In January of 2015 I filed paperwork to become a city council candidate. About a week earlier, my child and I sat down and finally addressed something we had needed to talk about several months – if not years – earlier: he wasn’t the daughter I thought I had, but rather, he was my son. He wanted to be called new name and use male pronouns. He was only 6 years old.
Looking back on all of this, I honestly have to say that running for city council was way harder than navigating the social transition of a transgender 1st grader.
To further complicate an already complicated family matter, it was also a legislative year here in Texas (Lord have mercy on us all). The Texas Legislature convenes for about 6 months, once every 2 years, and tries to hammer out budgets and bathroom bills, while the rest of us all pray that they don’t screw everything up. Which they usually do – some years worse than others.
We struggled for almost 5 years with our son, who insisted from the age of 2 that he was actually a boy, and not a girl like we all thought. The feminist in me celebrated his gender-bending ways, and enjoyed correcting people who thought my daughter was really my son. “There’s lots of ways to be a girl,” I’d remind them. After a while, though, I’d notice the way that Max would cringe when I would inform those random strangers about his “true” identity. I began to wonder: maybe they weren’t mis-gendering my child. Maybe I was.
So finally, after five long years of research, prayer, and discernment, we transitioned as a family – switching from female pronouns to male ones, and changing his name from Gracie to MG and finally to Max.
And then the Texas Legislature reconvened and wanted to pass laws about which bathroom my transgender child could use at school. As if all of this wasn’t complicated enough.
My husband, being the thoughtful person that he is, wrote a blog and titled it “An Open Letter to Debbie Riddle”. That essay was picked up the Dallas News and ran as an op-ed a few days later. We wondered if giving the permission to republish it was the right thing to do – it was our first time speaking publicly about an issue that was still so new and private to us, after all. But we didn’t live in Dallas, and we thought that this might be a good way to speak out on this issue while also maintaining some degree of anonymity. We felt that if we didn’t speak up, there were thousands of transgender Texans just like our son (actually, about 145,000 of them) who could be affected by this discriminatory legislation.
That piece was published just a few weeks before a debate at Robson Ranch, a gated retirement community far on the outskirts of my adopted hometown of Denton, TX. Despite its geographic distance, it’s in the same district as the one I live in, so the city council race that year was between myself – a then-37-year-old mother and small business owner living near the University core, and a 60-something retired grandmother and resident of that very same gated retirement community.
Robson Ranch is so gated, in fact, that they hosted a candidate’s forum and invited only the candidates from their district (Kathleen Wazny and myself), and opened the doors to only their residents.
Here I was: in the lion’s den. Kathleen was loved and well-respected by her neighbors, all of whom had shown up for the forum to cheer on one of their own. And then there was me – a political newcomer, living on the opposite end of town, young enough to be their daughter, but wanting desperately to hear their concerns so I could do an effective job of representing the entire district, not just my part of town.
We were each given a minute to introduce ourselves, and then the questions from the audience began. Audience members wrote their questions down on a piece of paper for the moderator to read. Kathleen and I would each take turns going first, and we’d each get a couple of minutes to speak It went back and forth this way for a while, with the same predictable questions about property tax rates and whether or not we needed a new city manager. You know, typical stuff.
I should have anticipated it. I should have known that someone there would have read my husband’s op-ed. Some anonymous bully in that room had the nerve to ask about transgender people using public restrooms, knowing full well that I had a transgender child at home, and that acknowledging this in a room mostly full of conservatives (did I mention that this debate was hosted by the Robson Ranch Republicans?) was a sure-fire way making sure I’d lose not only the debate, but focusing the campaign on my “faults” as a mother and distracting from the real issues like road repair, funding our parks, and managing a city budget of nearly $1 billion.
While the unknowing moderator was reading the question out loud, I stared at my husband sitting in the first row and gave him a silent, panicked look. “What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?” I screamed with my eyes. He silently screamed right back at me, “I. Cannot. Believe. They. Are. Doing. This.”
Being that this was so early in my family’s transition, everything still felt raw and vulnerable. I know how calmly I would have handled it today, but that night it took EVERYTHING, and I mean EVERYTHING, not to walk up to that microphone, tell them to all go to hell, and run out of there with my middle fingers flying high. This was my BABY. How DARE you.
But for the Grace of God, it was actually Kathleen’s turn to take the microphone first. And for as long as I live, I will never forget what she did next.
Kathleen Wazny calmly approached the microphone and said, “This isn’t a local issue, this is a state issue. And quite frankly, I think Texas has bigger issues to deal with than trying to figure out what bathroom people should be using.” And then she sat down and saved the day. I got up and simply said “I agree,” and when the debate ended I ran to the car, shouted every expletive I could think of, and went home to drink a bottle of wine and curse the person who tried to out my precious child in a room full of strangers.
But here’s the beautiful, optimistic thing about all of this: I know that Kathleen read that article. She’s smart, and she does her homework. I’m certain someone shared that piece with her in the hopes that she’d use it to destroy me. She’s their local hero, after all, and there were apparently some people in that room that wanted her to win at any cost. I can’t say I blame them – it’s politics, after all. But I also don’t have to forgive them for what they did that night.
I won every precinct that year, except for Robson Ranch. But that wasn’t enough – not by a long shot. Though Kathleen mopped the floor with me on Election Day, I know it had nothing to do with the fact that I have a transgender son. She had an opportunity to capitalize on something that was, and in many cases still is, a taboo subject among her core supporters – but she refused to take the bait, and the question never came up again for the rest of the campaign season. My family has since spoken publicly about our transition, but we did it on our terms, when we were ready. To her enormous credit, Kathleen stuck to the REAL issues facing our community, and left the bathroom debate to the people who could best make that decision: parents, kids, and educators.
I regret that I’ve never thanked Kathleen for standing up for my son that day. She didn’t have to do that. She could have thrown my whole family under the bus and no one would have blamed her. Politics is funny that way. But she recognized that some things are more important that politics, and reacted like a real human (and not a politician) would: with kindness, integrity, and grace. I can only wish that our Texas Legislature would take a lesson from Kathleen Wazny, who won that race not by turning my son into a political pawn, but by sticking to the issues and leading with her heart.