Sometimes I start thinking I'm an expert. I get to feeling like I've got things all figured out. And then, inevitably, parenthood brings me right back down to earth.
Take the time we told our son, Waylon, that his friend Stacey was embarking on a transition.
Waylon has spent much of his life around trans people. His genderqueer mommy had chest surgery when he was 18 months old. We've always spoken openly about the surgery and how it helped Mommy feel more comfortable in her body. As a toddler, Waylon developed his own four-coordinate gender system (boy, girl, boygirl, girlboy) to describe the gender diversity that he observed around him.
His experience wasn't just limited to genderqueer people. Because my wife, Katy, is a therapist and activist in trans communities, Waylon has grown up around all kinds of trans folk. He can explain gender dysphoria and gender confirmation surgery in seven-year-old layman's terms. He's been to Gender Spectrum kids camp. He uses "hir" and "ze" as pronouns for God and certain stuffed animals.
So perhaps I can be forgiven for being a bit cavalier when I introduced Stacey's transition as dinnertime conversation.
Stacey is my sister's long-time partner. A talented artist with a low-key demeanor and a childlike capacity for silliness, Stacey has always been a favorite with Waylon. When Waylon developed a fondness for new wave music, Stacey made him mix CDs from his extensive music collection. When Waylon lost his first tooth, Stacey made him a stuffed animal shaped like an anthropomorphic incisor. And Stacey taught Waylon to play Plants vs. Zombies, a delightful video game that is only slightly less addictive than crack cocaine. So there was no question that Waylon would be interested when we told him over dinner that we had news about Stacey.
"You know how Stacey's kind of like a boygirl?" I asked, using Waylon's term for butches and masculine genderqueer types. He shook his head yes.
"Well," Katy continued, "he's realized that he feels all the way like a boy inside. He's going to start taking medicine and changing his body so that he can make his body match the way he feels inside."
Waylon paused for a moment. Then his face twisted into a tortured grimace and he began to sob. This wasn't the phony cry he uses when he wants to be tucked in for the 27th time at night. This wasn't the medium cry he uses when he's scraped his knee or stubbed his toe. This was an anguished wail that made me gather him in my arms and hold his head against my cheek.
"I don't want her to change, I don't want her to change," he bleated between sobs that shook us both.
My eyes met Katy's across the table. She looked as scared and guilty as I felt. What had we done?
We tried to reassure Waylon by telling him that Stacey's personality was not going to change. "He'll still play with you," I said. "He'll still like stuffed animals and Plants vs. Zombies," Katy added. "He'll still be the same person."
"No," Waylon cried into my shoulder. "I don't want her to change." The tears showed no sign of stopping.
I tried a different tactic. "This is good for Stacey. This will make him happier."
But every "him" was like fuel on flames. The crying just got louder and harder. Finally, Katy couldn't stand it anymore. She reached for Waylon, and I transferred him to her arms. "Shhh shh shh," she whispered as he rocked him. "It's going to be okay."
In retrospect, our biggest mistake was not realizing what a big shock this would be. As adults, we'd been able to read certain signs. But Waylon wasn't picking up on the same clues. He wasn't getting periodic updates from Stacey and my sister. He felt broadsided.
And while it's true that Waylon has known quite a few trans people, they've mostly been post-transition or genderqueer. He's never accompanied a friend through the journey of transition. He knew, theoretically, about the idea of transition, but he had no idea what to expect from his friend.
I can see, in hindsight, why I failed to anticipate his fears. As a feminist academic and a lover of complexly gendered people, I can be guilty of seeing gender as the most salient factor in almost any situation. From my perspective, Stacey was changing his outward position on a fluid gender spectrum. But Waylon wasn't crying about gender. He was crying about losing a buddy. If I had it to do over again, I would speak to those feelings of loss and abandonment first and foremost.
After that first night, we hovered in an impasse. Waylon's response to the whole topic was just plain "no." I was teaching the short film No Dumb Questions in my class that semester, and I asked several times if he wanted to watch it with me. Waylon pointedly declined. I decided to let time work its magic.
At Christmastime, we all met up at my dad's house. Stacey had sewn Waylon a giant pillow shaped like a fried egg. Waylon didn't seem hesitant or shy. He followed Stacey around just like usual, talking a mile a minute, his speech liberally peppered with Stacey's name: "Stacey, guess what? Stacey, look! Hey, Stacey...Stacey, watch this! Stacey!"
Stacey had started T just before Christmas. Now the whole extended family was trying their best to shift pronouns. We all made our share of slips. (Perhaps this is a blatant self-justification, but I swear it's harder to shift pronouns when someone keeps the same name.) I tried to correct myself right away when I forgot. Occasionally I gently corrected Waylon too. He looked at me doubtfully, said "he," and then moved on.
After Christmas, I asked Waylon about his experience of spending time with Stacey. He didn't have much to say, which was unprecedented. Waylon is a chatterbox. He tends to talk nonstop about everything from the arcane plots of video games to the social dynamics of the lunch line. I was a little worried, but it wasn't like he was avoiding Stacey. He just didn't really want to talk about the transition yet.
Then, last spring, Stacey and my sis came to Austin for a brief visit. Stacey was recovering from chest surgery, but he and Waylon were still able to make a quick run to the store in search of the small bunny-shaped action figures that they both collect. Afterward, I asked if Stacey seemed different. Waylon thought for a moment. "Well," he said, "I think maybe he seemed shorter."
This was progress! Waylon had used a masculine pronoun without coaching. And, apparently, he had turned the corner from seeing Stacey as an average-sized woman to seeing him as a short man.
This summer, my sister and Stacey agreed to keep Waylon for a week while Katy and I took our first solo vacation in seven years. We were a bit anxious about being apart from our baby for so many days, but Waylon was pumped about his independent vacation plans. My sweet sis, Waylon's doting "Auntie," had planned an action-packed week of theme parks, aquariums, and museums. She and Stacey stocked up on mac-n-cheese. They moved an air mattress into the bedroom of their loft and researched kid movies on cable. They bought sticker books and Sponge Bob snacks.
The night before we left, the four of us had dinner at a restaurant near their house in Chicago. Waylon asked to sit between Auntie and Stacey. As we waited for our food, Waylon and Stacey were amusing themselves with Waylon's brand new book of Lego stickers. I was talking to my sister when I heard Waylon engaging Stacey in conversation.
"Well...how did your surgery feel? Did it hurt?"
Stacey assured Waylon that the surgery hadn't hurt too badly because he had been asleep. And then, in the blink of an eye, Waylon's talk switched back to Legos.
The next morning, Katy and I said our nervous goodbyes and hit the road. In the evening, we called to say goodnight and to tell Waylon that we missed him already. "Mom," Waylon said, "you and Mommy are my best friends. You and Mommy and Auntie and Stacey are my best friends."
For useful resources about talking to a child about a transition, check out COLAGE's Kids of Trans resource guide.
Photo credit: Amanda Fulk. You can see a short film and more images of Stacey's transition at http://www.lamiscelanea.org/ (Enter the site and scroll all the way to the right.)