Magazine article Psychology Today

The Son Who Wasn't

Magazine article Psychology Today

The Son Who Wasn't

Article excerpt

ON A COLD January night six years ago, shortly before his 20th birthday, my son Steven told me he was a woman. He was home from college for wihter break, and we were relaxing in the living room, chatting late into the e vening as we often did. The conversation touched on Steven's fervent involvement in women's rights as well as gay and lesbian issues. Then we started talking about a new friend of his, a young transgender man I was curious to know more about.

I had only a fleeting awareness of what it meant to be transgender. Steven carefully explained that it was a condition in which people feel themselves to be a gender that's disharmonious with their body, and such was the case with his friend. I found this interesting and in no way alarming. Steven hung out with all kinds of people. He had never meshed perfectly with social conventions himself, and I wondered if he was now exploring this territory in the hope of finding companionship. But something about his demeanor and the passion in his eyes led me to feel strangely suspicious. My stomach tightened. I wanted swift reassurance that this budding exploration of gender identity was just another one of his many intellectual interests.

"How about you?" I asked nervously. "Do you feel harmony between your brain and your body?" He was silent. When no answer came in the seconds that followed, I knew that my world was about to implode.

As a little boy, Steven had been incomparably sweet and gentle, yet he was always an outsider. He was at once too kind and generous for other children to actively dislike, but too odd for them to ever invite over to play. Some inexplicable quality seemed to prevent him from being able to bond naturally with his peers. It was heartbreaking for me, and not without effects for Steven-from his earliest days, I detected a profound loneliness deep within him. It was as if he stood back and observed as other kids enjoyed their childhood.

As he grew, he excelled academically and absorbed himself in reading, writing, playing piano, and running track. He remained on the social margins, however, and though he interacted with a whole range of school cliques, he was never really a member of any of them. I came to think of his isolation as both the product of a studious boy's natural temperament and a consequence of our family's busy life-along with my husband and younger son, we were in a constant flurry of kids' extracurricular activities. In high school, Steven finally made some good friends on the debate team. But even in that circle of bright young people, the coaches were puzzled by his unusual passiveness. Though he excelled at doing research behind the scenes, he always took a back seat at tournaments, letting his charismatic, self-assured teammates be the stars.

My question hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity until Steven broke the silence. "No, I don't have harmony between my brain and my body," he said with trepidation. "I am a woman, and I've known this since puberty." The intensity of the moment was almost unbearable. He confessed that he didn't want to exist as Steven anymore, that he was desperately unhappy with the charade of being a man. The child I had always known as my son was actually my daughter, he told me. Now, he was planning to alter his appearance to reflect this reality.

It felt as if my sanity buckled in the following days. I was nearly paralyzed with shock. Somehow, my husband was able to accept our son's admission more readily. "Steven says he's a woman and I trust him," he said. Yet I woke up in anguish day after day, wishing it were all a bad dream. My despair soon turned into fear as I worried about the prejudice, abuse, and violence he might face. Will people be malicious and cruel to my child? Will somebody try to attack him? It seemed that it was my maternal duty to intervene in what I perceived as a disaster and protect him. I told Steven that I could no more easily have enabled my toddler to run into traffic than enable my grown son to change to a daughter. …

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