Look at that gorgeous girl. Our daughter, Harmony, came out to us as transgender in May of 2016 shortly before she graduated from high school. We were then, and are now, supportive of Harmony living her life and presenting herself to the world in any way she sees as the best representation of her true self. When the MAC makeup holiday pallets arrived, I asked Harmony if she would like to join me with her sister at our annual tradition of getting makeovers and buying fun, edgy makeup. She accepted, and she looked so gorgeous we did a photo shoot and posted our journey as a family to share it with friends and loved ones. Over the course of the next year, Harmony signed up for classes at the local community college, and joined the UW marching band, travelling the country and performing. In May 2017 I surprised Harmony with a cake and party favors to celebrate her Coming Out Day. We honored her, went to dinner at her choice of restaurant and got her ears pierced. Harmony’s sister Lindsay (blond in photos) and I both graduated in June 2017, she from high school and me with my first undergraduate degree. Harmony attended the ceremonies with us, and was greeted with love, acceptance and support by our family, and friends. Friends commented to me that Harmony was more social, and engaged than they had ever seen her.
This is the rosie, optimistic story of transition that we have presented publicly. And this is all true. But gender transition is not all sunshine and flowers. And I want to do my part in reducing the stigma of living with challenges in the family unit, mental health problems, and the hardships faced by the LGBTQ community as they free themselves of the shackles society has placed on them. To that end, I want to come forward with the complete story of our transition as a family so far as we work to support Harmony. This is a long, honest story of one family, mine, and our experiences.
About a week after my graduation from college, and two weeks after Lindsay’s graduation from high school, we had a huge graduation party at our home. Harmony was getting ready for the party upstairs in my room, borrowing clothes and makeup, and looking phenomenal, when guests started arriving. Lindsay and I began answering the door, greeting guests, mingling and talking. We must have had about 150 people through the house that day. Every once in a while, we would ask each other if anyone had seen Harmony, but as parties go we were super busy and didn’t have time to track her down. As the party wound down, we found out that she was in my closet on the floor, having a full panic attack, crying silently the entire time. For hours. During the time she was getting ready for this party was one of the last times she came out of her room until very recently. She dropped her classes, dropped UW marching band, cancelled attending a family vacation, stopped going to doctor’s appointments, even avoided seeing us in the kitchen or hallways, choosing to come out more often when we were on another floor of the house. She stopped eating regularly, lost weight, stopped maintaining order in her room, stockpiled dishes, and eventually stopped speaking out loud altogether, relying on messenger and text to communicate even with immediate family.
From June 2017 to December 2017, it was clear that Harmony was in a major depressive event. We celebrated her birthday in October, but she wouldn’t allow photos and only came out of her room for a short time. As a premedical student and sociology major I know that access to mental health care is very scarce. But I had no idea how incredible the scarcity until I experienced this with my own family. We got on waiting list after waiting list. We went to the emergency room when Harmony was afraid she would hurt herself. My husband took time every week to call and follow up with every clinic we were on a waiting list with. They would always tell us they were full. Refer us to more clinics. He would call them. They were full. More waiting lists. This went on for six full months before Harmony was finally seen at EBCTS in Seattle. They are wonderful, however, they are not specialists for gender dysphoria, and we were still on waiting lists with gender specializing clinics all over the city. Finally, a miracle happened (and I really think this is because our therapist at EBCTS made an “ask” for us) we got in to see a therapist who specializes in patients undergoing gender transition. This is in March 2018, fully 9 months into a mental health crisis, and Harmony finally has a specialist. We are an energetic, supportive family, with health insurance and the ability to access resources to pay for mental health care and this has been our experience. This is 9 months of her young life that she will never have back.
During this time, I have done a lot of soul searching. First, I want to talk a bit about my feelings firsthand, as a mother. To be the parent of a child who has completely stopped participating in the world is one of the most painful things you can endure. My husband and I feel powerless to help her, and completely in a state of discomfort about what we can and should do. The truth is, Harmony’s gender transition caught all of us (her family) completely by surprise. Often when you read about people who are transitioning, the family and friends “always knew.” We didn’t. We were completely clueless. And to think that we never knew Harmony at all, only the false identity she was presenting to the world, that she was shielding something so big from us her entire life – it hurt. And speaking for myself, it hurt on a very personal level that felt like an assault on my own identity too, as a woman and mother. Because no one knows a child better than their mother. As mothers we know our children better than they know themselves. Don’t we? Shouldn’t we?
And for every friend who told us how beautiful Harmony is and said wonderful things about her, there were many who undermined her transition. Lifelong friends told us “she isn’t a girl,” or “that wasn’t fake,” (stereotypically male gender behavior they had witnessed during her childhood), or the worst, “I’m sorry but you have a ding dong. You’re a boy.” Although my husband and I also experienced feelings of shock and denial at first, we would never purport to know what the gender experience of our daughter was, living inside her skin. If she was good at faking it, so are all of us at living up to (or bucking as we are comfortable) the gender roles that society expects of us. These comments coming from lines of support were deeply hurtful. We needed support, and someone to listen to our honest feelings. Not to tell us how wrong our child is after bravely telling us something she had hid all her life.
Even worse, we loved our son. That person she acted out. We loved him so, so deeply. We loved him the way every parent loves their child. We would do anything for him, and did so much. We watched him blossoming into a creative, dynamic, talented, strong young adult, or so we thought, and we will never see him again. So as we support Harmony in her transition, we are processing grief that we can only speak privately of, in hushed voices if we are at home so she doesn’t hear. I am talking about the grief that comes with the loss of a child. This feels like processing death, except that the families of trans children are not allowed to move forward always keeping this past person alive in our memories. The expectation is that photos come down and that we don’t speak of past experiences with our child because this is triggering and reminds them of their trauma. We are talking about those special memories that make family life so dear. Those intimate moments. Those once in a lifetime experiences. We speak freely of other family members and loved ones who have died, and keep them at the top of our mind and hearts. But we have to pretend our only son never existed. And that is so, very difficult.
But just like all parents, what we want for this beautiful child is that she live in the world, and bring her gifts, and shine as her true self. We will do anything we can to support this end, and that includes working through these feelings. It would help so much to have Harmony as an active part of her own new life, and interact with her – to bond with our new child. But right now she has almost completely withdrawn, and is virtually invisible to the world.
During this time of soul searching, I have also tried to consider the trauma that Harmony is now experiencing that may be keeping her from interacting with the world. Like most white, cis-gendered, heterosexual women, I have never experienced feeling out of sync with society’s expectations of my self and body, other than being a feminist and pushing against boundaries in more expected ways.
Harmony, however, had several traumatizing experiences early on in her life after coming out. First, she was terrified of using the bathroom, that someone would try to stop her from going into the womens room, or confront her. Although this never happened, she took measures – she didn’t eat or drink all day while attending classes. She would come home depleted and dehydrated. She lost weight. She dropped classes. She took incompletes, and involuntary withdrawals on her transcript, and left school. She also left UW marching band after the director refused to have her room on road trips with other girls. He put trans people with trans people.
Harmony – like many other transgendered people – doesn’t identify as trans. She identifies as a woman. Her passport, identification and all legal documents state she is of female gender. Yet in many situations she is treated as “other.” In our binary gendered society, in order to be recognized as a woman in situations like with the UW band, she would have to surgically alter herself. That is what it would take for her to be roomed with other girls. Although surgery is the right decision for many transgendered people, it is not right for everyone. It is a huge, permanent step for a person who is just 20 years old, and has never even been kissed. Sexuality and gender are separate issues. She is just getting to know herself as a woman, and has never known herself as a partner or lover. She is not ready to undertake this procedure. And she certainly needs her mental health to stabilize and become functional before making any kind of permanent decisions. This is an extremely barbaric “ask” for someone who is not ready to do this, and frankly strikes me as a very primitive ideology of what gender is for such a “liberal” city and state. And I think no matter how supportive your immediate family and friends are, it makes it feel impossible to make a life for yourself when the world outside doesn’t welcome you as your true self. It was after several of these experiences that Harmony began more and more to take to her room.
Additionally, in our “liberal” state, we have abolished all legal requirements for counseling prior to taking hormones or pursuing surgeries. This was important for so many people to start their journey without forcing them to “prove” themselves and their gender, but what has been left behind is a vacuum with no standards of care whatsoever. This is not something that would be acceptable for dominant populations. We have standards of care because we are valued by the system. We have rights to ethical treatment. We are not “the other.” Changing gender is no small medical procedure. Hormones are complicated, and involved in so many cascades that affect every circadian rhythm in your body. Estrogen, even low doses like for birth control, is more highly associated with cancer than smoking. We talk about the dangers of athletes doping, and the undesirability of hormonal birth control for cis-gendered adolescent girls, but somehow handing out enough estrogen, progesterone and testosterone blockers to change a person’s gender is something any general practitioner is allowed to do – no speciality or extra training needed. No ethical oversight required. Thankfully, most don’t – it seems obvious that an endocrinologist or specialist would be required, and most refer out.
But Harmony was just 18 years old when she came out. Barely old enough to seek care without her parents help and eager to be an adult. She was fighting suicidal feelings, and didn’t want to hurt herself. She thought that feminizing hormone treatment would “cure” the feelings she was having. So, she did what many 18 year olds would do. She asked around for a doctor who wouldn’t “make her do counseling” to get the hormones and made an appointment with a young, new General Practitioner who was building her practice. She signed a waiver acknowledging that this was not within the doctors expertise. And within just a few weeks was at full female hormone levels.
And here we all are, two years later. She is just starting specialized therapy, and we are hoping for the best. We want our beautiful girl to flourish, and bring her gifts to the world. For now, we thank God that we know Harmony is physically safe, housed, fed, has access to treatment, and that she knows she is loved. Hopefully we will have a wonderful update in the coming months as she improves, but I feel it’s important to be honest. I don’t want to hide our truth or make false peace while my daughter is made to feel she should be invisible. If other families are going through these challenges I want them to know they aren’t alone, and I want to be honest about our path as a family.