I missed it. As a parent, it’s a devastating pill to swallow when we miss something about our children when it’s glaringly obvious if we were to just look harder. I’m super perceptive and very present with my child, with both my children in fact. But I missed this one. The feeling in the depths of my being that I missed this one and failed to see the signs haunts me even as I write this reflection two weeks later. To understand my conflicted soul, let me back up a bit.
Two weeks ago today: “Mom, will I get hurt if I hold my pee too long?” Hmmm, I thought, why would my young son ask me that? I responded, “Why babe, how long is too long?” He responded, “All day.” There is was. I’d missed it. Reflections of the past weeks flashed through my head—every time I picked him up after school it was a mad rush home to run to the bathroom. I’d kind of sort of noticed this, but it didn’t register, like really register. I remember thinking about how small a bladder he must have to not be able to make it from lunch to the end of the day. Or, sadly I remember thinking he must be drinking a ton of water at school and how that’s so healthy for him. What a miss, damn. I felt instant shame for my assumptions. I realized how often this mad dash home had been happening over the past few weeks and that’s when my brain finally registered the possibilities of what was happening.
I asked him, “Kiddo, how long have you been avoiding the bathroom at school?” He responded, “For a while now, mom, is that going to hurt my body?” I didn’t immediately understand why he was avoiding the bathroom. As one of the first steps in setting up a safe school environment for my young transgender child, the school support team and I had set up protocols of support, one of them being the logistics around the bathroom options. (As an aside, the bathroom issues surrounding the trans community have only increasingly become a nationwide debate and have become a center of contention among states, school districts, and the public. When we initially set up the protocols, we did so before the 2016 Obama guidelines were rescinded a few weeks back by the current administration. It was a different time back then, just a few months ago. Sorry, I digress).
The school was open-minded and supportive, suggesting my child and our family choose which option would be best for us: the boy’s restroom, the girl’s restroom, the single stall near the classroom, or the nurse’s single-stall near the office. We spent all summer considering options and my child finally decided the single stall near the classroom was the safest and most efficient option. We all agreed. He’d get the key from his teacher’s desk or the one hanging on the wall and make his way to the restroom whenever he needed to. Except for recess and lunch, which he’d have to plan his day around or attempt to use the boy’s restroom or make his way to the nurse’s office, this plan seemed to work well, for a while anyway. I felt a sense of relief, as my child’s identity was being honored without putting him in a potentially unsafe situation in the boy’s restroom (I’d heard stories about the goings-on in that space at schools and it wasn’t a place I felt would provide the safest space for my young kiddo).
So, we began the year confident of our plan and went forth. It was okay for a while. All was well, right? Logistically it seemed to be working out well: my child was safe, the school was supportive of our family, and life was moving forward. That is until his question stopped me dead in my tracks: “Mom, can I get hurt if I hold me pee too long?”
Once I realized how long and consistently he was avoiding the bathroom at school, my next immediate question was this: “Why are you avoiding the bathroom, babe?” His response is what haunts me and keeps me up at night, makes me cry every time I think of it (which has been constant for the past two weeks), and makes me want to scream from the top of the mountain to anyone who will listen. He said, “Because, I don’t want to be the kid who has to get a key to go to the bathroom, mom.” There it was. That’s what I had missed. That’s what I’d been blind to. Being so worried about the safety of my young visible trans child at school had blinded my eyes to the complex reality of what it means to be othered in a space. Even more deep-seeded was the realization that my child had become aware of this othering effect, too.
The moment he said that my mind began to process what he was truly saying and experiencing and I expressed my sadness surrounding the othering effect of the single stall on social media that night, just to get out my feelings. Within minutes, his incredibly compassionate and amazingly forward-thinking teacher reached out to me. Within 12 hours, we were meeting with her, she was listening to what my son wanted and she reached out to the administration to set up a new protocol to support him. She was on it and without her support and that of a supportive principal, we wouldn’t be safe where we are now. They were doing right by him, by us. Even so, protocols were not what my son’s feelings were about, not what my feelings were about.
Here’s what they were about, are still about: My son is feeling the devastating effects of othering and will no doubt continue to feel these effects for the rest of his life. That cuts my heart deeply. For me, it’s about the fact that I can’t protect my son any longer. Perhaps it was a farce to think I ever could. He’s of the age of self-realization and deep reflection about the world. He’s beginning to realize he’s different and his journey is harder than his cisgender peers. Even if he’s now attempting to use the boy’s bathroom after school while his little brother and I wait outside to make sure he’s safe, he still feels the effects of othering. Even if the single-stall is left unlocked so he doesn’t have to be the kid who gets the key to use the restroom, he still feels the effects of othering. Even if he has his own key to the restroom and can use it during recess and lunch at will, he still feels the effects of othering. Even if all these options are presented to him because of the compassionate hearts of the adults around him, he’s still the kid who has to think about these things when others don’t. That’s what he’s begun to realize: his life is different than that of his cisgender peers around him. He’s begun to realize his path through life is going to be different, harder. He’s going to have to consider things in a more strategic way than those around him. He’s not even of the “locker rooms” age, but that’s going to be a thing. So is the 5th-grade science camp trip: which cabin will he stay in? Making his way into the restrooms as a young adult is surely going to be a thing, too. So many other things I can’t even anticipate right now will be things to overcome with grace and humility.
My mind flashes forward to a decade from now. A close professor friend of mine just recently told me a story and it hit me that this could be my son in ten years. In his undergraduate course, one of his students, a young transgender man, asked him if there were gender-inclusive restrooms at the university building where they held their class. My professor friend responded unfortunately not, there weren’t. So the student sized up my professor friend and asked him if he’d accompany him to the men’s restroom. And there it was: this trans student had identified an accomplice to ensure his safety. Find a trusted cisgender man to buddy up with to minimize the risk in the men’s restroom. Harassment or worse was what this trans student was trying to avoid. According to GLSEN’s 2015 School Climate Survey, 85% of trans youth are harassed at school, 59% sexually. This transman knew the risks and had created a plan to minimize the risks. He was forced to be strategic with something as basic as using the restroom at a university.
It hit me then as I processed my son’s future: to remain safe and healthy, my son would always need to come up with a strategic game plan and find accomplices around him to ensure his survival. As his mother, this has always been my role: to ensure my child survives and thrives. I have spent the past year being an accomplice to him as he’s become visible in our community. Becoming visible in a society where heteronormative cisgender people dominate and set policies that systemically oppress those that don’t fit into this box is scary. Being a mom who fits into this identity box raising a son who doesn’t is incredibly humbling. Raising a son who is now becoming more self-aware and beginning to ask more deeply reflective questions is terrifying. I don’t have the answers. I don’t have a playbook. I don’t have a vision of our next steps day today. There is so much I just don’t know.
What I do know, though, is guided by this quote, borrowed from one of my heroes: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter” –MLK Jr. So in life right now, this is where I stand: I will not remain silent about the struggle nor do I want my son to remain silent about his struggle. I will not remain silent about how it’s not just about logistics and protocols at schools or in society for trans youth. I will not be silenced nor will I allow my son’s identity to be silenced in our community or society. I acknowledge that my privilege as a heteronormative cisgender middle class woman affords me the position to push back against this narrative. With that realization, though, I will not remain silent about the things that matter to my son or to my family. My son’s life is just beginning and I will not let it begin to end because of the systemic oppression our society offers him at every turn. This reflection is about his feelings, emotions, and self-realization that his identity is othered and will continue to be unless the narrative is changed. This is my charge as a mama to a glorious transgender son: I am his accomplice in life, I always have been and I intent to continue to be with every breath I have. We will not remain silent about the things that truly matter.
I can only hope that next time I won’t miss something as important as his emotions. I can only hope that I will remain vigilantly aware of the effects of the world around my son and accompany him into uncharted territories with grace, love, and compassion. The risks are too high and result too devastating if I don’t. I missed it on this one, but I vow never to again.
Published with permission from a mother of a young trans child in our advocacy network.