The summer before my junior year of high school, I came out as transgender. I’d been raised a girl, but knew that I was really a boy, and it was time to transition. What I didn’t know is that the person I’d always called “Dad” was about to transition too. The same year I came out as Alexander, “Dad” came out as Mom.
I was driving my mom home as practice for getting my driver’s license (not yet knowing that she was in fact my mom, a woman), and I was talking for the millionth time about gender, and gender dysphoria, and about how shitty I felt getting started with my social transition (training my friends to use my pronouns and name, giving my school a primer on how to deal with transgender folks, and so on and so forth). She nodded along, as we crawled down the pothole-filled street we lived on, offering up advice on how to deal with the egregious misunderstandings of teachers and students at school with a small note of sadness in her cracking voice — the advice was good, and the sadness was easily palpable.
When we pulled into our driveway, I turned and said, “Hey, so…” I squirmed with discomfort, “I’m sorry if this is really inappropriate of me to ask, but have you ever … felt … this way? About gender?” She looked me dead in the eyes. “I’m not gonna lie to you, I have.” Her reply shocked me, as I was expecting my thoughts to be making something out of nothing. I had a habit of overanalyzing and reading into things that simply were not there — it was almost a sport for me at that point. Having actually been right threw me for a loop.
We sat there and talked for what felt like hours, still buckled in. She told me about growing up, about when she was married to my biological mother and the strain her being a trans woman put on her relationship with her unenthused, heterosexual wife. The one time she attempted to come out to her, she had been met with what she saw as unbridled vitriol and accusations of betrayal.
She revisited odd little bits of my childhood — vulnerable moments, when she’d been so upset by the way that she looked that she’d gone on extreme diets, worn baggy clothes, and made constant self-deprecating remarks. She described memories I’d all but forgotten, that made me realize that all these years she’d been hiding who she was not only out of self-defense but also because of how she was afraid I would react. She told me that when my biological mother and I would go away on vacations to visit family, she would put on women’s clothes and makeup just to spend time around the house existing, and, for a brief moment, being happy.
She recounted a familiar memory of mine from an angle I hadn’t realized existed — once, when I was about 9, my mom had picked me up from my karate class to go home. She had shaved her face clean, and it alarmed me. I had been used to her having a beard my whole life and, accordingly, made fun of her for not having one anymore. I told her she didn’t look right without it.
She explained to me, years later, sitting in the car, that was one of the moments that pushed her back into the closet — it was the closest she’d ever really come to trying to come out to me and my mother. I stared straight out of the windshield, sun setting over the trees. I studied the pavement of our driveway, my fingers nervously picking at the fabric of my sleeves, seven years of guilt rushing up on me like a freight train.
Finally, she asked me a question I’d been too afraid to broach myself: “Do you want to see pictures of me?” I eagerly accepted, gripping the bottom of the steering wheel with anticipation as she opened a hidden application on her phone. It was a gallery application for sensitive photographs, designed to keep them private through a series of passwords and locks.
Once she broke through the last of the safeguards, I saw her. The first photo was of her up close, wearing a sensible blouse, a pair of reading glasses, and a huge smile. The second was of her in a sweater dress and short heels, once again grinning at whoever was operating the camera, a long auburn wig gracing her shoulders. I was transfixed.
As she continued swiping through photo after photo, I touched a hand to my face, in awe of how beautiful my mother was when she was able to freely express herself — how happy and confident she looked, and how happiness was something I hadn’t seen on her face in years. I felt as if I was witnessing something secret and sacred.
I asked her if my stepmother knew, and she told me that she had known from the beginning of their relationship, and that she had even helped her pick out her name, Autumn. Autumn. She said it with a warm, relaxed smile, as if she were getting to stand up and stretch muscles that had been tight for years. I asked her what she would like me to call her: Mom, Autumn, Autumn-mom? She replied that she wasn’t sure she was actually going to transition.
Somewhere in my chest, my heart broke a bit. I understood why she might make this decision. There were many reasons I could pinpoint as to why she would wish to stay closeted — an established, higher-level job in factory work (a career field not known for its widespread acceptance of marginalized groups); the widespread attitude among the trans community that only young people can transition smoothly; the fact that transgender women are murdered at alarmingly high rates. I knew this was a decision that was hers to make. But no matter the reasons, it still hurt to know that the happy spark I’d been so proud to see was going to be buried, yet again.
I brought my mom and stepmother to my first session with my new gender therapist. The three of us sat nervously in the small second-floor office. My parents were seated in hard wooden chairs off to the side of the room, toward the door. I was situated on a centrally located soft green couch, covered with decorative throw pillows in which I nervously ensconced myself. The gender therapist was a brunette woman with a relaxed yet determined demeanor. Her office seemed as though it had been lifted directly from a how-to feng shui guide, and I felt a sense of calm beginning to take the place of my caution and nervousness.
Before sitting down, the therapist individually introduced herself to all of us, and shook our hands. Pressing my knees together tightly, I explained my situation, my childhood, how I felt about my body. My therapist asked my parents if they needed any explanation at all, if they had any negative feelings about it; my mom then pulled in on herself and went on to disjointedly explain that she had experienced a great deal of gender dysphoria herself. The therapist acknowledged this, but brushed it off to focus in on me — however, I began to see something emerge in my mother’s consciousness as she was briefed on the process of gender transition. I spotted longing in her hazel eyes.
Several months, a definitive decision to transition, and two prescriptions for hormones later, my mother and I were in our kitchen, with her sitting on a counter and me leaning in the archway.
“Did you know that estrogen makes you crave salt, like, constantly?”
“Nah, but I know testosterone has me eating way more than I used to. I took home an entire pizza from work yesterday just for myself — as a snack.”
“Okay, but I’ve been buying pickles just to drink the juice out of the jar.”
We had begun this standing tradition of “gender rants,” standing in the kitchen, talking about the changing world around us. As time went on, though, I realized that my mom’s problems were very different from my own. Sure, there were some that were comparable; weird hormone side effects, switching names (at this point, she was considering switching from “Autumn” to something new), other trans people we both knew and drama in the community.
But by the time I was on my way to start the process of legally changing my name, she was just starting to come out to people. While I was ranting about callous people at parties, mean teachers, and misgendering by creepy guys at work, she was struggling with the dangers of coming out at her new job, being scared of walking home alone at night while presenting as female, and being told to “keep her transition to herself.” People are generally kind, I told her, bidding her to come join me in my sweet “living as one’s true gender” lifestyle. She, however, was operating under years upon years of repression, rejection, transphobic media, hate speech at work, and self-esteem issues. Our lives were very different.
About a year later, my mom officially got married to my stepmother. This was one of the last major times in her life that she had to dress masculinely, and even then it was the most feminine kind of masculinity one could imagine — the softening of her face from more than a year of estrogen, the pink dress shirt, and the simple necklace didn’t go unnoticed. My stepmother later bought her a diamond wedding ring, as opposed to the plain wedding band she had worn before. I could see my happy mother starting to shine through the cracks again.
Then, four months after their wedding, maybe a month before my chest surgery, my mom was ready to let people at her job see her for who she was, consequences be damned. I was 17, had undergone my name change and gotten the little “M” I so desired on my birth certificate and driver’s license, and was about a year into testosterone therapy. I was almost done, and she just now had the opportunity to start the race.
As a teenager, I was exasperated at how long she was taking to transition — she was clearly miserable being anything other than who she really was, and was already starting to be read as female in public (she had been on hormones secretly for almost as long as I had been on them), so why not just get it over with? I wanted her to be happy so much, it hurt.
What I didn’t realize then was that my smooth transition was built directly on the back of her rough one — she had suffered so that I wouldn’t have to. She’d been the one misgendered by the family, she’d been the one to make sure I would be safe, she was the one who supported me when she felt she had little encouragement herself. She was the fierce support system for me that she never felt she had, and that gave me an advantage that I never realized existed.
Now, I’m 20 and moved out. I have a decent beard, and my chest is flat. My stepmother is pregnant. This year, my partner and I went to my mother’s for the big family Thanksgiving, and I saw her mingle and dote and be an excellent hostess. My partner and I weaved around the tables she had set up as I introduced him to relatives I barely knew myself.
My mom buzzed around upstairs, cracking jokes with her wife, shooing away the dogs, and surveying what was the very first big family celebration held at her house. Watching her move about the kitchen with a glass of wine in hand while checking on the various side dishes, gender dysphoria was far from both of our minds. Things had begun to fall into a sort of normalcy again, but a normalcy that both of us could not only handle but revel in.
Alexander Thixton is a server, writer, and semiprofessional superqueer. He lives with his fiancé, elderly cat, and a lot of weird existential dread. You can look at two-thirds of these things on his Instagram. You can catch the third thing on his Tumblr.
This essay originally appeared on Narrative.ly.
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