Facing Fear... And Having Dinner With Him

07/02/2012 06:17 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016
  • Leslie Lagerstrom Proud mom of two children; advocate for families with transgender and gender-variant kids

In my defense, I was still in a state of denial. Well, sort of. Sam was 10 years old, and deep down we knew what we were dealing with; we just hadn't said it out loud that often, and when we did, it was only between my husband and me. That was the same year Oprah aired her first show on transgender children. As I recall, the carefully scripted promotion for an upcoming show caught my attention from the get-go, simultaneously scaring and luring me with the information she promised to share, information that I knew I needed but didn't want to hear:

"Be sure to watch next Thursday, when we air a special show on children born in the wrong bodies."

Her calm voice made the subject seem as common as her shows on favorite books or notable celebrities. And so I tuned in.

I remember not wanting Sam to see the show, thinking, foolishly, that if she wasn't really transgender, I shouldn't give her any ideas. Oh, if it were only that simple. In her bedroom down the hall, she was oblivious to what I was watching as she conscientiously worked on her spelling words for the next school day. Still worried about her hearing the show, I sat with my nose two inches from the television with the volume set on low. Before me was a 15-year-old named Jake, a child who was born female but had transitioned to being a boy, who bravely told Oprah his story. As the details of his life unfolded on air, the fear in me escalated until I couldn't breathe. To put it bluntly, Jake's story scared the hell out of me, because it so closely resembled our own.

"Wait! There are kids like that out there?" asked Sam's eager voice, coming from behind me. So immersed in the show was I that I had not seen her enter the room. The excitement in her voice gave me another jolt of fear.

"No! I mean... no!" I stammered as I nervously looked for the TV remote control. Finally finding it lying under the coffee table, I hit the power button so haphazardly that the TV clicked off and then on again. My clumsy moves resembling a slapstick act that you'd think never happens in real life, I cringed as the show came back to life in front of us. Pressing the power button a second time, this time so hard that it nearly became embedded within the remote control, the TV screen finally went to black. I said to Sam, "You don't understand what you just saw. It wasn't what you think. Now go finish your homework."

It would be an understatement to say that that was not my proudest parenting moment.

Fast-forward five years to June 2012, when I found myself sitting at dinner with a group of new friends in Philadelphia, where we are all attending the Trans Health Conference, one of the largest and oldest conventions in our nation covering transgender issues. Assembled was an unlikely cast of characters: some parents of transgender children (three moms and a dad), a 21-year-old college student, and the Executive Director of TransActive, a national advocacy group based in Oregon. Across the table from me was the college student, who also happened to be transgender. For the next two hours I sat totally engrossed as this young man, who was confident and engaging, shared his background, which included being a Point Scholar, as well as his current and future aspirations. As I listened to him speak, I felt an overwhelming sense of hope, thinking to myself that if Sam grew up to be even half as balanced and happy as this man, I would be elated.

Just then, the mom sitting next to me leaned over and said, "Jake is being modest." Then, to Jake, she said, "Why don't you tell Leslie about being on The Oprah Show?"

I sat frozen, not with fear this time but with shame, because I knew in that instant that it was he, the child who'd provided the first, unwanted affirmation that Sam was probably transgender; the boy who'd so courageously shared details of his life on The Oprah Show; the kid who'd scared the wits out of me five years earlier, leaving me frightened and numb. And now, here he was in front of me, a young man whom, after just a few short hours, I had come to admire and even hoped my child would emulate someday. For that I was ashamed -- ashamed that I had given in to my fear when I'd first heard his story, because that fear was based only on ignorance.

Once I got over the shock, I shared how I had seen that show, and I apologized for having been afraid. Gracious and kind, he said he understood, and he allowed me to laugh at my stupidity as we reflected on what a small world it truly is. By just being himself, Jake gave me a newfound hope for Sam's future that night. And he not only allowed me to face my fear but gave me the honor of having dinner with him.