It’s a chilly night and I am sitting next to my son in a large room in a Unitarian church. Noa is displaying his traditional signs of minor anxiety: rapid scanning of his iPhone and a repetitive beat animating one foot. The room fills to 50% capacity with a variety of people all here to support a vulnerable community. A Unitarian minister opens the proceedings with a song, and I feel bashful the way I always do when I am invited to sing along. Noa and I basically mutter along. Then there are speakers. A cordless mic moves from one to another, each speaking on our concern for a few minutes. Finally, the mic goes to Noa, who is the final speaker. He speaks to us about being a member of the transgender community. Noa used to be my daughter, Ella.
Around the time of my divorce from Noa’s mom, Noa began to display symptoms of extreme anxiety. He had full-on anxiety attacks once per month or so. They were scary, and they incapacitated him, knocking him to the ground in heaving sobs and the certainty that he was about to die. At the time, he identified as Ella. His mom Susan and I were obviously alarmed and we found him a therapist, enlisted the school in a support team, and were as vigilant as possible with an 11/12 year old whose pattern was to disappear in his room and shut the door. We assumed our divorce was the cause of this anxiety, combined with the normal stress of being 11/12 years old. We later learned there was something deeper going on.
At the time, Noa began expressing an interest in fashion and clothing. He wrote a powerful essay in a class which was an attack on the school’s dress code, in which he defended the rights of girls to wear clothing which the school might deem “too sexualized or provocative”. I noticed that he became interested in make up, and that his fashion choices veered back and forth between a kind of goth-girl chic, and androgynous tomboy. He liked his hair short, in a boyish cut, and he liked to dye it.
I also noticed that he spent a lot of time online. Here I faced the dilemma of the modern parent: how much do I pry, and how much to allow him to explore as he will and make sure he knows he can talk to me about what he finds? I had a few conversation about being careful, and he began to snap at me every time I inquired if he was being bullied, harassed, or if he was receiving disturbing messages from strangers. “No dad! I’m just talking or Face-timing with my friends! I know how to be careful online, okay?!” Who are these friends? I asked. They’re kids from all over the country, he told me, and they all are exploring gender identity. I took my slightly diminished worry and went to my room, to engage in my own internet habits.
Noa announced to his family in the fall of 2015 that he was gender fluid. This means that he wanted to be able to define for himself on a daily basis whether he was female and Ella, or male and Noa (no “H”) – the name he had chosen for himself. I marked this information as “notable” and then filed it under “adolescent exploration” and left it at that. I fully expected that this was a phase on the way towards growing into an androgynous female identity, with possibly a lesbian or bi sexual preference. That fall, Noa appeared in the middle school musical. He had never performed in such a large production in front such large crowds before, and he displayed a confidence and theatricality that took his parents’ breath away. I had not seen my shy girl bring it this way, ever. In the car after a show, I was effusive in my praise.
“Yeah – that’s Noa, ” said Ella, at the time.
Why did that have to be Noa? I wondered aloud. Why couldn’t that just be a strong and confident Ella, I asked, feeling that I was displaying good feminist parenting. “I don’t know,” came the answer. “But’s that’s not Ella. That’s Noa.”
In January 2016, around the date of his 13th birthday, Noa came out as transgender to his family. I would like to write that I was totally cool with it, and signed on to the trans-train with nary a second thought. But I would be lying. I felt shocked and sad, and worried that this was further evidence of child in distress. Except that Noa wasn’t displaying outward signs of a child in distress. A year previous, we had been alerted by the school that the faculty were worried about him (as Ella). He had been isolating and seemed sad all at the time. We were not hearing about that 11 months ago, when he announced that from that point forward he preferred he/him pronouns and to be called Noa, not Ella.
Susan and I went on a steep learning curve very quickly. We enlisted the help of the Mazzoni Center, and were lucky to find a well known therapist specializing in trans youth that my parents agreed to pay for. As confusing as it was for me, it was harder for Noa’s mom. There was a fracture in their relationship last spring which was very painful. Out of that episode, Noa displayed some inclination to self-harm, but never went very far with it. Nevertheless, having the therapeutic support we were privileged to have made all the difference. I have since learned of all the trans youth without access to the resources we have, and some of those kids kill themselves.
Throughout the last several months, I have been blessed to have an extraordinary teacher on this journey: my son Noa. For the first few months of this year, I called him Ella as much as I called him Noa. Each time I called him Ella, he would fire off a completely non-judgmental “Noa!” as a correction, often with a smile on his face. We had meandering dinner table conversations about his journey, and he enthusiastically explained all the jargon to me. Gradually, I became of aware of two essential truths: a) I had been deeply and unconsciously attached to a binary relationship to sexual identity. The concept that one’s genitals don’t tell you what gender they are was shocking to me. And b) that I was still loving and raising the same child I had always been loving and raising, but with a new label. I became aware of Noa’s soul, his essence, which I knew and adored from the moment I met him, throughout the years I called him Ella, and now, as a boy. This was essentially the same person. But he was taking ownership of a crucial aspect of his identity, and in doing so, discovering a peace and strength he had been longing for. That is a complex way of saying, for all the outward change and deeply important distinctions he is making, he seems the same to me. I still bark at him for not putting dirty dishes in the dishwasher, I still help him with his homework and shuttle him around to hang outs with friends, and I still snuggle with him at bedtime. He is, and always will be, my precious child, brother to my eldest Griffen, my son.
Noa is now on puberty blockers, proscribed by the physician at Mazonni Center managing his care. This is a kind of hormone therapy designed to suspend the adolescent’s biological puberty. In Noa’s case, this means suspending menstruation and halting the growth of female characteristics, like breasts. This allows the adolescent to fully immerse himself in his chosen identity, as he considers the person he is becoming. Because let’s face it: he’s 13. It is possible that he may spend another year as Noa, and decide to return to a female identity. Or it is possible that he will settle more and more comfortably into his chosen identity and then, in a couple of years, he could begin to receive testosterone therapy which will bring about male characteristics, like facial hair. This is a big step, since testosterone therapy comes with lasting consequences that the puberty blockers do not.
I miss my daughter. I don’t know why, exactly. This whole process has brought up so many questions for me about gender, love, being a dad, having a son, having a daughter. What was it about Ella that I loved, that is missing now with Noa? Is it the dresses? Ella was never a very girly girl. Or was it the concept of “having a daughter” that I miss? Some weird fantasy about “walking down the aisle with her at her wedding” or having “father/daughter” dates? Or is it that I already had a son, Griffen, and wanted “one of each”? What have I lost, exactly? I’m not sure . . .
At the Unitarian church last night, Noa was dazzling. Nervous, but dazzling. The video below is of the speech he gave. And he was also distinctly 13 years old: obsessively fidgeting with his phone, choosing to eat candy at the snack table, and rolling his eyes with boredom at the group discussion later. We left before it as over.
And me? I feel nothing but gratitude and pride. Grateful for my privilege, which allows me to have access to resources for Noa so many trans youth don’t have. Many murders of trans people occur in minority communities, where the stigma against trans identities can be violent. Last night we read aloud all the names of all the trans people killed violently in the USA in 2016, and lit a candle for those who took their own lives. Could one of those names have been my son’s? Could his anguish and despair have become that great? That I will never know motivates me into action on behalf of those not as fortunate as we. I need to come out too: as a cis, straight white man and father of a trans son, who walks next to him and all trans people, into a future where there is less despair and more hope.
And pride? Well . . . check this out . . .