Unencumbered: The Quiet of Becoming

To anyone who knows me, the idea that I almost obssesively think about pureness might not come as a suprise. Not in the way you might think of “purity” today, muddled and greasy with moral judgement and traditional standards. No, my idea of purity is more definitively tethered to freedom.

In an interview with Pete Holmes, the host of It’s Been a Minute mentioned how beautiful he found Holmes’ description of being with his newborn baby. “Unecumbered awareness” were his words.

Holmes briefly explains the idea as being that point where you’re so new you haven’t yet inherited a story.

In other words, or in my words, freedom.

Freedom from the family history you don’t yet have the ability to digest. Freedom from the weight of expectation. Freedom from the mutual agreements that bind social interaction. Freedom from disappointment or exultation.

An endless loop of here, now.

Those first weeks, months, are all total presence.

In a meeting about my kid’s readiness for hormone therapy, his past comes up. “He doesn’t have much to say about growing up,” she tells me. The question is specific to gender; I’m there to fill in some of the blanks.

You sometimes hear about parents consciously raising their kids gender neutral, and though that wasn’t my intention, my child’s experience mirrors those efforts, mostly because by happy accident he was in a school early that valued independence.

His therapist talks to me about how she has photos of herself in a dress where she’s frowning and unhappy, but when she asked my kid about his own experience, she got what I usually get when I talk to him about gender: nothing. “He doesn’t seem to have any of those memories,” she tells me. He can pinpoint one, I know, but even that singular moment isn’t unhappiness but more indifferent obligation.

Also: The dress wasn’t about him (though it was about social expectation). The dress was about occassion. (His cousin’s quinceanera).

Now, she wasn’t suggesting that if you don’t look happy in clothes that are gendered you’re trans. Or, that to be trans, you need photographic evidence of unhappiness. I have plenty of photos and memories of clothing I didn’t choose, a scowl pulling at the corners of my mouth, eyes turned upward and arms tightly knotted across my chest. The unhappiness, as with so many kids, I imagine, was usually complicated, a collection of misgiving. Sometimes situation was what I was really rebelling against, other times the clothing just didn’t fit well or maybe my shoes were tight or my friends had been unkind that day or I really wanted to be somewhere else but was instead right there stuck in front of the camera being asked to smile.

Still, I understood what she meant. There are those moments after social transition or the start of hormones where you can see the weight lift, the person crack open and emerge new and light. I don’t want to say reborn because they’re always the same the person, maybe just more clear and more crisp.

As I’m talking, she’s writing. “Do you mind that I’m taking notes?” she asks. Of course I don’t. My truth is out. But even as I’m telling her, I think about how cumbered what I’m saying is — by my experience, my understanding of my kid’s experience, my lens.

When I started to think about my kid possibly being trans, I did what some parents do: I googled “trans kids.” Most of the narratives surrounding trans experiences are immediate and definitive.”From three to four year old ..” or “From the moment they could talk” or “… Mommy, I’m a boy/girl.”

“You know I’m a girl, Joseph,” rushes to my memory bank with a gang of similar recollections.The two hours we spent on the playground looking for a monkey clip he’d lost, which he found after tracing our steps back, walking the playground over and over, kicking up wood chips. Hand in hand with my mom in a pink onesie, a pacifier hanging from his mouth. Scooping sand in a cherry-covered swimsuit, lazy curls blowing in the wind. “Do you want to take these photos down?” I ask every now and again. “No,” is always his answer.

When I casually removed a sign that hung on the wall above his door bearing his birth name, tucking it away in my closet where I keep some other cherished items, he noticed the same day. “Where’s my sign,” he called from bed. I was drying my hands on a towel, ready to say goodnight. “I took it down,” I told him from his doorway, watching his eyes fill.

When I asked if he was surprised by his reaction, he told me yes. Not more surprised than me, I thought.

I hung the sign — and the name — back up.

His therapist would have you believe that growing up with this much personal agency is a good thing. “It has come to bite me in the ass, though,” I laugh. Because here we are talking about medical decisions and my kid is unable to … all the words I’m thinking of here feel too definitive: pinpoint, recall.

Everyone looks for that moment when trans kids knew. The knowing is so tightly bound to access to health care that as a parent you’re groomed by almost all the information you read to click back through your memories, carefully dissecting your child so you can say with utmost certainty there was a time when they absolutely understood both who they are and who they are not.

But that’s not every kid’s journey. I’d wager that’s not most kids’ journeys.

Or maybe a better way of saying the same thing would be: My kid always knows who they are, but our insistence that who they are be resolute is the genesis of some internal struggle.

The problem, especially when you’re talking about health care or public space, is that there is no room for exploration or organic growth anywhere. My kid was very young when they started to understand that being who they are was going to come at a cost: in privacy, in freedom, in respect, in the available room they had to move, unencumbered. He was constantly invaded, his autonomy plundered.

“I don’t think he has much use for gender,” his therapist once told me. I agree. Left alone, I think they simply would have grown into themselves. But now, she continues, I think he wants to be able to move seamlessly (or somewhat seamlessly) through social expectation. Those are not her exact words, but I agree again.

When she finally arrives at her true destination, wondering out loud if some part of him feels like he was bullied out of his assigned sex, I hold my breath.

Because breathing sound into that specific sentiment feels dangerous. All over the world, there are people who dedicate their time and energy to spreading harmful myths about trans people: their parents are child abusers, trans kids are too young to know they’re trans, they’re ruining sports, they don’t deserve federal civil rights protections.

As a parent, when you talk honestly about your kid’s experience and grapple with the very real complexity involved, you do so in hushed tones because you know what’s at stake and you understand there are people who will joyfully call trans kids frauds instead of openly appreciating your frankness.

What’s unfortunate is that when stripped of the unchecked and uninformed curiosity and opinions of nearly everyone, there is nothing so different about my kid’s journey to themselves. Every person explores, carries on internal dialogue that reinforces their sense of self. We all experience growth, at least in part, as a refinement of our own understanding of who we are, the capital “s” version of self. We test and retest, embrace and refuse, stumble, gain purchase, a mostly never-ending dance with our own awareness.

Now imagine doing that work under the constant gaze of disbelief and battering debates about your humanity and right to exist. Imagine how noisy that internal exchange becomes, how clogged with chatter designed to sow self-doubt and self-hatred.

But at the same time you realize your participation in public space, your access to care, the fight for civil rights — many times your safety — are dependent on surety. Not only your own certainty, but also your ability to assure the world that you’re not a mistake, that you’re not making a mistake.

I liken what my kid’s own voice must sometimes sound like to them to talking under water where the messages are muddled and distant. And in this loss lies another: their openness — to the world, to other people, to me, to themselves.

This isn’t a call for finger pointing, for those who hate my kid to come charging to the scene to declare they were right all along, trans kids must just be confused.

No, this is a call for quiet.

My kid isn’t confused about who they are, and I am not confused about how much I love him. What I continually lament, though, is how suffocating and small his space to explore himself freely has become. He is guarded and cautious, mostly, I think, because his ability to sink into unencumbered awareness is continually interrupted.

That is what the work of knowing yourself requires, and that is what so few LGBTQ kids like mine are offered.

When I exhale his therapist’s suggestion about being bullied away from a different truth, I have to admit it’s crossed my mind. But I also know in my bones that he is figuring himself out, is working within the space I and those who love him can provide to come up from under and really listen, silence the commotion caused by something as simple as his existence and recenter.

That is why visible allies and inclusive education practice are so important. Because when you rise up and get loud, when you give my kid a mirror they can see themselves in when they’re in your classroom, you’re clearing space, muting the background noise and restoring to them some of the unburdened freedom to just …


Writer, mother, optimist.

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