As Pride Month begins, a mother and her transgender son recount his transition and their relationship in alternating chapters of their collaborative memoir, “At the Broken Places.”
Donald Collins and his mother Mary recount his transition and their relationship in a collaborative memoir, “At the Broken Places.” (SUPPLIED PHOTO)
By DONALD COLLINS
Sun., June 4, 2017
I have a tattoo of a robin on my left bicep, my first. Tattoos became a part of my ever evolving vision of self sometime during my junior year of college. When I was working a paid internship in New York and had extra cash on hand, I found a reputable artist and started decorating.
I prepare to tell my mother about this tattoo as we depart from a local coffee shop. So many long, difficult talks between my mother and me have taken place in a car. I remember her visiting me at boarding school, taking me for a much-needed lunch and a drive. We would park somewhere and talk. She would ask questions with the kind of frustration that comes from knowing that someone is unhappy and not knowing how to help that person. I would desperately try to impart any understanding of the unhappiness I had no name for. Then, with something short of relief, she would return home and I, to school.
Today we are both in good spirits, and I am hesitant to stir up any trouble. But the opportune moment lingers and luckily, I’ve paved my own way. These hundred difficult talks of ours, some harder than others, make my admission near casual.
“I got a tattoo in New York,” I tell her. “I thought about it for a long time, and I’m very happy with it. I just didn’t want to surprise you.”
I show her the tattoo, and she is surprised, but polite.
“It’s very well done,” she remarks.
After getting the tattoo, I found out the robin is the state bird of Connecticut — site of my coming out, my boarding school years, and my family’s current home. I chose it because robins are, mythically, the bird of springtime, of new beginnings.
Being trans, or my way of being trans, involves a lot of starting over. I filled out hours of paperwork to create this person. I celebrate new birthdays and anniversaries for myself. I have a new name, a new body, and a new will to enjoy life. Opportunities and friendships ripen around the arrival of this new person. He is welcome in this long-hibernating world of his own making.
I wear my robin like a badge and bring my own spring with me.
I had just started boarding high school at Loomis Chaffee when I intuited a severe misalignment between my physical and mental gender orientation.
My first two years of Loomis went by in a melancholy blur. I enjoyed my coursework, met a few close friends, but otherwise deteriorated quickly, slipping into intense periods of depression.
In eighth grade I had participated in hyperfeminine presentation, complete with long hair, rings, scarves, and tailored clothing, believing it would help me fit in more and banking that I would adapt to it with time.
My “girl” clothes caused me great discomfort, but everything was easier when I wore them. People didn’t correct my behaviour or appearance. I didn’t stand out. But by the end of my freshman year, I packed everything away, feeling suffocated. Within months of being at Loomis, I cut my hair sloppily short and took to wearing oversized thrift-store men’s clothing. I became less and less recognizable to my mother. My dad wondered if I was gay. Friends struggled to interpret my behaviour. I was talkative, cheerful — then suddenly morose, beyond reach.
I had weekly sessions with Kendall, an agreeable, grounded therapist, for over two years. She was the first adult I expressed my gender dissonance to.
“Sometimes,” I told her, “I feel like my life would have been so much better if I were a boy.”
After my “coming out” session with Kendall I took the time to lie quietly in my room and explore the shocking (at the time) words I had spoken.
During our next appointment I got specific: “I think I’m transgender.”
On a winter weekend home from school my senior year, I very emotionally told my mother these exact words in our kitchen. I noticed a blank expression in her eyes. I should have known in that moment that the word did not make contact with her. She didn’t understand. She reassured me that things were going to be OK and thanked me for telling her. Emboldened by this response, I began to elaborate on my plans (whoops!). I was changing my name and pronouns at school and would begin living “as a man” full time immediately. Then I saw the word connect, and the mood changed.
“What?” she said, incredulous.
By the end of the evening we were both exhausted from crying and arguing.
She asked me not to come out at school, to put it off, to give us some time to think all this through. I’ve never been one to disobey my mom or my family, but her request was directly at odds with my sense of well-being.
“Don’t do this,” my mother said.
I came out at the Christmas party of my (almost) all-girls dorm a week later.
“We have a short announcement before the party ends,” my dorm parent Mrs. A. shouted into the giggling crowd. Everyone quieted, and she gestured for me to speak.
“I have something important I want to tell you,” I said to the room of attentive girls, standing amid streamers and tables of cupcakes.
“I identify as transgender,” I continued slowly. “I feel like a boy, even though I was born a girl. Everyone here knows me as ‘J.,’ but I would prefer to go by the name ‘Donnie’ and male pronouns.”
The girls hugged me, supported me, and respected me. They corrected their peers, checked in on me, remained some of my closest friends in the years to come.
As much as the support of Palmer Dormitory meant to me, it was not the same as the support of a parent.
My college counsellor, Beatrice, called my mom at home with the answer to a simple admissions question. She used the name “Donnie” when referring to me. This is how my mother learned I had come out at school. And she didn’t even like Beatrice to begin with.
“I had to find out from that … woman!” she hissed.
I wanted to remind my mom that she had already found out from me. I had told her first, and she could have been a part of this process.
My mom needed more time, and I had no more time left to give.
Our late-night weekend living room conversations only served to put our views into sharper contrast: me, certain I needed legal and physical procedures to confirm my gender; she, distraught, convinced I was ruining my life. Loomis, unsure of how to manage its first out trans student, reacted in earnest accommodation.
Loomis, the one-time source of all my stress and exhaustion, was now my haven. My mom, my truest confidant and advocate, was now part opposition, part victim. I was finally accomplishing everything she had hoped for me — genuine optimism for myself, interesting classwork, a thriving social life — but it all came at the expense of her “daughter,” the one price she was not willing to pay.
When I graduated Loomis, the purgatorial haze remained.
I had been granted “permission” to graduate in the masculine style, khakis and a blue blazer. Students convened on the quadrangle where the genders were split into their two lines and herded onto bleachers. Our delirious, pomaded heads smiled for the camera and then filed through the main academic hall.
In a yard facing the picturesque entrance road, the senior class found the chairs we would call home for the next four hours. I brimmed with accomplishment and something else … disappointment?
After six months as “Donnie,” I would be graduating under my birth name, “J.”
My family had financed my education in conjunction with academic scholarships, and this was their official request. Actually, I don’t fully know what their request was. Maybe my mother’s nostalgic wish or her last bid to have “J.” leave Loomis “alive.” It stung and, ultimately, was a shoddy compromise.
My part of the roll call only lasted a few seconds. I stepped on stage to the cheers of my classmates. Then with a cloudless sky above, the class of 2011 tossed their proverbial caps in the air.
I remember my family, my mother, eyes filled with pride for the symbolic occasion.
The child graduates high school.
I was going away, further away from them. I was leaving Loomis, and in a stranger, truer sense, I was leaving my family.
Privately, later that day, someone from the registrar’s office handed me another diploma, one bearing my chosen name. It felt like contraband.
If I seem callous or cold-hearted toward my mom, know that sometimes I am. When the people we love hurt us, often these are the only behaviours we find strength in. I continued to “live my truth,” knowing that my mother was grieving and in pain because I needed to survive.
Going into college, I couldn’t cope with my mom’s attachment to the very things I hated most about myself. Just as I needed to feel some space to change what wasn’t working for me, I felt more trapped by her devotion to J., her only child, her only daughter.
- is both real and unreal; she existed, she is me, and yet she is not who I am. To look through our house, one would think I have a sister. For a while my mother continued to display photos of me before I was my “authentic self.”
For months, my mother and I didn’t speak, and for many more, we continued to clash over increasingly high stakes.
Meanwhile during the four years after Loomis, I met wonderful people in Boston and New York, called them friends and family. I felt hopeless, undertook exhausting projects, sought help, and practised caring for my mind and body in new ways.
Amid everything, I wondered when, and if, my mom and I would have our own spring. I wondered if we could begin again.
‘I am grieving the loss of my daughter, and that does not mean I do not love my trans son’
“I am transgender,” my teenaged daughter, J., says, her green eyes squinting with anxiety.
“Trans?” I ask. “What’s that?”
I am still thinking about mundane things, like the dirty dishes on the counter. We sit at my favourite place in the house, the round kitchen table by a window with lacy curtains, where I drink tea and read my newspaper every morning.
“Trans, Mom. I am a man trapped in a woman’s body.”
The summer day’s simmering breath coming through the screen suddenly feels like a panting animal.
My first fully modern loss.
It does not feel the same as when my father died when I was age 14.
It does not feel the same as when the love of my life left me when I was in my 20s.
In that moment at the kitchen table, I experienced a loss only made possible by our current culture, which allows — even empowers — a teenager to take steroids and have “top surgery” (trans speak for a double mastectomy) all before age 20 so his gender can match his person.
When J. legally changed her name to Donald and insisted we use male pronouns to refer to him, I resisted for a short time, but eventually gave up on “she,” “her,” and the entire idea that I have a daughter at all.
But when I said I thought Donald was moving too fast with his physical transition, the counsellors, school advisers, and medical professionals told me I must face the inevitable.
When I said I was sad about the unique obstacles my child will have to deal with in the larger world as an adult, they told me to tamp down my homophobia and trans bias. Seek counselling to overcome your prejudices, they advised.
I am not ashamed or biased, I told them.
I am grieving the loss of my daughter, and that does not mean I do not love my trans son.
Modern loss. Modern grief.
None of them grasped any of it, so I share a story with one of the school advisers.
When the school had a mother-daughter tea for Mother’s Day, Donald and I did not go, and skipped over to a nondescript Dunkin’ Donuts in a strip mall instead. As we finished our iced coffees, both milky-white with extra cream, I noticed two guys with heavily tattooed arms sitting two tables away listening as we chatted about Cher’s trans son, Chaz, who had been in the news a lot.
The men’s shoulders seemed tight, their lips closed.
I eyed the pickup truck outside.
I stared at the ice cubes in my cheap plastic cup.
I told Donald we needed to leave.
He thought it was because I’d finished my drink.
In that moment I did not feel shame, I tell the adviser, just fear.
I take no issue with any individual’s right to affirm and assert his or her identity.
But I know that outside the super-accommodating world of my child’s liberal school, approximately 40 per cent of Americans still disapprove of homosexuality. Imagine how they must perceive someone who is transgender? Even within the LGBTQ community, the T falls toward the end of the continuum.
In that moment, I explain to the adviser, I understood my daughter would never return. Her person remains, but my trans son faces a day-to-day life I never imagined for my child. As I drove Donald back to school, my fear transformed into something else, something that now follows me through my days, something I can only describe as grief.
I know from reading books and articles about parents with children who do not fall within “normal” parameters, in particular Andrew Solomon’s book Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, that millions of families struggle with this unusual form of grieving. Two tall parents might have a dwarf; a scholar might have an autistic boy who does not speak. Counselors focus on “acceptance” of the situation rather than processing the grief first, which, unfortunately, falls right in line with the American Psychiatric Association’s recent decision to identify depression associated with deep grief as mental illness, not a natural reaction that an individual should be encouraged to feel and move through without guilt or shame. Leave it to American culture to take a fundamental human emotion and classify it as a condition.
I reflected on how I handled my father’s death to help me cope with my situation with my trans son, but that only brought back memories of how poorly American culture handles even this most timeless of losses.
All I remember of the moment when I first heard my father had died were the white walls of my small bedroom, my mother by my bedside shaking from the stress of what she had to tell me, the sense of dislocation I felt when she spoke the news. I remember wrapping the cotton bedspread around my shoulders and leaning into the softness and warmth. I don’t remember leaving the room or going downstairs or how I told my friends. I now associate white, not black, with death, and have purple, lilac, deep blue, yellow, and other colours on the walls in my house, but not white.
The general world treated my loss as sad, unfortunate, but nothing so out of the ordinary that I wasn’t expected to return to school, to sports teams, to my student work job at my high school within the week. We had a church service, a burial; I missed a few days of classes and that was it.
Only now, as an adult researching grief and loss, have I discovered that just 4 per cent of children in the United States under age 15 lose a parent. When I asked my sister to guess the percentage (and she’s a health-care professional), she said about 25 per cent. In places and time periods in which such losses were more commonplace, the larger society was better equipped to recognize grief and loss as an ongoing experience — not something with concrete stages that you go through in lockstep, but something you carry with you, often always.
In American culture we do not celebrate a Day of the Dead, as they do in Mexico; we don’t have secular altars in public spaces to honour those who have passed, as in many Eastern cultures. Here grief is more of an individual responsibility, a framework that encourages isolation and often morphs into debilitating depression. The fact that modern American life continues to add ever more complex types of loss just exacerbates the problem.
My emotional journey with Donald seems to more closely mirror more nebulous losses, such as moving away from someone I will never see again. The average American moves 12 times in his or her lifetime, and one in five children eventually move far away from their families, a geographic mortality rate, for want of a better term, that’s startling when you consider that for most of human history, the majority of people rarely travelled more than 80 kilometres from where they grew up.
Similarly, a single woman like me with a decent job can have dozens of romantic relationships over a lifetime, a tremendous freedom that comes with a price: you become intimate with a much larger pool of people, but, conversely, you also experience the loss of that intimacy anew each time it doesn’t work out.
I call that “goodbye grief.”
When Donald came home after the top surgery, he felt freed of the physical binds he had used to compress his breasts for years. He could wear a light T-shirt with nothing on underneath on a hot July day. His shoulders sprang back when he walked now, instead of slouched. He held his head differently, more confidently, and looked outward instead of downward. He felt more at home in his own body.
I looked at his now slim torso and saw a fawn before me — all legs, reddish-brown coat, and so vulnerable I wanted to hire a bodyguard for him.
Donald’s radical adjustment has made it easier for me to remember to use male pronouns when referring to him; I only slip up when I am out of Donald’s presence and around strangers who ask about my family. At one point, while Donald was still in college, a contractor building a porch for me wanted to know if I had children. Without thinking, I said, yes, I have a daughter who is a sophomore in college.
Two weeks later Donald came home, and as we pulled into the driveway the contractor stuck his head in my car to say hello.
“Oh,” he remarked later, “so you have two kids.”
I had no vocabulary to explain the complexity of my situation in such quick passing conversations.
Instead, despite taking great pride in being an honest and direct person, I say little and am left with what I wryly call my own grief geography, territory that no one else can navigate or fully know.
Adapted excerpt from At the Broken Places: A Mother and Trans Son Pick Up the Pieces by Mary Collins and Donald Collins (Beacon Press, 2017).