I will never know what it is like to be a transgender person. I will never know what it is like to be a nine-year-old visible trans boy. I will never know what it feels like to be invisible while being visible during my daily life in society. I will never know what systematic oppression feels like for identifying as part of the LGBTQIA community as an elementary school child. I will never know what it feels like to try to be stealth just to navigate my way through life, hoping people think I pass well enough not to harass me, or worse, on a daily basis. With all the myriad things I do not know, here’s what I do know: I know my kid. I know both my kids well, in fact. And here’s why: I listen. A lot. I listen with the intent to know them, to see them, to grow with them. I am purposely present with each of them. For my young trans son, what I won’t ever confront in my own lived experience, I internalize through my fierce stance as a global observer of and participant in his life’s journey. In other words, I observe him with such intensity, in all aspects of his life, because I want to know him well, to love him deeply, and to learn what my role can be for him as he journeys through life. Because I do observe him so intensely, when I noticed a palpable shift in his personhood today, I was completely mesmerized. Let me catch you up with some context, a bit of content, and a whole lot of contemplation in this reflection.
My kid came alive today. Honestly, truly alive. His authentic self was alive today in public. It was breathtaking to witness. I am still processing exactly what I witnessed today and I probably will linger with my thoughts for the next, well, honestly forever, but there he was in public today: truly alive. I’m going to dig deep to explain what I mean by this statement. I’m going to dig even deeper to figure out how to recreate this in his everyday life, in all aspects of his world. But, here it is:
I am a firm believer in the power of the spoken and written word, in all forms of art: literature, visual arts, performing arts, spoken word, anything to do with the expression of one’s lived experience. I’m a literacy person by trade and a mom of a visible elementary-aged transgender son. Naturally, when we unbelievably received a personal invitation to join the cast and crew of the nationally acclaimed and award-winning show Transparent, on-location no less, we jumped at the opportunity. To spend the day intertwined with one of the most cleverly-written, heartfelt shows living today, documenting the transition journey of a transgender woman and her family, as I said, we jumped. We didn’t really know what to expect: none of us had ever been on a Hollywood film set, much less on location with a cast and crew. Boy, what an adventure, right?!
To capture our experience today in this form of the written word is a challenge, so my attempt to do so will center on this statement from my son as I tucked him into bed tonight after our day’s adventure: “Mom, I loved being around so many transgender adults today. I felt comfortable to be myself like I am with you at home. They knew who I was and I could be myself. It was so cool.” Truth, kid. There is was, glaringly simple yet infinitely complex: it takes an experience like the one my child had today to reveal that in his daily life as visibly trans in society, he doesn’t feel like he can be his true authentic self; conversely, I’m beginning to suspect he’s always trying to just pass and hoping no one notices him. Damn, that’s harsh to realize. He’s glorious. He’s brilliant. He’s creative. He’s so humble. He also seeks to be stealth and pass. This I realize now. And, I get it. But, more importantly than any of these realizations of his daily life navigating through society, today he experienced a visible moment in public where he was so excited to be visibly himself with adults, strangers, on a film production set no less. And here’s the thing: I think I know why. And it probably is not exactly what you’re thinking. That’s the contemplation bit I was referring to earlier.
Dude, of course, he’d be comfortable, he’s around other trans people, you’re thinking. Right? Nope, this is where we dig deeper. The mere representation of folks who share your identity falls short. What I mean by that is this: it’s not enough to merely be surrounded by folks who look like you to create a feeling of belonging that’s strong enough to combat the oppression you feel in your daily life. It’s deeper than that, much deeper than that. Perhaps you’re now thinking that because visibly thriving trans people were being included in his day’s experience, that that would lead to his feeling of being truly alive. Again, the mere inclusion of folks with his shared identity is not deep enough to explain the way I observed him come alive today. Not representation. Not enough to explain what happened to him today. Not inclusion, either. Not enough to explain how my boy became so alive today, the way I see him at home and with his transgender children’s playgroup.
Insert content pause here, now that I’ve set the context piece for you. And I promise, once I’m finished quickly digressing to my nerdy literacy content piece that I really love living enveloped within, I’ll get to the contemplation part that seeks to explain what I think happened to my child today. For nearly ten months, I’ve been captivated and truly transformed by many of my incredible mentors’ work in my field, but one mentor, in particular, stretches my brain so intensely, and the fact that she identifies as genderqueer makes me feel like her voice is infinitely more powerful in this work. It just is to me. When I first met her at a literacy conference months ago, at the time I was intent on seeing my son’s identity represented in the spheres he inhabits: home, school, church, sports, friends, etc. I was on about wanting his identity represented in big ways. I began reading about inclusive practices in other educational contexts, namely how our students with special needs must have our advocacy around full inclusion in educational settings. I began thinking about how I wanted all children to be included in all aspects of their school experience. Inclusivity became my mission then. That is until I heard Dr. Dana Stachowiak speak and I began reading her research and learning about her anti-oppressive work with schools. I’ll be honest, my brain kind of exploded, in all the best possible ways, when I realized what she was working toward and still works for. It informs so much of my perspective these days, so I want to be sure to credit her in part for my transformation of thought. I seek to represent my understanding and synthesis of what I’ve learned from so many of my mentors and how I see it impact my kid’s life. I fully acknowledge I will probably not do much of it justice just yet, but it’s my attempt. Here’s my new thinking. We have long outgrown representation: I don’t want my kid merely represented in the spaces he occupies daily. I am outgrowing inclusivity, too. I don’t merely want my kid to be just included in the spaces he occupies daily (and believe me, this is a hard one for me to let go of because I’ve had a death grip on this idea for so long). Here’s what I do want: I want my kid’s identity and voice, not him as an individual necessarily but his identity as a member of a vulnerably marginalized identity, in general, to be fiercely privileged in powerful ways in the spaces he occupies. The distinction I refer to here between representation, inclusivity, and privileging marginalized voices is nuanced and layered, but here’s a crystal clear portrait to clarify what I mean and what I’m working toward. And that portrait, it happened today. That’s how I know the empowering effect of privileging marginalized voices in powerful ways is what I want for my son and his trans peers in all aspects of their life.
My trans son came alive today because he was surrounded by folks privileging the voice of his peers, be they adult trans peers, they were his peers none the less. As he observed, listened, and watched all day, I noticed this shift in his body language. He had this shift in the intensity with which he listened as they filmed and as he watched the producers and writers meet to rewrite lines for authenticity and to retake particular scenes. He watched as the talented trans actresses reworked lines, rehearsed, ad-libbed, reshot scenes, and so on. He watched a retake of a scene for emotional integrity so the scene reflected more realistically what a trans woman might actually be feeling in this situation. He began to realize just how many of the folks surrounding him were trans: from the actors to the writers and producers, and probably many of the crew that we did not even have the honor of meeting throughout the day. Not only were trans voices included, but they were also deeply privileged across every aspect of the creation of this show. He was watching trans folks boldly and bravely living their lives, honoring their truths, and telling their stories through their artistic outlet: be it writing, acting, chatting on set, and so on. This amazing show is dedicated to privileging the voices of the historically marginalized trans community. The moment my child realized just how much authentic power the folks sharing his identity possessed in this sphere, he became alive. It’s almost like he became visibly proud of his identity and how privileged it was in this space. It feels strange to name it this way because I know my kid feels proud of who he is, but I’m also beginning to realize he may not feel that the identity he embodies is privileged by the larger society around him. That’s hard to describe here, but it’s a feeling, you know? A vibe one gets. I can’t explain it any better than this: peers are no longer verbally accosting him, but he knows that particular spaces in his life are safer than others to be visible. With the knowledge that unsafe spaces exist for your identity comes to the realization that your identity isn’t privileged everywhere and a marginalizing feeling subtly overcomes you and the oppressive nature of your lived reality is created. It’s absolutely more complicated than this, of course. For now, though, my kid found himself in a space of privilege for who he is. For truly who he is. Now that’s power. And, that’s empowering for a kid, for anyone frankly. And it showed. On his face. In his body language. In his words. In the way within which he navigated the spaces that he occupied all day long. He was alive. Truly alive as a trans boy in a space that privileged him for his mere existence in this world. Boom, that’s what privilege feels like. And he felt it, if but for a brief moment in public. With a bunch of the most incredible strangers. My kid. Alive.
My contemplation is now this: how do I recreate this experience for my kid in all the spaces he occupies in his daily life? Home? Yep, got that fiercely covered. Trans children’s playgroup? Good to go. Family and friends? We’ve chosen wisely, cut where painfully necessary. Church? They are fierce protectors of him and we’re guided by a queer woman of color who is our minister—we’re in good hands. Where is the other space in his life that he spends large amounts of time? Yep, you guessed it: school. Awe, the schooling system. My work centers here: creating a space where marginalized voices are not merely represented, are not merely included, but a space where voices of marginalized identities are privileged and hold power in fierce ways. I am really in my infancy in understanding what this means and how it can happen in deep-seeded systemic ways. But I saw it today, albeit in a different context, but I saw it nonetheless. I want this for my child, his peers, all children whose voices have been historically marginalized through systemic oppression. I’m not about representation anymore, I’m way past that. I’m loosening my grip on inclusivity, it’s hard though. I’m seeking the erasure of systematic oppression that comes when voices are silenced. I’m seeking the power for marginalized identities that comes when voices are privileged and children are empowered with the agency for who they authentically are. That’s my charge.
I listen to my kid a lot. When he stared at me tonight and declared just how much he felt comfortable to be himself in public today (I might assert he felt confident and proud to be himself, too) it makes me want this feeling for him in all the spaces of his life that he occupies. I want him and his peers to feel comfortable, confident, and proud to be their authentic selves in all aspects of their lives, and especially in school. I am over-representation, moving away from mere inclusivity, and now seek to create spaces that privilege his peer group’s identity as proud, thriving trans children. I know the glorious effects of what this looks like on a child’s personhood: it looks like truly living. Being alive. I want this for my trans son. I want it for everyone’s trans children. I want to for everyone’s children who are living silenced marginalized identities. The work now becomes how to make this happen. And it will, if it takes my entire life to happen, it will. Please let it be sooner.
Published with permission from a mother of a young trans child in our advocacy network.