Fifteen years ago, I gave birth to a beautiful blue-eyed, blonde-haired little girl and, like many proud mothers, started envisioning what her life might be like: dance lessons, cheerleading, proms, and, of course, her wedding.
But as early as when she was five—when I bought her a six-foot-tall princess bed she rarely slept in—I started to realize that she was different. She never played with dolls or wore dresses. She was all about "boy toys" and clothing and sports that most people would think their sons, not their daughters, would be interested in. At eight, she was the only girl on her flag football team and on several occasions was named "player of the game."
I didn't think much of it. At the time, I believed that she was simply an absolutely amazing tomboy. But within a few years, that all changed.
After her tenth birthday, she suffered from terrible anxiety, stomach issues, and headaches. And one night when she was twelve, after she hit puberty and immediately became paralyzed in my closet, our world was turned upside down. I remember her yelling, "I can't feel my legs," and how my fiancé picked her up and rushed her to the hospital—how after exhaustive testing she was diagnosed with conversion disorder, a condition that is a result of intense emotional trauma and leaves you with no feeling in your arms and legs.
It was clear then that she had been carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. So we took the doctors' advice and had her speak with a therapist. It was there she revealed that she felt like she was trapped in the wrong body—something she came to terms with the night she officially hit puberty.
- Illustration by Shan Stumpf
She was terrified, maybe because at that age, knowing that she identified as a boy was too much to handle. The psychologist told her that she had gender dysphoria, a condition that resulted in the emotional duress that led to her paralysis, and recommended she see a gender therapist.
And that's how we found Kimbel Sergeant, a woman who, from the moment she met my daughter, changed her life. She answered her door wearing a wide, welcoming smile and asked my daughter, "How are you doing, young man?" For the first time in a very long while, my daughter—my son—smiled. You see, that is the day that my daughter became my transgender son.
To be absolutely certain, he said that he would live as a male for a year and that, if he still felt the same way, he would start taking testosterone. That was the longest year we have endured as a family. It started at WakeMed's rehabilitation center, where, for five months, he fought to get the feeling back in his legs. Sometimes, when he was relaxed or sleeping, he could move them, but he would lose feeling again when he discussed his gender dysphoria.
At the end of those five months, I'd had enough of losing sleep over my son and made up my mind that he was going to get out of that wheelchair because he needed to know that he is in control of his life and that, for him to get better, he had to want it bad enough. So we discussed, very openly, his fears. And we talked and talked and talked until I taught him how to meditate and visualize himself walking. In time, it worked.
But walking again was only the first step. He also wanted to start fresh at a new school, so before the school year began, I sent out letters to every member of the Wake County school board. It wasn't long before the principal at Sanderson High School reached out. He assured me that this would be a supportive setting for my son and even said he would not be the only transgender student there. So, my son enrolled and was loved by all.
After seven more months living as a young man, he was finally able to get his first shot of testosterone. He was so happy that day that he cried. He was more confident at school and worked hard to become a straight-A student. He even used the boys' bathroom because he was, in the school's eyes, a boy.
So when he heard, a year ago, that some of the transgender youth he was mentoring were not being accepted by their parents and felt alone, he was upset. Then, three months later, HB 2 happened. My son did not like the feeling of all of a sudden being at the center of such a controversy aimed at schoolchildren. And after the bill was signed into law, he saw, firsthand, what happens when discrimination is made legal. He received two phone calls from suicidal friends.
The weight of their emotional well-being, on top of being worried about his trans friends trying to come out to their parents, was just too much for him to handle on his own. He asked his dad to take him to our local mental health facility.
While he was in the hospital, I couldn't sleep. I stayed up many nights reading heartbreaking stories about Blake Brockington and Leelah Alcorn, two transgender teens who had committed suicide,.
Blake was a beautiful young African-American male from Charlotte. He had just graduated high school and was the first transgender student to become homecoming king. He was involved in his local LGBTQ community center and mentored other trans youth. But the discrimination that he suffered was too much for him to handle, and he chose to take his own life.
Leelah was a beautiful transgender girl who had just come out to her parents. They were very much against their child's new lifestyle, and they took action. They called in ministers to pray for her. She was forced to undergo conversion therapy, which is no longer allowed for minors, thanks to President Obama signing "Leelah's Law."
Leelah left her home after writing a note that she set to post a few hours later—after her suicide. Because Leelah was forced to avoid her friends, had her phone taken away, and also lost her computer privileges, she wrote the letter, walked down the highway, and stepped in front of an eighteen-wheeler. When she died, her parents spoke on local news and professed their love for their son and used her male name.
A part of me gets that. It took me a long time to call my daughter my son, and even longer to call my son by his male name. I cried for weeks. I couldn't sleep, so I prayed: "Use me, Lord. Someone needs to stop this." I had lost my sister, Amanda, to suicide. I would not lose my son.
Three weeks later, I saw that Equality NC was holding a town hall event here in Raleigh to discuss the negative effects of HB 2. I noted on Facebook that I would be attending, with no idea what to expect. I was scared, because this was a forum about a man who broke my son's heart—our governor—and the bill he signed without understanding the emotional torture it would inflict on our transgender children. I read on to see the meeting was in a church—so at least, I thought, God would be near.
A few days later, I got dressed. I went alone and sat at the back of the church, quietly listening to how HB 2 had affected our state by costing businesses millions in dollars. But right before the question-and-answer segment was about to end, I began to quietly cry, because no one was talking about the children. Nobody had talked about Leelah. No one mentioned Blake. And, most important to me, no one knew about my son. Out of nowhere, I heard my deceased dad say, "Hope, stand up!"
I stood and tried to be brave. I talked about the struggles trans teens go through, but as I began to tell my son's story, I began to cry again. Earlier, upcoming town hall meetings had been mentioned. I asked, "Even though I am scared and I'm shaking to death, when is the big town hall? When do I have to share my son's story?"
After the event, people came up to hug me and told me how they were very proud of my courage. Two of the women who approached me had transgender children. And I did not realize it at the time, but a man who was there that evening took a video of my speech and uploaded it to YouTube. After that, I was asked to be a speaker at the Capitol rather than just an attendee.
I was grateful to share my son's story, to talk about Leelah, and tell local trans teens in Raleigh that if they ever felt alone and needed a place to go, that on Morgan Street there is a home called the Wrenn House that takes in homeless trans youth. After the rally, I was asked to be a speaker at the General Assembly building and gave a speech that went viral and was seen by Loretta Lynch. I cried as I heard her discuss the nightmare of trans discrimination that is going on in our state.
But through it all, from that moment at the church when I stood to speak to my interview on CNN, it was never about me. All over North Carolina, every member of the trans society and their allies have been stepping up to demand their voices be heard. We scream, we cry, but most important, we support one another.
My son and his friends are very proud of me, but I remind him every day that I would never have the courage to take on such an important cause if it wasn't for God giving me strength and for him giving me such a beautiful, selfless son who needs to have the rights that everyone else is entitled to. My son is my whole world.
So tonight, as I write this, I know a few things for sure. I know that somehow, within the nightmare that is HB 2, an open dialogue about acceptance has begun. I know that Blake and Leelah are smiling down from heaven, because Leelah's plea to "fix society" is getting done. And last but not least, my beautiful son, Kai—a name that means "strength"—his friends, and every transgender child know that slowly but surely, change is coming. I promise.
This article appeared in print with the headline "His Mother's Son"