The roomful of patients could have been teleported into any dentist’s office and looked like they belong.
Everything appeared so – usual.
But I’d driven my kids to plenty of doctor’s appointments, and this time my heart was racing like it had powered me up a mountain. And my son was 24; he didn’t go to the doctor with his mother anymore.
This was not usual. In fact, the patients themselves were not as they appeared. Or, to be specific, as they wanted to appear. Which is, of course, why they were there.
The trip to this nondescript office took years longer than the 10-minute drive, and the directions aren’t on any GPS. It took a years-long identity crisis and Elliott’s determination to make it here. And by “make it,” I mean in every sense.
A year before our Florida trip, Elliott wrote to our family, who until then knew him as her:
“There’s something I need you to know. It’s that I’m male – I’ve always been. The term transgender is used as an umbrella term by many people to describe different things, but I can tell you about my experience. Up until now, I’ve always battled a sense of deep loneliness and non-belonging, being weighed down by an overwhelming sense of feeling hopelessly invisible, misunderstood and most of all fake. My real identity and sense of being is completely the opposite of the body that I was born with.”
He told us, “I’d like you to respect my gender identity by referring to me with male pronouns, and to please make an effort not to call me or refer to me as my birth name, as it’s embarrassing and upsetting (and foreign) for me to hear.”
But what set off my maternal adrenaline (my husband’s paternal instincts too) was this: “People say that this must be a difficult decision to make, but I explain that this isn’t a decision at all; it’s either this or not living.”
Wherever Elliott’s transition needed to take him, we were raring to go.
There’s no one way to be trans, as Elliott said. For him, it meant male pronouns, a name change, hormones and the top surgery that brought us to Florida. No one step was “the one,” and only he and time will tell if there’ll be more.
If you assume that surgery was the most important step, that’s only because it is an observable effort with physically apparent results.
The real work was Elliott’s, before he told anyone “I’m male.”
Getting to a doctor’s office in Florida is just a trip. Knowing, declaring and reclaiming yourself is the real journey.
Not to say it was that easy to get to this doctor. Geographically, it required airplanes, taxis and driving from Connecticut and North Carolina to Florida and back. Practically, it took an Airbnb rental followed by a stay on Elliott’s couch in North Carolina. Financially, it took the generosity of friends and family. Logistically, it took navigating crazy bureaucracy.
And this was only part, of just Elliott’s, journey. There were a dozen others in that waiting room that day.
It was pre-surgery consultation day. Most patients were in their late teens or 20s, there with a parent or friend (lucky Elliott had both). Quiet conversations revealed they’d come from all over the country and Europe. They’d come because there was no comparable surgeon at home, or because – as in Elliott’s case – their insurance didn’t cover this care anyway, so they might as well choose the doctor they most wanted.
This wasn’t a roomful of people waiting for something innocuous like a teeth cleaning.
Near us was a man, maybe 40, also there with his mother. She was chatting with another woman. “People at my church think it’s okay, so I support her,” she said.
“He,” the man corrected his mother.
“And she’s changed her name to Evan, so I’m getting used to that,” the mother went on.
“He,” her son repeated. And so on.
Eventually, the weary Evan leaned toward me and asked, “Will you please talk to my mother?” We mothers talked. Turns out it’s harder to break a 35-plus-year pronoun habit than a 20-year one. I bet she’s got it down by now, because her heart was in the right place.
When you love someone who is trans, and you are not, you learn it’s not only okay, but appreciated, to ask questions. Like, “What pronouns do you use?” (And a tip: it’s “use”, not “prefer” – because, as Elliott says, “It’s not a preference. It’s an existential truth of someone’s human identity.”) And if you slip up sometimes with pronouns, it’s okay, as long as you’re trying.
Just don’t ask me if my son, or anyone in that waiting room, was confused. Or if it’s a whim. Or if kids these days are doing this for attention. Or what if they change their mind. Because I will think unkind thoughts. Because no one was at that doctor’s office for fun. Because no one knows themselves better than those who are compelled to question who they are. Because so what if my child does (and he won’t) “change his mind.” Because I prefer my son alive.
When Elliott told us he was trans, we’d been half expecting it. We were relieved! I thought, “This explains everything.” There was now a reason for the ineffable something that was wrong.
There were lots of little things, like how he covered up every possible bit of his body with long sleeves, high necks and jeans, even on hot days. How he guarded any topic remotely personal. And how he shrank from hugs.
From now on, things would get better and better! And they did. But it was a roller coaster, one with real-life victories and terrors. It’s not a good ride to go on alone.
The day of his first testosterone shot, Elliott texted a photo of the hormone vial in his palm and wrote, “This is the closest I’ve ever felt to happiness in my life!” I was elated, for a second, until the implication struck me – had he been unhappy all these years?
Every milestone was a celebration. He told me it was a good thing that changes from testosterone are gradual, because with too much change too soon, he wouldn’t recognize his own body. He said he’d looked down and thought his arms had gotten shorter, then realized they’d gotten bigger around.
But there were times he was struggling so hard that it was terrifying. We were buoyed by support from the new trans and ally acquaintances we sought out: other parents at PFLAG meetings. Tony Ferraiolo, who as a trans man and life coach gave us insight into Elliott’s struggle. Don Arsenault, who runs a parents’ support group in New Haven while down the hall Tony meets with LGBTQ kids. Don made an unforgettable prediction: “You’ll become closer to your son than you’ve ever been or could believe possible.”
Wow, was he right. We are so very close now, all of us. Elliott says he’d kept his distance because he didn’t think we’d ever know him. Now we talk about everything. And we hug, long ones. (And on hot days now? He’s in shorts, and shirtless!)
At the time of Elliott’s surgery, four years ago, we weren’t at that comfortable point yet. We knew we were on the same team, but were so tense. Who wouldn’t be? After all, it was for him a life-defining surgery.
Adding to the tension was a Florida law requiring the surgical center to use the name on his government ID. Although he’d changed his name, his new driver’s license was in the mail. To him, the possibility of being called into surgery by the wrong name was unbearable.
I called the center, where a kind woman assured us that despite the name on his file, they would call him Elliott. Unlike many medical offices, this center was accustomed to transgender patients. Unfortunately, though, his hospital bracelet would have to have the wrong name.
The pre-dawn drive to the surgical center was surreal – as in, I couldn’t believe we were really there. A few minutes after checking in, a nurse came out and called, “Elliott?” By noon, I was wheeling him toward the car. Before leaving the building, I pulled out the scissors I’d packed, cut off the bracelet and threw away that old name.
Ten days of recovery later, we went back to the waiting room where we joined most of the same people, there this time to hear the doctor say, you can go home now – as you newly are, but also always were.