"And these children that you spit on As they try to change their worlds Are immune to your consultations They're quite aware of what they're going through"
- David Bowie
When I was a little girl, I was a hair dressing prodigy and in my community that made me a big deal. For the black women of my neighborhood, hair was critically important. Hair was not simply hair; it was the crown that determined one's social status. The more stylish the hair, the more important the person. This bizarre social casting system put anyone with hair skills in very high demand. And boy did I have skills.
I have always had an artistic eye and when combined with my exceptionally dexterous fingers, intense attention to detail and outstanding bedside manner, I was the Mozart of hair. I was such a natural that before I could read the instructions on the Revlon hair relaxer box, women in my family entrusted me to apply the powerful hair straightening chemicals to their scalps. By the time I entered high school, I was the go to hairdresser for my friends and family.
While I had a different ambition in life than being the world's greatest stylist, I always dreamed of having daughters and doing their hair. What an amazing bonding experience that would be! How great to be the very best hairdresser that money couldn't buy. You want the best "Do" at your junior high school? Well, you have to be my daughter to get that.
After I grew up, I was fortunate to have three lovely daughters and I could not wait to do their hair. When they were very little, they all loved it and it was one of my happiest memories as a young mom. But as my eldest child Julia, grew up, I was shocked and horrified to find that she hated having her hair done by me or anyone else.
This was a change that I could not stomach. How could she not want to look fierce? How could she take away this wonderful experience? What about the crown? We would battle it out every week over the hair. To give you and idea of the intensity, it was like a steel cage match, with the prize being a hairdo. Finally, in elementary school, we compromised and Julia kept her hair in braids.
Julia kept her feelings very close and me asking why she did not want me to do her hair could cause a major meltdown. Although I had minor suspicions, they were always proved wrong. For 15 years, I never understood why we battled over hair.
Then on a day that my husband was being honored by Columbia University, I found out. Once again, Julia and I got into a small scuffle about her appearance, but I quickly relented and we agreed that she need not attend the black tie event. Relieved of her battle duties, she had some news for me. Julia announced that she was transgender and would heretofore prefer to be referred to as "he" and by a new name "Jules." I instantly understood why "he" did not want his hair done. He did not want to look like a girl.
Well, this was a big deal. I had spent time doing charitable work for people with transgender issues in the developing world. I met with them, understood their stories, and fought to help them get basic human rights. I knew that they struggled mightily just to survive, but I must admit that I still didn't really understand the depth of their challenges. Once I found about Jules, I set out to do much more research and the research was not pretty.
For starters, 41% of transgender people in the U.S. attempt suicide at some point in their lives, a whopping 9 times the national average. That stat still blows me away. 9 times the national average. Good God, what must transgender people have to go through just to survive?
Also, incredibly scary were the details of sexual re-assignment process. In particular, the specifics of the female to male procedures that Jules was contemplating involve taking large quantities of testosterone for life. Knowing its effect on professional football players in the 80s, this did not seem healthy or safe. A small amount of research verified my fears -- increased chance of heart attack, potential links to cancer, and many other horrifying side effects. However, compared to a 41% suicide attempt rate, maybe it wasn't so bad? Jules was definitely in-between a rock and a hard place. I read that only 1.5% of patients regret having gender reassignment surgery. That sounded quite encouraging, but when I spoke to a friend who, as a professional, had access to a vast amount of unpublished data on sexual re-assignment surgery, he said that 22% of the people that his hospital treated had the surgery reversed. I still have trouble processing those two numbers.
Given all the conflicting data, I encouraged Jules to proceed with caution. He was very clear on who he was and, given 15 years of hair battles, I knew he was right. But at the same time, I was terrified for Jules' safety. The terror continues until this day.
I must note that whatever I was feeling, it would have little impact on Jules' course of direction. He was committed and determined and not really open to discussion. He notified everyone in our family and social circle via email and planned his transition.
After the communication went out, I quickly found out what people really thought about Jules and, surprisingly, about me. The voicemails and texts overwhelmed my phone and drained my battery. Everybody wanted my reaction. They wanted to know how I felt about it. It was like becoming an instant celebrity in a bad way.
People generally approached me in one of three ways -- all three continue to this day.
The best approach were just people letting me know that they were 100% supportive and happy to help in any way. I appreciated these very much.
The next kind of interaction came from people who truly meant well, but achieved the opposite. This came from people who I knew for years who were deeply religious or who for whatever reason had mixed feelings about the issue. They would be supportive, but then end it with a phrase like: "I'll be praying for you" in an ever so slightly condescending tone. Why are you praying for me? Nobody died. In fact, somebody was finally freed to live his life. My kid is an Ivy League graduate, a great person and has finally resolved the major confusion in his life. Pray for someone who is sick or in trouble or an addict or actually dying. I know that what you really mean when you say: "I'll be praying for you" is "I don't approve of this." Well, Jules does not need your approval.
The final type of conversation also came from people who also meant no harm. They were typically liberal in their thinking, but were poorly informed and had little idea of what I was feeling or the issues that Jules faced. They would say things like: "How is Jules?" or "How is your son?" Now, these phrases seemed fine, but they were far from fine. You see, I have three children and nobody ever asks about one of my kids and not the others. If they were worried about Jules and wanted to know how he was, they would have just called him. Jules is 25 and has had his own phone for quite some time. If they were worried about me and how I was doing, they would ask about all the kids. Their real reason for calling was to check my reaction to the issue of transgender. "How is Jules" was just code for "how do you feel about having a transgender kid?" They imagined that since I grew up in a religious household that my views might not be as liberal as theirs and they were doing a quick litmus test. When they asked: "How is Jules?" I felt like saying: "How many countries have you travelled to advocating for transgender rights? I've been to 7. If you want to know how many fucks I give about people who hate, because they think the Bible justifies it, the answer is zero. I give zero fucks about that. My only concern is for the health and well being of my child." But I was too mad to articulate that, so I just changed the subject as quickly as possible.
As I spoke to the people who I knew the best, I grew more worried and more enraged. I realized that I needed to belong to a community that understood transgender people and the issues they faced. Somehow, I was lucky enough to find the people at Glide Memorial Church. Glide's motto is "unconditional love" and they practice what they preach. Its members include people on the fringe of society: drug addicts, AIDS victims, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and many transgender men and women. Everyone is welcome and everyone is loved. At Glide, I have had the privilege of befriending many wonderful transgender people and that has been so great for me, but it has taught me that the transgender road is every bit as hard as the statistics would indicate. Thinking about it, writing about it, feeling it, makes me want to burst into tears right now. Openly transgender people are the most courageous in the world. If I were transgender, I don't think that I could muster the courage to come out in the open with it. Could you? If we want to defeat ISIS, I believe we should enlist all transgender people. They will go to hell and back for what they believe.
The people at Glide have a catch phrase that they like to use: "I am Glide." It seems like nothing, but it is extremely deep. When people say: "I am Glide", they don't mean that they vote for Gay marriage or are not offended by transgender people or that some of their best friends are black. They mean: "I am gay, I have AIDS, I am transgender." They mean, I am a full brother in arms and I will fight to the death for my brother's rights. I am not just willing to say the words, I am willing to do the work. You are not alone.
Armed with new strength from Glide, I planned this year's Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving has been my favorite holiday for years. I am a community builder by nature and Thanksgiving is an opportunity for me to invite not only all my family members, but everyone who I have a connection with and everyone who needs a family. I hold it on the Friday after Thanksgiving to make sure that everyone can come. But this year was different. Jules was going through his transition and it would be the first time that people would see him in his transition state. I wanted to be sure to protect him from anyone who might have any misgivings, misplaced political or religious BS, or any hostility towards him. I cut the guest list down to the bare minimum to make sure that Jules would feel totally safe in his home. Want to pray for Jules? Stay at home and pray there. Uncomfortable around transgender people? Be uncomfortable at home. I was determined to make everything perfect.
The weekend started with a wonderful gift from my friend Bill Campbell. Bill knew about Jules' transition, but not just in a peripheral way. Bill had known Jules since he was a little kid and always took an interest in Jules' well being. Bill knew that Jules loved football and gave us his luxury box at the new 49er stadium, because he thought that would be a great family event and wanted to create a safe environment. We were so excited that we arrived at the game two hours early and decided to take a tour of the new stadium. In doing so, we bumped into some old friends and it was great to see them as well, but I noticed that they noticed Jules' appearance. They did not know that Jules was transgender, but they seemed awfully focused on him. As locked in as they were, they said nothing. We let them know that we were in Bill's box and they said that they wanted to come by and see it. This was a little odd as they were in a box only a few yards away, so I imagine their box was much like ours. When they arrived in the box, the true mission became clear -- they weren't there to see the box, they were there for a closer look at Jules, the circus freak. It hurts my heart to type that.
The next day at my house, Bill asked me how it went at the game. I thanked him profusely for the wonderful box and experience and support, but felt compelled to relay the story. He listened carefully and slowly started to cry. When he finally spoke, his words were: "Unfortunately, this is only the beginning."
These incidents may seem like slights, but they are life. If my closest, dearest friends cannot comprehend what is going on, then how will strangers treat my beloved child? I worry about this constantly, relentlessly, always. Still, I could not be more proud of Jules. His courage and fearless strength blow me away. I have no doubt that he will accomplish great things in life if the world allows him to just live.