(April 2008) Six weeks after my daughter Alice unzips her Boy Suit, I manage to schedule us a lunch date with the facilitator of the local transgender support group held in our town's tiny (and now defunct) LGBT Pride Center. This initial meeting is a pre-screening of sorts, required for the protection of group members.
Alice is nervous, but curious and she trails along behind me as we approach the restaurant. Immediately, the two middle-aged women standing in the entrance of the restaurant spot us and the taller of the pair steps forwards.
“Jules?” She asks, hopefully.
We smile a bit and relax. I introduce Alice and then Elizabeth introduces the dark pretty woman with her as Leilani. The 70-s diner-style restaurant is mostly empty and we grab a booth near the front. Sitting across from them in the restaurant, I can easily see that they're trans, but then I'm expecting it. It's not clear if the waitress doesn't notice or simply has manners, but as she approaches the table she asks “What can I get for you ladies today?”
Nobody orders lunch, but we share a double order of garlic fries. Immediately I feel comfortable with Elizabeth. She's my age, reserved and delightfully bookish.
“There are actually two groups.” Elizabeth says, “One for LGBT teenagers and the other just for trans-people.”
“I don't want to go to the gay one.” Alice says immediately.
“It's not just for gay kids. It's open to the whole rainbow alphabet.” Elizabeth clarifies with a smile.
“Are there any trans people in the group?”
“I'm not sure if there are currently, but I can find out.”
“I don't need a support group because I like girls.” Alice continues to be contentious about the possibility of being shuttled off to some group where there's no one like her. “Is there anyone my age in the trans group?” she asks hopefully.
“We had a couple of 17 year-olds a while back...”
“Rayanne?” Leilani asks as an aside. Elizabeth nods and continues.
“...but they're not currently in the group.”
“Thank God” Leilani pipes in again and then winces. I can't help but imagine Elizabeth kicking her under the table.
“We had some issues.” Elizabeth grimaces, “Right now we have a couple of college boys though. Great guys.”
As the plate of fries dwindles, Elizabeth and I talk about books while Leilani and Alice connect over dance music. Our little coffee date lasts less than an hour and before we leave the restaurant, Elizabeth invites us to come to the group that same evening. While the meetings are usually closed to non-trans people, this happens to be one of the monthly meetings where friends and family are welcomed.
We cross the parking lot together, Leilani and Alice walking ahead still chatting about some CD hey both like. Elizabeth and I stroll behind.
“You said there were issues with the other young girls that were in the group?”
“There was some disruption.” she pauses, hesitant to say more, “we try to discourage risk-taking behavior, like sex work and such.”
I get the sense she'd rather not say more, so I try to change the subject.
“The first trans-woman I ever met was my bosses sister. She worked for him too nearly everyone in the company treated her like a leper. They had her shoved away in some office in the back. The story I heard was that their father was pissed when Judy came out as gay and then her boyfriend left her for a woman and so she had the surgery to try and please them both.”
“Interesting. I think there's usually more to it than the desire to please someone else though.” Elizabeth says quietly.
It doesn't hit be until later that I've been carrying that story about Judy around for nearly a decade and somehow never questioned it. Not when William Carlos transitioned, and not when Alice revealed herself. It seems so foolish now, to have believed in the first place. I've half a mind to try and track Judy down to apologize for my own ignorance.
Alice stares intently out the window as we've just arrived at The Pride Center. It's a little lighted shop-front on an otherwise dark street just across from the library.
There's a old Crown Victoria parked just in front of the building, still painted police-issue black and white. Just behind the car stand two dark figures and the spark of a lighter briefly illuminates their faces. Inside, we can see four or five others, milling about.
“You ready to do this?” I ask.
“You're coming in with me, aren't you?”
We get out of the car and start across the street. The people standing beside the Crown Vic watch us intently. I can see now that they're both trans-women, my age or older.
We enter the building and I spot Elizabeth making coffee at a little counter in the back. I'm heading in her direction when we get stopped by a tall woman with jet black hair who immediately chats Alice up as we come through the door.
“You're new!” she says, sliding into Alice's path. “I'm Savannah.”
“Ohmygod I love your eyeshadow! Is that Mac? Have you gotten a makeover at the Mac counter at Macy's yet? Ohmygod I LOVE everything in the Mac line!”
As she gushes, Savannah manages to trigger every one of the remaining prejudices I associate with the word “tranny”. I want nothing more than to be away from this woman, with her big hair, over-plucked eyebrows and non-stop monologue on all things frivolous.
“I'm an Australophile. I love everything about Australia … and ohmygod have you seen Priscilla yet? You've GOT TO see Priscilla!”
Alice's reaction to Savannah is completely opposite of my own. Perhaps because they are operating on the same 16-year-old wavelength, within minutes they are fast friends.
I am relieved when Elizabeth cuts Savannah off to get everyone settled down. We gather around a conference table, Alice and Savannah to my right and one of the smoking women from outside on my right. The meeting starts off with organizational details, upcoming Pride Center events and whatnots.
Since Alice and I are new, everyone goes around the table and introduces themselves, giving a brief story about their lives. Each of the stories is different, but what is similar is the fact that these women began their transition decades later than Alice has.
At later meetings, there will be more people, a handful of trans-men and people closer to Alice's age but for tonight, it is a small group. Both Elizabeth and Leilani are there, along with Fiona, the owner of the Crown Vic, a quiet woman named Kate, Joan who has brought her wife Darlene along for support and Savannah.
Except for a few remnants of Boy Suits; a misplaced adam's apple, a slightly off-kilter wig or an unusually sonorous bass voice, it looks like a meeting of the ladies' auxiliary league. In fact later, when I step out for a cigarette and peer through the window, I imagine that anyone passing buy wold assume a women's bible study was going on around that table of sedate floral print dresses, sensible shoes and middle-aged mildness. Alice is, of course, the exception, in her wide-legged hip-huggers, screaming pink babydoll tee and more makeup than all the other women combined.
At one point in the round-table conversation, Savannah interrupts with a loud aside to Alice.
“Did you get your SSI yet?”
“Disability. You need to get on disability and then they'll send you a SSI check every month.”
Apparently I look horrified at this because Elizabeth catches my eye and nods discreetly, then turns to Savannah.
“Not everyone needs disability,” she says, “and not everyone who needs it gets it.”
“Oh but you should try. I mean since you don't need to pay rent or medical bills yet, you could buy out the Mac counter or Forever 21!”
“Yeah, THAT'S not gonna happen.” I laugh.
Alice scowls and Elizabeth redirects the group's attention to other subjects. When the meeting is over, I step out for a smoke while Alice says her goodbyes. Fiona joins me, borrows my lighter and then leans against her car, looking into the building.
“Just ignore Savannah.” She says. Her voice is gravelly, perhaps from too many years smoking or from just not giving a damn about what people think. “She means well but she's obnoxious.”
“Well Alice can be obnoxious too.”
“Aw, she's a doll.”
“And Savannah's new to all this too. Not me. I've always known I was Two-Spirited.”
She goes on to tell me about Native American tribes who once celebrated people like her, how they understood and accepted those with complicated gender. As she's talking, I can't help but think of the gruff woman in the waiting room of Dimensions Clinic, how world-weary she seemed, as if, like Fiona, she'd been around the world at least twice and nothing ruffled her any more.
In the car, on the way home, Alice brings up Savannah's SSI suggestion.
“You're not disabled.” I cut her off.
“But if I could get it, then it would pay for my doctor stuff and I could save some for surgery.”
“You are NOT LIKE THAT WOMAN!” I shout, surprising myself as much as Alice.
“Fine” she whispers.
The truth is, I don't want her to need a support group when she's 40. I don't want her to be the kind of woman for whom nothing in life will ever be easy. Until today, every trans person I've known (with the exception of my old co-worker Judy) has been young and empowered with every chance in the world of leading a perfectly normal life, happy life. The whole reason I've gone all-in on her transition at this point, is to keep her from ending up like THAT WOMAN.
I'm pretty sure this is not how I supposed to feel, but in this moment, it is hard. I've somehow convinced myself that this isn't always going to affect her, be a part of who she is. I want to pretend that it's something she has to go through but somehow she'll come out the other side unscathed, as if fifteen years of of a boy's life can magically be erased.
“I like Elizabeth and Leilani.” I say, trying to make peace, “And Fiona seemed nice.”
“I liked them ALL.” she says.
We make the rest of the ride in silence.
[Note: The final year of my daughter's life was a revelation and I wouldn't trade it for anything. I tell her story in bits and pieces as part of my own therapy, but also to let others who may travel some piece of the same path; You are not alone. This piece and previous diaries about Alice are cross-posted at Laurustina.com.]