By Heather Osterman
Recently my Facebook feed was flooded with posts about the suicide of a transgender woman I knew tangentially. Depression is a tremendously complicated thing and I certainly didn’t know her well enough to presume any connection between her identity and her action, but it’s hard to separate them completely and it hit me hard. I connected to the comments others wrote on her Facebook page I’m so tired of grieving my transgender sisters and We know this mourning song in our bones.
I’m not transgender, though my husband and many of our friends are. As a white middle-class couple, we’re on the safer end of the spectrum and we still know this song in our bones. But while it’s important to sing this song, as we gather the power to fight hard for a better world, it’s also important to engrave the tune of hope in our hearts because few of us grew up singing it. So, if I had one piece of advice for parents raising transgender children it would be this – fight like hell to make the world a better place for your children, but in the meantime, teach them how to sing, inscribe a story of happiness on every bone of their body. Because narratives matter.
When I came out to my mom as gay twenty-four years ago she confessed that while she would support and love me no matter what, she also worried because, from her perspective, being gay seemed to be a sadder and lonelier life. My then-self, on the cusp of adulthood, was enraged. How dare she insinuate that gay people had greater challenges finding fulfilling relationships and carving out a life for themselves? But now, as a parent of two young children myself, I understand things differently. What parent would ever want their child’s life to be harder than it needs to be?
To be fair, in 1990, her reaction wasn’t out of left-field, and she was voicing my own deepest fear, that I would never be loved. At the time, there were few positive images of gay life in the mainstream media. In every young adult novel I’d read growing up, the gay character was either raped (if they were female) or attempted suicide (if they were male). Our society had just witnessed the gay male community being ravaged by AIDS, and it seemed the only stories about gay people in the news were about discrimination and violence. I didn’t know a single gay couple who was married, let alone with children, and I knew I wanted both of those things. So, if I didn’t see it out there, how could I believe it? How could my mom believe it?
The world has changed a lot in the past twenty years. In no way do I want to minimize the challenges that gay and lesbian youth still face, but there has been a large societal shift.
I think that shift has not brought along the transgender and gender non-conforming population. Over 50% of transgender students will attempt suicide at some point in their lives and 82% report feeling unsafe at school. LGBTQ youth currently make-up the majority of homeless youth. And while I see more and more parents actively and openly supporting their gender non-conforming children, I know many of these parents are still plagued by the fear that their child will never, truly be happy and this fear can impact children in a subtle, but devastating way. While there has been a recent uptick in positive transgender presence in the media, as Janet Mock, a transgender activist, writes, “It’ll take more than a year of a few trans women in media to transform decades of structural oppression and violence, decades of misinformation, decades of exiling.”
If I had my way, the media would be also be flooded with stories of regular transgender people leading happy, fulfilling lives. And while I see more and more parents actively and openly supporting their gender non-conforming children, I know many of these parents are still plagued by the fear that their child will never, truly be happy and this fear can impact children in a subtle, but devastating way. If I had my way, the media would be also be flooded with stories of regular transgender people leading happy, fulfilling lives.
Here’s my token attempt at adding to the pot: My husband and I may not be an Oscar-winning story. We bicker over dishes and laundry and who forgot to buy the milk, but our house is filled with enough love it threatens to explode at the seams. We have two beautiful children, made possible with the help of two good friends, a gay married couple. Our children stop our hearts with smiles and hugs one moment and then drive us to utter distraction the next because they refuse to put on their shoes. Sometimes, my husband will stop in the middle of what he’s doing and say, “I can’t believe that this is my life, how lucky I am. I never imagined that we could have this.”
But he should have been able to. I should have been able to.
As a parent of a gender non-conforming child, I believe that you have three obligations: fight for laws to protect your children, teach them ways to protect themselves, and last but not lease, help them believe in an amazing future, because chances are their biggest fear is the same as yours, that they won’t be accepted or loved. And yes, you have some justifiable reasons to be scared– the murder rates for transgender women of color could make you drop to your knees and sob–but please, don’t only focus on how challenging life might be.
So every night, as you’re tucking your child in to bed, lean close, kiss their cheek and tell them this bedtime story again and again, “Once upon a time there was a transgender child and they were so, so beautiful and so, so loved. And they went out into the world, and oh, the wonderful things that happened.”
Heather Osterman-Davis is a mother of two young children and is constantly attempting to balance creative and domestic endeavors. Her work has appeared in Time; Creative Non-Fiction; Literary Mama; Listen to Your Mother; and Agave Magazine. You can find her on Twitter @heatherosterman