by Karen Thompson
I’ve been asked to tell my coming out story. If you’re a parent of an LGBT kid, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Normally our focus is on our children—on helping them come out to the people around them. This is our job and our privilege as parents. But maybe, just maybe, we need some help with this as well. After all, something that affects one family member will affect all family members.
My daughter Lucille died in her sleep one evening in 2009. During our life together, she taught me so much about pride and self-acceptance. We started our journey in the year 1988, when Lucille was born my son, David. I’ve heard someone say that having a child is like having your heart walk around outside your body. That’s especially true when you have a child who’s a little different—one who gets made fun of by other children and adults and who’s told early on that what they’re doing is wrong and that they’re an abomination against everything God stands for.
Telling my genuinely loving, conservative family about David was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I was a single mom whose sweet, blond-headed two-year-old boy loved dolls. I have a picture of him holding up a set of doll clothes he had unwrapped one Christmas morning. He was so happy. He also liked farm animals and finger paints, so I wasn’t that concerned about the doll thing. Several of my friends with children had assured me that all little boys went through times when they liked brightly colored toys. As David grew, he continued to choose girl toys over boy toys, even when he was teased by the kids in his pre-k class. After I’d picked him up from school one day, he asked me if it was wrong to want to play with girl things. I told him of course not—different people liked different toys. I was starting to feel less and less confident that this was a phase that “normal” boys went through.
I got a lot of well-meaning advice from good male friends who wanted to help since David’s dad wasn’t in the picture. For the most part, this consisted of them telling me not to “make” him girly. You know: don’t call him my baby, don’t put a dust ruffle on his bed. One person I dated felt the need to toughen him up by wrestling with him after David repeatedly asked him to stop. I think he thought he was doing us a service, toughening up my child so he could be a man and not be made fun of by others.
If I’m being honest, I wanted David to be more like a boy so it wouldn’t reflect badly on me. But I didn’t know how to square that with the thought that we’re all different. We’re all made to be different, like the flowers of the field. After awhile, I started thinking and feeling that maybe this was my fault. Somehow I had changed my little boy into someone who was painfully different. A sissy.
From age three to eight, my son was a witch for Halloween. Nothing I did, from begging to bribing, would change his mind. He was gleefully and adamantly a witch, with the big hat and robe and broom. Dear Lord. Right after he would announce to someone that he was a witch, I would say something like, “Oh, he says he’s a witch, but this is a wizard costume.” You know, like that made some kind of sense and would put everyone at ease. All the other little firemen and baseball players just looked at him. Their parents seemed embarrassed for me. I felt the shame of being different. The thing is, when little girls dress up in daddy’s clothes, we all ooh and ahh and think that’s cute. But you let a boy put on a dress, and it scares the crap out of us. It’s like we can’t wrap our minds around it. It goes against the “natural order” of things. It makes us feel shame. And sadness. Our boy couldn’t cut it as a man, so he decided to be a girl.
I know all of this sounds so negative. I don’t mean for it to. Now I realize my son had to work extra hard to be my daughter. She caught hell at school and church, and at the place where she should have had support—home. She was so brave to be herself in the face of a whole world of opposition. She had to forge ahead, past a mom who was scared to show the world who we were. She was asked to hide who she was around family and friends, asked to stand outside on the porch of her aunt’s house if she was wearing “girl” clothes, because her mother wasn’t sure her family could handle it and wasn’t sure if she herself could handle her family knowing how they lived at home. When my daughter was allowed to be herself, she blossomed. She was an awkward boy but a lively, social and confident young lady. Unfortunately, that didn’t keep me from crying all the way through Walmart as she picked out new black patent Mary Jane shoes to wear to school the next day.
As trite as this sounds, it does get better. I had to go to counseling to “mourn” the symbolic “death” of the son I thought I had so I could embrace the daughter I did have. I’m not sure that this mourning process is something you can short-change. It takes time, especially if you’re coming at this from a mindset that changing genders is wrong, against God’s will.
I’ve always heard that God doesn’t make mistakes. My child was not a mistake. Dear God, she was a force. She taught me things I would have never understood had we not gone through this. She taught me to hold my head up as I walked through stores or anywhere with her. She taught me to look people in the eye, especially if they were staring. She taught me that we were fine—that we were good enough—just as we were. My biggest regret is that I didn’t have time to tell her how wonderful she was before she passed away.
I love you, sweetheart.
Karen Thompson currently serves on the board of Lucie’s Place, an organization dealing with LGBT youth homelessness in Arkansas, and as Vice President of the Little Rock, AR chapter of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). Karen is also a member of the Center of Artistic Revolution, an LGBT youth-centered organization in Arkansas. Karen works in loving memory of her daughter, a force of nature, Lucille Marie Hamilton–the one who taught her everything (1988-2009).
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