The awkward tension of being a public advocate for my transgender child

A few years ago, I was invited to speak at an important LGBTQ fundraising conference at a beachfront resort in a swanky part of Miami. I felt so honored, being invited to come out and rub elbows with influential and famous people — governors, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, movie stars, and global investors, to name a few. Think Davos, only on the beach, and with a whole lot of very, very gay people (and allies).

I don’t have a PhD and I’ve never published a book. I’m not really an “expert” in anything, at least, not in measurable ways. I’m the parent of a transgender child, living in Texas, and fighting what feels like an uphill battle every day for his basic civil liberties and equal rights. In some ways, that makes me a top expert in this field, since I’m literally living this and advocating for him every day. But in the ways that “count” among media, universities, and publishers, I’m a nobody. So getting an invitation like this one felt really special, and I admit feeling like a big deal because of it.

My son came out as transgender when he was 6 years old. And for a full year, we lived as a very private family. We didn’t not tell people that Max is transgender, but we didn’t keep it a secret, either. When my husband had a radio interview about a book he wrote, he explained to the interviewer that he wasn’t going to talk about our kids — mostly because he was concerned that that question might come up on live radio and he didn’t know how to answer it truthfully without betraying Max’s privacy. When I ran for city council, someone asked a question at a public forum about bathrooms, trying to catch me off guard. They found out we had a transgender child, and had cruelly hoped that I would “out” my son in front of the entire room. Thankfully I was able to sidestep that coded question to answer a larger one about equal rights. But everyone at church knew, Max’s teachers knew, and when we showed up for family reunions, people figured it out pretty quickly (and gave him just as many hugs as they did before his transition). Max was out, but not public.

It was right around this time that transgender bathroom bills became the perverted fixation of politicians across the country — especially right here in Texas. And before we knew it, we were in the news, sparring with the sheriff about an inflammatory Facebook post he wrote — one that went too far and created a dangerous environment for my son Max, as well as the larger transgender community. As much as I could, I tried to take it slow while still holding him accountable — using my voice as a parent, resident, and voter to call him out, but being careful not to share my son’s name. 

When the news came knocking on my door a few days later asking for a comment, we deliberated about whether to say anything at all. As a family we chose to speak out because we knew what the sheriff said was wrong, and because we felt we owed it to Max — a young, transgender child — to defend him as his parents against a bully, and use our place of privilege to speak up against injustice for the wider LGBTQ community. When setting the ground rules for the interview, though, we insisted that they not use Max’s name or show his face at all. I wanted desperately to protect his privacy, as much as I possibly could. Looking back, I wish I would have used a pseudonym for that first interview, but like everything I do, wanted to be as truthful as I could be — so without understanding the consequences, gave them my first and last name and the city I lived in, thereby unintentionally compromising the privacy of my trans-inclusive family forever. (Pro tip to parents of LGBTQ youth: there is a fantastic resource designed specifically to help you navigate situations like this when or if you go public or are outed. I hope you read it cover to cover so you don’t make the same mistakes I did.)

This particular story hit a nerve with almost everyone in Texas, and eventually, I was getting requests to speak at all sorts of events. Local, state, and national organizations began inviting me to conferences, fundraisers, and rallies. With the national conversation focused on trans rights, I can understand why my family was in the center of a media circus and a political pissing contest all at once. The mom in me was simultaneously eager to advocate for my son and stand up to his political bullies, and scared I was doing it wrong.

And that’s when I found myself in Miami at a major fundraising event with rich and famous people to speak about my experiences as a parent of a transgender child, and ask for all sorts of money for one of my favorite LGBTQ advocacy organizations, so that they could amplify loving, supportive, challenging, powerful stories like Max’s all across the country. I felt special. I felt important. I felt like I was making a difference.

The day before we spoke, my fellow panelists and I gathered together, and practiced our 5-minutes-or-less stump speeches with Mara Kiesling, the founder and director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. By the time I wrapped up this amazing story of how super important I was because I was invited to speak at this super important event even though I don’t have a PhD or a book yet, Mara cocked her head to side, gave me a sly smile, and only half jokingly asked, “Was Max there for any of this?”

Ouch.

It was a good question, though. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized that my words were focused on cisgender allies like me making a difference, and not trans people doing the work every day. I felt confused and embarrassed. Yet it was an absolutely necessary question, and one that I’ve asked myself every day since.

As the parent of a transgender child, I feel an awkward tension between wanting to stand out in front so that bullies and hate groups focus their attacks on me and not on Max. He’s just a kid, and one of my greatest accomplishments as a mom is knowing that he doesn’t really think about “this trans thing” at all. He’s never once worried about not being able to go to a sleepover, join a sports team, or how to access trans-affirming health care. (I have worried about all three in the span of an hour, though.) While the rest of the country argues about science, equal rights, and the Bible, Max is living his best life. He’s the eye of the hurricane — calm and steady, while the rest of the world swirls madly around his center. Honestly, that’s pretty remarkable. (And yet, it shouldn’t be.)

And yet simultaneously, I feel this need to step down and step back. Mara’s question “What about Max?” gets to the heart of it all: I’m not the one changing people’s attitudes about trans people — Max is. When people see his freckled face, his wide smile, his sloppy hair, and his back handsprings, they can’t help but smile. This is why trans visibility matters. According to a Human Rights Campaign survey, 17% of Americans knew an openly transgender person in 2014. By 2018, that number had more than doubled — to 35%. And attitudes are changing about gender identity (and how to not be assholes to queer people) as a result: a clear majority (66%) of people who personally know a trans person say that they support equal rights for the LGBTQ community. In the words of Texas State Representative Julie Johnson (a gay woman herself), “It’s hard to hate up close.” 

So what gives me the right to be a panelist at a public debate about adopting an equality ordinance in my Texas town? Who the hell do I think I am when I give an interview that will air at 10 pm on millions of TVs across the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex? What sort of white savior complex must I have to be the cisgender white lady in a straight passing relationship to speak on LGBTQ issues?

These are the very same questions I have learned to ask myself when an invitation is given to participate, because I want to be intentional and not speak over people who deserve a place at the table. I pass up many opportunities I know I’m not a good fit for. When asked to comment on the Trump administration’s transgender military ban, I reminded the reporter that I was neither trans nor military — and then put them in touch with someone who was. When a story ran about Transgender Day of Remembrance — an annual date in November meant to honor and mourn those beloved transgender individuals who were murdered due to transphobic violence — I introduced the reporter to a dear friend of mine who could speak more clearly about the danger she faces daily as a trans woman in the world. When my amazing trans and nonbinary friends write really powerful open letters or op-eds about the harm their ministers or elected officials have caused them, I make sure to connect them to my media contacts, in the hopes that those heart wrenching essays can be published among a wider audience. When I helped organize a panel for Transgender Awareness Week, I declined the opportunity to be a panelist and decided it would be better to be the moderator, since the week was about trans awareness and not ally awareness, after all. I could go on, but I don’t need to. These are the stories I’m not in, and that’s the way it should be.

But I’m more than just a cisgender white lady in a straight passing relationship. (Who can assume I’m straight just because I’m in a straight passing relationship, anyway?) I’m the parent of a transgender child, which makes this deeply, deeply personal. I would give my life for my son to keep him safe. So if a story breaks that involves religious exemptions for healthcare providers, I absolutely have something to say about that. I’m the one seeking out pediatricians and specialists for my son, after all. If there’s an opportunity to debate the merits of an equality ordinance in my Texas town, I’ll gladly participate because the success of Max’s future depends on whether or not he is given equal treatment. And as his mom, isn’t it my responsibility to provide for him the very best future that I can?

(And a call to action for the media: when reporting on a story that involves the LGBTQ community, make sure you include queer people. You shouldn’t have to be reminded of this when you show up literally to an event full of queer folx, and then the only people on the news are white, cisgender people like me. That’s just sloppy.)

When Mara Kiesling asked “What about Max?” it shifted something deep in me. I realized that I had been making too much of a big deal of myself, when the real hero in all of this is my son. Every day since then I have tried to do better, but I know I still screw it up. Finding that balance between wanting to protect him from the hate and harm that inevitably comes from being public, and wanting to step back so he can be the center of attention, is really uncomfortable — and the varying nuances of each situation can make knowing what to do even more complicated.

To be clear: my challenges are nowhere near the same as the challenges faced by the LGBTQ community. I don’t face discrimination, harassment, or the threat of violence every day simply for who I am or who I love. I do not mean to minimize the lived experiences of the queer community — when 12 transgender women of color have already been killed in the United States in 2019 (and it’s only July) — I will not claim that I am victim, having a hard time, or that anyone should feel sorry for me because I’m struggling to find the right balance in all of this. I’d rather people take that concern and focus on lifting up the voices and advancing the rights of LGBTQ people, who experience poverty, homelessness, unemployment, and harassment at disproportionately higher rates than their non-LGBTQ peers. Because this isn’t about me. It’s about Max, and the more than 9 million LGBTQ Americans just like him.

When I caught up with Mara a few years later, I told her how much that question affected me, and how much I have thought about it since then. In her kindness and wisdom, she replied that I just needed to know my audience. At the fundraiser, she pointed out, my goal should have been to talk about Max, since the intention was to raise trans visibility. But other times, she explained, I do need to speak up as a mom and talk about my experiences, because caring for our kids and wanting the best for them is a sentiment that nearly every parent on Earth can sympathize with. 

It’s an awkward tension I find myself in daily — feeling a responsibility to step up for my son while also feeling a responsibility as an ally to step back so that queer voices can be heard. I regularly hear words of encouragement and gratitude from LGBTQ people (and their parents) to keep going, but I also hear valid criticism from other queer people to sit down, and I struggle to know what is the right answer in each situation since both sides seem to be right. I know that the work we are doing as a trans inclusive family is making a difference, and with my son’s future at stake, I feel it’s important for this work to continue. But I do look forward to the day when I no longer have to do any of this because Max will finally be old enough to do it himself — or, even better — the world will be so transformed that he won’t need to do it at all.

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