This interview has been a long time coming. I first asked Melissa if I could interview her a week after we published our first Badass Broads piece last year. She’s a DNP, has moved across country with her family three times in the past eight years, and even has chickens (a personal sweet spot of mine). But the real reason I asked Melissa into our space is because she’s a kickass mom who has made it her mission to bring clarity, love and compassion to the world in defense of her children, one of whom is transgender. I’ve had the content of this interview ready to publish for a few weeks and I hadn’t taken the time to edit it until now. The horrifying acts that occurred this week in Orlando have reminded all of us how fragile life is, especially for those of the LGBTQ community and how much work there is to be done. I hope you take Melissa’s words as informative, but more so remember that our differences are what make us stronger, smarter and better.
Can you tell our readers a little about yourself?
OMG, I love having chickens. They just eat and poop and sleep. Watching them is kind of like the lazy form of yoga. I just watch the chickens and it feels like savasana. I’m about to talk a lot about my kids, so I have to take a minute and brag about my husband. He’s the coolest guy I’ve ever met and he only gets better with age. I try and keep a certain tone to my FB posts because a lot of people follow me through my blog. So, occasionally I’ll send him something to post because it’s harsher than what I’d normally post. He does my dirty work and it’s great. I’m the professional face of our parenting and he’s the behind-the-scenes bastard. God, I love that man.
I’m also really excited that you’ve sent me these questions. I never set out to get bad-ass broad status but I’m thrilled that you think I’ve earned it. I am lucky enough to be surrounded by amazing and inspirational women who push me forward. I was recently told, “Don’t go on an apology tour” and it’s my motto this year.
Can you tell us a little bit about what was happening in your life when your twins were 3 years old?
Well, I had 3-year old twins so I remember that there was a lot of crazy happening in our house. We had just left family in Ohio and moved to MN for my husband’s job. I was working as a night-shift nurse and we were making our schedules work with two small children. My kids are identical twins and we had consciously decided to stay away from identical outfits and expectations of them liking identical activities.
From the start, Conner had gravitated towards anything pretty and sparkly and traditionally feminine. Murphy was more of the rough-and-tumble identifying-with-superheroes type. We had proudly considered ourselves progressive parents for not being too alarmed when Conner would put towels on his head like hair or blankets around his body like dresses. At preschool, Conner always dressed up as the mommy and we would chuckle and try not to be concerned. We had kind of thought that Conner might grow up to be gay because we knew that the behaviors were very different from what we saw in other kids, but we really couldn’t put our finger on what was happening nor were we sure how concerned we should be about it. Keep in mind, this was seven years ago - before Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, and Caitlyn Jenner had brought transgender identity into mainstream conversations. We knew there was intensity behind our child’s behavior but we weren’t sure what, if anything, we should do about it.
We went home for a visit with our family after the birth of my niece. I was changing her diaper when Conner came over and noticed that my niece didn’t have the same anatomy as he did. Conner asked where her penis was and that started a conversation about how boys and girls have different body parts. From that point on, Conner started to ask when his penis would go away and when would he wake up and have a ‘gina’ like a girl. For months, we repeated the conversation that he was a perfect little boy and that his penis wouldn’t go away. Conner was insistent that his penis should go away. It was unnerving because I had never heard from any of my friends that their kids did this. It was different from Conner or Murphy make believing that they were Dora the Explorer or Diego. Eventually, he stopped asking but became withdrawn and stopped touching his body or proudly displaying what had previously been a favorite body part.
Was there one specific incident that lead to you seek professional assistance for Conner?
It’s always hard for me to talk about. It’s one of those pivotal moments as a parent when you look back on it and realize that was when your life changed. We were on the way to Target (of course it would be Target) and Conner once again mentioned that he couldn’t wait to grow up and be a mommy. I again pointed out that he would grow up to be an awesome daddy. He quietly said that he didn’t want to be a daddy and have hair on his face. He wanted to be a mommy and have a baby in his tummy. He said that he wanted his penis to go away. He sounded so full of despair that it put cold fear in my heart that this was not a child who was going to grow up and be gay. I didn’t know any gay man that didn’t love his penis. This was different, and we couldn’t ignore it any longer.
I went home and started Googling “my son wants to wear dresses” and finding all kinds of websites that scared the shit out of me. I learned about boys who wore towels on their heads like hair, and blankets around their bodies like dresses. Boys who said they were girls. That was the first time I ever recall seeing the word “transgender.” I started thinking about all the horrific stories of LGBT kids who’d been bullied or killed and I admit, I panicked.
I immediately started calling gender specialists from Boston to Seattle to ask for more information. I will never forget the voice of the man on the other end of the phone from Gender Spectrum who calmly walked me through typical behaviors in transgender and gender nonconforming kids while I sat on the other end of the phone and sobbed while taking notes. I just didn’t know what to do and I was so afraid of doing the wrong thing and making my child even more miserable.
We connected with a family advocacy group who put us in contact with a therapist out of Chicago who became our lifeline while we figured out the next steps forward and could find a more local resource. About a week before our first visit, Conner’s daycare provider put Conner in the corner all afternoon for saying that he was really a girl and the provider told Conner that he was only pretending to be a girl. After that, we had to hide knives and scissors so that Conner wouldn’t cause himself physical harm. And of course, we never saw that daycare provider again. We were scared. Though she was 6 hours away and had never met us, our therapist walked us through how to bring Conner’s level of distress down and offered to meet us emergently if it didn’t work. Thankfully, some sparkly Tinkerbell panties and head-to-toe girl’s clothes brought Conner to the point where we weren’t thinking of driving immediately to a hospital. We made the trip to Chicago a week later and spent several hours over two days working with a therapist that was a rock for our family in the middle of our toughest time.
With regards to the professionals you were speaking with, what kind of answers were you getting, did you have any dismissals or bad experiences with specialists?
We had done some research online prior to finding a therapist. Our struggle was that there seemed to be only two ways to move forward and neither felt right. The first was to take away all the traditional girl things we had collected and make Mike the very visible dominant head of the home. There were suggestions that I defer my questions to daddy and play up that being a man was very important. My husband and I both called bullshit on that idea. The other main thought was to move ahead with allowing our child to start living life fully as a girl. We weren’t sure we were ready for that either.
The therapist in Chicago had a philosophy that worked well with our family. Rule # 1 was First Do No Harm. Rule # 2 was Everybody Deserves to Be Who They Are, and Rule # 3 was Make as Small of Changes as Possible to Bring Your Child Out of Distress. We loved this approach because it allowed us to make changes based on our needs as a family. It was clear to the therapist that Conner met the criteria for a diagnosis of gender identity disorder, though that has now been replaced with Gender Dysphoria. The medical community has recognized that being transgender or gender nonconforming is no longer a disorder. However, the distress that is caused by having anatomy that doesn’t line up with a person’s gender identity or sense of self is a concern that needs to be addressed.
After you visited the specialist in Chicago what steps did you take to make Conner feel safe?
We started by telling Conner that it was okay to be a boy who liked dresses. We continued to use male pronouns and we put both male and female clothing in his dresser and allowed him the choice to choose. That was good for about a week and then Conner was demanding that he wasn’t a boy and to stop calling him “he.” We attempted to use gender neutral pronouns such as “they” and “them” but it was only a few days before Conner stomped his foot at me (behavior that I had never seen before in my little wallflower) and angrily wanted to know why I wasn’t using “she” when I addressed him. After a phone call with our therapist, we decided to go ahead and move forward with female pronouns and a full social transition right before the kids turned 5. All of Conner’s “boy clothes” quickly made their way into Murphy’s drawers never to be worn again.
Conner did initially want to change her name to Lisa Tinkerbell but we asked to hold off on a name change because we thought Conner was fun and unique for a girl. She decided to try it out and it has worked out well. We actually did trial a different name about 18 months ago but after 2 days she changed her mind. She never felt like she was anyone other than Conner.
How about your family and friends? Obviously this isn’t something everyone in your lives was willing to accept as head on as you and Mikael
We lived 14 hours away from the closest family member and it gave us time as parents to come to terms with everything and figure out how we would tell our family. We had a few close friends who were with us through every early step and they were a tremendous support for us. My mom and stepdad were easy. As soon as I told them what the medical professionals were telling us, it was like everything that we had all been questioning suddenly clicked into place. It was like snapping your fingers and saying, “That’s what it is! How did I not see it before?” For other family members it ran the gamut from outright disagreement with our decisions to complete acceptance. We sent a letter to our family and friends because we wanted to give them time to process their feelings before having to address us. Again, keep in mind that things have changed dramatically in the past few years (really, the past 2 years) so transgender wasn’t a word anyone in my circle knew 7 years ago. We did lose a few family members and a few friends. We were surprised at who was immediately supportive and who needed more time to come to terms with it. We had the world’s greatest neighbors and their kids were rock stars about it. We got a lot of support in unexpected places and we had many parents tell us that we were doing the right thing. We had it better than most and still do. We don’t apologize for our choices and while we hope that you’ll love us, we’re not concerned if you don’t.
How did the transition affect Conner right away? Does she remember a time before transitioning to a girl?
I could say that Conner blossomed, but that doesn’t really capture the full picture of her transformation. What I tell people is that the princess was finally let out of her tower and she was never going back into it again. Prior to her transition, you would have remembered Murphy but maybe wouldn’t have remembered Conner. She was quiet and reserved. She rarely spoke her opinion. If you look back at old photos, she was the twin who didn’t smile as much. After her transition, she was vibrant, full of life, opinionated, and outgoing. Our pediatrician actually had to leave the room in tears after meeting the authentic Conner because she was a completely different child. And the transformation happened almost overnight. It was dramatic. She does remember not being allowed to be a girl (that’s how she phrases it) and how sad it made her. But, at this point she’s presented as a girl longer than she ever presented as a boy. She tells me that I can’t tell people that she is male-to-female because she was never really a male. She tells people that you can’t change from someone you never were. So, I now tell people that she was assigned male at birth because she’s right. She was never a boy.
Is on going therapy a part of your family’s life?
Yes. I tell people that for many transgender or gender nonconforming kids, their baseline stress level tends to be much higher than other kids. I mean, think about how self-conscious you are with a big zit on your nose. Now imagine that the zit is actually a penis (if you’re a female) or labia (if you’re a man). Now try and make friends or learn algebra. So, learning to deal with a body that isn’t in alignment with your identity is a lot to overcome.
I know in the case of my daughter that she is extremely resilient because she’s had to be. Until she’s not. It’s almost like she maintains a certain level of resiliency and then suddenly it all gets used up and she’s struggling. Hard. We usually only need to touch base with our therapist to help Conner deal with managing other people. She loves BIG. If she meets you, she loves you. If you don’t reciprocate that love, then she takes it hard. So, we’ve had to try and help her see that love like hers needs to be earned by others because it’s such a beautiful gift.
We’ve all seen a therapist from time to time just to talk through this. I didn’t even know that people could identify as transgender, gender nonconforming, agender, or non-binary and now it’s become a large part of my life. Sometimes you just need to talk it out with a professional so that you don’t end up eating all your feelings (which I don’t say lightly) or staying under your covers all day. It’s hard when you open Facebook or turn on MSNBC and see people raging about bathroom bills and calling your child a pedophile and sending you hate mail.
A lot of parents, who might be as supportive as you are, might not be as willing to be open about it on the internet. What sparked your decision to start your blog to talk about something that others might deem too personal to take to the the internet?
There weren’t a lot of blogs when we were putting all these pieces together 7 years ago. The blogs that were out there were such a beacon to me because I didn’t know what to expect and they provided a peek at what our future might hold. We had a bad experience at our last school. I have to say that the school itself was great and the faculty was on the ball with protecting Conner. But, kids can be shitty, especially if they are encouraged to be so from their parents. Conner went from happy and vibrant to withdrawn and depressed in the span of a few months because of bullying. It made me mad. Really fucking angry. Because Conner is the sweetest kid you’ll ever meet and all she wants to do is be your friend. I decided one night that I needed to write about it to make myself feel better. I had been rolling the idea of a blog around in my head for months but it’s hard to put yourself out there and really, to put your child out there, knowing that people can be cruel. And one night I just bit the bullet and started writing. I made my first post and our friends went crazy. We had 700 hits to our blog on the very first day and so many people thanked us because they wanted information but didn’t know how to ask. A few months later, the blog started showing up on Huffington Post and now suddenly, I get to have a voice on a larger platform than I ever expected.
Conner clearly knows about your blog. Does that at all affect your ability to write openly and honestly about your feelings and/or hardships?
Yes, yes, and more yes. I struggle with almost every blog post to maintain a balance between being open but not over sharing. I check in with her frequently to see how she feels about the blog or if there’s a particular topic she’d like me to discuss or not discuss. While she doesn’t walk around telling people that she’s transgender, she doesn’t hide it either. There was a recent study published in Science magazine that suggested that even a 10-minute conversation with someone about transgender issues was enough to change transphobic behavior. As scary as it is to put ourselves out there, we want to change as many hearts as we can to try and make the world a better place for this very marginalized community. But I did downplay the struggles with our current school system and our struggle to allow her to use the girl’s bathroom. We live in a really small town and it wasn’t my preference to have news media show up if we could avoid it. Conner was willing (she’d love to be the next Jazz Jennings) but I’d like to have more say over when and how she is presented in the media. I also try to avoid people tagging me in location posts on FB because I don’t want some scary person to show up at my door. It gets particularly unnerving when a post generates hate mail and death threats. I have learned that there is more anonymity on Huffington Post than there is in our local small town newspaper.
How about Murphy? Do you see any of the attention on Conner as affecting him negatively?
Both kids have had to grow up faster than their peers. Murphy struggled initially with the loss of his identical twin brother. We encouraged him to grieve the way he needed to grieve when he was so little. But, it didn’t take long before he became Conner’s biggest supporter. That’s both good and bad. He carries this burden to advocate for her, which is great, but it’s an added pressure that I wish he didn’t have to shoulder. He’s stood up to bullies, he’s held her when she’s cried, and he’s helped Mike and I make decisions about school concerns with bullies. He’s an amazing kid and I worry that I don’t give him the attention he deserves. He’s brilliant-no really. The kid is scary smart. He’s in gifted and talented classes and his brain works so differently than mine. He’s going to have a job someday that doesn’t even exist yet. We have these awkward (to him) heart-to-hearts where I tell him how great he is and how proud I am to be his mom. I totally worry that he’s negatively affected and that it’s going to catch up to us someday. So, Mike and I both check in, tell him that he’s loved, push him to get good grades, and then let him get lost in Minecraft and Zelda when he needs to zone out from the stresses of life. I’m so freaking lucky to have the best kids in the world.
The suicide rates of trans people are staggeringly high, which I can imagine is terrifying as a parent. Do you feel like those fears at all affect your parenting towards Conner? Do they affect Murphy in the same way?
Ugh. I recently posted a blog post about how to talk about suicide with your loved ones. For the general population, the suicide rate is about 1.6%. It’s about 41% for the transgender community. That’s suicide attempts we’re talking about, not just suicidal thoughts. The risk of suicide is higher when families aren’t supportive, and for transgender people of color. It’s terrifying. We had one of our most exciting days as a family a few days ago (Conner got to do some public speaking about being transgender) and I came home on the biggest mom-high ever to hear that one of the kids from our online support group had committed suicide. It hit me hard because this was one of our own. In our community, there’s no such thing as “other people’s kids.” When you come across a transgender youth who isn’t supported by their family, you do whatever you can to support that child.
It does affect how I parent Conner and those practices spill over onto Murphy. We’ve talked about suicide with both our kids. We talked about a safety plan. We’ve talked about how to talk to their friends about suicide. My kids are 10. Why do I have to have conversations like this with 10-year olds? Because I know of 7 and 8-year olds who have tried and succeeded to commit suicide. All the news attention right now on the bathroom bills is taking a huge toll on this community. The visibility over the past year has been a double-edged sword. People are now aware of the transgender community, but the comments online are horrible and people are dying because of it. And don’t get me started on the violence directed at trans women of color. It makes me physically ill and I feel powerless. So, I keep writing about it, and trying to draw attention to these issues, and trying to protect my flock.
A lot of people don’t seem to know much about the trans community. What kind of stigmas do you find attached with having a trans daughter?
There are a lot of misconceptions to overcome. There have been insinuations that she has been sexually abused or that something inappropriate has happened at home. There have been suggestions that we are forcing her to be a girl because I was disappointed that we had two boys. People have commented that we don’t have boundaries with our kids and let them do whatever they want. People assume that gender has something to do with sexuality. There’s a lot of blame placed on the mom. There are also misconceptions that trans people are confused, or that they have a mental disorder. There’s nothing wrong with the transgender community. Transgender or gender nonconforming identification isn’t abnormal, it just isn’t as common as cisgender identification.
I get really frustrated when people think that a 3-year old can’t know their gender. We ONLY ever question it when their gender doesn’t align with their anatomy. We would never dream of asking a proud little one who tells us that he is a “big boy” how he knows that he is a boy. We only ever question kids whose body and mind don’t align. If a child is telling you over and over that they are a different gender then you should pay attention. We assign our kids a gender identity before they are even out of the womb and we reinforce those gender norms constantly whether we realize it or not. A child is overcoming tremendous social cues to trust you with this realization of who they are as a person, and then we tell them to question and examine it. It is a gift when a child trusts you with that knowledge and you should do everything in your power to protect and support that child. There is nothing wrong with these children.
Why are the bathrooms a big deal?
The bathrooms are a big deal. My daughter had to use a gender-neutral bathroom for about 4 months this year and it was horrible. She identifies as female. Her biggest struggle is having this body part that loudly proclaims that she was not born in the body that she identifies with. To have anyone tell her that this body part now defines where she’ll pee is huge. Not letting her use the bathroom of her affirmed gender tells her that you don’t believe her. It takes her right back to the day that the daycare provider told her that she was only pretending to be a girl. For laws like HB2 in NC, the law states that she has to use the men’s bathroom. My child looks like a little girl. Can you imagine how scary it would be to send her into the men’s room? Lots and lots of transgender people look like their affirmed gender and sending them into the bathrooms of their birth certificate would wreck havoc. There are a lot of people saying that they will kill or beat any man who comes into the women’s bathroom and there are a ton of trans men who you would never guess have female anatomy or a birth certificate that says female. Going into the women’s bathroom would be a dangerous for them. These bathroom bills are ridiculous.
TLDR: Top tips on encountering someone who is transgender:
- Ask them what pronouns they prefer. Be matter-of-fact about it. They’ll likely be glad that you were sensitive enough to ask.
- Don’t ask about surgery or hormones unless you are prepared to talk about your own labia or testicles. It’s rude and you’d be offended if someone asked about your genitalia.
- If you are supportive of the trans community, speak up. If someone cracks a joke in front of you, call them on it. That’s my 10-year old daughter they are making fun of.
- Don’t use the former name of someone if they’ve changed their name. That’s called dead-naming and it’s a huge sign of disrespect.
- Understand that gender is a beautiful awesome spectrum. There are all kinds of ways to identify as a woman or a man. My daughter’s identity is very different from the identity of any of her other transgender friends. We are all unique in how we self-identify and gender is just one part of that. We get prickly whenever we hear a man say that they’ve figured a woman out. That holds true for any gender, or those who don’t hold to any gender. It’s a fantastic beautiful spectrum and I hope that you’ll take some time to explore it. Life with two genders is boring.
Melissa’s writing and family have been featured in Huffington Post, Family Circle and Transitions of the Heart by Rachel Pepper. Give her a follow at http://www.nonconformingmom.com/