On a cold January night six years ago, shortly before his 20th birthday, my son Steven told me he was a woman. He was home from college for winter break, and we were relaxing in the living room, chatting late into the evening as we often did. The conversation touched on Steven’s fervent involvement in women’s rights as well as gay and lesbian issues. Then we started talking about a new friend of his, a young transgender man I was curious to know more about.
I had only a fleeting awareness of what it meant to be transgender. Steven carefully explained that it was a condition in which people feel themselves to be a gender that’s disharmonious with their body, and such was the case with his friend. I found this interesting and in no way alarming. Steven hung out with all kinds of people. He had never meshed perfectly with social conventions himself, and I wondered if he was now exploring this territory in the hope of finding companionship. But something about his demeanor and the passion in his eyes led me to feel strangely suspicious. My stomach tightened. I wanted swift reassurance that this budding exploration of gender identity was just another one of his many intellectual interests.
“How about you?” I asked nervously. “Do you feel harmony between your brain and your body?” He was silent. When no answer came in the seconds that followed, I knew that my world was about to implode.
As a little boy, Steven had been incomparably sweet and gentle, yet he was always an outsider. He was at once too kind and generous for other children to actively dislike, but too odd for them to ever invite over to play. Some inexplicable quality seemed to prevent him from being able to bond naturally with his peers. It was heartbreaking for me, and not without effects for Steven—from his earliest days, I detected a profound loneliness deep within him. It was as if he stood back and observed as other kids enjoyed their childhood.
As he grew, he excelled academically and absorbed himself in reading, writing, playing piano, and running track. He remained on the social margins, however, and though he interacted with a whole range of school cliques, he was never really a member of any of them. I came to think of his isolation as both the product of a studious boy’s natural temperament and a consequence of our family’s busy life—along with my husband and younger son, we were in a constant flurry of kids’ extracurricular activities. In high school, Steven finally made some good friends on the debate team. But even in that circle of bright young people, the coaches were puzzled by his unusual passiveness. Though he excelled at doing research behind the scenes, he always took a back seat at tournaments, letting his charismatic, self-assured teammates be the stars.
My question hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity until Steven broke the silence. “No, I don’t have harmony between my brain and my body,” he said with trepidation. “I am a woman, and I’ve known this since puberty.” The intensity of the moment was almost unbearable. He confessed that he didn’t want to exist as Steven anymore, that he was desperately unhappy with the charade of being a man. The child I had always known as my son was actually my daughter, he told me. Now, he was planning to alter his appearance to reflect this reality.
It felt as if my sanity buckled in the following days. I was nearly paralyzed with shock. Somehow, my husband was able to accept our son’s admission more readily. “Steven says he’s a woman and I trust him,” he said. Yet I woke up in anguish day after day, wishing it were all a bad dream. My despair soon turned into fear as I worried about the prejudice, abuse, and violence he might face. Will people be malicious and cruel to my child? Will somebody try to attack him? It seemed that it was my maternal duty to intervene in what I perceived as a disaster and protect him. I told Steven that I could no more easily have enabled my toddler to run into traffic than enable my grown son to change to a daughter.
In my determination to prove that my child was not transgender, I left no stone unturned. It was imperative that I become convinced that this was not only a real condition, but one that my child legitimately had. I spent hundreds of hours reading books and articles about gender dysphoria, studying how the condition is typically diagnosed and what qualifies—or disqualifies—a person for treatment. I was sure that all the information I amassed would ultimately confirm that Steven wasn’t really transgender, but just a gentle guy who defied rigid social standards of masculinity. I presented him with my discoveries and questions, and he patiently addressed each one. We had always been close and open with each other, and even in this time of my disbelief, neither of us was going to let this transition drive a wedge between us.
In the meantime, the young man I once knew started fading into oblivion, replaced by a feminine presence in tiny but jarring increments. He had already been growing out his long curly hair for months prior to the disclosure, and it finally made sense to me why. He had laser treatments to remove his facial hair and shaped his eyebrows into elegant arches. The disappearance of my son—even though he was being replaced by my daughter—felt like a death. I went through mourning; I grieved the loss of my former child. Of course, Steven was not truly dead, but he ceased to exist as I’d known him his entire life.
In a way, it was as if we were trading places. As I became more broken, I could sense my child becoming whole. There were moments of epiphany when I suddenly glimpsed the potential joy of the renaissance taking place. Could this have been the reason all along for my child’s oddly isolated existence? If “she” was going to emerge as a happy and fulfilled person, then was this quite possibly a cure for his puzzling loneliness? I thought back to my period of frenetic inquiry, when I’d learned that being transgender is not a choice, but rather a reality with evidence of biological origins. Transgender people are stuck living invisibly behind a shell, because the world sees only the shell. My earlier misconceptions were replaced with a new understanding of my child’s gender dissonance and the deep discomfort it had caused. Instead of persuading Steven to change his mind, I became convinced that the transition needed to happen.
Once I recognized that Steven’s transition was necessary, I realized that I also had to transition—from being the mother of a son to being the mother of a daughter. I started taking baby steps in this direction. One day, I went into a drugstore and bought a package of scrunchies for Steven’s hair, which was well past his shoulders. I presented him with the little gift, and he swung his arms around me in a big, heartfelt hug. When I saw him later that day, he had already swept his hair into a ponytail using one of the scrunchies.
Steven graciously asked my husband and me to participate in choosing a new name. By late summer, we settled on Sarah Ann and trained ourselves to refer to “her” instead of “him.” Sarah started estrogen hormone treatment in the fall, and from the first pill, her body started changing rapidly. She began wearing girl’s clothes—at first, tailored jeans with fancy topstitching around her narrowing waist, then tight-knit tops that revealed every contour of her quickly developing bust. Her voice grew softer, her hair grew longer, her face became smoother and rounder. To me, my child looked like a mix of Steven and Sarah, but to the outside world, she was already just Sarah. In public, strangers addressed her as “Miss.”
Nearly a year after the night when Steven first told me he was a woman, my now 20-year-old daughter was again visiting home for the holidays. I gave her a new flatiron for Christmas, and we went upstairs together to style her hair. She sat on a bench in the bathroom, facing the mirror while the iron heated up. I gazed at the unruly mop before me and thought of Steven and his perennially messy look—he had so often seemed in need of a haircut. I now wondered if his lack of interest in grooming was really due to a lack of interest in being Steven at all. The flatiron beeped. I took the handle and began to press Sarah’s mop, lock by lock. As I worked, I saw less of Steven and more of Sarah. From that awkward, gangly shell of a male emerged an elegant, beautiful woman. Like magic, she seemed to transform from duck to swan. At long last, in the right body, Sarah’s huge blue eyes were radiant.
Not only did she look better as a woman, she seemed to walk taller and with more confidence. An assertiveness I’d never known in her emerged. All of my initial fears about her transition ultimately fell like dominoes. Her friends showered her with support and admiration. Our family members accepted the transition with compassion. Her future was as bright as I’d always hoped, and she was infinitely happier than she’d ever been. The enigmatic loneliness I’d always sensed in Steven was nowhere to be found in Sarah, who is now thriving in her career path, pursuing all her interests, and engaged to her adoring boyfriend.
To this day, I still miss Steven. I miss the son I thought I had, the sweet and gentle boy I raised and loved for nearly 20 years. But while I didn’t know that he was painfully misaligned, I did know that something plagued him, and I’m grateful to have made peace with the solution: the emergence of my daughter. My husband and I are still getting used to living with the dichotomy of “we had him, but now we have her.” As a parent, it’s a unique type of sadness as the trade-off is more contentment than I ever thought possible. Despite my loss, I revel in the joy of Sarah’s gain.
More and more childhood photographs of the person I raised are coming down from our walls: The pictures don’t look like Sarah would have looked at that age. And with the passage of time, even my memories of Steven are fading. Or, maybe more accurately, they are being stored away in a separate chamber of my mind and heart. I remind myself that I had a boy who was actually a girl—a courageous transgender girl. She was Sarah all along. As a child, Steven stood back like an outsider, awkwardly observing the world. Now Sarah is living fully and happily in it, the best outcome that any mother could hope for.