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.