When My Brother Came Out

img_2224My brother came out when I was in high school and he was in his early twenties. The right way to come out is different for every person. For my brother it was in a mailed letter.

I was sitting at the dining room table doing homework with my boyfriend when my mom came home from work and started opening the mail. She stopped halfway through the stack of envelopes and catalogs.

She went up to her room and came back down wearing a sweatsuit and said she was going for a walk.

That’s when I knew something was wrong. My mom never went for a walk and I didn’t even know she owned a sweatsuit, let alone the bright white sneakers that served as warning lights on her feet.

After she walked out the door, my boyfriend and I stared at each other without speaking . This wasn’t the nightly routine.

She returned hours later. She was sweaty and I could tell she had been crying.

She told my boyfriend that he needed to go home, but didn’t offer him a ride. Something life changing had happened, or was happening. I braced myself.

She said she needed to talk to me and I followed her to my room. She started talking in a tone that was forced calm, measured calm, scary calm.

“I got this letter in the mail today,” she started, waving the envelope in the air.

I racked my brain trying to think of what the letter could possibly say. I came up with nothing that would warrant my mother putting on a sweatsuit.

“This letter is from your brother and you know what it says?” she asked. I shook my head.

“Do you know what he is?” she said. The scary calm was fading, now she was just scary. “He’s gay.”

“So?” I thought to myself.

“Shit.” I thought to myself.

“This is going to suck.” I thought to myself.

She was still talking, but I couldn’t hear her because I was thinking a lot of things to myself.

“This doesn’t mean that you’re gay. You have to promise me that you don’t think you’re gay,” my mom said, finally getting my attention.

Wait. What?

img_2864What did my brother coming out have to do with my sexuality? Hours earlier I had been making out with my boyfriend when we had the house to ourselves.

But…I was oddly, strongly attracted to the girl who sat in front of me in English class.

Maybe I was gay.

No. I couldn’t be gay. Only one of us could be gay and my brother had clearly already called dibs. If him being gay forced my mom into a sweatsuit, I could only imagine what me being gay would force her into.

She retreated to her bedroom and closed the door. I heard yelling and crying all night. She didn’t go to work the next day.

When I got home from school she told me to get in the car immediately because I had an appointment to see a therapist.

“Why?” I asked. With all due respect, it seemed like she was the one who needed a therapist.

“Because your brother being gay is going to be a lot for you to deal with.”

It was?

Once awkwardly sitting in the therapist’s office with my mom crying in the waiting room, the therapist opened our time together with a prayer.

img_4604

PFLAG brochure circa 1992

Then, for an hour, she told me what the bible said about gay people. She taught me how to pray for my brother so that he might see the error in his ways, ask for forgiveness and, once again, lead a godly life. She taught me how to pray for myself so God would know I loved my brother, but didn’t agree with his sin. The therapist told me not to tell anybody that my brother was gay.

I sat in silent revolt. The therapist obviously didn’t like my brother, so, therefore, I didn’t like her. I was supposed to meet with her once a week. I refused — leading my mother to firmly believe that she had failed as a parent. The relationships that my mom had with each of us as individuals and together as a sibling unit were never the same.

She made my brother tell me himself over the phone that he was gay. Like it was a punishment. I was just happy to hear his voice, until I heard that he was crying. I cried too; not because he was gay, but because he was in pain.

I didn’t tell Michael about my therapy session until much later because I knew it would hurt his feelings. And, it did.

But, at some point when I was feeling like he thought that his coming out affected only him. I needed him to know that it affected me too. It’s a major plot twist in my life story. Coming out isn’t just about the LGBTQ person. Conversion therapy isn’t just for LGBTQ people. But, I always knew that however bad I had it, my brother had it worse.

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PFLAG brochure circa 1992

Before her death a year and a half ago, my mom cried to me and told me that she felt like a failure as a mother because of her reaction when my brother came out. She said that, at times, her love for my brother, for her kids, didn’t triumph over her concern about what others would think or say. Weeks before she died she told my brother in words on a card.

Going through a box of my mom’s stuff last week, I found a huge envelope stuffed with papers sent to her by her sister the week that my brother came out.

The note said, “When you’re ready, maybe some of this info will help.”

Handouts, copies and brochures from an organization called PFLAG followed the note. I held them in my hands, thinking of my mother’s sweatsuit, my brother’s tears, the therapist’s prayers and I thought about how different my family’s life could have been if my mom and I had attended a PFLAG meeting instead of a religious therapist.

If you are an adult or parent struggling with a loved one coming out, please seek support that doesn’t seek to change your loved one. Click here for some resources.

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Back to School Blues…and Pinks

All summer, every summer, I can’t wait for school to start again. When the kids are in school, there are less “I’m bored” complaints, less money spent, less full layers of sunscreen to apply/reapply, less sand everywhere and there’s more time for me to work, write, watch Netflix and Google random things.

But, then, sure as shit, one week before school starts, I start to panic and worry about what the school year holds for gender-nonconforming C.J.

I can clearly remember my worries by grade level – which, as I look back now, are proof that it truly does get better. I’ll take my fourth grade worries over my first grade worries any day. (And, I refuse to think about my middle school worries, so don’t even bring them up. I know it will get worse.)

Preschool: Will the kids make fun of C.J. for wearing girl clothes? Will he get teased?

Kindergarten: Will the kids make fun of him for drawing himself as a girl and wearing girl socks, jewelry and lip gloss? Will he get teased?

First Grade: Will he be comfortable and safe in the boys’ bathroom? Will he get teased?

Second grade: I hope his teacher will be more accepting and thoughtful than his last. Will he get teased?

Third Grade: He’s been at the same school for four years. I hope he has an accepting and supportive friend in his class. Will he get teased?

Fourth Grade: I hope the other kids continue to be cool to him.

This year, the hardest part of going back to school was school supply shopping; it’s when I realized how much of his sparkle C.J. tames and edits for school. I know it feels necessary for him, but it feels sad for me.

I want to tell him “You do you! Who cares what other people think! Screw them!,” but I don’t because he can read the crowd of his peers better than I can. Just like I won’t dye my hair purple and let all of my tattoos show at work, C.J. doesn’t wear a skirt or carry a purse to school.

We hide our authentic selves sometimes, because it seems like the right or easiest thing to do – but we let just enough of our true selves show so that we don’t feel like we’ve surrendered completely.

C.J. needed to get spiral notebooks for school. He wanted these:

img_0174He got these:

img_0173He needed a binder. He wanted one of these:

img_3597He got this coral one:

img_3598He wanted this lunchbox:

img_0172He got this one (which Chase told us privately is equally as girly and attention-grabbing):

img_0005He was brave enough to go with these highlighters:

img_0003As the first day of school got closer, C.J. got more nervous and so did I.

The night before, C.J. asked me to help him make sure his French braid was perfect and to paint one of his fingernails blue. If nobody said anything about his nail, he’d paint an additional nail each night until he worked up to two, fully manicured hands. Then, he’d go from blue to a more fabulous color.

img_4011He’s careful and measured in how much of himself he reveals to people at first.

img_4010So far so good for fourth grade. He’s worn French braids, ponytails and crimped hair. His nails are polished. The friendship bracelets have started to amass on his wrist.

The anxiety has started to subside as we settle into the comfortable routine of the school year. From here until summer, we stand ready for what could happen, but we are more joyful than fearful.

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Giveaway: My Son Wears Heels

book-500x491Happy Pub Day to Julie Tarney! Her book My Son Wears Heels came out today. And, I have a copy to give away to one lucky reader.

This giveaway is now closed. Congrats to the winner, Shannon Twisler!

About the book:

In 1992, Julie Tarney’s only child, Harry, told her, “Inside my head I’m a girl.” He was two years old.

She had no idea what that meant. She felt disoriented even trying to process it. Wasn’t it her role to encourage and support her child? But surely she had to set some limits to his self-expression—or did she? Would he be bullied? What kind of guidance would he need? Could she do the right thing? And what was the right thing?

The internet was no help, because there was no internet. And there were zero books for a mom scrambling to understand a toddler who had definite ideas about his gender, regardless of how Nature had endowed him. Terms such as transgender,gender nonconforming, and gender creative were rare or nonexistent.

Lacking a positive role model of her own, and fearful of being judged as a mom who was making her son “too feminine,” Julie embarked on an unexpected parenting path. Despite some stumbles, she learned to rely on her instincts. She listened carefully, kept an open mind, and as long as Harry was happy, she let him lead the way. Julie eventually recognized that Harry knew who he was all along. Her job was simply to love him unconditionally, get out of the way, and let him be his authentic self. In the process she was able to embrace both his uniqueness and her own. As Harry turned 21, she looked back on the early years realizing that today she might have done a few things differently.

Sound like something you’d like to read? Leave a comment below and a winner will be randomly selected and announced on Thursday.

To order a copy, click here.

This giveaway is now closed. Congrats to the winner, Shannon Twisler!

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Pediatricians should not be transgender children’s first bully

C.J. and Chase recently made their professional speaking debut in Washington, D.C., at an annual meeting for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

IMG_2639AAP invited us and another family to speak to meeting attendees about caring for gender nonconforming and transgender youth.

When asked what he specifically wanted pediatricians to keep in mind when working with differently gendered kids, C.J.’s answer was something they don’t teach in medical school: Offer all stickers to all kids, not just boy stickers for boys and girls stickers for girls.

FullSizeRender(1)AAP President Dr. Benard P. Dreyer was in the audience and published the following letter in response to our panel. I plan on sharing it with our pediatrician and thought you might want to do the same.

Letter from the President: Pediatricians should not be transgender children’s first bully

By: Benard P. Dreyer, M.D., FAAP, President, American Academy of Pediatrics

Dr. Dreyer As I sat at the AAP Districts II and VIII joint meeting in late June listening to two families talk about their experiences with their young transgender children, I felt privileged to witness such love and acceptance — and such normal, happy children who just happened not to fit their “assigned” or birth gender. I was proud to be an AAP member and a pediatrician, just as I was proud in April, when the North Carolina Chapter and national AAP called for repeal of North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom bill,” a law that denies transgender students access to gender-segregated spaces such as restrooms and locker rooms in schools.

I’ve learned so much from these children and their families. First, gender dysphoria can start very early. Both children experienced strong opinions about their gender at the age of 4 or 5. Second, there is a continuum in gender dysphoria. Both children had natal male genders. Yet one child changed her name to reflect a female gender and insisted she was a girl, while the other child wanted to be addressed with male pronouns in spite of a preference to dress like a girl and choose play and roles traditionally engaged in by girls.

Both families stressed how important it is for home to be a safe and accepting space for the transgender child. When those children walk through the door of their homes at the end of a school day, they should be able to be themselves without any judgment. As one of the fathers passionately said, “I won’t be my child’s first bully!”

The pediatrician’s office, and the entire health care setting, should be a safe, accepting place as well. I was sad to receive an email from one of the parents telling of another family’s encounters with the health care system when they bring their 5-year-old transgender daughter in for care for her serious chronic disease. The doctors refuse to treat her as a girl until she is older, and some have even called child protective services claiming the mother is harming her child for allowing her to live as a girl.

This is done even though a study by Olson and colleagues, published in Pediatrics in March, showed socially transitioned transgender children who are supported in their gender identity have improved mental health outcomes (Olson KR, Pediatrics. 2016;137:e20153223, http://bit.ly/29jaKIK). There appears to be no harm — and possible benefit — from such parent-supported early social transitions.

The parents asked the AAP to get the word out to our members about our support for transgender children and their families. I will paraphrase the statement made by one of the fathers and suggest we pledge that as physicians, especially pediatricians, we not be our patients’ first bully.

It’s been 44 years since the release of “Free to Be …You and Me” by Marlo Thomas and Friends. When it was first published, my daughter was 5 years old, and I must have listened to every lyric in the book enough times to memorize them all. My beloved wife, Constance, made sure we had every version of the text (book, record album and video). After all, the point was to empower girls to believe they could do anything, empower boys to think outside the narrow constraints of male stereotypes and empower all children to be unique individuals. It had a major impact on my daughter who quotes it to this day.

Now I’m a grandfather with two granddaughters, so I’ve been listening to the lyrics once more. This time, however, I’ve been thinking especially of transgender children and how the words so resonate with their world.

I will end this column by speaking directly to transgender children and youth with a quote from the book: I would like “to remind you that you’re the hero of your own life adventure and that you can write your story any way that you dream it can be.” You are free to be whomever you want to be!

Copyright © 2016 American Academy of Pediatrics

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My Son Sees Gay People

IMG_1543It started about six months ago, right around his ninth birthday, that’s when my son starting seeing gay people.

We were driving through West Hollywood on our way to Uncle Michael’s. Stopped at a red light on Santa Monica Boulevard, a very fit, shirtless, short-short-wearing, glistening, not-hard-to-look-at man jogged past our car.

“I see a gay guy,” C.J. said and pointed.

“What?!” Matt and I said, turning simultaneously to look at C.J.

“That guy, right there, running, he’s gay,” C.J. pointed again, nonchalantly.

“Okay, well, you don’t know if he’s gay or not…” I said, even though, if I were a betting woman, I’d put money on the runner being gay.

“He’s gay. I know it,” C.J. said surely.

“It’s not nice to point and say that,” I said. It wasn’t my best use of a teachable moment, but we were almost to Shake Shack and I was hungry.

IMG_2848A week or two later, C.J. and I were walking through the mall holding hands (I’m already sad for the day when he stops reaching for me with his painted nails and rubber band bracelets).

“That guy is gay,” he said to me and pointed, like he was pointing out a cute top in the window of Forever 21.

I stopped him and explained that:

  1. It’s not nice to point at people.
  2. It’s not cool to assume something about someone you don’t know.
  3. We see gay people – and straight people — all the time but we don’t announce it.
  4. Someone else’s sexuality is none of our business.

“I know, but I don’t know that gay person like I know all the other gay people. That’s a new gay person,” C.J. explained.

C.J. knows and loves a lot of gay people; it seemed odd to him that he didn’t know the man at the mall or the man running in WeHo.

I told my brother that C.J. had pointed out a gay person again. Uncle Michael wasn’t happy with this new habit.

“You have to get him to stop doing that,” he said firmly. “My whole life I felt like people were pointing out that I was gay. It’s not cool.”

Days later, C.J. and I were watching a choir of high school students sing on America’s Got Talent.

“I see a gay person,” C.J. said again, forgetting the lesson I taught him at the mall.

“Which one?” I asked. It was a big group.

C.J. paused the television, approached it, stood on his tippy toes and pointed to a boy in the middle of the very back row.

“You have no idea if he’s gay. You can barely see him,” I argued.

“I was watching him. He’s gay, trust me.”

“What if someone pointed at you and said you were gay?”

“I could work with that,” he replied with a sassy nod of his head.

“How do you feel when people point at you and say that you like girl stuff?” I asked.

“I don’t like that.”

IMG_2745I explained that when a stranger points at you and says something, sometimes it’s hard to tell if they are being nice, mean or inquisitive. If you don’t like it when people do it to you, don’t do it to other people. But, this was in the privacy of our own home. The singing boy on America’s Got Talent had no clue that my son thought he was gay.

I texted my friend Jeff.

“Can you see gay people? Like is gaydar real?” I wrote before explaining the situation to him.

Jeff thinks C.J. is just looking for himself, for people who are like him. As a child, Jeff did the same thing — he just didn’t announce it to his parents. Some of my brother’s friends had the same reaction. That explanation seemed the most likely. C.J. points out gay people like he does fellow redheads.

I absolutely want C.J. to know and feel that there are other people like him out there, that he’s not an oddity. But, I also want him to have manners and be respectful. So, I explained that when he sees someone whom he thinks is gay, he can always tell me privately, but it’s not okay to point and say it publicly. (As you can tell, I have none of the parenting answers; I just make things up as I go along.)

The third time was the charm. C.J.’s much more discreet about seeing gay people and I remind him that it’s not cool to assume something about someone you don’t know.

“I see gay people,” he’ll whisper to me with a smile. It’s like a way-less creepy version of the kid in The Sixth Sense who saw dead people. I look around and sometimes I see gay people too and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes only C.J. can.

Question: If you are gay or lesbian, can you instinctively identify gay and lesbian people? Does gaydar really exist? How would you handle this parenting situation?

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The Father Of My Children Has Changed

IMG_1051A year ago Matt was badly injured while he was on duty. He has been at home trying to heal and adjust ever since.

Being married to a police officer, I knew that this was a possibility, that he could leave for work one day and return with our lives changed – or not return at all. While his new physical limitations break my heart for him, I’m just thankful that he returned to me.

I’ve watched him go from brutal 60-hour work weeks to being home full-time (which also felt a little brutal at first. “He’s. Always. Here,” I remember texting a friend in those first days of more togetherness than I was used to).

I was warned to look for changes in him. Boredom, fear, anger, depression. You tell me to look out for something and I get a little bit hyper-vigilant.

I was looking so closely for the negative that it took me a while to see the positive.

Matt had morphed from a tough-guy cop to an amazing stay at home dad.

Since Chase was born 13 years ago, I had been the primary caregiver parent. I juggled (horribly) working part-time, writing, keeping the house in order (kind of, but not really) and caring for the kids.

IMG_0932With Matt not working, I started working more. I figured I’d have to still handle the majority of the child-rearing and house-running duties because that’s how moms tend to think. That we have to do it all. That we don’t get help.

Because I’m the mom, when Matt instantly started taking on more around the house and with the kids I worried briefly that he wouldn’t “do it right” – and by “right” I meant the way I had always (half-assedly) done it.

Then I thought to myself “Screw it! Let’s see how this goes.”

That’s when I realized that Matt is the better stay at home parent. Hands down. Thumbs up. Without a doubt. With his weekly cleaning schedule as my witness.

Once I got out of the way for a minute, I could see how much he truly loves raising our kids and investing in their lives.

He’s more organized and tidier than I am. He can focus on tasks like doing the laundry; whereas I put a load in the washer and never return to put it in the dryer because I’ve moved on to starting and not finishing the dishes because I realized there was a junk drawer I needed to clean out. Then I get hungry and need a snack. And a nap.

He has discovered Pinterest and has boards for recipes and home projects. Not only does he pin ideas (like I used to), but he actually gives them a try, too. He rarely has a Pinterest fail.

IMG_1403He has the school drop off and pick up routine expertly timed and has a carpool text thread with a mom down the street and a stay at home dad across town.

I worried momentarily how Matt being the primary caregiver parent would affect C.J.’s gender identity and gender expression. Would C.J. feel like he had to be more masculine with a man around more than a woman?

Not at all. Matt has helped him build a fairy garden in the backyard, they watch RuPaul’s Drag Race together and, when I’m not around to have makeup done, C.J. does Matt’s makeup.

Matt takes Chase to the park to fly his drone, the driving range to practice his swing and helps him find videos on YouTube to teach himself to play the guitar.

There’s a new safety, comfort and predictability that the boys and I have enjoyed with Matt home this year. And, Matt enjoys it, too.

“I love staying home, it’s easy, I have it down,” Matt says with a proud, sincere smile — which pisses off some of my stay-at-home mom friends. I have to clarify to them that he means it’s easier than working the streets as a police officer.

Cheers to Matt, and all of the fathers out there who make fatherhood look easy – whether they work or not.

And, if Father’s Day is a hard day for you….I see you and tomorrow this day will be over.

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