A Love Letter to My Family

Dear Family,

I am writing tell you something important about our family, something that may be difficult to explain, something that may not be easy for you to understand or accept. As I keep writing, I am thinking of how loving you all are and I don’t mind telling you that as I proceed here, I am relying on that love.

Lately there has been a national conversation about what it means to be transgender, thanks in part to Caitlyn Jenner. I hadn’t thought of her much lately until now, but I remember her from our kitchen in the 70’s as the handsome decathalete on the Wheatie’s Box. I kind of had a crush. Now I feel full of gratitude for her courage in coming out nationally as transgender.

The reason this matters so much to me is that the boy you all think of as Truman, your grandson, your nephew and my son, is actually a transgender girl named Beatrice. Being transgender simply means that you don’t identify with the gender assigned to you at birth. So, despite the unintentional irony of the name we chose, despite our consistent use of the wrong pronouns, despite the now obvious signs that I first thought were adorable quirks of a creative child and then later thought of as simply manifestations of being gay, despite years of dangerous depression which included suicidal ideation and action (transgender individuals suffer ten times the average rate of attempted suicide) despite that whole list—Beatrice has never been a boy.

She has recently started a social and medical transition. The social transition means that she is no longer hiding who she is. Several years ago when she first came out to me, but before she was ready to be more public, she had already chosen the name Beatrice for herself, the name of Dante’s guide in the Inferno who leads the way out of hell to paradise. She also likes to be called Bea, for short. She prefers to be referred to with feminine pronouns. She now dresses in a feminine manner.

The medical transition means that she has started a two-year course of Hormone Replacement Therapy, commonly referred to as HRT. HRT is a gradual, safe and proven process which blocks testosterone and amplifies Estrogen. This is gently changing her body over time. After two years of HRT, she could be a candidate for sexual reassignment surgery which is a bigger step. Every transgender person makes highly personal choices about how much to externally alter or not alter their body to align with their true identity. A helpful understanding for allies, is that good manners still apply. Basically, we don’t normally ask friends, family, or strangers about their private parts because they are private. In any case, it’s a good guideline.

There is a question that comes up for a lot of people when they first learn that they know someone who is transgender, especially if the transgender person is still young. How do you know it’s not just a phase? Research has helped inform parents, especially parents of young children how to distinguish between being transgender and “just a phase.” In the case of a transgender individual, their sense of dysphoria is consistent and persistent. They often express themselves insistently along gender norms of their true identity when given any opportunity. Consistent, persistent, and insistent are useful words to describe being transgender.

This may help you understand Beatrice better. If you spent time with her at an early age, you may have a handful of memories that jive with mine, interactions that told you there was something unique about this kid.

Please allow me to share a handful of my memories that I now understand in a clearer light.

But before I do, let me address a technical difficulty with reminiscing. When I speak of Beatrice’s history, I now refer to her by her chosen name and with feminine pronouns. That may feel strange to you as you read this, because you have always known my child as Truman and referred to her as he. Pronouns can be a problem, and habits die hard. The reason I now consistently refer to her as Beatrice, even when I am talking about her childhood, is to match her perception of herself. This change of habit was a challenge for me at first and I made mistakes, but it has become increasingly easier as I see her relaxing into her true identity, becoming at home in her own skin. She has been patient with me and the mistakes of others, letting us know she appreciates the effort. One thing I have done, when the name change feels foreign to me, is to use that feeling to help me imagine how it has felt for her always to be wrongly identified. Perhaps in a small way it has given me a window into understanding the difficulty of such a dissociation, the pain of dysphoria.

A few memories:

Do you remember seeing a picture of Beatrice in her three-year old Halloween costume? If you do, you might remember her utterly elated expression. Or the spiky black wig sitting awkwardly on top of her curly blond hair or her black and white dress with red purse and a feather boa. She is thrilled to be Cruella DeVille, from the Disney cartoon 101 Dalmations. That costume was the only one she wanted. On the day the photo was taken, she had been crazy for Cruella one third of her entire lifetime. You might remember that her other favorite character was the evil, but supremely stylish witch from Sleeping Beauty. ( She never showed much interest in any of the insipid Disney Princesses and for this I remain grateful.) Admiring the witch’s style, but discontent with her evil nature she often pretended to be her alter ego, a character she referred to as “the Good Witch.” Once in the holiday season we were driving though a snowstorm and she questioned me dreamily from her car-seat as she gazed out the window, “Mom, do you know what happens at Christmas?” “No, what happens?” I expected to hear something Santa related learned at pre-school. “The Good Witch comes and makes everything beautiful.” She loved to play dress up, alone and with friends, but never once pretended to be a male character. She enjoyed playing a queen, a powerful witch, or a wise old woman from the mountains.

By the time she was five, she was completely obsessed with the Wizard of Oz. She loved everything about it. Especially the Witch of the West and the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” When it came time to plan her 5 year-old birthday party, we asked her what she wanted. Her idea was definite. “I want people I love to come together and sing Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” So we invited many people she loved; some friends with children, and all the Washburn cousins, Aunts, Uncles, and grandparents from her dad’s family. About forty people crowded into our basement and we passed out copies of the music. Our teenage niece Molly played the piano skillfully and everybody sang with gusto. Surprisingly, it sounded pretty good. Beatrice stood up on the fireplace hearth beaming and waving her arms, pretending to direct the music. She wore a favorite dress from the costume box, a simple black witches dress and a lace cap. I remember Steve’s brother JB turning to me as we were singing. “This is the gayest birthday party I have ever been to.” he said laughing. I didn’t know if his statement was a joke or a criticism, but my child was overjoyed, so I just didn’t care.

You may remember that she never liked to play with balls. Like any good parents, we attempted to force her into sports for her own protection. Our goal was not to create an athlete, but only to protect her from being made fun of at school. Our only hope was soccer. She was just barely willing to be dragged along with neighborhood pals, primarily girls, to participate. It was also an ok sport for Beatrice because early on it only required that she run along with a pack in a vague relationship to a moving ball. Later, she could get by just staying out of the way. Mostly she enjoyed socializing on the sidelines, especially, with her friend Greyden’s grandparents Roberta and Ray. They were always there and they were particularly kind to her. Once when Bea was seven, Roberta came to a game dressed quite fashionably. Dark-haired and svelte, she wore a deep blue silk blouse and black silk pants. The high couture cut of the pants draped perfectly, swinging gracefully as she walked into dappled September light to settle in on the sideline. Beatrice noticed immediately. “You look beautiful Roberta, I love your pants.” she said with admiration while touching the fabric at her hem “where did you get them?” Roberta was clearly flattered. Thanking Beatrice for the compliment, she proceeded to chat about various other things. Bea waited for her turn to speak again and repeated her question with quiet, but sincere emphasis “where did you get them?” She really wanted to know.

There’s another photo from the summer before she started Junior High. Bea is standing on a sunny cobblestoned street with her lifelong friends Grete and John David. We are visiting a small town in Coullouire, a village near the Spanish border of France on the Mediterranean coast. They have just been to the market and she is wearing her favorite finds, including an ornate Chinese satin purse. Around her neck she is wearing a fancy fake garnet rosary that she begged me to buy for her the day before at a monastery. She is relaxed and smiling in this picture, 100% comfortable in her own skin. I remember her happily showing me the purse while I was filled with dread at the prospect of Junior High, which would start only two months from that date. I actually remember thinking of the phrase from Isaiah “like a lamb to the slaughter.” Of course we talked to her about trying to fit in. We told her to look at what other kids were wearing and that we would buy her clothes like theirs so she could avoid trouble. She wasn’t the least bit interested. She just wanted to be herself.

I could tell many more stories, but maybe these few help illuminate how persistent, consistent and insistent her identity has been. It might also help you understand that this part of the story, the part we are in now, is a joyous moment. The years between Junior High and now were dark and dangerous, but Beatrice has arrived at the moment where she has the courage to be herself. I love that. It feels like a miracle to me everyday to witness it, and that she is here to live it.

What am I hoping for with this missive? I am hoping that you will recognize the truth embedded in these memories, that you might have some place to stand in your possible confusion. I am hoping that you will be able to meet us where we are. Bea wants nothing more than what we all want and deserve, to live openly and honestly as herself. On the way home from the doctor after her first HRT treatment, I asked her how she felt about the doc, a Dutch woman who treats many transgender individuals. Bea said it was refreshing to be with someone who found her entirely unremarkable. I share that because I want you to understand that’s what she wants. She doesn’t want to make a statement or be celebrated, she’s still somewhat of a bookish introvert. She just wants to be unremarkably herself.

All this to say, I have confidence in that you will respond to this letter with love. And also probably some confusion, which is entirely OK. You can ask me anything you want. As for Beatrice, when you see her next, just let her be unremarkable. You may wish to quietly congratulate her for being courageous and then move on. Remember her name. Do your best with the pronouns, we will deeply appreciate your effort and it will get easy after a while.

One last thing I want to share is this link to a favorite short video of mine. This is the story of a transgender teenage boy named Grayson from Syracuse, Utah told from the perspective of the boy and his mom, Neca. They are faithful Mormons. I am moved by their obvious love for each other and by their experiences with having their personal prayers answered. My favorite part of the whole story is when the boy says that he just wants people to know that transgender people are regular children of God, just like everybody else. I know this is true.

Thank you for reading this long letter. Thank you for being who you are in the world, but especially who you are to us.

Love,
Nan

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