As a senior in high school at Loomis Chaffee, J. Collins couldn’t keep a secret from her mother any longer: although J. had lived her whole life in a girl’s body, she’d come to realize that inside, she truly identified as male. “I basically said, ‘Hey Mom, I have something to tell you. I think I’m transgender,’” said Collins, who now uses male pronouns and the name Donald rather than J.
Donald and his mother, Mary Collins, recently sat down with Connecticut Public Radio’s Where We Live to talk about their experience as a family since Donald came out as trans. Mary Collins said the day J. came out to her at the kitchen table of their West Hartford home, she didn’t even fully understand what her child was saying. “I’d never met a transgender individual,” said Mary. “I didn’t even know what the word meant. It’s hard to imagine now, after Caitlyn Jenner and Orange is the New Black. But at the time, Donald was the first in his high school that had ever come out.” This was back in 2011, and “trans” or “transgender” just wasn’t in Mary’s vocabulary.
Mary’s initial confusion about the word “trans” was just the beginning of the mismatched understandings that arose as Donald began to pursue transitioning from female to male. As a single parent and only child, the mother and daughter had been very close. But the growing confusion and disagreements about Donald’s transition nearly broke the family. The two told Where We Live that when Donald called his mother from college to tell her he planned to begin hormone replacement therapy--taking testosterone as part of his physical transition--Mary said she didn’t feel comfortable with him staying under her roof if he started injecting the hormone. For a period of time after that, the two remained nearly estranged.
Donald said that throughout his transition, he had access to good counselors and doctors, and felt supported by the community at both at his private high school in Connecticut and at Emerson College in Boston. But the piece that was missing, the mother and son say, was emotional and psychological support for Mary—the parent. “When Donald was most emotionally in need, [I was] also emotionally unavailable,” said Mary. “I realize now we needed better whole family care for the entire transition, and we didn’t get that.”
It’s the need for that second piece—emotional and psychological care for parents in addition to their trans children—that has driven Donald and Mary to revisit this traumatic period of their relationship. The two wrote about their experiences in a collaborative memoir, At the Broken Places: A Mother and Trans Son Pick Up the Pieces, and say they hope other families can learn from their experience.
“I like to describe coming out as an iceberg,” said Donald. “For what you see, the top of the iceberg, there’s actually something five thousand times larger underneath. So the moment of coming out--while it could be a huge shock, a surprise to family;, for the person coming out, this is something that’s been stewing in their head for months, maybe years.”
By transitioning away from being female, Donald was finding himself. But Mary felt a sense of loss. “I felt like my daughter was slipping away in front of me,” she said. And the grief she was experiencing was a type Mary felt almost no one around her fully understood or recognized. Although she sought out the help of mental health professionals as well as the support of peers, Mary described the message she heard again and again as, “‘You have a transgender child; just deal with it.’”
For Donald, the lack of full support he felt from his mother in the first few years of his transition and her opposition to his medical decisions was upsetting and disheartening: “I definitely shut down a bit,” he said. But he also argues that the reaction of those around him to his mother’s reticence—that ‘just deal with it,’ attitude—though well intentioned, was ultimately harmful to his own mental health as well as his mother’s. “A lot of times people think that by…disparaging the person that hasn’t necessarily been super accepting of [the trans individual] is doing trans people a favor, but they’re really not,” Donald says, “because you actually just put the burden back on me. If you don’t treat my family members well because of the conflict we’re going through, then it becomes a source of tension I have to deal with.”
Both Donald and Mary emphasized in their interview that emotional and psychological care for the entire family could have helped them maintain and repair their relationship. “It was a great example of where we could have received more professional help,” said Mary. “I realize now I needed professional grief counseling over the sense of loss so that I could fully embrace the beautiful transgender son emerging.”
Having a stable, supportive home environment is a major issue for many young people who are transgender, and is intricately tied to mental health. According to a review conducted by the National Health Care for the Homeless Council (NHCHC), studies have found nearly one in five trans or gender non-conforming people will experience homelessness during their lifetime due to family rejection, and a disproportionately large part of the youth homeless population is gay or trans. At the same time, the American Academy of Pediatrics has found alarming rates of suicidal behavior for trans youths that are far higher than among adolescents broadly. Other studies have found that at least one in two transgender adults experience depression, compared to a little over one in fifteen in the general population, according to the NHCHC.
The disproportionate rates of homelessness for trans youth suggest that family support networks are failing for many young trans people when they need them most. Though it won’t necessarily end all trans youth homelessness, Mary and Donald said that for families like theirs, counseling for parents might help prevent the total breakdown of family ties.
Donald stressed that it’s important to keep lines of communication open between parents and trans children even when parties still have fundamental disagreements. “You [as a parent] always need to come back to: ‘I love my child. I want a relationship to my child,’” he said. Donald and Mary still disagree to this day about some of the medical interventions Donald has undergone in his transition. But they’ve still been able to rebuild a relationship despite these disagreements, and Mary said she’s come acknowledge Donald’s rights to make his own medical decisions. “You have to respect they are coming into adulthood; you as a parent need to change and let go.”
Donald and Mary believe that though their story has been messy, it’s an important one for more people to hear. “I think it can sometimes be hard because the media wants to have really positive trans stories,” said Donald. “And a lot of times that erases some of the muddier, more complex, difficult parts of those stories that are lived by those families and trans individuals for years. But I think the only way we’re going to make more stories like ours is if we welcome in more conflicted people into the circle.”
Mary and Donald Collins are the authors of AT THE BROKEN PLACES: A MOTHER AND TRANS SON PICK UP THE PIECES. Listen to their full interview with Where We Live here.