A 4-by-6-inch frame sits empty but for three words scrawled inside: “To be determined.”
Barbara Jackson, 61, fills her Pembroke home with family photos, but she cherishes the blank frame, a Christmas present and IOU from one of her children. Three years ago, the child she knew as her eldest son announced she was transgender. The frame was a promise: Once Jackson’s child, who dubbed herself Gwen, embodied the woman she knew herself to be, they would take new family pictures.
“I had no idea,” Jackson said, recalling that day. “I kept thinking, hoping that she was wrong, that she wasn’t sure . . . If it was true, what she was facing wasn’t going to be easy.”
The transgender journey is becoming more familiar every day. Transgender actress-activist Laverne Cox made the cover of Time magazine last June. Facebook has added more than 50 gender identity categories with three pronoun options: him, her, and them. In an ABC interview, Bruce Jenner discussed his transition from male to female. And January’s State of the Union speech, when President Obama referenced transgender civil rights, marked another milestone.
Still, no one can know what gender transition is like unless they’ve lived through it themselves or supported a friend or family member during the process. It is an evolution that affects an entire family, with each member reaching understanding and acceptance in his or her own way.
Jackson’s husband, Brian Pomodoro, hugs his daughter differently. It’s unconscious. A playful pound on the back has become a tender squeeze of her shoulder. She’s no longer his “buddy,” she’s his “hun.” But from the day she was born, she has always been her mother’s “sweetheart.”
Gwen, 25, is sharp, ironic, and existential. She has her father’s taste in music; the Doors, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Rolling Stones give them chills. She’s the same kid who would yell “Woo!” in the car with her younger brother as their father sang “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” by the Hollies.
In many ways, nothing has changed. What has is the way they relate. Gwen’s transition has required a retooling of their family identity.
It hasn’t all been easy.
“It was like a sandbag falling from the rafters,” Pomodoro said of emotions he felt early on. “It took a lot of unlearning. I have to stop and say, ‘It’s Gwen.’ It’s still not an automatic thing.”
He worries a remark he made when Gwen was young stopped her from telling them sooner. Maybe he offended her with an off-color joke at the dinner table. At first, her parents mourned the loss of their eldest son. Sometimes, they still do. But when people ask how their two boys are doing, both parents find a way to introduce the newest member of the family.
“I appreciate her courage,” Pomodoro said of Gwen. “This is her essence. . . . She’s not a category, she’s a human being. I just had to learn quickly to catch up to where she is.”
Experts say a grieving period is common for families as they adapt to the news that a family member is transgender. But the support that parents provide is imperative, according to Melissa MacNish, a licensed mental health counselor at The Meeting Point in Jamaica Plain. Not long ago, she said, transitioning often meant losing one’s family.
Today, that no longer has to be the case.
“There’s a direct correlation between family support and positive mental health outcomes,” she said. “I’ve seen parents who’ve gone through this process with their kids become really strong allies and advocates of the transgender community.”
A little less than a decade ago, MacNish joined with Greater Boston PFLAG — Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, an advocacy group for the LGBTQ community, to establish one of the first support groups in the Boston area for parents of transgender children.
It started with three families. Now there are more than 300 families on PFLAG’s mailing list. Of PFLAG’s 15 local support groups, six are related to transgender issues. MacNish trains and supports parents to be peer-facilitators who guide the groups. She encourages them to listen, rather than advise, and to share their stories.
“It’s using community as a source of healing,” MacNish said. “The support groups are a form of self-care for these parents and a crucial step for them coming to understand their kids.”
Some of these parents have never met a transgender person. They aren’t familiar with gender dysphoria: the condition of feeling one’s identity to be the opposite of one’s biological sex.
PFLAG support groups host transgender speakers, who discuss what it’s like living on the other side of their transition. They can act as beacons of hope and ease parents’ fears.
“I remember my first PFLAG meeting,” Jackson said. “We’d dealt with it on our own for nine months or so before we decided to go to a meeting. I was stunned. There must have been 25 or 30 parents there. I don’t think I did anything but cry.”
Going to the group meant it was real. That Gwen wasn’t going to change her mind.
It was their first step toward acceptance.
Transitioning can be a very lonely road. Just admitting who you are can be wrenching. Which is why Gwen tells those who are planning to approach their parents to be as honest and direct as possible.
“Know what you’re going to say,” she said. “Don’t mince words. Throw it on the table. It’s your life, and they can choose to do what they want with that information.”
According to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, an estimated 90 percent of those surveyed “reported harassment, mistreatment, or discrimination on the job or took actions like hiding who they are to avoid it.” An estimated 53 percent “reported being verbally harassed or disrespected in a place of public accommodation, including hotels, restaurants, buses, airports, and government agencies.” Those surveyed showed higher rates of alcohol and drug use as well as smoking, HIV infection, and suicide attempts.
Jackson and Pomodoro found comfort in hearing other parents’ stories. And other parents, like Claudia Hoover, eventually came to facilitate meetings for parents of transgender children. Hoover joined the support group with MacNish shortly after it started. Her child, Livingston Pangburn, passed away in 2013 after a cycling accident. He was 22. After his death, Hoover and others launched Transgender Access Partnership, an organization that gives grants to those who provide services to transgender young people.
In Hoover’s words, Liv just lived. He was a poet and a sculptor.
Liv identified as genderqueer. He saw gender as a spectrum rather than two strict categories. He rejected labels, but went by “he.”
Hoover remembers when Liv, as a 9-year-old child, asked that she stop buying him clothes in the girls’ department. She holds desperately onto the conversations they shared and to his journal entries. She had no issue with her child being gay, but admits it took her time to understand that Liv was transgender. She struggled especially with the thought of him undergoing top surgery, which would remove both breasts.
“At first, it felt like mutilation,” Hoover said. “The idea of changing your body. . . . I asked why he couldn’t be proud of it. . . . I finally realized later how deeply alienated he felt in his skin.”
She learned, ultimately, that Liv had been true to himself and offered support to others.
“I feel blessed Liv was able to be brave,” Hoover said, “and we were able to accept what he was telling us as true and real. At his funeral, hundreds of people I didn’t know showed up. Some came up to me and said, ‘I don’t think I’d be alive if it wasn’t for Liv.’ ”
These families of transgender children have created a village of support for their kids. It hasn’t come without trials. But they lift each other up.
Beryl and Vernon Domingo won a 2014 regional award from parents of transgender children for their advocacy as facilitators of a local PFLAG support group.
Five years ago, their child presented them with a five-page memo identifying himself as a transgender male. They weren’t sure where to turn.
The Bridgewater residents are black South Africans. The couple lived through apartheid. They lived discrimination daily, knew what it meant to be considered “other.” Neither wanted that for their child. They sought knowledge from their son, who now went by the name Micah, from other families, and within themselves. Long conversations were had around a tiny kitchen table.
“At the time, I didn’t have all the answers for my parents and they really wanted me to know what I was doing,” said Micah, 27. “But looking back I feel so blessed they supported me and that we were there for each other. I think we realized if we didn’t pull together, it could break us apart.”
The couple accompanied Micah to have his surgeries, including to Florida for top surgery. The doctors and nurses praised the fact that they were present. Mother and father watched over him as he transitioned from female to male. Each celebrated when he was able to walk outside shirtless in the Bahamas on a family vacation.
“We were blessed to have our child open our eyes,” Beryl Domingo said.
Gwen is coming back to Pembroke this summer from Sunderland, where she’s lived for three years. She will spend the next year preparing to complete her transition.
It has brought about a metamorphosis for her family. While that empty frame remains empty, another one holds a photo of a smiling Gwen.
“Gwen lived a lie for so long that was her go-to mode of operating,” Jackson said. “She still doesn’t give a lot of herself. That’s something adult transgender individuals have to learn: to be open.”
Gwen, for her part, is working on it.
“I feel I’ve had an incredibly great time with my family,” she said. “I mean ‘normal’ went out the window a long time ago, but I feel like it’s going to be pretty normal.”