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God Is in There Somewhere: A Trans Parent Story

By Mary and Michael Subkoviak

As the birth of each of our four children grew near, we had selected two names: one if the child was a girl, another if the child was a boy. So, with the approaching birth of our fourth child we selected the names Kathryn and Peter. Welcoming this beloved child into the world, obviously born a girl (or so it seemed), we christened her Kathryn. After years of struggle, grace, and perseverance, our young adult chose the name Peter as he entered adulthood as a transgender man. This is the story of our family’s journey through these two decades and beyond.

While we were still adjusting to the challenges of this transition, we were introduced to Catholic theologian Joan Chittister, and identified as the parents of a transgender child. Joan’s immediate response: “While we do not know why some people are transgender, there is one thing we can be very sure of: God is in there somewhere.” To hear a Church authority speak those words was extremely comforting to us at the time, as we struggled with our own confusion and guilt. What had we done that caused our child to be transgender? How does the Church expect us to parent and support this unique offspring? Being reminded that God is in there somewhere was a ray of hope, suggesting that everything might possibly turn out all right.

The Early Years: Clothes Wars

As soon as she began making her own choices about what clothing and hair style to wear or what play activities to engage in, it became very clear that Kathryn (Katie) was pure tomboy, not a pretty-in-pink princess. In fact, at the age of three, she was so extreme in the way she presented herself that an elementary school teacher and neighbor used the phrase “gender confusion,” rather than “tomboy,” in reference to Katie. This identification was prophetic in a sense, but in fact it was not Katie who was confused about her gender. It was the rest of the world that was confused in thinking she was female. She identified as male, although we did not realize it; during the 1980s and 1990s, terms like “transgender” were not part of our vocabulary and concepts like “gender identity” were not part of our thinking. To us Katie was simply a tomboy imitating her three older brothers, when in reality our youngest child was a transgender boy. Thus, for the remainder of our story we will use the name of Pete or Peter, and male pronouns in referring to him.

A few baby pictures of Peter in a dress and long blond curls exist, but these were taken before he could voice his strong objection to appearing as a girl. He always wanted to shop for clothes in the boys’ department and to wear his hair in a very boyish style. When restaurant waitresses mistook him for a boy, he delighted in being referred to as “your son” or “the little fella.” We of course wanted him to dress and wear his hair like our one and only little girl, and this clothes war and hairstyle struggle continued for a number of years. It was never easy to convince Pete, even as a small child, to wear girls’ clothing. After having four children, we knew it was important to pick our battles; so as long as he was neat and clean, shirts and pants were okay for school. When we went clothes shopping, Pete always steered us to the boys’ and men’s department. There were stares, and sometimes we would overhear another customer in the store whisper to a companion “See…over there…that’s a girl!” We received a phone call one evening from a well-meaning elementary school teacher who suggested where we could find more feminine clothes for Pete. We listened respectfully, knowing that at this point nothing would change. In retrospect, we did resent being put in the position of having to defend Pete’s clothing choices.

One particular battle of the clothes war is etched into our memory. Pete attended Catholic elementary school where he made his First Communion at age seven. When preparing for the event, considerable time was spent looking for a non-frilly outfit, and reluctantly Pete agreed to wear a rather tailored looking white dress. This was a struggle for Pete, and his self-consciousness was evident as he was processing down the aisle. His discomfort probably prevented him from having an appreciation for the sacrament he was receiving. In retrospect, our concern about “proper dress” was so unnecessary and it reflected our own embarrassment about his gender dysphoria. On the way home from Mass, Pete slinked down in the back seat of the car so none of his friends in the neighborhood would see him, and he tore off the dress and fumed. As soon as we arrived home he immediately changed to shorts and a t-shirt and enjoyed his party. A couple of days later, the dress was donated to a resale store, since we all knew that he’d never wear it again. By the time Pete was in high school, no amount of effort to steer him into Penney’s junior department paid off. We finally withdrew from the shopping scene, handing him our credit card, and watching him head to the men’s department where he tried on clothes in the men’s dressing room and made his purchases. By the time he attended the high school soccer banquet, he had won the clothes war completely, wearing slacks and shirt. In retrospect, Pete’s stubbornness and insistence on presenting himself in a manner consistent with his internal male gender identity probably helped to keep him sane.

An Excellent Athlete

Pete identified with his older brother Andy who played soccer and basketball, and he went on to excel at soccer, T-ball, basketball and touch football. He competed successfully even with boys-at-birth in all these sports through elementary and middle school. As a result, he always had many friends who were boys as well as girlfriends, and we were not aware of any instances of teasing or bullying in response to the extreme tom-boy appearance. In seventh grade, Pete was allowed on the boys’ football team, but the coach was not immediately thrilled about the prospect of having an apparent girl player. Pete quickly learned the game, and by eighth grade he played on both offense as a wide receiver and on defense as a speedy linebacker; he was also the team’s designated punter since he could kick further than any of the boys-at-birth on the team. To his credit, the formerly reluctant coach selected Pete as the team MVP at the eighth grade football banquet. Success in sports and many friendships were indeed a positive force in Pete’s early and later life, helping keep the elephant in the room at bay.

Even in the world of sports, gender questions arose at times. After an important soccer victory, Pete objected to being hugged by his father saying, “You don’t hug Andy.” And it was true; his older brother was generally congratulated with high-fives or firm handshakes. So dad learned to celebrate Pete’s accomplishments without hugs.

Restroom Dilemmas

Another sign was the dilemma public restrooms presented for Pete, which became apparent during an all-day trip to Disney World with his father. After eating lots of fast food washed down by super-sized drinks, Pete badly needed to use the restroom. However, he was very concerned that his male appearance would cause trouble with the females in the women’s rest room. And although he could have easily passed as a young male, he was afraid of being found out by the men in the restroom. Thus, our day at Disney World ended prematurely, so we could return to our own place and use the bathroom there. Similarly, when out in public or at school during the 1980s and 1990s Pete was often forced to wait until he got home to relieve himself, a practice that can produce serious medical problems. There were a few exceptions; occasionally his male high school friends would guard the door to men’s room so he could quickly relieve himself in private. Thank goodness for a younger generation that often seems to “get it” well before their elders fully understand God’s diversity.

High School: Dances, Championships, and Depression

Prior to the start of high school, we made an appointment to meet with a well-respected child and adolescent psychologist in our hometown of Madison, Wisconsin to evaluate Pete’s development. We were concerned that although he was doing acceptable academic work, had many friends of both genders and loved sports, he also detested wearing a sports bra, adopted a severe male presentation, and did not appear to embrace the prospect of female adolescent development. After a thorough evaluation of Pete, a detailed report was produced that basically concluded that there was no serious abnormality present or need for concern. We were, of course, relieved; but as time would eventually prove, some basic signs of transgenderism had been missed. However, in 1995-96 Oprah Winfrey’s show was not yet featuring guests such as trans woman and author Jennifer Boylan; Chaz Bono had not yet come out as a trans man; TV programs and movies did not include transgender characters; and psychological training programs did not spend much, if any, time discussing the diagnosis and treatment of transgenderism.

During his freshman year of high school, something happened that gave us added hope that Pete was beginning to acknowledge his feminine side: he wanted to attend the TWIRP dance with some of his soccer girlfriends. TWIRP stands for The Woman Is Required To Pay, and the girls were inviting boys to the dance and covering the expense of the date. Pete invited a date, purchased a simple but lovely dress, had his hair and nails done; and we sponsored a dinner at our home for the girls and their escorts prior to the dance. One of the fathers of the soccer girls simply could not believe how stunning our child looked that night. However, the change in appearance did not last, and the very next day Pete’s male presentation returned. Years later, after Pete came out as transgender, he admitted that he had gotten through the evening by imagining that the event was a costume ball or Halloween dance.

As high school progressed, Pete experienced some highs and some lows. On the positive side, the girls’ high school soccer team won the state championship in both his junior and senior years. At the same time, Pete continued to face restroom dilemmas, struggled academically, and slipped into a serious depression during his senior year. So we took him to a therapist who was truly skillful at getting him to reveal the source of his problems: Pete had discovered information on the web, which led him to conclude that he was female-to-male transgender. This therapist had no particular expertise in this area, so we sought a second opinion. This new psychiatrist recommended a clinic in Milwaukee that specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of transgenderism. As luck (or God’s grace) would have it, Pete had been accepted for admission as a freshman to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. During his time in Milwaukee, he became his true self after so many years of feeling trapped in the wrong body.

Adulthood: Transition, Higher Education and the White House

Our entire family was present for the first appointment at the clinic in Milwaukee. By this time we knew something about transgenderism, what treatment might involve, and we all wanted to be sure no mistakes were made in the transition from female to male. Specifically, transition would involve such significant matters as legal change of name, hormone treatment, gender-confirming surgery, and coming out to family and friends. Pete was eager to get started on making these modifications. But as his parents, we were deeply mourning the loss of future dreams for our only “daughter.” Clearly, dad would not be walking this child down the aisle in a beautiful white wedding dress, and mom would not be assisting after the birth of potential grandchildren. Fortunately, Pete went out of his way to minimize the impact on us of these dramatic changes. First, the new name he chose for himself was Peter Braun Subkoviak, Peter being the name we had selected at birth for a baby boy and Braun being his mother’s maiden name. Peter also comforted us, as we recognized that he was exactly the same person we had always known and loved, but now much happier. Male hormone treatment changed his voice and muscle tone, and produced a beard, making it much easier for us to use male pronouns in reference to Peter. Two gender-confirming surgeries followed, these medical expenses not covered by insurance. One of the surgeons acted as a guardian angel, not charging a fee for her part in the operation. Throughout the transition process and beyond, God seemed to be present for us in many ways. As Peter was going through the admission process in the hospital for one of the surgeries, we noticed a young couple with a little blond girl, about two or so, who was in her dad’s arms. We were struck by how much she looked like our child at that age, and wondered what the future would hold for that little girl.

We used our annual Christmas letter to introduce Peter and describe his transition to family and friends. The responses we received were almost universally supportive. For example, our pastor was very compassionate in allowing a number of families to start a group in the parish for parents of LGBT children and their allies. The Madison School District initiated a Trans Parent support group. Finally, the Gay Straight Alliance for Safe Schools of Madison increased transgender awareness in our city, as well as smaller towns throughout Wisconsin. After learning about the transition to come, an aunt revisited several old photos of Pete as a child, and remarked that something just wasn’t “right.” We had the same reaction. Even at two years of age, we remember dressing our “girl” in holiday attire. Although the dress was the right size, it just didn’t look like a good “fit.”

Lift Off

For Peter, the fog of depression lifted almost immediately upon his coming out and beginning to transition. Compared to high school, his academic performance at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee improved quite dramatically. After two years, he transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and a passion for social justice. While at UW-Madison, Peter was also invited to make presentations to educators and health care professionals so that they might be better prepared to teach or treat transgender persons. Like many of his generation, Peter has a tattoo, but not one of colorful flowers or mythical creatures. His depicts the scales of justice and includes the quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

After graduating from UW-Madison, Peter moved to Chicago and was eventually employed at AIDS Foundation Chicago as an advocate for legislation and public policy supporting the fight against the disease. One of his responsibilities was assisting people with AIDS in effectively telling their stories, and communicating their needs to legislators at the state capitol in Springfield. One of his proudest accomplishments involved working with the Chicago House social service organization to establish its TransLife Center, a place where homeless transgender people can live and find help to obtain assistance with employment, medical, and legal issues. After five years in Chicago, Peter enrolled at Johns Hopkins University where he obtained a master’s degree in Public Health. An internship at the White House followed during the summer of 2013. Peter currently lives and works in Seattle, as does his brother Andy, sister-in-law, and two nephews whom he adores.

Our hopes for Peter’s future are the same as those of any parents. We hope he finds someone to love for the rest of his life. We hope he continues to find meaningful work that he enjoys doing. We hope he has a long and happy life without fear of discrimination for the way God made him.

While there were humorous moments in our journey accompanying our transgender son, that issue in addition to others was challenging for our entire family. Like many, our family has also been affected by mental illness of another family member. One issue necessarily impacts others, and alternative issues often trumped the transgender issue. Thus, reminiscing about the past evokes strong and mixed emotions.  Reflecting on Peter’s years growing up is sometimes a painful experience for us. There are many regrets, mainly about not fully accepting him for who he was, hoping that he would be “otherwise.” However after some years of struggle with their brother, all of his siblings have now grown to accept and respect Peter, and our family is now in a much better place.

While progress toward transgender equality is being made, our hope for all transgender families is that existing barriers will soon be removed. Research indicates that 41% of transgender persons who are not supported by family, friends, and the community at large, attempt suicide; Peter has written about this disturbing statistic in the Huffington Post. We were always aware of the judgmental attitudes of teachers, parents, kids, people Peter dealt with every day. There are people in dire need of sensitivity training, especially those who interact with children on a daily basis and those in the medical profession. Thankfully, Peter was sufficiently self-assured that he does not seem to have suffered any lasting effects.

We are comforted by the fact that knowledge and awareness of transgender issues has increased so much in the past couple of decades, and that there is greater concern and support for the needs of transgender children and their families. With fewer battles to fight, there is relief from the stress and shame that comes with not living authentically. Transgender kids have a much better chance to thrive when they are well supported and allowed to become the people they were meant to be by God, who is indeed present in there somewhere. ▼