlete part — is that, just like all of us, Bruce wears many hats in his life. Or, as I like to refer to it, as an homage to The Ed Sullivan Show, we are plate spinners. You see, when you reach the point in life when you can no longer hide from your true self — your true gender identity — and transition, everyone transitions with you: your family, your friends, your colleagues at work, the mail carrier, the woman at the Dunkin’ Donuts that you get your coffee from each morning — and for those of us who are parents, the most important one of all: our children. Each person represents a plate that you have to be mindful of to one degree or another so that it does not come crashing to the ground.

To be sure, Bruce has his own plates that he has keep in the air: his role as a celebrity, a reality television star — and the one that came through so very poignantly on the show — a parent. And that’s the plate that Bruce and I have in common.

Which brings me to Mother’s Day. Honestly, it’s a weird day for me, for a lot of reasons. But I guess the most obvious one is that I am not my son’s mother. Never have been. Never will be. My son and I have encountered many people on our journey together who, in an effort to be kind, or because they had no idea about my history, would refer to me as his mom. But we always approach that as “well, they’re not in on it . . .” I take the same tactic when we are together at the grocery store and I advise him not to shout “Hey Dad!” across the store — this tends to confuse people around us. And that works for us.

From the very beginning, I have never attempted — not for a nanosecond — to get my son to think of me as his “second mother.” Just think about that for a moment: how incredibly confusing and potentially damaging that could have been for a 10-year old mind to attempt to process! To say nothing of how selfish that would have been of me. What I essentially told him was the following: “I am not your mother, I did not give birth to you. I’m your Dad, and always will be. Sure, I might look a bit different, but that doesn’t change the fact that I love you and will always be there for you.”

I went on to point out that I wouldn’t suddenly forget how to throw a baseball or a football, I would still love going to baseball games with him and would yell at the television like a maniac every time my beloved New York Giants would make a bonehead play, which of late has been much too frequent . . .  but I digress.

At that point in time, he needed to hear that. He needed to know that he was not losing his father. He needed to know that outwardly I might look different, but that inside I was still the same when it came to my parental responsibilities. I would still make sure he had whatever he needed growing up to realize his dreams, whatever they may be.

Oh, and lest I forget that I am happy. Happier than I had ever been in my life. And you know what? My son got it. Why? Because he saw first hand in how my demeanor changed. A couple of years after I transitioned he even told me so. He said that before I transitioned, I was miserable and seemed mad all the time. Go figure. I will admit to being a bit surprised by that revelation because I had always thought I hid that very well. Guess not . . . .

Make no mistake, we certainly faced challenges as I moved forward with my transition. I was “freak show dad” for a while, but somehow we made it through because we kept working at it. I kept working at it by doing the hardest thing a trans person who is in the throes of transitioning can do: slow down and put my son’s needs before my own. As Neil Young once said when introducing Stephen Stills, “. . . we’ve had our ups and downs, but we’re still playing together.”

Today, as a 20-year-old young man who is finishing up his junior year of college, I can say only one thing about my son: He is my hero. He is laying the foundation for the rest of his life on his own terms, guided (I hope) by the values that his mother and I have instilled in him. As a parent, I have embraced the fact that, as we transition (there’s that word again) from the active parenting phase of child rearing to a more “consultative” phase (which, I hasten to add, still includes a large dose of financial obligation!), we have to let them go.

Our kids need to find their own way and create their own individual reality. As parents we can take great solace in the notion that we’ve done all that we can to enable them to embrace their dreams and face their future with determination and, I hasten to add, a zest for all that life has to offer.

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