Trans Parent, Gay Son: Pride Across the Generations

(Originally published in my newspaper column.)

“There’s a huge difference between being gay and being trans,” affirms LGBT activist and parent Marti Abernathey. Many would agree, but Abernathey has a rare perspective: she is transgender and has a gay son. Despite their differences, though, she feels they share a certain bond: “In the whole coming out process there are a lot of similarities. I think his understanding of that has helped him understand where I’m at. And vice versa.”

Abernathey has one child from each of two previous marriages. Eighteen-year-old Nik has lived with her for three years, after his mother kicked him out when he told her he was gay. “He came out in a small middle school in Indiana and did that all on his own,” Abernathey says with a parent’s pride. “He is one of the strongest kids I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Where we live in Indiana is not the most liberal place in the world. It’s not Massachusetts. His freshman year in high school, on his own initiative he decided to ask his boyfriend to go with him to homecoming. That’s just not done here. As far as I can tell, he’s always been proud of who he is.”

When Abernathey came out as transgender to Nik, about a year and a half before he came out to her, she says, “He had questions more than anything. There wasn’t any anger. I’ve never sensed in him any kind of loss issues or anything like that, because he’s still my son and I’m still his father. For such a young adult, he has totally got that.” She advises other parents who need to come out to their kids, “The earlier the better. I think it is more an issue if the parents make it an issue.”

“Everyone assumes I’m his mother,” she relates. “The only thing I ask him not to do is run up to me and say ’Dad, Dad!’ in public. It’s kind of uncomfortable for both of us. But he just does it because I’m his dad. That is kind of odd, but he really takes it in stride. He thinks it’s funny and so do I.”

Her relationship with her daughter is different: “I haven’t seen my daughter since she was not quite six. She’s 11 now. Basically, I’ve been barred from seeing her. It’s complicated, but I’ve been told by a court I have to present as male to have supervised visitations with her. It’s very difficult considering I’ve been on hormones for six years. That’s been probably the hardest part of all this. As an activist, that’s one of the things that I fight for.”

Abernathey fights through her involvement with various national and state transgender and LGBT organizations. She runs the Transadvocate group blog (transadvocate.com) and is contributing editor for another, the Bilerico Project (bilerico.com). She also fights simply by being open about who she is. “A lot of the reasons why there are fewer obstacles now for gay and lesbian parents is because there are gay and lesbian parents,” she explains. “There’s exposure to the straight community, so it’s not an abstraction, it’s real. When trans people are open and honest about who they are, then people will start to see we’re just parents. We’re not trans parents, we’re parents. I think that’s what gays and lesbians want, and what trans people want.”

She wants this for the sake of her own children as well as for other families. “I want my kids to not have to go through what I’ve had to go through, especially my son,” she says. “I don’t know the sexual orientation of my daughter. … When I look at trans kids who have been thrown out of their houses and are living on the streets, that’s hard to see. I definitely do this because I don’t want other people to have to go through this kind of agony, on both sides, the children and the parents.”

Her parenthood also impacts her perspective on the rift that opened in the LGBT community last fall when some politicians and activists moved forward with a version of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that included protections based on sexual orientation but not gender identity and expression. Many transgender people felt betrayed. Abernathey was among them, but says, “What’s been a buoy for me in all this is to keep in mind that if this bill comes up and is not trans inclusive, but is going to pass, I’m going to have to support it. It’s going to offer protections for my son.”

Still, she foresees tough times ahead. “I’m afraid of what’s coming in the next year and a half, because it could really tear the GLB from the T, and vice versa. … I’m not hopeful. I want to be, I want to work towards that, but I see a dark cloud on the horizon.” She finds inspiration, however, in her son and his peers. “With Nik and his GLBT friends,” she says, “there isn’t that kind of division in their community. With gender variance and sexual orientation there’s a blur in the younger GLBT crowd that you don’t see in the older crowd.” The ENDA debate isn’t just about trans inclusion, she explains, but about protecting anyone who deviates from male and female norms. Even in conservative Indiana, then, Abernathey can believe: “Seeing the inclusive nature of our kids gives me a lot of hope.”