High on the list of things I wish I could explain to people about children like mine, is the importance of pronouns. In general, we don't think about them all that much, but for those like my daughter Alice who spent fifteen years being labeled as my son Jordan, pronouns are incredibly important. Respect, acceptance and kindness can be demonstrated or withheld in the simplest of terms.
He or she.
Him or her.
In April of 2008, I'm trying to get Alice sorted out in school and find a local GP who can manage her HTR (Hormone Replacement Therapy). After three weeks, I finally find a local doctor who has some experience with transgender patients. I make an appointment for the same day that we're meeting with the Principal and School Psychologist.
Alice has been on Independent Study since I approached the Principal three weeks ago with news of her transition. More than anything, I want her back in the classroom, but I need to know that she's going to have the support of the school's staff. The resource teacher Lucy Cho has been on our side from the beginning, but Principal Marks seems positively terrified of taking a stand or making a decision. Alice spent an hour with the school's psychologist Mr. Brandt last week and from her mood afterwards, I suspect it did not go well.
When we arrive for the big meeting, we are ushered into the conference room where Principal Marks, Ms. Cho and Mr. Brandt are waiting.
“So I met with Jordan last week...” Mr Brandt begins.
“Alice” Lucy corrects him gently.
He looks at her stone-faced, then turns his attention back to Principal Marks, who is seated at the head of the table.
“I met with Jordan last week. He and I had an interesting and informative conversation.”
Lucy glances at me and then we both glance ato Alice. Her jaw is clenched and her cheekbones concave, like she's biting down on the inside of her cheeks.
“He also did some testing with Lucy while he was here and while there were some issues, we didn't find any signs of disability. “
“Well that's good news.” Principal Marks smiles encouragingly but he's the only one smiling from this point on.
“I think what we have here,” Mr. Brandt looks down at his notes and then at Alice, “is a child seeking attention and inventing ways to slack off on his schoolwork.”
“What about social anxiety emotional issues?” Principal Marks is really trying. He's leaned forward, elbows on the table, engaged and earnest.
“I didn't find any evidence of those things.” ”
“So he … she should return to the classroom?”
“I don't see why not. If Jordan's been behaving in a way that he things will be socially unacceptable, then hopefully he'll change his behavior.”
“And how do you feel about doing that, coming back to school tomorrow?” Mr. Marks turns to Alice. She's completely shut down by this point.
“It's Alice.” I say pointedly to Mr. Brandt, “And SHE is rightly anxious about how she'll be treated when she comes back. I don't know if you've worked with transgender students before, but...”
“I've been doing this for twenty years Mrs. Vilmur. I've worked with all kinds of students, and your son isn't anxious. He's defiant and disrespectful.”
Lucy pops in at this point, opening a file folder in front of her.
“Well Mr. Martinez and Alice seem to be getting along fine. She's struggling with algebra but that's fairly normal. She's getting work done and she's made every Independent Study session.”
Principal Marks turns his whole body towards Alice and tries again.
“If you don't tell us how you feel about this, we can't help.”
She won't even look at him, just continues to stare daggers at the Psychologist. Lucy reaches across the table towards Alice, but does not touch her. It gets her attention though and she turns deliberately from Mr. Brandt towards Lucy.
“Alice, do you want to come back to class?” She asks.
She shakes her head, almost imperceptibly.
“Do you want to stay on Independent study with Mr. Martinez then?”
She nods, again, so slightly it barely happens. Lucy immediately smiles, sits back, flips her file folder closed and looks over at Principal Marks.
“Then I recommend that's what we do. We can always revisit the issue at the end of the Semester.”
I'm biting back tears while Mr. Marks mulls over the situation. Mr. Brandt, in the meantime, looks irritated.
“Yeah, do what you want. My opinion is just my opinion.” He says, flipping his own file folder closed with more animosity than he probably intended.
“That it is.” I say quietly, without looking at him.
With no folder of his own to fuss with, the Principal drums his fingertips on the table.
“Well...” he begins, “I guess maybe that's a plan. And ok, let's … let's go with it. For the time being.”
I want her in class, but I'm not going to insist on sending her in there without more support than one little resource teacher can provide. And it's not like we can shop around for schools at this point. Despite how it feels at this moment around this table, we were lucky to get her in here.
“Alrighty then,” Mr. Marks claps his hands together, signaling his great desire to wrap up this meeting and get back to things that don't require delicate decision-making. Immediately, Alice shoves back her chair and stalks out the back door and into the parking lot. I smile weakly at Lucy and the Principal and then I follow her out the door.
“I'M disrespectful?” She shouts once we get into the car, “”It's one little letter, you just shove the S in front of the “he”! How hard is that? And talkin' about me like I'm not even there, like I wished myself this way just to piss everybody off.”
She rants all the way to the doctor's office and I let her. Luckily, she's mostly out of steam by the time we pull into the parking lot. I turn off the engine and let out a deep breath.
“I know. I know. But now we've got to go in here and meet this doctor. He's had trans patients before and hopefully, he'll have a better handle on things that most people. But I need you to chill out, ok?”
“Ok” she says quietly.
I check her in at the reception desk, which takes an extra couple of minutes as I have to explain the name discrepancy on her insurance card. We sit for a bit in the waiting room, flipping through gossip magazines. Then the inner door opens and a nurse calls out.
I can feel Alice stiffen beside me.
“I thought you told them.” she hisses.
“I did.” I whisper back as I get up to follow the nurse.
“Jordan?” she asks, trying to figure out which one of us is the new patient.
“Actually, it's Alice,” I explain quickly, “It's just that her insurance card still says Jordan. I explained it all at the front desk.”
The nurse looks at Alice for a moment, then smiles and leans in. “I'm going to make a note right here in the chart so that doesn't happen again.”
“Thank you” I say, resisting the urge to hug her.
She leads us down the hall to an examination room and takes Alice's vitals.
“Alice in Wonderland was my favorite book when I was a little girl.” the nurse confides.
“Flags Of Our Fathers was mine.” Alice responds, “but Wonderland is good too. Especially the hookah-smoking caterpillar.”
“Oh I do love him too.” the nurse laughs, “Ok then, Dr. Monaco will be in shortly, and I'll see you on your next visit, Alice.” The beaming in this room is off the charts. The nurse is smiling. The child is grinning and all I can think of is being back in Mr. Brandt's office where misplaced pronouns apparently go to die.
When Dr. Monaco enters the room, he smiles and says, “Good afternoon ladies.” The tension I've been carrying around all day seeps out through the bottom of my feet. The good doctor nudges Alice off his twirling stool and points to the exam table.
“Alrighty Alice, what can I do you for today?”
She's putty. Cheerful, charming and on her very best behavior as she tells him about Dimensions clinic and her current levels of Spiro and Estrodial.
As it turns out, Dr. Monaco has only had one transgender patient in his practice and it was a FtM man. But he's got the basics down and he's willing to work with us. I offer up Dr. Deborah's card and he takes it, promising to be up to speed when we return in three weeks for a checkup and a refill on Alice's hormones. This is great news. It means that our insurance will cover her meds and doctor's visits from now on. A few less necessary trips to San Francisco, but with what we'll be saving in health-care costs, it's worth it.
We get home from the doctor's office just in time for my mum to pick Alice up for a trip to her favorite Army Surplus store downtown. Max and I are watching Edward Scissorhands for the umpteenth time when Alice flies through the front door an hour later, spurting furious tears. She retreats to her bedroom and slams the door. I walk over to the window and see my mother still sitting in the car parked out front. I walk out to check in with her before she drives away.
“What happened?” I ask, leaning in on the windowsill.
“Who knows?” she sighs.
“It's been a rough day.” I say, crouching down by the driver's side window, “ Particularly with pronouns.”
“Oh, I probably messed up then.”
My father's acceptance, easily won is easy to maintain. Because he lives so far away, the only real test he faces is getting her name right on the gifts and cards he occasionally sends and he passes with flying colors. My Mom suffers greater tests simply by her proximity and involvement in our daily lives.
“I try.” she says, resting her forehead on the steering wheel, looking defeated.
“Do you use her new name and feminine pronouns for her when she's not around?”
“Oh probably not all the time.”
“I know it feels funny to say it, but using her name and proper pronouns when she's not around will help. The more you say it, the easier it gets and when you “he” her, she knows you still think of her as the boy that in her mind, she never was.”
“Well she knows I love her no matter what.”
“Probably, but she wants you to SEE her for who she is.”
My mother and I have this same conversation maybe thirty times but she never does quite get it right. She refuses to internalize Alice's true gender and therefore stumbles over the language again and again. After Alice's death, she stops using her name and pronouns for her altogether, finally referring to Alice simply as “the child”. The use of proper pronouns is such a simple gift to give and such a cruel thing to withhold. Continuing to mis-gender someone who has trusted you enough to reveal themselves to you says more about you than it does about them. Respect, acceptance and kindness can be demonstrated or withheld in the simplest of terms.
[Note: The final year of my daughter's life was a revelation and I wouldn't trade it for anything. I tell her story in bits and pieces as part of my own therapy, but also to let others who may travel some piece of the same path; You are not alone. This piece and previous diaries about Alice are cross-posted at Laurustina.com.]