By Jamie Johnson
We’d been watching Oprah the day my 18-year-old daughter, Julia, shared her secret with me: a show featuring transgenders who were transitioning. Frankly, I was surprised. Julia never watched Oprah. Movies: yes. Sports: all the time. But talk shows: not a chance. I thought, It must be pretty interesting if she’s watching. Maybe I’ll watch, too.
All of Oprah’s guests were transgenders or transsexuals. They were born with reproductive organs that didn’t match how they felt in their hearts and souls. Doctors think this phenomenon happens in the first trimester of pregnancy. As the fetus develops, the brain forms as one gender, and the body the other. It is referred to as Gender Identity Disorder.
Each of Oprah’s guests had been bruised by judgment. Some had been disowned by their families, lost friendships, or had trouble finding love. Staying employed was a problem. Being brutally beaten was not uncommon in their stories.
Jul had decided this was the time.
She quietly turned towards me. With a surrendered look, she raised her fine eyebrows and in an almost whispered voice, she said, “Mom, I think that is what I am.”
I remember all the air leaving the room; thinking my lungs had decided that, nope, they weren’t going to cooperate any longer. I fought for air, but life had punched it out of me. Realizing Jul was watching me, I began my persuasion. “No honey … you’re not. You’re just uncomfortable being a lesbian. You’ll get used to the idea.”
With hurt in her eyes, my daughter’s chin quivered as she spoke. “I can’t stand the thought of a girl, or anyone, touching this body; it’s humiliating. It’s not a choice, Mom. I have the wrong body.”
I sat listening, trying not to hear.
Panic. That was the first feeling in a chain of emotions that now seem like some strange twelve-step program. Fear followed. They’re not the same: panic and fear. Panic grabs you, squeezes fiercely; it paralyzes you, the pressure leaving you unable to think. I wanted to hide.
The fear that followed was a different type of weight. It bore down gently, but continuously, dropping a thought into my head every now and then.
What would people say? What if she transitioned and still wasn’t happy? How would hormone therapy change the way she looked? All parents have to adjust to their child’s choices: piercings, tattoos, haircuts, clothing. Even the gradual, natural changes are an adjustment. But the process of seeing my daughter become a man seemed unthinkable.
The fear wore me down for a while. But slowly, very slowly, I made my way through those feelings, and acceptance followed. I felt like I’d just carted a canoe through the drizzling rain for miles, feet wet, finally reaching the river, the sun coming out as I set the canoe down. I felt the warmth. Acceptance has a wonderful warmth to it.
But there, in that feeling of surrender, where I knew it was the love for my child that mattered, I still felt a twinge of something uncertain. How would the hormone treatments change her? No, how would the hormone treatments change him? Would I recognize my child in the end?
I wanted my new son to have what we all take for granted: to feel natural in his body, in his face. I wanted him to no longer wonder whether people were looking at him because he looked androgynous, questioning his role and how he fit into society. At 21, it had been over a decade since he’d resembled someone who could even remotely be called girly, except of course on those dressy occasions when I’d forced it. Since before ten years of age, he’d had our hairdresser chop his hair short, wore a ball cap, and sported either a basketball or hockey jersey with jeans. The jeans were always over boxers. She had always been boyish. Most of her “look” wouldn’t change, but part of me was having a very tough time at the thought of losing Jul’s face.
Once the process of hormone therapy started, a manly stubble would rub against my cheek when we hugged. The hormones would change his bone structure just enough to make him look less like Jul, and more like “Kip.” His facial features and hairline would shift to give him the more masculine look he craved. But just how much would the hormones change the young adult version of the face I’d grown to cherish?
Baby Jul had a beautiful face. I’d peer down at her and love the sweet little thing peeking back up at me from her crib. Her perfect full lips. The Gerber Baby cheeks that were always chubbed up, rounding out her oval face in a big, eager grin. The little button nose. Her squeezable little chin. It was the face of my perfect little angel. How much would I miss it? I couldn’t imagine not seeing it anymore.
It wasn’t the first time I’d experienced the fear of losing her quiet, natural beauty, though. She had been five the first time. I was home, sick, when the shrill sound of the phone woke me. A car accident. A serious head injury. Danger of internal bleeding in the brain. I was needed at the children’s hospital immediately.
The person on the other end of the phone cautioned me not to drive; she said I might be in shock.
The scene I arrived to at the hospital instantly slapped me out of my numbed state. First I heard her voice. It was aggressive, tortured, demanding, loud enough for me to hear before I even entered the busy emergency room. “I want my mom. I WANT MY MOM!”
If that familiar voice hadn’t been coming from the little thing stretched out on the gurney, I wouldn’t have had my heart shredded to a million bits when my eyes rested on her. I wouldn’t have known my little kindergartener. Her face was swollen and horribly flat. Tiny little fragments of glass, and some not so tiny, were embedded everywhere. As I walked toward her, I watched as the hospital staff bent her arms, her wrists, and her fingers, in an attempt to locate broken bones, Jul fighting every second of it, her panic increasing. At the top of her lungs, she chanted, “I WANT MY MOM! I WANT MY MOM!”
I stood over her in disbelief. She didn’t know I was there. Her eyes were swollen shut. I took her little hand in mine and cooed, “Mommy’s here, honey. It’s okay, Mommy’s here.”
I only have fragments of memories about that first day, the first out of a week I spent sleeping in a chair beside her hospital bed. But I do remember one question that, somewhere during the craziness of that first day, selfishly passed through my mind. Oh, her beautiful little face. What’s it going to look like when it heals?
What a trivial, stupid thing to worry about then. My daughter had survived a massive head trauma. I still had my child; that was the important part. But as parents, we get so attached to the face we’ve looked at and loved.
Maybe that car accident was a lesson given to me years before, in preparation for the loss of my daughter’s face. I had been a kindergartener then too, I guess; a beginner in the years of parenting classes ahead. I didn’t know then that the body was merely the packaging of the soul I loved.
As I waited for the call to confirm that the first shot of testosterone had been scheduled, marking the beginning of my daughter’s transition, I began my goodbye to Jul’s face. I was grateful that I was at least learning to be a little less absorbed with outside appearances. I might still feel a little twinge when the time came and the changes started, but I was ready to confront letting go. I will admit I was worried, but I would try to love the new face as it came.
To Kip, however, the day of that first shot of testosterone could not come soon enough. Once started, his facial characteristics did transform. His forehead worked its way backward, as the hairline framing it receded, and took on squarer, sharper lines. I noticed something else about his forehead. The bone structure just underneath his eyebrows seemed to change. I could see something that sort of reminded me of a Neanderthal. Now, I’m not saying that the more male hormones kip received, the more Neanderthal-like he became, but really, don’t laugh, it was there. It wasn’t a pronounced thing; it was subtle, but his forehead was different, and in a very distinctive male way.
The other changes in his face were subtle, too. There was definitely something about his cheekbones. They appeared to recede a bit or shift position. His jaw seemed to change, as well. It took on a more squared look. Actually, his whole face seemed somehow squarer than before. He even developed a new, unfamiliar space between his two front teeth—something he did not appreciate; his teeth had been one of the only things he had liked about himself— but it was a small price to pay to feel at home in his body.
The changes didn’t happen overnight, however. In fact, they were so gradual that I didn’t even notice them at first. It wasn’t until I compared a year-old photo to a recent one that I could see the full effect of the injections. His bearded image had become handsome.
It seemed strange. I’d been so worried about how much I’d miss Jul’s face. But I’d grown to love my new son’s face as it emerged, without even realizing it.
It’s because Kip isn’t a face, or a name, or a gender. Kip is a person. And it’s Kip, not the “he” or “she” that I love to death. His soul is still the same. His face wasn’t really a loss.
I think about the parents who don’t learn to accept. How can they let their relationship with their children die? Or worse yet, how do they survive the tragedy of suicide that sometimes lands on families who can’t open their hearts to the transition? How do those families carry on? That is loss.
Now, ten years later, I still have my first-born child sitting with us at family dinners. From across the table, I see the same smiling hazel eyes. Framing those eyes is a new man. A man who wears a strip of short stubble from one sideburn to the other, the way his wife loves it so much. I look at him now and smile. This mom has no regrets.
Author’s Note: Seeing a person with our eyes brings such limited results. When we see with our hearts, looking inside, past the surface, underneath what society dwells on, we see so much more. What we are isn’t the most important thing: it’s who we are. My son helped me learn that lesson. The physical changes were not important. My son’s spirit and courage are going strong. That makes this mother proud.
Jamie Johnson is an antique/gift show owner who enjoys writing about her fascinating children. Her full length memoir Secret Selves: How Their Changes Changed Me won an IP Book Award for Best Nonfiction in Eastern Canada and was a finalist in the Beverly Hills Book Awards. Her short pieces have appeared in The Globe & Mail, Homemakers Magazine, Families in TRANSition (a resource book for transgender families), and the anthology, Hidden Lives: Coming Out on Mental Illness.
Art by Michael Lombardo