Image Credit: Ally Sobola
My son wears the word “visible,” tattooed in Times Roman, on his left arm. The tattoo was a present from me for his 18th birthday. A handwritten sign reading, “Visible for those who can’t be,” hangs on his dorm room door. He is transgender, and to him, visibility is an antidote to stigma; it’s refusing what most of the world still wants trans people to do: disappear. By wearing this word on his sleeve (his skin, really), he claims the power of being seen. And isn’t this what we all want? To be perceived—even cared about—for who we are?
Let me say at the outset that Evie is more than visible. He is also convivial and smart, wrapped-up with friends, looking into a future that is sometimes blinding with possibilities, occasionally stupefying with the amount of work it might take to reach his dreams, which, as is the norm for his age, change regularly. In other words, a typical college kid, but also, and intentionally, visible. His visibility is less about an indignant, “this is me, what are you going to do about it,” and more about a simple statement: “This is me, others are like me.” It is also his visibility, and not mine, but being his mother has allowed me to also feel seen.
He and I attended monthly support groups for gender non-conforming kids and their parents during the first two years of his transition. The pediatric psychiatric department, which hosted the groups, was located in a hospital basement, so the evenings began with polite greetings in an elevator, parents nodding to familiar faces, kids fist-bumping their found tribe. We’d all assemble in a cramped lobby, and then the counselors would appear, filing kids into in one room, parents into another.
Evie and I compared notes on our drive home. In his stories, the group reported bullying and family resistance, but they were excited to be with other trans kids. In my group, there was no excitement. Parents were stymied by legal requirements and medical options, weary from the skepticism of friends, and, primarily, terrified for their kids. Mothers sometimes wept. Men spoke in anger, staring into their hands, helpless to shield a child from the struggle that living one’s truth can entail.
My son told me he was trans a few weeks into his freshman year of high school, after identifying as gender-queer in middle school. I am a mother; my first reaction is to protect. I believed then that being transgender meant having a bull’s eye on your back, which for some—especially trans women of color—it often does. I suggested he give the idea some time.
The next weekend, he causally told me, in an aisle of Home Depot, that he’d given it time and, yes, this was his identity. He would transition.
Was that OK with me? he asked, and I told him, yes, but let’s learn more, all the while thinking, as we wandered past paint cans and floor tile, Let’s learn more because I want to find a reason to prevent this. In elementary school, he’d rarely presented as a girl. He’d shopped in the boys’ departments and was a regular at the barber, always requesting a crew cut. I was non-pulsed. You can be whomever you want to be, I’d told him. Listen to what’s true for you. I had joined friends in a number of PRIDE parades in my youth and danced at countless gay bars. The possibility of my having a gay child, which was my assumption then, when he dressed as a boy, felt “normal.” His being transgender, however, was new. It was a risk, and I was afraid.
The next Monday, he politely asked the teacher in each of his classes if he could make an announcement, and then informed everyone to use male pronouns with him. His classmates agreed, easily. We launched ourselves into the galaxy of legal and medical issues that comprise transitioning and started attending the groups. I was tentative in the beginning, unfamiliarity underscoring my fear.
I could not have known, then, that within a few years I would be in awe of the way my son managed his transition; that eventually I would bask, not in his difference, but in his having the gall to live candidly. Though I’d been wary of him being burdened by social challenges when he first told me, I eventually witnessed him rise as an advocate, untethered from these challenges by his openness. He appeared in print, on stage and, yes, screen. He wowed with truth. His visibility, I saw, could illuminate the path for other transitioning kids, still in shadow. I freely admit to luxuriating in his spotlight. He’d not been outspoken as a child, but now brought a depth of empathy unique to adolescence, and an intent to mitigate the struggle I had anticipated for him—but he did it for others.
I first moved away from my fear about his transition long before Evie became a public spokesperson, as I was motivated by another mother in the support group. We’d been surprised to recognize one another from years before, when both of our boys—who then each identified as their gender assigned at birth, presenting as little girls—had trained with the same Suzuki teacher. Then, we sat in a cavernous church every Saturday morning, comparing notes on raising our four-year old daughters. What did we read to them, what playgrounds did we visit, which teachers would we consider for violin lessons next year?
Now, reunited, we sat across a conference table in a windowless room, taking our turns with other parents to report-out about paperwork and testosterone shots. I had regarded her as more traditional than I all those years ago, but had enjoyed our conversations, whispered to avoid interrupting the Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star practiced diligently in the front of the sanctuary. I would have expected this mother to give an eye-roll to the notion of transitioning, so she intrigued me now, her isolated voice urging the rest of us to leave our doubts behind and move forward, honoring what was true for our kids.
Her son had started transitioning a year before mine. I hung on her every knowledgeable word as she spoke of his positive changes. I remembered him as a stony-faced girl, glowering, never bouncing down the church aisle as the other young musicians did. Now, when we waited in the lobby, I saw a jocular, confident young man. This behavior emerged, his mother told me, as he transitioned.
“I see that this is who he was all along,” she told me. “It’s like transitioning was a not a matter of him changing. It just allowed him to be who he really is.”
I thought this could be possible for my own son—not that he would mirror this boy, but that he would also reveal his own strengths. These were the early days of my son’s transition, before visibility became routine. Neither he nor I could have known how positive the next few years would be as he was able to live as the gender, like this other boy, he had always been.
As a three-year-old, he’d asked, sitting in the car’s back-seat booster, if he could get a penis sewn on to his body. I’d told him, yes, but that he’d have to pay for it, which was my answer, back then, for most things he’d wanted. In elementary school, his life had revolved around sports, music, and friends. We now laugh at videos of he and other kids dancing to Soldier Boy at sleepovers, jumping into the neighborhood pool, frosting cupcakes. For his eleventh birthday party, he invited seventeen guests, not wanting anyone to feel left out. What was one more, two more, three more?
I admired his sensitivity to inclusion.
His classmates and teachers all knew him as a “tomboy,” as this was before the reality of transgender kids exploded into the mainstream, so there was no other way to explain his affinity with appearing male. I had been fine with his choosing neck ties for school pictures, but I cringe to remember my response when he begged to be called “John” on a beach trip, trying to be recognized, I now understand, as the boy he knew he was. As a pre-adolescent, he wore baggy surfer shorts and a swim shirt, or no top at all. I accepted him, then, as a girl, just pretending to be a boy. Calling him a boy’s name within earshot of others felt like this was no longer an imaginary game. I had refused.
A neighbor tells the story of meeting us at the playground when Evie was in kindergarten. After introductions, she says, he pulled her aside and whispered, “I’m a boy.”
I listened, a decade later, as he described the disconnect of being seen as one gender while knowing he was another. This was when the steps of transitioning were behind him, and he was preparing his script for a TEDx Talk entitled “It Takes a Village to Transition,” in which he presented stories of support from his school district, hoping to encourage other districts to do the same.
His recited his lines aloud, pacing back and forth in the living room. “Transgender individuals are often asked when they realized they were not a boy or not a girl. It’s a good question,” he read, “but it doesn’t make sense to all of us.” He acknowledged that other tomboys move out of their “phases,” and become more girlish, but that, as he watched that happening, “I knew inside that I was truly a boy all along, and now I just wanted to live like one.”
As my friend spoke in the support group, I began to acknowledge that my son—like hers—was not pretending to be male, but that it was, in fact, his gender. I needed to honor this truth. I decided to move beyond my fear—dread, really— and be the accepting mom that my son needed.
There is a second thing that helped me to get past my fear, and it’s a phenomenon that’s often overlooked when any of us negotiate change: the fluke of winning a bet on the unknown at other points in my life made me confident enough to risk this unknown, as well. Fate deals us a hand, and it’s easy to think, if it’s good once, of course we’ll win twice. If it’s bad, we may avoid ever sticking our necks out again.
I once bought a ticket to Nepal, with plans of following the Annapurna Circuit. This was in 1983, when flights were booked through travel agents, and itineraries handed to customers, folded crisply into an envelope. After arranging the flight, I walked to the ticket office on my lunch break at least ten times, my travel receipt tucked into my shoulder bag, planning to cancel the trip. I was afraid. Not of the hiking—I’d been an avid backpacker—and not of the solo travel, as that came easily to me. I didn’t know why I wanted a refund on the ticket I’d worked so hard to afford, I just knew I was afraid, and not going on the trip was one way to handle my fear. I eventually decided to take the risk and go. I flew into Katmandu, completed the trek, and, yes, my gamble on an unknown exceeded my dreams.
Evie and I had started attending the support groups in early-October, and by the time the receptionist’s desk was festooned with paper turkeys, I’d resolved to gamble on this unknown as well. I would be the mother who supported her son’s transition 100%. It was an intentional, conscious choice, like the resolution to stop staring at the travel agent’s door and just do what I knew, deep inside, was right. It may be hubris, or faith, or the biggest leap of all—love— but I chose to believe that everything would turn out well. I made the decision, silently, sitting in that airless conference room. I paused, waiting for trepidation to rise. Instead, I felt peaceful. I was doing the right thing. For him, yes, and also for me.
In middle school, when my son had first abandoned the tomboy moniker and called himself gender-queer, I’d brought him to Provincetown, MA, a famously LGBTQ-inclusive village on the tip of Cape Cod. He’d stopped in his tracks our first afternoon walking down Commercial Street and thanked me for bringing him.
“This is where I belong,” he’d told me. I’d been to P’town many times before I became a mother, and was familiar with its affirming spirit, so knew he’d feel welcomed in this town full of rainbows.
We visited P’town again, this time with his girlfriend, when he was in high school. He’d identified as transgender for almost two years. Driving north, he’d asked if I could accompany him into a sex toy shop to buy a cock ring for his packer. I agreed to go with him, but why, I thought to myself, does he need one?
We met-up one evening at EROS, a sex shop in the middle of town. He was waiting with an open face, not unlike the one he wore when he was very little and awaiting a first visit with Santa. It’s the look of a little anxiety—this is new—and thrill—this is what I’ve heard so much about, and now it’s my turn! When Santa had asked him what he’d wanted, he had just stared, blank-face. “Well, sweetie,” Santa had asked again, using the prompt he probably tried on any pre-school kid, “What’s your favorite thing?”
And my child had answered, sincerely, “The number ten.”
This time, his face was, again, anxious. What if his mother vetoed this purchase?
It was a balmy summer night. Vacationers strolled around us as. “What is this ring for?” I asked, knowing it would be irrelevant as a sex toy, and with the same unabashed response he brought to Santa, Evie answered, “To fix my packer. It’s for a construction issue.”
We entered the store—his girlfriend waited outside, people-watching—and approached a slip of a woman with blond dreadlocks and a medley of piercings. She seemed genuine; I liked her immediately. Evie glanced at me with a look that I knew meant he wanted me to do the talking, so I explained: he has a packer and needs a cock ring to fix it, but I don’t really understand what’s broken.
This gave him an opening, as now he could correct me. “It’s not to fix the packer,” he said. “It’s to keep it in my underwear.”
The clerk understood dutifully; seemed impressed. She grabbed a pair of underwear off the shelf, smoothed them over the glass counter, handed my son a packer, and he said, “Like this,” slipping the ring onto the rubber phallus, pressing it against the fabric, and demonstrating how he could stich the ring onto the underwear to secure his packer in place. I am so glad I taught my kid to sew.
“So it won’t slip out, right?” I asked, and the sales clerk, nodding, added, “This seems like a really good idea. I’ve never seen this done before.”
“Thanks,” my son said, and then, “See, Mom?”
“Okay, but this is what I have concerns about,” I continued. “He’ll be sitting in the bathroom at school and his packer will fall onto the floor and then someone will see it lying there, and it will be so weird that he’ll have to change schools. I just don’t want to go through that.”
“That makes sense,” she agreed. “It’s like when you don’t want it to slip down the pant leg.”
“Please, no,” I said. “No slipping down the pant leg.”
“It never slips down the pant leg,” my son answered.
“It can if you don’t have the right underwear,” the clerk replied. My son looked shocked. How could he be wrong about something?
“But this set-up will prevent that,” she said, yanking at the cock ring as if it was already sewn to the fabric. “This is a really good idea.”
“Yeah, he’s a smart kid,” I replied. “Industrious.” I picked up the ring. It was pliable, purple, about the size you’d imagine would fit over a shaft. I ask about the price.
I was shocked. Almost more shocked by the price than to find myself in this store in the first place. I didn’t mind spending twelve dollars, but it seemed so over-priced that I had to say something.
“This thing probably costs four cents to make,” I said. “Why is it so expensive?”
The store manager, ringing up at the next register, overheard us. “This is the going price for pleasure toys,” she called over. “This is what people will pay.”
“Mom, come on, it’s a good idea,” my son pleaded.
The manager wandered off.
“Six dollars,” the salesclerk whispered to us. “This is not for pleasure.”
I paid her, we both thanked her, and she said, “I’m giving you this discount because you’re both amazing. I never met a mom and son like you guys. This conversation practically made my summer.”
“Wow, thanks,” I said. My son headed out the door, into the August night, but I paused, taking-in the clerk’s words. By that time in his transition, I’d heard this a lot. It was about my support, of course, especially in a world where so many parents linger in their discomfort, delaying the approval their child craves. But this sales clerk was, I believe, touched most by my son’s visibility.
There’s a quote by the author Marianne Williamson that reads, in part, “We are all meant to shine . . . as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
I saw this liberation happen again and again. I watched Evie’s transparency help others feel comfortable, from his personal conversations to his public speeches. People tell me that I gave him a gift with my support, and maybe I did, but I see more clearly the gift his visibility gave to me.
As parents, we’re told to push our kids, and then to feign modesty when they succeed. Neither makes sense to me. I didn’t push, nor do I pretend to be modest. I revel in my brave, accomplished kid.
“Your playing small does not serve the world,” Williamson writes. “There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.” Evie saw that “playing small” would not serve him, or other transitioning kids, so he cast a wide net. He published a piece in The New York Times. When NBC wanted commentary on a study about transgender youth, they interviewed him. When a regional magazine celebrated its tenth-year anniversary, it profiled him to mark the progress of the local LGBTQ community. He addressed a roomful of lawyers whose firms provided pro bono services. Another group gave him a scholarship and an “Equality Award” at a black-tie dinner. His face is prominent in an ad campaign, encouraging trans youth to seek the healthcare they need.
Together, we spoke to advocacy organizations, and to classes of graduate students training to be counselors, helping them appreciate transitioning from the parent/child perspectives. And, together, we got locked in a parking garage moments before his TedX Talk. He had asked, as we downed the Cosi sandwiches provided to presenters, if he could rehearse just one more time, so we’d slipped through a stage door into the garage. As he practiced his lines, now for the hundredth time, gesturing at the grimy cinder block walls as if to his Power Point, we heard the click of a lock. Astonished, we sprinted past the rows of cars and onto the street, dashed through the theatre lobby, and slipped into the green room, our laughter shushed by the techies back stage.
This was his gift to me—the chance to participate in his joy of visibility. The invitation to share, as Williamson says, his light. And this was, I now see, a chance for my visibility, as well.
I loved, without apology, being seen as his mom. I learned that as parents, we must do what Williamson tells us: do not shrink. Shine. We must allow ourselves, as parents, to be visible and to play big. In doing so, others—especially our kids—can do the same.
One year my son tied a transgender flag around his shoulders, letting it float behind him like a cape as he joined in the PRIDE parade. It was a steamy day in June. We’d started marching in this parade together when he was in middle school, the route guiding us through the gauntlet of love that is that day. The year he wore his cape it was so hot that I watched from an air-conditioned bar, waving as he walked by, his pink, blue and white striped flag buoyant, visible in a sea of superheroes.
Sarah Priestman has published essays in The Hudson Review, Common Boundary, and The Washingtonian. Her work has been noted in America’s Best Essays, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and honored for Literary Excellence by the DC Commission on the Arts. She works with new-to-country students in Arlington, VA, sings with a huge community choir, and plans to walk the Camino de Santiago this September.