A conversation between two authors: a transgender parent and the mother of a "gender-creative" child.
Jennifer Finney Boylan is the bestselling author of She's Not There, and the author of the recently published Stuck in the Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders (available now) which explores themes of gender, parenting, and family. Lori Duron is the author of the upcoming memoir Raising My Rainbow: Adventures in Raising A Fabulous, Gender-Creative Son (on sale September 3, 2013) which was inspired by her popular blog of the same name.
Q) Lori, you first came across Jenny's book She's Not There, when you were pregnant with your first son. As a fan of her work, what were your thoughts on her latest book, Stuck in the Middle With You? How did reading her books influence your understanding of gender in your own life?
LD) I remember being on bed rest during my first pregnancy and watching Oprah interview Jenny as She's Not There was being released. I rushed to get the book and read it in a matter of days. What strikes me now, is that, even as I read it with a child growing in my belly, I didn't consider the possibility that my child(ren) could be transgender. When my second son, C.J., started playing with girl things and wearing girl clothes I thought about Jenny and I found that old copy of She's Not There on my bookshelf. I remembered how, long before C.J. came along, she taught me lessons on the fluidity and flexibility of gender and how sometimes a person's sex and gender do not align.
I devoured Stuck in the Middle With You. Jenny-like all people who approach life with an open heart and open mind-makes me feel safe because I know that she would appreciate and protect my son and my family. Jenny writes that as a man, gender was something that she fought against. I see that in my son, too. Jenny's open approach to gender and her bravery in educating readers makes the world a safer, more understanding world for people like my son.
Q) Jenny, you've called Lori's memoir, Raising My Rainbow, "a valuable resource not only for parents of gender-nonconforming children, but for readers everywhere who seek the courage to stand up for the ones they love." What were some of the most compelling parenting moments in the book to you?
JFB) I think what I most identified with was Lori's sense of uncertainty. We think parenting means we're going to follow a road map of sorts, and whether that map is What to Expect When You're Expecting, or simply your own internalized experience of parenting based on what you observed from your own mother and father, we have a sense that the territory we enter as new parents will at the very least, be familiar. But as Lori explains in her book, and as I experienced in trying to raise children having been both a mother and a father, there are plenty of moments where suddenly you feel as if you have strayed completely off the map, and there are no rules to guide you whatsoever. And what can parents do in that circumstance except to try to find their way, based on their love for their child? But their hopes for who that child is, or who that child may become, can sometimes change in an instant, and that's very hard.
Q) What is the most important thing you each wanted readers to take away from your books?
LD) At the very basic level, I want readers to be more empathetic towards people who are different and to have an open heart and an open mind toward things that are unfamiliar and outside the walls of "normal" and "traditional." I think that our books show that life doesn't always go as expected or planned.
JFB) For me, it was that every family is a non-traditional family. There is so much variation in what it means, at this point in history, to be a family that you could seek for a "traditional" family and never quite find one. It's what makes us different that makes us who we are, not the ways we all conform, and that's a thing for families to embrace.
Q) You've both written deeply personal memoirs about your families. What were their first reactions to your decision to write a book involving them?
LD) At first, my husband Matt was scared as hell. I guess you could consider us reluctant advocates. If there were some other family speaking up about raising a gender nonconforming child and advocating for kids like ours, we gladly would have let them be the name and face of the cause. But, there wasn't and our child and children like him need advocating for and so we did it. Matt fears for our family's safety and the repercussions of every single one of our decisions.
Our kids on the other hand are the blog and book's biggest fans. They want to have their faces and names all over the place, but for very different reasons. Since he was a toddler, we've called our oldest son, Chase, "The Mayor." He likes to meet people, shake hands, tell his story and hear theirs. So, naturally, he wants everybody to know him and our family and assumes that everybody will love us. C.J. says that he wants "everybody in the world and even America" to read the book so that they will know he's gender nonconforming and he won't have to tell anybody anymore. That's how he is.
JFB) My sons were quite clear on this. I said, I'm thinking of writing about our family, and they said, that's fine, people have something to learn from us. But this time, we have one condition. If you're going to write about us, use our real names. They were fed up with me always attempting to shield them in my writing through pseudonyms.
Q) Jenny and Lori, you're both parents to two sons. Jenny, yours are in high school and college, and Lori, yours are still in grade school. Can you tell us a bit about them?
JFB) My sons are smart, funny, and a little bit goofy. My older one wears his heart on his sleeve; he's the kind of young man who will sneak up behind you and hug you and tell you he loves you. Zach is a theatre major at Vassar, and yes, I do love telling people that "my son is a Vassar man." My other son, Sean is more private. He's frighteningly smart, and has his heart set on studying aeronautical engineering because "he wants to build things that go into space." He's got a pretty good shot at it, too. He'll apply to engineering schools this fall, and start college in 2014.
LD) I see a lot of similarities between Jenny's sons and my sons. Like Sean and Zach, Chase and C.J. are accepting, loving, sweet, caring and not overtly physically competitively. In Stuck in the Middle With You, Jenny says that her boys "are not stereotypically masculine in that they each have a certain gentleness of spirit." That description also fits my boys to a tee. I feel like my sons have been exposed to social issues and concepts at a young age. They've seen loving gay couples being affectionate and having a family. They see it so much so that it doesn't seem any more different to them than Matt and I being in love. They know what gender nonconforming and transgender mean and know that those are versions of normal too. They are both really, really funny and creative. Chase wants to be an inventor and C.J. wants to be a makeup artist.
Q) While the challenges you each face are quite different, at the end of the day you are both parents. What are the biggest joys and fears you have for your children?
LD) The list goes on and on. I worry everyday about their safety. We always knew that C.J. would be teased for his gender nonconformity. We didn't expect that Chase would be bullied first for his brother's gender bending ways. Because of it, he mentioned suicide in the third grade. I think about Matthew Shepard and Seth Walsh and it terrifies me what people will do to my sons or drive them to do to themselves.
And, I often worry about who will love C.J. if he continues to be gender nonconforming into adulthood or identifies as transgender. Jenny's life with Deedie, Zach and Sean gives me so much hope for my son and his future happiness.
JFB) I think it's easy to fall into the trap of seeing your children as a kind of cosmic Mulligan, a second chance to get your own life right. But children are here to live their lives, not ours, and any parent looking to undo the wrongs of her own life through her children ought to get out of the parenthood business entirely. The delights and fears--so often intertwined-- are in the ways they surprise you, both in the way their sensibility echoes your own experience of the world, and in the ways they seem to have arrived here from another planet entirely.
Q) Jenny, what has been the hardest part of your transition for your sons? Lori, you've mentioned that C.J., while only 6, may decide in the future to present as female full time. What have you and your husband done to research and prepare for that possibility?
JFB) My transition actually had very little apparent effect on my sons. I think there are so many different kinds of families that having a father who became a woman was seen as a curiosity at most, rather than some threat to their well being. In some ways, in fact, I think having a father who became a woman has helped them become better adjusted, more tolerant of difference, more willing to fight for the underdog. I hope that having a father who became a woman has helped make my sons, in turn, into better men.
LD) If C.J. were to want to transition socially, that would be his decision and we would absolutely follow his lead. We are here to love him, not change him. We work with an amazing gender therapist and child advocate and they would help our family make that transition socially, especially at school. Ideally, we would want him to transition over a summer break and start a new school in the fall. But, C.J. has taught us that things don't always happen as planned. So, we've learned to go with the flow. We also have a game plan if C.J. decided to transition medically. We would be referred to an endocrinologist who could prescribe puberty blockers just before the onset of puberty. The effects of puberty blockers are not permanent and would freeze time and buy C.J. time to decide if he wanted to go through a male or female puberty. If he chose to experience puberty as a female, he would be given female hormones. I want my child here, happy and healthy. I don't care what gender he is or what genitalia is in his pants - or skirt.
Q) Lori, as the mother to one gender conforming son and one gender-creative son, both of whom have been bullied, what have been their biggest struggles? Jenny, how did the fear of your sons being bullied affect you as you came out as transgender?
LD) My biggest struggle with our ongoing bullying situation was trying to get my son's school and district to acknowledge it and deal with it, as they are legally required to do. At first I had no idea that both of my sons - because of the youngest's gender nonconformity - are a class specifically protected by Title IX and the safe school laws in our state. Unfortunately, neither their school nor district knew that either. To learn that we had rights and protections felt so good, but it was a frustrating process to get the school and district to understand that we had those rights.
JFB) My fear for my sons probably delayed my transition for years (but then, lots of things delayed it, and my own fear and uncertainty not least). I really do believe that we are not here for ourselves, but for each other, and I had hoped to put my sons needs ahead of my own. Looking back, I think it's unfortunate that I ever allowed these thoughts to discourage me from living an authentic life. And I should say that nothing bad has ever happened to my children as a result of having me as a parent. It may be that this is because I have lived my life so publicly; living without shame has been its own form of protection.
Q) What are your reactions to the recent Supreme Court ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8? Do you feel like this is an impactful step toward equality for the LGBTQ community? Do you feel any different in your day to day life after this ruling?
LD) Yes, I do feel like it's an impactful step toward LGBTQ equality - even though there is a ways to go to full equality. I'll take any step forward that we can get! I'm not an overly emotional person, but I got emotional that day. I have a brother who is gay and I have always felt that he deserved every right that I have simply because I was born heterosexual. I always say, if you can't tell if C.J. is a girl or a boy, just treat him like a person. Apparently that is hard for a lot of people...and the government.JFB) My wife and I have had a curious relationship to all of this. We are, of course, in favor of marriage equality and everyone being able to wed whomever they love. Our own marriage, though, is legally "grandfathered" by the fact that we were originally married as an opposite sex couple, back in 1988. And so we have been a legal same-sex couple, even in a state that did not provide marriage equality until just a year or two ago. The moral for us here is that there is no law you can make against same-sex marriage that is not upended by the existence of transgender people. Which means that people should just let this all go, and embrace the messiness of gender-- in doing so, we embrace the richness and variance of life.
Q) Jenny, after your groundbreaking memoir She's Not There, your new memoir Stuck in the Middle With You, tackles the overarching idea of gender and parenting. How do you think Lori's memoir of having a gender creative child in a largely gender conforming family fits in with some of your findings?
JFB) I think Lori is breaking new ground here. To enable your own child to explore his or her own gender truth takes courage. I think it's a very brave book.
Q) Lori and Jenny, since the publication of She's Not There ten years ago, what progress have you seen in the way the public approaches issues of LBGTQ equality as well as gender expectations? What would you like to see change in the next ten years?
LD) I don't know if it was the passing of ten years or my life stage or my environment, but I feel like there has been progress in accepting and advocating the LGBTQ community. I remember when my brother was the only gay person that most of friends had ever met. Like he was an exotic zoo animal. That's not the case anymore. Books like Jenny's She's Not There brought awareness, understand and acceptance to a new level.
JFB) I would like to see more trans people in the media, on television and in movies. I would like stories of trans people stripped of their sensationalism, to embrace our lives as one more way of being human, instead of the endless stories of shock and surgery. I would like to be able to have trans people viewed as boring.
Q) What are some of the biggest misconceptions you've both encountered about gender presentation and identity?
LD) The biggest misconception that I deal with is that gender, sex and sexuality are the same or intermixed. They are three distinct things. If people understood the distinct difference of each, I feel like our lives could be easier. Society's "traditional gender norms" drive me crazy. There are not girl toys and boy toys, girl clothes and boys clothes or girl colors and boy colors. There are clothes, toys and colors and all of them are they for everyone to enjoy and experience how they want.
JFB) The biggest one is that sexual orientation is the same as gender identity. The fact that someone can be trans, and that this has nothing to do with whether he or she is gay, is something lots of people--including our allies-- are still trying to understand. But being gay or lesbian is about who you love; being trans is about who you are.
Q) Do either of you have any other books you'd suggest to families who are raising gender-creative children or who are living with a family member who is transgender, or is thinking of transitioning?
JFB) I like Deborah Rudacille's book, The Riddle of Gender. Deborah is a science writer; her book alternates the science of gender variance with interviews with real trans people along a broad spectrum.
LD) I recommend She's Not There and Stuck In the Middle with You regularly. I also highly-recommend Diane Ehrensaft's Gender Born, Gender Made. To read to the kids, I like My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis and anything by Leslea Newman.