By Joanna Franklin Bell
The first time I met my daughter, Marianne, she was turning 17 and wearing a wig. It was the wig that made me recognize her, oddly—a long-haired wig. She’d affixed a bow to the bangs to keep them out of her eyes, and the wig’s easy femininity is what brought her forth.
I’d been petrified all I would see was my son in drag so I’d kept my hands clamped over my eyes as she walked into the room. But when I finally drew a shaky breath and looked, she was beautiful, and definitively Marianne.
And just as shaky as me. Her cheeks flamed red with anxiety and fear—fear that I wouldn’t accept her, fear that her eyeliner was wrong, fear that the wig was crooked.
“Wow,” I breathed, stunned at my own emotion. I’d expected to feel grief and shame and was prepared to nail a smile to my face to support my newly transgender kid—who’d recently come out to the family—while planning to cry privately later. But instead I was touched and the tears brimming in my eyes weren’t from grief. My smile came genuinely. “So, hello Marianne. You’re not what I expected.”
“What did you expect, Mom?” said my kid, laughing now, in her same boy-voice she’s always had. She’s tall, nearly six feet, and I was amazed at her baby giraffe legs in her long leggings and fancy sandals. She seemed to teeter on her own skinny lengthiness, the same legs that yesterday just seemed like the image of my ex-husband’s; skinny, yeah, but knock-kneed and pigeon-toed and entirely solidly male. No more—now they were miles long and fragile. She clutched a purse at her side and looked impossibly taller than she had an hour ago.
“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. “I was expecting Sebastian in a dress.” There’s no truth like truth, so I told the truth. “But this is the first time I’m really meeting Marianne.” I’d seen my kid in a dress before: when Sebastian was six, he’d loved his sister’s princess outfit but he only worn it once. I didn’t bat an eye. More recently, at 16, he’d started wearing my longest sundress as a nightgown, and I still wasn’t concerned. Or even curious. So maybe he’ll have a thing for women’s clothes is all I thought to myself, and barely that. I have a friend John, who’s straight and bearded and divorced and a dad of two kids and a square-head pit bull, who wears stiletto heels and fishnets on Friday nights.
But during the course of the school year, Sebastian had started telling me he had an online persona named Marianne, and that his friends at school were starting to call him Marianne, and that his pronouns were she, her, and hers, and finally I got it through my head over the phone one day at lunch when Sebastian called me from the school’s bathroom in distress.
“Mom, I am a girl,” he said, panicky, unnerved that I still wasn’t getting it. I suddenly wondered which bathroom he was calling me from. “It’s not like there’s part of my that feels like feminine energy, like you and dad keep saying. You don’t get it. I am a girl.”
I got it. By the end of the day I’d found a therapist for transgender teens, a support group for parents, and a website that sells women’s shoes in size 12 and up. I called my ex-husband and said, in a voice as hollow as it had been since we decided to divorce a decade ago, “We need to talk.”
And now Marianne, unsteady, unsure, but smiling brilliantly, was going to the mall. Her friend Cathy was taking her shopping—Cathy with the brassy voice and booming laugh, Cathy who’d punch anyone who looked at Marianne funny, Cathy who’d guard the bathroom door. Cathy wears knockout eyeliner, which was why she came round to do the makeover. “It’ll take time,” she told Marianne soothingly over the imperfect job. Marianne’s eyeliner was as wobbly as her legs were, and the eye shadow that highlighted her brow bone wasn’t the right tone for her skin. “Consider this a rough draft of Marianne.”
I liked that: a rough draft. I was the rough draft of a parent of a trans teen. I was going to have to edit myself in so many ways, but so far today wasn’t one of them. My shock at how tall my kid was came as proof—I’d processed her as a girl. A six-foot teenage boy doesn’t seem like a giraffe, but a six-foot teenage girl does, especially on her first day of life. And those legs would gain strength, no matter how fancy her shoes got. The website I’d found marketed shoes to trans women as well as drag queens, and there was a pair of killer yellow faux-leather platform boots that wowed my socks off. If you’re gonna do it, I reasoned, imagining a fearless large-footed version of myself on a Vegas stage, do it bright yellow on platforms.
But Marianne’s sandals were flats, and she didn’t need any extra height today. Her walk was more confident as she headed to Cathy’s car. I followed, making sure Cathy had my number in her own phone in case of an emergency, and generally did the fussing mom thing in the driveway as they strapped in and powered the windows down. I reached in.
“Have fun,” I said, chucking my kid under her chin. “You’ll do great.” Marianne was nervous—this was her first time in public—but her smile didn’t waver.
“Bye Mom,” she said. “Love you.” It’s what Sebastian always said too. I waved as Cathy backed out of my driveway and tried to keep my face casual, trying to normalize this huge day, this massive event, this family upheaval that could still be a disaster; no, that was going to be a disaster. I couldn’t fathom how much trauma we were going to face, and what Marianne would always have to live with.
They headed down the street, out of sight, and I was still waving, my hand in the air like an asterisk, a placeholder where a footnote would come at the end of the page to let me know it was all going to be okay.
“And stand tall,” I added. It didn’t matter than Marianne could no longer hear me. She was already standing tall.
Joanna Franklin Bell is a lifelong Marylander, usually living outside of Baltimore, always writing essays that explore the shifting landscapes of her children’s journeys, and of her own.
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