When you are not using your voice one of the things that you spend your time doing is think about conversations—ones you’ve had in the past, ones you want to have now, words that you’ve heard that have changed your life, that have changed the trajectory of your path and redirected your footsteps. Most of the time in my silence, I am thinking about conversations I’ve had over the past 23 years with my child.
I knew from a very young age that I was going to grow up and have a baby and not have a husband. It had nothing to do with my sexual orientation. Before I knew that I was gay, before I even knew I had tendencies, I knew that when I had a baby, I was going to be on my own. I thought this was going to happen when I was a teenager (and the odds, really…), but it didn’t. I got married when I was 18 and was married for five years, and it didn’t happen. I had several long-term relationships, all of them destructive but nevertheless heterosexual, and I never got pregnant. When it finally did happen, I was not married. I was in a friends-with-benefits relationship that was more benefits than friends. My first thought when I looked down and saw the plus sign on the urine stick was, “Okay, here we go…”
I had been training my whole life for that moment. I was omnipotent. I was a super hero. I was Wonder Woman. I didn’t care if I had a boy or a girl. I was prepared for anything life was going to give me. If that meant I had a handicapped child or one with spina bifida or one that would grow up with a drug or alcohol problem or schizophrenia or ADHD or explosive anger disorder…there was nothing I couldn’t handle. I remember holding my arms out towards the sky and saying, “Gimme all you got!”
I was too cocky and arrogant at the time to hear the universe accept the challenge and answer, “Okay, let’s see what you can do with this.”
I didn’t have any qualms about becoming a mother. I had always handed out advice to women about how to raise their children, how to take care of their babies, what they were doing right or wrong with their toddlers, what they should or shouldn’t be doing with their teenagers, how they should rear and discipline boys versus girls, how best to nurture each child’s individual tendencies and personalities, what to do, what not to do, handed out advice on Dr. Spock and Freudian psychology, judged, corrected, blamed…
Yeah, I was a perfect mother until I became one.
We now enter, begrudgingly, pronoun hell.
One of the first sentences Spencer/Sophie ever spoke was, “I am a girl.” Not “I wish I was a girl” or “I want to be a girl,” but “I am a girl.” I already knew. Before he had even started to speak, he was wearing shirts and scarves and other various items on his head as some kind of fashion statement. I had an entire photo album of nothing but pictures of him with these different shirts on his head—we called it “pants-on-head” and everyone knew, you don’t go anywhere without it. My friend Susan was watching him adjust a white t-shirt on his head one day and said, “Tracy, that’s his hair.” Indeed, it was.
He gravitated towards all things feminine: pink colors, Barbie dolls, female Disney characters, skirts, shiny shoes, stockings, accessories, makeup, hair ties. He wore t-shirts as skirts when no skirts could be found. He wore socks as elbow-length gloves when the occasion called for it. He used shoe-strings as slim belts to tie around one of my shirts that he wore as a dress. He denounced all things boy, had no interest in their toys or clothes, hated to get dirty, had no interest in sports, and identified with no animated or male superhero. But there was something else taking place under the surface of all this.
One day I was watching him walk around the house picking up various items and dropping them together–a shoe and a cup, a pencil and a notebook, a sock and a pair of sunglasses. He held them at arm’s length and then dropped them at the same time, paused, and then moved on to the next pair of items. Finally I said, “Baby, what are you doing?”
“I’m testing out this gravity thing.”
“Okay,” I said. “But do you even know what gravity is?”
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s that stuff that keeps ya on the ground. It keeps ya from floating away!”
He was four.
A few months later my friend Suzanne was visiting. They were watching Barney together in the living room when he turned to her and asked, “Is 55 miles per hour fast?”
“It sure is!” she said.
“How do you know?”
“That’s how fast a car goes on the highway,” she explained.
I heard him enter the kitchen seconds later where I was washing dishes. He learned early that a captive audience is someone who can’t move and has her hands in soapy water. Many of these conversations have taken place at my elbow. “Mommy, is 55 miles per hour fast?”
“Well, you tell me,” I said and winked. “Do you think it’s fast for an airplane?”
“Do you think it’s fast for a cat?”
He smiled and patted my arm. “It’s one of those relative things, isn’t it?”
As he walked away I smiled and felt very smug in my little lesson and then suddenly, my brows furrowed. Had he known the answer before he asked? Was he testing me?
At his seventh birthday party he and his friends were asked by another parent what they wanted to be when they grew up. The standard answers were given: a cowboy, an actress, the president, a mailman, a pilot, a mommy. Spencer never answered the question.
Later that night I asked him, out of sheer curiosity, and held my breath while waiting for the answer.
“I’m going to be a philosopher,” he said and smiled.
“Wait, how much money do philosophers make?”
“Well, I’m not sure they make that much. Most of their work is probably done in writing or research, maybe teaching at the university level. You’d have to have a doctorate degree…”
“Oh, I’m not worried about that, but I am gonna need a bumpin’ catch-phrase.”
That night we had a three-hour conversation about whether color existed without light.
When I was pregnant, I was so excited about what I was going to teach my child. I knew I would not be content with the limits of formal education and I planned, even before he was born, a teaching strategy. I would teach him about philosophy, metaphysics, sociology and culture, classical music and art, literature, astronomy, psychology and the inner workers of the mind, botany, zoology…and on and on and on until we could stand it no longer. When he came home from school one day in the third grade with a picture of Christopher Columbus standing on the shores of America with a basket of corn held out to the Indians, I realized that I would not only have to teach him history as it happened, I would have to undo what they had already taught him. I pulled him out of school and homeschooled him. It didn’t take long before I realized that basic lesson plans wouldn’t work. He was too smart and the material was too dull. Thus, we began a very long and enduring style of teaching and learning using the Socratic method of questioning and answering.
“What is truth?” I asked.
“Truth as defined by what?”
“Ok, how about as defined by law?”
He answered quickly. “Honest statements made by someone in court.”
“Governed by what?”
“The judge and jury.”
“By placing your hand on the Bible and declaring to tell the truth.”
“What if the witness doesn’t believe in God?”
“Then by their own conscience, and their own perception.”
“Does that make it true?”
“Um…it depends, I guess. They can only tell what they know, but someone else may see it differently.”
“So then, how is truth defined by law?”
This conversation went on for half the day, and continues still. The question about truth led to a question about beauty, to a question about morality and on and on and on. Today if I ask her a question like, “What is art?” she will invariably say, “That is a question about perception which ultimately has no answer.” Of all the topics we’ve discussed over the years, the most important, the most essential thing that has come from that is a precise, fundamental system of dialogue. It can be a question as simple as, “What do you think of this drawing?” that leads us to “What meaning or emotion are you trying to convey?” to an in-depth discussion of color and light, shadow and spatial laws, to Egyptian hieroglyphics.
I must take this time to discuss, in very simplistic terms, Sigmund Freud’s latency stage. Between the ages of 3 and 4 to the ages of say 8 and 13, a child goes through a period when their libido is dormant. They don’t think about sex. There is no psychosexual development taking place. Most of their sexual impulses are sublimated towards school work, hobbies and friendships. Much of the child’s energy is channeled into developing new skills and acquiring new knowledge and play is largely confined to other children of the same gender. Spencer and I enjoyed these few years for all they were worth. Unfortunately, I had convinced myself that the issue, if there had ever been one, had resolved itself.
There were two pivotal phone calls received when he was in fourth grade. They both came from school and they were both distressing. The first came from the principal, who wanted to inform me that Spencer had aced his EOGs (End of Grade exams). I was at work and getting ready for treatment team so I was somewhat distracted.
“Okay, that’s great,” I said, “thanks for letting me know.”
“I mean to say, he didn’t get any wrong.”
“Yes, I heard you!”
“Mrs. Schreier,” she said and coughed. “He was the only child in the fourth grade that passed.”
“He was the only one that passed the test or he aced the test?”
“He was the only fourth grader in the entire school that passed the test?”
“Yes, and aced the test,” she said. “The superintendent wants to take him out for a special lunch on Friday.”
“What school was he in last year? We don’t show him in our district.”
“I homeschooled him.”
It bothered me for the rest of the day. Spencer was not an academic. He was not well read. He never studied. He didn’t care about one subject over another, had no proclivities towards science or math. He did homework in the car on the way to school. School projects were tossed together at the last minute. He didn’t care about grades. He didn’t particularly hate school, but as much as I wanted to believe that he would go off to college one day and conquer the world, I knew he was going to conquer the world without it.
That night he and I had a long talk. I told him he had three choices: he could stay in his present school, we could pull him out and start homeschooling again, or he could go to an Arts school.
“Is this about the test?”
“I thought you’d have a problem with it.”
“I’m very proud of you…”
“You have a problem with all those other kids not passing.”
“I do.” I didn’t know if it was the system, the teachers, the students, the curriculum, the county, lack of funds or resources or all of it at the same time. It wasn’t something I was prepared to fight. It’s why I homeschooled him in the first place. I didn’t like what they were teaching. I didn’t like what they were not teaching. But this was different. “Look, I can’t have you going through school like a prison sentence. If you’re just putting in time, it’s worthless. I make good money and I work three days a week. We have options. Choose.”
He applied for and was accepted into the Cincinnati School for the Creative and Performing Arts and started the next school year there. He double-majored in visual arts and voice. I’d like to say that he found his calling there. He did some incredible artwork. He had a part in Seussical the Musical. He started to play around with the keyboard. He dabbled in writing and illustrated his own stories. More than anything, it was the atmosphere that drew him–the noise, the dancing, the music, the chaos. But he never latched onto any one thing and I was beginning to wonder if he ever would.
But, there was still that second phone call. There was still that phone call that changed our world, that came only one week after the phone call about him acing the EOGs, from the same principal, calling from the same school, with a seemingly innocuous message.
“Spencer is in my office, very upset, and wants to come home.”
“We watched the sex education film today…”
“I’ll be right there,” and I hung up, grabbed my purse, got in the car and was at the school in seven minutes. I punched myself in the head all the way there. I didn’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me before I heard the words ‘sex education film.’ I signed the permission slip for him to watch the film the week before and it never dawned on me that it would cause a problem. The boys were going to watch their film in the cafeteria and the girls were going to watch their film in the library. Never thought anything about it. “We watched the sex education film today…”
I barged through school with a purpose. The subject hadn’t come up for a few years. Freud’s latency period had protected us both and for a few relatively quiet years, Spencer and I lived in a precious, loving world of mother and son, an us-against-the-world existence watching Disney movies, playing video games, taking spontaneous road trips, and having hour long conversations about religion and politics and the empowerment of feminine characterization in modern culture. I found him red-faced and tear-stained, sitting on a hard-backed orange chair outside the principal’s office, not making a sound or moving a muscle. He had been petrified. I walked up to him, held out my hand and said, “C’mon.”
We weren’t able to talk about it until later that night, after dinner and bath and teeth and the hundreds of other things parents have to do to wrap up a day. When I tucked him in he said simply, “Why can’t I just be a girl?”
I remember every single thing about his room. His double bed with the blue and gold comforter sat in the center of the room and was flanked by two floor-to-ceiling windows. The room wasn’t that messy because there was another room on the same floor (we were in a 3-story townhouse) that we used as a play room, which was trashed. Barbie dolls and Pokémon lay scattered around the hard-wood floor like casualties in a cartoon war. His book bag was propped up against the closet door, unopened from the day, and except for the Barbie dolls, everything I saw was neutral: the blue bedspread, a yellow lamp, tan wicker furniture, a wooden sailboat/bookshelf painted red and blue, ambiguous clothes hanging nonchalant in their androgyny in the closet.
“You are who you are.”
“But when can I just be a girl?”
If I had had any courage at the time, we would have started then, but frankly, I didn’t even know I could do it. Parents today are raising their trans-children from toddlerhood in their chosen gender, but it was unheard of then. “When you grow up, you can have surgery.”
“A doctor can give me a girl’s body?”
“How do they do that?”
You would think one of the most difficult conversations you could ever have is discussing gender reassignment surgery with a nine-year-old, but it’s not. It’s what comes after.
“What do I do until then?” he asked.
How could I know? How could anyone know what these children go through? They’re trapped. They have a vision of who they are in their minds and hearts and souls that the mirror contradicts at every angle. They rage against their bodies. They are choked with the ideals of the media and society about who and what they should be according to their chromosomes and though it goes against every fucking fiber of what they know to be true about themselves, they say nothing. They learn early that it’s wrong. They learn to hide, to blend in, to say and do the right thing depending on the audience. And what is that like? They are incarcerated. They are prisoners serving time when no crime was committed. “You endure.”
I had challenged the universe to give me all it had. I had stood cocky and arrogant and was ready to fight anything. There was nothing I couldn’t take on, nothing I couldn’t beat, nothing stronger than my will to protect my child, to save my child, to help and guide my child, to fiercely guard over my child. And then the universe gave my child the most difficult battle any human being could ever imagine fighting, and gave me only the option of watching her fight it alone. That night I walked out onto the deck and looked up at the sky. I opened my arms wide to the world and screamed, “REALLY, MOTHER FUCKER? REALLY?”
She started her transition at age 14 with hormone replacement therapy. We met opposition at every turn but one of the most ridiculous conversations I had during this time was with a neighbor, who was having coffee with me one morning when Sophie was getting ready for school. Sophie had a string or cord tied around the straps of her book bag and we were both working to get in untangled. Sophie said, “Shit, Mom, hold on, hold this end,” and she loosened the other end and pulled the cord through.
After she left to meet the bus my neighbor said, “You shouldn’t let her use bad words.”
I am not often rendered speechless but when I am, it is because words are forming in my gut like a volcano.
“I don’t understand this whole trans-gender thing, but if you’re raising a lady, you need to teach her to talk like a lady.”
The lava boiled and bubbled over and the pressure rose.
“I mean, she cusses all the time,” she continued. “She says shit and damn and ass, and I’ve even heard her use the F word and you never say anything about it!”
“What about the words freak and faggot and mutant?” I asked. “Because she gets called those words all the time, not just by kids at school, but by teachers, too, and other parents, and by her own father, who, by the way, disowned her years ago. What about retard and nutbag and ‘it’? Are those bad words?”
“I just mean that…”
“And how about what she sees on the news and in the paper about trans people being murdered and the people who killed them just getting away with it because society thinks trans people don’t deserve to live anyway? How about that? Last week in Miami the murder of a trans-man wasn’t even investigated! It didn’t even matter! And I’m supposed to teach her not to use words like shit and damn?”
“I think I better go.”
I followed her out the door and into the front yard.
“Do you know how hard it is to teach a child that the world is a good place and at the same time instill in her the assumption that everyone she meets is a serial killer?”
“I was only trying to help,” she called over her shoulder when she got to her yard.
“I’m not raising a lady!” I screamed over the hedge. “I’M RAISING A FUCKING WARRIOR!”
It’s funny but if someone said these words to me today, about not letting my daughter use bad words, I would probably only say, “Okie, dokie.” I feel the same as I did then, but my need to justify those feelings has dissipated. I’ve come to a place where I no longer feel the need to explain myself to anyone. Maybe I just don’t have the energy. Or maybe Sophie has taught me my greatest lesson through the example of how she lives her own life: fiercely, without explanation or excuse, determined, wild and bold, headlong and brave into every single fucking day.
I don’t want it to sound like she and I were intellectual snobs contemplating the meaning of life day in and day out. Much of our time was spent laughing. One day she looked at me and said in a thick Russian accent, “You are not sheep. You are not wolf. You are fence post. You are anchored. You are strong. You are brown and wooden. You are square.” Who we are today came from words, came from our conversations, and gave us a deep and compelling way to communicate. It was not always fun. Most mornings I would wake up to a steady monotone of her voice and say, “You’re using too many syllables!”
And she would say something like, “Yes, but it was your insistence on verbosity that led to this verbal regurgitation.”
One day during tenth grade (I pulled her out of school in ninth grade and homeschooled her again), she was doing research (she was actually reading one of our many Bathroom Readers) and came across an interesting fact. “Hey Mom,” she said, “it is estimated that American parents spend 37 minutes PER WEEK with their children in meaningful, face-to-face conversation.”
“Oh, that’s sad,” I said. “How much time do you think we spend?”
She said, “About seven hours, maybe more.”
I don’t think even that much is enough.
There was never a taboo subject. Drugs and alcohol, addiction, safe sex, gender issues, mental illness, depression…there were a thousand hours of these conversations and all of it brought to us an understanding of each other, an appreciation for one another’s way of viewing the world, of seeing life. We didn’t always agree and it was especially important for me to just be still and listen when that happened. She was never my clone. She was never my property. She turned out to be just herself…opinionated, political, philosophical, funny, courageous, artistic, poetic and authentic.
And poison-tongued…brilliantly so.
A friend of mine said recently that she wanted to talk politics with Sophie. TD said, “Are you fucking crazy?”
My friend said, “No, I think I’m ready. I’ve got my statistics. I’ve got my sources.”
I smiled. “Have they been fact-checked?”
If you’re lucky as a parent, you get a moment when it becomes very clear to you that you’ve done your job of raising a child who is smart and strong and independent. This happened to me a few months ago. My own life was in the shithouse. Everything was going wrong and all of it was my fault. I found myself in Sophie’s apartment crying about my relationship, my finances, my job, my health and suddenly I stopped and looked around and said, “How can you guys stand to live this way?” It is a well-known fact that Sophie and Daniel are not the best housekeepers. Their apartment is always trashed beyond recognition. I’m not even sure if they have carpet or hard wood floors from the pile of garbage and clothes strewn from one end of the place to the other. Daniel was about to respond when Sophie put her hand up to silence him. “I’ve got this,” she said and looked at me. “We both work full-time and make good money. We both have good cars. We both have money in savings. We have automatic bill-pay. We have active social lives. Your house is very neat, but your life is a fucking mess.”
And there it was. How could I come back from that? She was absolutely right. I didn’t consider it disrespectful when I had attacked first. She was firing back. She knew her enemy and had chosen the best weapons—strong words and harsh truths. She was protecting herself and at the same time she kept the spotlight on the actual battle. I was never more proud of her.