Authors’ note: We are hoping that families will derive a number of take-aways from our open communication with each other. We have not always been in agreement about all aspects of Ray’s transition, and that is a major reason why we decided to take on this project. We want to normalize imperfection, but we also want to foster caring and open communication between trans teens and their cisgender family members. This piece has certainly helped us to do so for ourselves, and we hope it will be helpful to our readers.
It is an honor to have this conversation with you, to be fully open about my reaction to your transformation into the young man you are today. As I look back over your childhood and our relationship, our growing bond, I am so grateful that you trusted me enough to tell me the truth as you knew it, when you knew it.
Yes, I do have a special bond with each of my grandchildren. You, dear Ray, were my first. I stood outside your mom’s room and heard her cries and heard your very first one. I was there, several days later, when you had jaundice and your mom and dad rushed you to the hospital. Heart-connected from the start, I felt your pain as they tried to draw blood from your tiny veins.
In your early days, we didn’t spend much time alone. When we did, you didn’t want to sleep at all unless it was pitch black and totally quiet. Your sister Lela came just 22 short months after you, and you were curious and angry. I mostly saw you together and our private time would not come until much later.
Although you dressed in lovely pink dresses, selected by your mom and grandmoms, you later declared yourself a tomboy and were less interested in makeup and jewelry than other girls. And, of course, there was your hair, your strikingly thick red hair that made you stand out in a crowd and brought you praise from far and wide.
As you grew more womanly, when I asked you to model your mom’s prom dress, you made faces and stuck your tongue on the wall. I thought those photos were adorable, even with your frowning face. But you didn’t want to look at them. I wonder what you remember of those early days.
I remember trying on that dress, but I don’t remember feeling uncomfortable in it as much as I felt the need to goof around and prove my “quirkiness”. I have no doubt that this was caused by my discomfort. I’ve heard of this paradigm time and time again with trans men who didn’t always know they were trans– instead of being aggressive tomboys in their tween/early teen years (which I wasn’t) or transitioning early (which I didn’t, at least not super early) we are instead simply eager to prove that we aren’t like your typical girl. It’s not a total self-distancing from femininity, just the traditional mainstream femininity we are presented with in our time. I remember being adamant that I hated Justin Beiber in 4th grade, just because all the other girls my age loved and fantasized over him. The same happened in middle school with One Direction. In reality, I had no opinion, just something to prove.
It is interesting to me that your parents gave you names that could be abbreviated––your birth name into Ray, Lela into Lee, and Hallie into Hal. I never much liked your birth name. At a certain point, you and I conspired to call you “Annie,” like the red-haired character in the musical.
I know the Annie story well and often tell it to my friends because I know how funny it is, but the truth is I don’t remember that stage much, or the feelings behind it. I do think I was looking for an identity outside of my own, though in that line of analysis it might make more sense for me to have chosen a male character to embody. I remember liking that Annie was the star and forcing my sister Lela to play Annie’s friend, Molly. Maybe I just wanted to be the star and have a lackey. Who knows?
As you’re aware (and part of what’s made you more understanding of my flaws), when I went off to college in 1963 I’d never met a homosexual person or heard the word “gay.” I wasn’t particularly sheltered; the question just never came up. Perhaps it was growing up in the south, where everything was a big secret. Perhaps it was the lingering 50’s. In any case, when I returned from college on my first break, I asked my parents if they knew any homosexuals and they responded, “No, we don’t think so. Maybe Jess Riley.” It’s not clear to me how I came to know about homosexuality. There was gossip about Diane, a woman in my dorm hall. And, in 1968, when I graduated and moved to New York City, I met your Grandpa Jerry who had two friends, Ben and Ken, both openly gay and very chatty about it.
At the 92nd Street Y, where I worked for several years, I met Cappy and Milly who lived with their two “boyfriends.” When the four of them moved from New York to San Francisco, I visited. After a day of hanging out with Cappy and Milly and a bunch of their female friends, I asked about their boyfriends. “Don’t you know?” Cappy replied. “We’re all gay.”
“Cool,” I replied, shaken by the unexpected news. It turned out it was “cool.” And at the ripe old age of 25, I got to assert my belief that people should be free to love who they love and to openly explore their sexuality. Gender, however, was an issue I’d never pondered. Until you, that is.
Then in August 2014 when you were 12, along with Nana and Lela, we traveled to the Atlantis on Paradise Island. Lela roomed with Nana, and you and I shared an adjoining room. One evening, as we were drifting off to sleep, you said to me “I need to tell you something. I don’t know exactly what I am, but I know I’m not straight.” I’d be interested in knowing what you remember of that conversation.
I remember that conversation vividly and with a lot of anxiety. I don’t know why I made the decision to tell you that night, but I remember knowing you would accept me and still being incredibly nervous. The idea of coming out and having coming out conversations strikes me as very vulnerable, probably due to either aggressive romanticizing or violent responses shown in modern media, in addition to my own internalized homophobia and transphobia. I look back on that conversation and cringe at what I said, although it was absolutely true at the time. I wonder if it is because I knew that wasn’t the whole story.
Not long after your Atlantis declaration, UJA-Federation, where I worked for 28 years, sponsored a lunch & learn panel. Speakers included several gay staff members and two colleagues who had gay relatives—a son and a brother. Simha, one of the presenters who worked on my floor, had been a puzzle to me. I’d asked around. Is Simha male or female? Do I call Simha he or she? It would never have occurred to me to ask Simha. But here on the panel, Simha declared themself a “they.” They didn’t want to choose a gender. Simha spoke about gender assignments at birth. “Let the kid decide when they’re old enough to make the decision.” My head was spinning.
In April 2015, Caitlin Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner, announced she was in the process of transitioning to a woman. Before this point, she was a decathlon winner in the Montreal Olympics nearly 40 years prior, considered the picture of a man. Indeed she had always felt herself to be a woman. With gratitude to Caitlin Jenner, her announcement was totally eye-opening for me. It broke my heart that she had to live hidden, and I rejoiced that we lived at a time when she was free to be she.
Interestingly, another thing that makes me cringe is the use of phrases like “being free to be she” like you just used. I have heard them overwhelmingly from cis people, although more often from trans people where the pronoun is replaced by their chosen name: “free to be Ray” or “becoming Ray” to use myself as an example. I think part of it is the insensitivity of those kinds of statements. They are, in most cases, crafted to appeal to an audience, even to garner pity from other cis people, not used to genuinely express trans experience. In fact, one big thing to understand about trans identity is that even when you transition, you do not become a different person. Conflating the changing of a person’s pronouns with the change of a person contradicts that and can be unhelpful.
This is very interesting to me. I think it’s a big fear that you did/will become a different person.
I find this to be a largely media-based fear, perpetuated by these kinds of “becoming …” catchphrases, among other things. The simple truth is that a trans person never becomes a different person because of their transition. It may make them happier, more outgoing, and more confident in general, but these newfound traits are always present in a person beforehand, they just don’t show when someone has to hide who they are or pretend to be someone they aren’t. In reality, I have always been the person I am after transitioning because my trans self is my true self. You’re only going to find a truer version of a trans person when they transition.
While the dates don’t really matter, I tracked your communications as follows:
January 2015: Still using your birth name in your emails.
May 2016: Mott Hall Short Essay for high school application. Pansexual and gender-fluid
October 5, 2016: Changed email to Ray. When did you first start to use Ray?
January 2017: The piece in National Geographic, “How Science is Helping Us Identify Gender.”
April 2017: So honored that you shared “The Real Alex Bertie” video with me, your mom, and dad with the following note: “I don’t like to send specifically trans-related stuff like this because it feels like I’m being isolated from cis people (or something like that, I can’t really explain it). However, I’ve been watching this guy for a while and he does a good job of giving a recap of his experience. So here’s one video and definitely look at more if you feel it’s necessary.“
I think I sent that YouTube video out as a warning to you guys. I pretty much knew I was trans at that point if I wasn’t out already, but I didn’t want anyone to be too shocked when the news came out, and I didn’t want to be met with a total lack of understanding.
Overall, this list seems pretty accurate. I remember asking my dad to help me change my email because I became very uncomfortable with hearing and using my birth name far before I changed my pronouns or transitioned officially, and my birth name was in my email address.
I also remember being pretty excited about that article. The photographer came to a school art show with me and my dad and then went shopping with us to get me a suit for the 8th-grade prom. She was pretty cool, but I found the picture that Nat Geo chose to be disrespectful. They chose a picture in which my chest was notably visible, which I took as an attempt to make my transness clearer to their audience. This did not present me as I wished to be presented to the public, which was inherently trans enough.
I appreciate that you understand that they’re trying to provide clarity to their audience. What might you have preferred they choose?
The whole piece was about transgender children. Anyone would have known from context, not to mention from the text directly next to the picture stating that I am a trans man. There is an unfortunate trend in our society of only accepting, noticing, or validating the identities of trans people who “look trans”. This can mean a variety of things, from having dyed hair to looking masculine but painting your nails to being a trans person who does not pass as cisgender (which is its own problematic concept). What it comes down to is that cisgender society only wants to support and elevate the voices of trans people who conform to what it expects.
If my chest wasn’t visible in that picture, I would have looked like any other baby-faced 13-year-old boy, which is how I wanted to look. But that isn’t what Nat Geo wanted, they wanted a TRANSGENDER BOY (in lights). That article was meant to show that transgender kids are normal kids who thrive when their family and community supports their expression — they could have done that with a different picture of me.
I trusted you. I had to trust you. I felt you did the work in therapy, in research, (Ray: I did) and I felt that heart connection as I said at the start. With all that said, I felt your fear as you reentered family gatherings or made our annual trip to a Jewish learning weekend. I wondered if they would get you, embrace you, call you Ray. For me, a pivotal moment came when we were traveling back from the conference and a woman on a train needed help with her suitcase and you were quick to oblige. Turning to me, she said, “What a fine grandson you have.” And I felt we’d made it.
Now I’m wondering if this is an offensive statement — ”we’ve made it.”
Whether I like it or not, you as part of my family have been part of this “journey” with me. I support you fully in thinking of that moment as you making it. If that was a big moment for you as a grandmother then no one can ever take that away from you. I have had and will continue to have my own moments of making it. We just haven’t been part of this experience in the same way.
Yes, it is true that “we haven’t been part of this experience in the same way,” however we have certainly done a fine job of honoring each other in the process of writing this communication. I have learned so much from you and I am forever grateful for the opportunity to know you so deeply. May other grannies be so blessed.
I love that we have been able to turn a beautiful personal-growth-inducing conversation into something we can proudly share. Thank you for being so kind, communicative, and open to learning throughout this process. I could not have done it without you!
Read the next two pieces in this series:
Ray and June Part 2 – List of Concerns (and Responses)
Ray and June Part 3 – For advice to Grandparents/Family members who want to be of support