Amid unprecedented trans visibility and just days after former Olympic champion, Bruce Jenner went on National television and came out as transgender, I was asked to join the team at PIX Channel 11 to tell my story as a trans-mom, and the mother of a trans-boy, Penel.
When my child told me at two years old, “Mom, everyone thinks I’m a girl and I’m not. I’m a boy. I don’t feel like a boy, I am a boy, mama.”
I had to stop and listen, do the research, expand my understanding, and ultimately lead with my heart. Transgender people are a healthy, normal and important part of our human condition. And to not see them as such is to deny their civil rights as human beings. It’s that basic. My son is a transboy, I’m a trans-mom and my life is better now that I understand the spectrum of identity.
Cosmopolitan Mini Documentary
Many people have asked me “Why put your business on the streets? Why point the spotlight on such a personal conversation? Why expose yourself and your family to ridicule and danger?
Everything in me told me to share, educate and make a difference. Gender variance is a deep issue. Essentially it’s an American story. One that says: “Accept me for who I am. I am no less than or more than you.” Speaking outloud on raising a transgender child was difficult, but I’m focused on making sure my son has the beautiful life I have and better. I want him to move through life with freedom, confidence and love. The rest – the details of his life are up to him.
I told our TRANSfamily story in Essence Magazine’s November 2014 issue. And I told it with pride. Our family’s story is one of Love, Flexibility and Belief. Bellow is the UNEDITED version of that piece.
I’m a mother of five amazing children each yielding a unique influence over the family and with a particular purpose in life. One came to us at nineteen through circumstances I didn’t control and subsequently, made us all believe in karma. Another is a gentle soul who keeps our collective heart soft. Yet another we call The President who reminds us that perfection is in each of us. The youngest is our rascal who pushes our understanding of patience further than we could have ever imagined. And then there’s my Rock Star, Penel, who opened my eyes to something so basic and fundamental, that he disrupted everything I knew to be true and gave me a better world to live in. Penel is our family’s link to unconditional love, and the center of our transfamily story.
Our fourth child was born Penelope Adjua Ghartey. Named after my mother-in-law and the Ghanaian day of the week on which I went into labor. Penelope was born anatomically a perfect girl and we were so proud to name our child after one of the matriarchs in our family. We were all so happy to welcome a baby girl into our lives. In my mind I was thinking, ‘Yay, another girl! Piece-of-cake. I know girls like the back of my hand.’ In actuality, I had no idea how complex our lives were about to become.
As Penelope grew over the years, a very unsettled child emerged. In every way possible, Penelope displayed signs of anger, anxiety, fear and disruption. It was as if Penelope were fighting a force so big that it was taking up every bit of energy. Dressing became a fight between Penelope and anyone trying to move the process along. By the age of two, Penelope was a chronic bed-wetter, nail biter and sufferer of reoccurring nightmares. And most noticeably, Penelope had quickly turned into a bully – pushing siblings and throwing toys at friends. Watching my child at odds with the world was heartbreaking. Ironically, bullies are often the ones who are hurting the most, inside.
In a quiet room alone one day, I asked Penelope, “What’s the matter love? Why are you so angry all the time?” Penelope responded with a flood of tears, “Because everyone thinks I’m a girl, and I’m not.” I knew at that moment it was important to say something that would convey my unconditional love and support. I remember saying: “Baby, you’re free to be whomever you feel. What’s inside is what counts”. Without a second delay, Penelope spoke up clearer than I’d ever heard before and looked directly into my eyes, “Mama, I don’t feel like a boy. I am a boy.” Those simple words shook me to my core. What Penelope was talking about was deeper than what I knew. I was talking about self-expression. Penelope was conveying knowledge of self. This was about: Being vs Feeling.
I listened carefully to Penelope tell me about how he hated his body and wanted a doctor to make him a ‘peanut’. How, his ‘tomorrow’ will be worse than his ‘today’ because “soon my body will look like yours, mama”. He spoke of how he didn’t want tomorrow to ever come. All the while sobbing – deep heavy sobs. I listened so carefully as if a professor were giving a lecture. For an hour, I didn’t move from that room. Penelope spoke and I took mental notes, minute after minute. My two-year-old child was giving me my first real lesson in self-identity.
Four years after that initial conversation, I understand a very important truth: we are who we are, and there’s very little we can do to change our core. If we’re asked or even persuaded to change, there’s a chasm so deep inside of us it threatens our very life. And subsequently, the person who asks another human to change his core, is inviting death upon that person. It’s my duty as a parent to keep Penelope alive.
Penel is a boy regardless of physical attributes. From the time he could speak, he’s consistently and unanimously proclaimed ‘boy’ to the world. Even in quiet, creative moments when he’s not thinking of how the world sees him, Penel sees himself as a boy. In his dreams, his drawings and his writings, Penel is always a boy. When he projects into the future, he imagines himself as a dad and a husband – never the opposite. Everything about Panel’s’ internal compass points to boy. Over the years, he’s never once swayed.
I confess, I don’t fully understand transgender. I have to go deep to find meaning. And what I now know is that gender is a spectrum with some extremes and even more grey areas. Penel is not like his brothers exactly, and neither are they like him, exactly. Penel, as we now call him, is a transgender boy. That makes him unique.
Over the last four years I’ve lead our family on a quest to understand what transgender feels like. Through research, conversation and observation, we’ve become knowledgeable. This hasn’t always been easy. Penel’s dad and I have fought over this. I’m brazen and he’s conservative. I said, “Ok, let’s embrace it! Take it head on.” He said, “Slow down. Let’s not make any hasty assumptions.” It’s taken our family on a tempestuous journey that has brought us closer together. I consider us a transfamily and our son has opened a new and better world for all seven of us. To get us past the discomfort and embarrassment, I talked about it all the time with loving friends. And as a family we snuggled together and watched age appropriate videos of other transfamilies – listening to stories of kids similar to Penel and families just like ours. I made sure we said the word TRANSGENDER out loud, when others preferred to whisper it. I made sure we were outspoken. I spoke of it so frequently that it became funny, and made us smile.
By the time Penel was 4, we had fully embraced him as a boy. One of my proudest moments was writing a letter announcing the change and explaining what we were all going through.
Penel has lost not one friend on this journey. Everyone whom we’ve ever loved and all his friends have remained just as close if not closer to us. They leaned in and loved more compassionately as we took on one of the biggest challenges of our lives. Most times this has been a joyous journey. Sometimes I cry and it’s usually when I think of the near future. Who will be his first kiss? Who will love my baby? Who will understand Penel’s beautiful complexities as I do? What do I say if Penel asks for hormones? And then I think of the devastating notion that someone, one day will ridicule my Penel and show us for the first time how ugly the world can be.
We’ve had awkward situations where people have wanted to “out” Penel in public just to let others know that he “isn’t really a boy”. That hurt – more so to see the devastated look on Penel’s face than the confused look on all the faces of the adults. And in those painful moments I remember that it’s important to raise Penel with a progressive mindset. In 20 years when he’ll be a young man, ideas around gender and identity will be that much more advanced. In 20 years, when Penel is on his own and living out in the world, I don’t want him to be burdened by our current misconceptions and prejudices. I want him to be free and happy. So I think forward and I think big. I think that Penel is wonderful and brave. I think that we as parents have a serious mission. I think that we have God’s work to do. I think that Penel is lucky to know so deeply who he is.
As MamaBear, I’ve created an environment for our family that’s insulated. As protective as I am of Penel, I share his story with the world, so that we can change the prejudices against the LGTB community. My belief is that once you intimately know someone who’s transgender, everything changes. That’s exactly what happened for our family. I support Penelope’s complexities, regardless of the comments we hear: “She’s so pretty, just put a dress on her.” “Don’t encourage her to take it too far.” “She’s a tomboy and can grow out of it.” “Cutting her hair is extreme. Why do that to her?”
These days, Penel is a self-proclaimed ‘rock-star’. He excels in school, air guitar and sports. In karate he’s a shinning star with a mean, stiff-torso push up. One day, his coach called out, “Little Dude, come to the front of the class and show these weaklings what a real push up looks like!” Wrestling, check. Skateboarding, check. Basketball, check. He is relentless in his pursuits. What he wants, he grabs. What he likes, he makes his own. He’s phenomenal. My son took something as ominous as transgender and made it something so basic you barely even notice it. Now, what we notice first is just Penel.
dancing, Maya Angelou & Amiri Baraka
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.
I know Dr. Angelou as my parent’s neighbor on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. My father and she share April 4th as a birthday. In 1968, my dad, John Pattersonopens in a new window, and Maya decided to throw a joint birthday party. Living on the same floor of the same building on Central Park West made this easy: they planned to open their front doors and let the party flow between the two apartments. They were cool like that. And then at 6pm on the night of the party, Dr. Kingopens in a new window was assassinated and the world went into slow motion. The celebration turned into a wake, a gathering of people both mourning the loss and reflecting on the life of a powerful leader. Twenty-four years later, in June of 1992, I walked across the stage after Dr. Angelou spoke to our graduating class of Spelman College. I remember the slow nod she gave me as I made my way across the stage and into adulthood. Again in 2007 at the funeral of Max Roachopens in a new window, Dr. Angelou spoke to us as we sat, listened and reflected in Riverside Church on the man who pioneeredbebopopens in a new window. In each moment, she was at the center of culture and most importantly good people.
dancing: me and Belinda
Before Instagram and Twitter, before uploads and likes, there was social interaction. Good people made sure to be part of the co-existing lives of others they admired. We reached out to one another and connected – in person, over the phone and through letters. We did things to show how we felt and we got involved. There was a steady and deliberate attention to the people and things that mattered most.
Good People: Michele Mattewman, Mar Fitzpatrick, MaryAnn Fusco, Jodie Patterson, Belinda Becker, Stuart Mattewman (DNice & Tyson Beckford in the background)
Good people make us better. With them, we dance, like we did at Bethann Hardisonopens in a new window‘s CFDA award celebration and we kiki with each other when things get rough. Wherever you find good people, you’ll find good vibration.
Read more on Maya Angelou and other Icons on my other-other site, Doobopopens in a new window.
Ashely Barnes, VP of Do, GeorgiaNY
Occupation: Partner, Georgia NY. I handle sales, marketing, growth and whatever else needs doing.
Passion: Promoting holistic ideas about beauty. I’m really proud to work for a brand that is interested in the whole person and provides natural products to enhance the beauty experience.
Daily beauty routine: Routine, ha! Every day is different for me. It depends on the day’s agenda, my mood, the weather, how much sleep I got the night before, etc. I almost always manage to wash my face and moisturize but the products I use are always changing. Right now I’m using an Aveeno face wash and following with Georgia Luxury Face Oilopens in a new window. If I take a shower I use Neutrogena’s Skin Clearing Body Wash or Scrub or a moisturizing white Dove bar soap and follow up with pure almond oil all over while my skin is still damp. If I put make-up on during the week it’s almost always just a little concealer, a swipe of blush and maybe mascara. If I’m feeling spicy I’ll do a bold lip. I almost never wear color on my eyes but every once in a while I’ll try my hand at winged liquid eyeliner.
Hair routine: I am all over the place. But one rule I stick to is: I shampoo only once a week and I never use sulfates. I love our Rosemary Shampoo by Georgiaopens in a new window! If I want to control my curls I use a leave in conditioner (Kinky Curly is a favorite) while my hair is still very wet, and then apply a styling product like Jane Carter Curl Defining Cream or Shea Moisture Curl Enhancing Smoothie. If I want spirals I’ll do a two-strand twist, usually overnight. But most days I just try to make sure it’s moisturized and let it be. I’m happy with a big, frizzy silhouette. Recently I’ve been spraying it with olive oil before I leave the house to protect it from the cold, harsh, NY winter.
What beauty means to me: For me, beauty is living a life that leaves you so fulfilled and happy that the world can see it on your face, hear it in your voice and feel it in your presence.
Beauty Note: Be interesting, then pretty.
Always stay curious enough to expose yourself to lots of opportunities.
This has been my motto for as long as I can remember. Competitive gymnast, world traveler, circus acrobat, book editor, pet shop salesperson, night-club co-owner, fashion publicist, pond swimmer, beauty entrepreneur, tech start up co-founder, loyal friend, mother of 5, devoted ‘first-lady’…these are just some of my experiences. I stay open to the world as best as I can and I say YES more times than I say NO.
As many of you know, I recently took the plunge and partnered up. Benjamin Bernetopens in a new window and I launched DOOBOPopens in a new window, the first beauty entailer with a particular edit for women of color. Carefully edited and cherry-picked products from all over the world, personalized on-line consultations, exclusive content, killer service – all brought directly to you from the two of us. We’ve labored and argued, laughed and dreamed, lost sleep from adrenaline and lost track of days due to endless to-do lists. On Nov 20th, 2013, DOOBOPopens in a new window was born. We jumped into the fast lane of tech-start ups, and got the attention of industry vets like First Growth (arguably one of the most influential tech accelerator groups), Imanopens in a new window (she gave us the exclusive on her new product launch – even before Target) and Oprahopens in a new window (she found delight in one of our lotions). But more than anything else, we said YES to countless opportunities and ran with all our might in the direction those opportunities took us. As Sam Fineopens in a new window once said to me, “in order to do something that people notice, it takes a lot of amazing shit to happen behind the scenes.”
All the passion I’ve put into my beauty line GEORGIA by Jodie Pattersonopens in a new window, the training I went through with the Big Apple Circus, the countless hours I spent with my ex-boss Zac Posenopens in a new window, the creative energy I fostered helping to launch Joe’s Pubopens in a new window, every bit of thought and love I pour into my family – all that, helped me launch DOOBOP. For me, work is life. I work on things that matter to me so that I can do them all day, all the time and never grow tired. Swimming in my pond is as important as writing a post for my blog as is discovering new product for the site. Some say I’m obsessive, and running ‘marathons’ on a daily basis. True. But this is what women do.
As our Chief Creative Officer and Co-Founder, I’d love for you to join me on this very creative and beautiful ‘next experience’. DOOBOPopens in a new window – a unique voice in beauty.
Run the streets…literally