One April day in 2018, I came home with groceries and needed help unloading, so I texted my 16-year old son and asked him to come out to help. When Moses arrived at the car, I noticed blue eyeshadow behind his thick glasses. Surprised, I said, “You’re wearing makeup!” To which he blurted out, “Yes, Mom, I think I’m a girl.”
Fast-forward 2 years and things are very different from that transformative day. I now have an 18-year old daughter who goes by the name, “Mo” or “Mona.” She attends a gender clinic and receives hormone replacement therapy, or “HRT” as it is commonly known.
During our initial conversation that day in April, Mo requested that I not tell a soul about her gender journey. Not even her own father. She wanted to be sure, and needed time. So, she and I arranged a weekly Sunday check-in so she could share her thoughts and feelings, I could ask any questions I had, and we could strategize about how to go forward. I continued to encourage her to share her feelings with her father. It was hard for me to keep it from him. I told him only that Mo was going through something big, and would eventually be sharing it with him.
Initially, she had planned to come out at the beginning of her senior year in high school. This milestone came and went and she didn’t feel ready. So, while her classmates and their families were making college plans, Mo was quietly exploring how to move forward with her transition. I did not feel at all comfortable sending her away to college while going through such a major life change. I felt she needed the support of family, access to proper medical care, and the progressive cultural/social environment which our city, San Francisco, provided. Even in the best of circumstances, this transition would be difficult.
I had my own transition to make as well. I had to push past all the concerns and fears that any mother would have in this situation: how can my child be sure this is what she wants? What health risks will there be? What kind of discrimination will she face at school, in the workplace, and in society at large? Will she be tough enough mentally to handle the difficulties she will face? What will her romantic relationships be like? And the biggest fear of all, will she be the victim of violence because of being transgender?
I did not share these concerns with Mo. Instead, I listened, asked questions, and did my best to understand and adjust. I found myself revisiting her childhood, searching for indications of her true identity. Looking back, there were signs, but I did not understand them at the time. Mo’s revelation was a shock, and it took time to adjust. I found myself consuming any and all media that involved transgender people. From documentaries and essays to films and TV series such as POSE, I watched and read whatever I could find. Mo turned me on to the popular YouTube show “Contrapoints.” I discovered Jazz Jennings, a transgender girl who has been in the spotlight since was interviewed by Barbara Walters at a a very young age. Her family normalized and modeled how to support a transgender child. And while I deepened my understanding of the transgender experience, I ultimately realized that it didn’t matter if I fully understood--what matters most is that she feels supported by the people who love her.
Some people asked if Mo would now be dating boys--gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same thing. Some wanted detailed information about what processes were in place by the medical profession to ensure that treatment was justified. Some wanted to know if Mo would be having surgery.
In retrospect, I was desensitizing myself. In psychology, there is a method for dealing with phobias called “exposure plus response prevention” and basically it involves exposing people gradually to that which they are afraid of and retraining themselves to have a different reaction to that fear by learning that their fears do not come true. The bottomline is that I needed to get to know more transgender people, and to disevow myself of any unconscious biases or prejudices I held. While Mo was my primary source of information and understanding, I felt it my duty as a parent to do whatever I could to be the best ally possible.
I never felt, as some parents do, that I had to grieve losing my “son.” Mo’s revelation brought me closer to knowing my child for who she truly was. So many things about her childhood that were puzzling at the time started to make sense. One of the earliest indications was when Mo was very young, she looked up at me while I was reading her and her three brothers a bedtime story and said, “When I grow up, I want to be a mommy, just like you.” I thought it was sweet and said something like “oh, you mean you want to have children and be able to read to them and take care of them” (I thought she meant “parent” not “mommy”) and she said “no, I want to be a MOMMY.” In her young mind “mommy” meant “woman.” Her brothers giggled and told her she couldn’t be a mommy.
In second and third grade, Mo only wanted to play with girls. I took it to mean she was a sensitive child. It was hurtful when the girls rejected her because they did not see her as one of them. Mo was never overtly effeminate, but she was also not the “all boy” type of child. She had plenty of male friends, but didn’t feel comfortable in the group, and especially avoided middle school sleepovers. She was also painfully uncomfortable at the beach or pool, and never wanted to have her shirt off. One memory that stands out was when she was in ninth grade. Her high school was having a student government sponsored “Drag Ball.” I took her thrift shopping to find an outfit and she was extremely picky about what to wear. She had a definite idea in mind about how she wanted to present herself, how the clothes should fit, and how she looked. I had a wig from one of her brother’s film projects and with the wig and outfit and makeup she looked like a pretty young woman dressed to go out dancing, not a boy in an exaggerated drag costume. Something about that experience, though, was disturbing to her.
Will she be tough enough mentally to handle the difficulties she will face? What will her romantic relationships be like? And the biggest fear of all, will she be the victim of violence because of being transgender?
Fast-forward to one year of her coming out to me, to when she was finally ready to come out to her father and brothers. That started a whole new wave of her father coming to terms with this new information about his child. I had already taken Mo to her pediatrician and got a referral to the gender clinic, which had a seven-month waitlist. I was not going to take Mo to the clinic behind her father’s back. We found another clinic that was able to see her right away and we went through a period of counseling. At this point, Mo was 17 and very close to being able to make her own medical decisions. Her father and I decided to sign the papers to allow her to start treatment before she turned 18. The staff at the clinic were tremendously supportive and non-judgemental with my husband and me. They answered all our questions and gave us cutting-edge information about transgender healthcare and mental health. The bottom-line is that transgender youth have the best outcomes when they have a supportive family and access to appropriate healthcare. Regardless of what my husband and I did and didn’t understand and believe, we knew that we loved our child and needed to support her.
Mo decided to come out socially the day before the Trans March and Pride weekend in San Francisco. That is also when she started HRT. She asked that I write a Facebook post and inform family. This is what I would call the third wave. I had to patiently cope with everyone else’s reactions to the news. We had an outpouring of support and acceptance, which was heartwarming and validating.
The bottom-line is that transgender youth have the best outcomes when they have a supportive family and access to appropriate healthcare. Regardless of what my husband and I did and didn’t understand and believe, we knew that we loved our child and needed to support her.
There were, however, many trying moments. Some friends, upon hearing the news, reacted by saying it was a “phase.” Some people asked if Mo would now be dating boys--gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same thing. Some wanted detailed information about what processes were in place by the medical profession to ensure that treatment was justified. Some wanted to know if Mo would be having surgery. It was interesting to me how people who were not dealing with these issues in their own lives felt it appropriate to hurl questions and advice at me as though I’d not done my own research. I have taken the stance, though, to calmly answer questions as non-judgmentally as possible, while still drawing boundaries to protect my child’s privacy and not going so far as to feeling I have to justify my actions.
Another aspect to supporting a loved one during transition is that transition takes time, and looks different for each person. Once Mo was “out,” people expected her to present in a feminine way at all times. What they didn’t understand was the complexity of the situation. For example, Mo felt that wearing makeup while still having beard stubble only drew attention to her “masculine” features. She decided to do laser treatments which is a process that takes time. Going out in public “femme” often draws stares, disdain, and even fear from others. It takes courage and it takes time to feel comfortable presenting feminine in public.
Everytime I see a Facebook post about the murder of another transgender woman, or about a transgender right being taken away, my heart breaks.
My focus has been and remains one of supporting my child. Her happiness and well-being is what is most important. I do feel that I also have an obligation to make the world a kinder and safer place for Mo and others like her. That is why I am as open as possible, and answer questions as patiently as possible whenever I can. Everytime I see a Facebook post about the murder of another transgender woman, or about a transgender right being taken away, my heart breaks.
Despite the dangers and risks of my daughter’s transition, what are the alternatives? What if she had never realized the truths about herself and continued to live out her life not knowing why she had the feelings she did--would that have been better? What if my husband and I had told her it wasn’t real, wasn’t acceptable, and not allowed her treatment, not given support? In the best of circumstances, gender transition is not an easy path. What I can say with certainty is that Mo’s transition has brought us closer together and has made me a better parent, and a better person. And I know one day she will be an amazing “mommy.”
Dedicated to all who know what it means to love a child,
Story and photos by Mo's mom, Heidi Alletzhauser. Heidi is a photographer based in San Francisco with her husband and 4 children.