Have you ever had the experience of walking into a dim room and seeing something that doesn’t make sense at first, a shadow, a light, a movement? Maybe there’s even an odd sound, or a deeper silence than seems usual. And in that split second between unconsciously noticing that something is a little odd, and having your rational brain kick in, your mind fills out the picture with a half-formed image that is a quasi-recognizable shape, even if it is an illogical one for the situation. Maybe it is a human shape, perhaps even one that is vaguely familiar. Then your senses catch up, and you realize that there is nothing there.
Depending on your personality and world view there are a number of different ways that you may respond to this experience, some of which are mutually exclusive, and some of which are not. If you happen to be a devotee of the supernatural you may double down on what you “saw” and fill in the details with a paranormal explanation. You saw a ghost. Maybe there’s even a good story that goes with the building or with your own life that explains why there was a ghost there. Now this is a skeptical blog, so I’m guessing that not many of you respond this way, but there are shades of most things. Perhaps you were raised with superstition and a rich alternative world that your family and the people around you truly believed was real. You’ve moved away from that in your own life, but sometimes the old training kicks in. There’s that heartbeat where you “see” a ghost. Then your rational brain takes over. You laugh at yourself, maybe rebuke yourself sharply for your silliness, and walk away. You might share the story with someone else, or you might be embarrassed and pretend, especially to yourself, that it never happened. But there’s a residual uneasiness, and you avoid that room, at that time of day, for a little while. You’re not discomfited so much by what you saw, as that you saw it. You feel like your rational brain has let you down.
Perhaps you don’t just walk away. Maybe your rational senses kick in quickly, or perhaps you are just plain curious. That was weird, and of course it wasn’t supernatural, so there has to be a logical explanation for what you “saw”. You hunt down the explanation – at least the part that is outside of yourself, the part that explains the physical phenomena, the shadows, light, movement, sound, silence. You discover the tree branch, weighted with rain, that hangs down so that it hits just so between the streetlight and your room. Or you realize that your neighbor’s visitor has switched on their car lights just at the right moment as they backed out of the driveway to create the glow and movement of the shadows in an unusual way. And that’s that. You know the external circumstances that created the illusion, case closed. Maybe you shut the door (hard) on that little voice that says, “your brain filled in a ghost, even if it was for less than a second.” Because you are rational. You know there’s no such thing as ghosts, so darn it, you could not, did not have that heartbeat where your brain created a ghost. You are reasonable and intelligent and seeing “weird” things (even for a nanosecond) is something that doesn’t fit with who you are. So it didn’t happen. (Even though it did. Which is irritating. So you totally mock anyone who mentions ghosts, or even unsettling experiences, in their own lives.)
But there’s another way you might respond. (And, again, these are not all mutually exclusive. You may respond in just about any combination of these ways – or none of them, of course.) You might look not only for the explanations of the external source of the illusion, but also the internal ones. Why on earth, when you know perfectly well that ghosts are superstition (or story-telling devices) did your brain (even for a nanosecond) interpret what it saw as a ghost? What was that about? And you realize that, even in the twenty-first century technological world, we are surrounded by “ghosts”. They show up in oral storytelling and in books. They are there when someone jumps out at you yelling “boo” and preens themselves on “scaring” you (not “startling” you). Maybe you’ve watched horror movies, either because you like them, or because your friends do. Maybe you went to haunted houses, or scary amusement park rides at Halloween. And chances are that you’ve known people, at some point in your life, who truly believe in ghosts. We all have some sense of what the words “ghost” and “haunting” mean, and how they are supposed to make us feel.
So even though you don’t believe in ghosts, even though you may never have believed in ghosts, it is not illogical that for a heartbeat your subconscious brain tossed up some familiar image of a ghost to fill out an odd, temporarily inexplicable, half-seen “something” in what should have been a completely familiar room. Your reason hasn’t abandoned you and you are still a rational person. You’ve just lived a lifetime in a world that isn’t always reasonable, and it has, quite naturally, affected you. If you search not only for the external factors that “made” the ghost (even if you end up not being able to identify them,) but also confront the internal reality that your brain really did think “ghost” (even if it was for less time than it takes to read the word) and why it did that, then both the “ghost” and all of its emotional residue tends to dissipate. There’s no need to be irritated with or disappointed in yourself, because you understand what created the “ghost,” you took a hard look at it, and you made it disappear. (All of this assumes, of course, that you didn’t wholeheartedly embrace the ghost explanation and run with it. That is a completely different situation.)
How does this extended metaphor relate to having a transgender child? Think of it this way. As long as we live in the real world, and aren’t characters in a story, we are never going to be disturbed by ghosts or even harmed by the idea of them, because, as a society, we have recognized that they are not real. Even if our neighbors believe that our house is haunted, they cannot bring in the police and have us evicted because they think that we have summoned malevolent spirits. However, we are surrounded by a host of assumptions, images, and misunderstandings that are just as unreasonable as a belief in ghosts, but are not benign. Not even a little bit. As a society we don’t use the power of the government to hunt down and punish people for practicing witchcraft now, but there are still many people who do use that power to demonize and try to punish anyone they fear because they find them perplexing. They’ve embraced thoroughly irrational interpretations of human variability, and they’ve run with them. And they are so loud, and so ubiquitous that drops of their poison have infiltrated our subconscious brains even as our rational minds reject their bigotry.
My child has been a little girl, a lesbian teenager, a gender-fluid young adult, and is now transitioning to a young man. I am conflicted, bewildered, lonely and afraid. I’m sad and confused. And I feel guilty because my child is feeling all of those things too, so what right have I to feel them? This is about xyr. This isn’t about me. Except that it is. Much as I might be irritated and disappointed with myself, as long as our society at large treats transgender people as creepy malevolent spirits, I will have to keep cleaning out my internal house. But it is not xyr job to help me clear away the cobwebs. It’s mine. So this is me looking straight at the shadows both outside and inside myself that are drifting around my much-loved Offspring, and turning on the light.
- confusion: I didn’t see this coming. When xe was a little girl, she wasn’t a tomboy. She loved pink, dress-up in silk scarves and fairy wings, ballet, and mermaids. She talked her father into taking her to a Disney store because she knew that I wouldn’t buy her princess toys. She wanted that hideous pink and purple make-up stand. [Reality: She was a person with her own preferences. She also liked construction toys, computer games and practical clothing for climbing. The fact that our society codes some of those things as feminine and some as masculine doesn’t mean that anyone has to embrace all of one set or all of another. It’s a manufactured division that we are trained to see and accept, and xe didn’t. Which is actually pretty awesome of xyr.]
- loneliness: If you have children, you know how often friends and coworkers ask about your child. Not just a polite, “how’s the kid?” but a genuine, “what is your daughter doing? Is she happy?” In fact, it’s so normal that you may not even notice how often it occurs. That’s a luxury which I no longer have. The world is not kind to transgender people. American culture has spent generations both pretending that there is no such thing as people who are not Male or Female, and vilifying anyone who did not fit the characteristics that had been assigned to their sex in that time and place. When Offspring came out as gay in junior high, I had enough friends who were LGB or LGB-friendly that I knew I could talk with them honestly about her problems, joys and interests without outing her to anyone who would then be unfriendly (this is a small town.) I could have conversations which acknowledged her sexuality, but only as part of her life. We still chatted about her art, and how our kids felt about the high school, and what they were wearing to the prom. But transgender people have been so marginalized that even the friends who are accepting instantly say things like “oh no!” or “I’m so sorry!” And even if I steer the conversation to other aspects of xyr life it stays awkward. Then there are the other conversations – parents of xyr former school friends at the grocery store, or clients at work who saw xyr as a teen in ballet performances (small town). Casual conversation is no longer casual. If I use xyr new name, or new pronouns, will I put xyr at risk from this person, or their family members or the friends they gossip with? So unless I feel fairly safe I answer briefly and use the old pronouns and name (and feel like a traitor.) Sometimes I risk it and use the new name and pronouns. Then I get either sympathy or revulsion. It’s not their fault. They’ve never known a transgender person. But it still hurts. My child is not defective and is most definitely not a monster.
- fear: Most of us worry a bit about our children when they are out alone in the world. Will they be safe? Will they be happy? Now I can add to that, will xe be able to use the bathroom, work or date without being beaten up or arrested?
- fear: What if xe changes and doesn’t love me anymore? What if I lose xyr? [Reality: Being a parent involves accepting that our children are constantly changing and that we have to adjust. The baby is gone, and we may miss those moments, even as we welcome and enjoy the toddler. Xe has loved me through all of those changes. There’s no reason to believe that this one will be different.]
- worry: Surgery and medical intervention are a big deal. Recovering from surgery is painful. I hate the idea of my Offspring in pain, no matter how pragmatic he is about it. [Reality: That one’s not going to change. I’d a thousand times rather go through something painful myself than have him subjected to it. All I can do is be there to help him recover.]
- sadness: (trigger warnings for the links in this section) I think that most parents want good lives for our children, however we conceptualize “good.” No parent wants to look at the news and see headlines on a near daily basis about politicians who are pushing for (and sometimes succeeding in passing) laws to penalize your child for an aspect of their being that harms no one. No parent wants to try to come to terms with the fact that these politicians share, protect and encourage the sort of fear and horror that guide some individuals when they abuse and kill people who are transgender. Because for them that unreasoning revulsion for one trait means that they can no longer see anything else, not even the humanity, in the person in front of them. [Reality: Can sometimes be really terrible. So for everyone who works to make reality less awful, whether it’s through activism, or legal channels, or even just by being a decent human being – Thank You! It helps.]
- love: My child is insightful, talented, kind, huggable, patient, considerate, smart, adorable, and transgender. [Reality: There’s no ghost there, only the person I love most in the world.]
featured: “Syllabus” (1901)