Becoming a True Ally: A Mother’s Reflections on Transgender Awareness Week

Transgender Awareness Week has come to a end, closing a hope that the knowledge cultivated during this week will continue to flourish. Among other reasons, this week is a time for allies to educate themselves and learn how to better support the transgender community. Like Gay Pride, some of the events held during this week are celebratory, and others are brutally painful.  As the parent of a queer adult child and a transgender teen, I have grown to understand that my attendance at both kinds of events is far more important and meaningful than my personal experience or comfort level.

The gay pride parade in Northampton, Massachusetts, is, for many, similar in spirit to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras — a celebration of history and collective identity, a recognition of progress, and a public embrace of the marginalized gay/queer/trans bodies that have migrated to this small New England town over the decades. Visitors flock from near and far to participate, and although I have lived in the area for almost twenty years, I had not attended Pride until six years ago. I’m not even sure that the event had ever registered on my radar, with the exception of wondering how it might impact my usual driving route. For starters, I didn’t consider myself a parade person, and I was too busy working and parenting; at bottom, though, I had other priorities.

In retrospect I see that my excuses were selfish. The reason the parade didn’t attract my attention was that I didn’t think it had much to offer me, at least not enough to make up for any inconveniences I might encounter if I chose to attend. Despite having a queer child and gay friends, I didn’t feel a pull to participate in these public celebrations. Quite honestly, I didn’t think it had anything to do with me. At the time I would have described myself as a loving and supportive parent of a gay child, as I still would. I might also have described myself as progressive, liberal, and open-minded. But here’s the clincher: The parade wasn’t about me. Ouch. I cringe as I write these words.

My first pride parade changed my perspective within minutes. The year I first attended would be my daughter’s last in Northampton. She and her partner were preparing to move to attend graduate school, and they couldn’t have chosen a more perfect day to host a yard sale. Tables and clothing racks crowded the grassy slope, holding an assortment of odds and ends that hadn’t made the cut. As I poked over the scattershot remnants of my daughter’s younger years, a float blasting ’90s disco music stalled on the street before us. Sequin gowned drag queens bumped and grinded to the steady beat while blowing exuberant kisses to the crowd. Someone from the idling procession yelled our way, “Tag sales are gay!” My daughter responded, “Disco is gay!” Another voice shouted back, “This day is gay!” It wasn’t long before everyone and everything along the parade route was gay. As the shouting subsided, my daughter turned to me and said, “Guess what? I just sold my crown.”

Her 21st-birthday crown! I had searched far and wide for the perfect adornment for that special day, leaving store after store empty-handed. And then I’d struck discount-store gold. Partially hidden amidst a jumble of forlorn discontinued items was the crown. The sparkly tiara was undoubtedly special, but it was the centerpiece, an oval cameo featuring the faces of two princesses smiling playfully into each other’s eyes, that had caught my attention. I could not believe my stroke of luck. Not only had I discovered this treasure, but, evidently, some company had unwittingly produced a birthday crown for the queer girls of America.

So on this day I was admittedly disappointed. “I can’t believe you sold your crown,” I said. “That was one of a kind, you know.” My daughter patted my arm in comfort. “Don’t worry, Mom,” she said. “It’s all right. I sold it to someone who really loved it.” And just then, as more celebrating groups passed before us, my daughter grabbed my arm and pointed. “See? There he is! There’s the person I sold the crown to!” And sure enough, there he was, marching in a genderqueer cohort, the two lovely princesses adorning his proud head. It was in fact more than all right. I found myself fighting back tears — tears of pride in my daughter and her friends and this community, yes, but I was also struck by a palpable wave of gratitude for those who had made such a day possible, each strong and vulnerable person — gay, trans, genderqueer — who had persevered against ignorance and discrimination to live openly and honestly as himself/herself/theirself/zirself. And now my daughter and her peers could move freely in these streets, crown or no crown; something I, a straight white woman, had the privilege of taking for granted. It was at that moment that I got it, that I understood that battles are cumulative and collective, made up of the persecuted, the vulnerable, the oppressed — and their allies. I also understood the importance of being present and counted as an ally, to publicly embody my beliefs.

Last year I attended my first Transgender Day of Remembrance, a very different kind of commemorative event. TDOR marks the loss of life within the transgender community from violence through recognition and collective acts of remembrance. At this gathering, several speakers spoke to transgender issues and the road ahead — the continued fight for equality, safety, and justice. These speeches were followed by a moving memorial for each of the 300 victims–the vast majority trans women of color, whose lives are particularly at risk for acts of violence. Also included in this TDOR program were the parents of a local transgender teen who had taken his life just months before. Behind the podium, the father spoke about his child’s life in broken, wrenching sentences. There are no words to describe this kind of loss.

My own teenage trans daughter had been out only six months at that time, and she was experiencing significant emotional upheaval, as was I. I worried each time I left her home alone; similarly, I worried when she was out in the world. From what I could see from my vantage point, this was a lose-lose situation. No matter how much we loved, accepted, and supported her, there seemed to be so much hatred and pain lying in wait beyond our front door. Throughout the entire vigil I wept openly and profusely. I could not contain my sorrow, my fear. So this year I had not planned to attend TDOR. I knew it would just be too painful.

I am happy to say I reconsidered this decision, in part through writing this reflective piece. Thinking back to my reasons for not attending the pride parade in earlier years, I noted similarities. True, there may be few common elements between the decidedly celebratory pride parade and the somber TDOR event, save for the particular shade of my red nose during each, perhaps. But my reason for not attending TDOR remained the same: It would be too difficult for me. Again my comfort zone hemmed in the boundaries of my support for my trans daughter and her wider community–my community.

I remember sensing a beacon of hope in the wake of the pride parade, one imbued with the courage and activism that had paved the way for my daughter and all of the young people gathered to march and celebrate together–safely, publicly, and proudly. My daughter’s crown had moved on and, I hoped, would continue its journey. Once again, I’ve been reminded that showing up means bearing witness to and acknowledging the experiences of others, their struggles, their sorrows, and their victories. On that day it was clear that day that the parade was only moving forward, and I see a similar momentum energizing the fight for transgender visibility and rights. While Transgender Week of Awareness is drawing to a close, please seek out events in your area and continue to find others throughout the year. Memory and remembrance are the seeds of revolution, and there remains much to conquer. Make your presence visible.

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