Thursday, September 6, 2012

Writing About Trans* Loved Ones

Susan Grier (right, with her partner, Trish, left) is a writer specializing in creative nonfiction, and has been published in Dear John, I Love Jane, Trans Forming Families: Real Stories About Transgendered Loved Ones, Thanksgiving to Christmas: A Patchwork of Stories, Women Writers Read, and more.  She lives not far from me (Southern Maryland), and has done some great work to advocate for lbgt, etc. rights in the state. Combined with the fact that she's just an awesome person...this makes her fantastic candidate for the first Gendercast blog interview!  

Enjoy, and many thanks to Susan for sharing her time and reflections with us.  -Gilligan

Gilligan: Can you introduce yourself and tell us your gender identity and anything else you’d like us to know?

Susan:  My name is Susan Grier and I identify as female and lesbian, although the lesbian part was late coming. At the age of 51 and after two marriages to men, I fell in love with a woman and we've been together for almost seven years. My interest in gender identity stems from having raised an FTM transgender child, and I think being a lesbian heightens that interest.

Gilligan:  What sort of projects/writing do you do related to gender identity and exploration?

Susan:  I write from the point of view of being the mother of a trans person. I've written and published essays that touch on the subject, but the story is too large to be contained in a single essay. I'm working on a memoir originally intended to be my story as the mother of a trans child: the bewilderment of having a daughter who didn't act like a daughter; the anguish of watching her suffer and not understanding why as she entered puberty; the shock of finally learning, when she was 15, that she had discovered the word for how she felt, and the word was "transgender"; the process of dealing with the loss of my daughter while simultaneously striving to be a good mother and do everything I could to help my child become the person s/he was meant to be; watching her become him - the voice deepening, body hair increasing, seeing him through chest surgery, and learning to use the appropriate pronouns; and finally, witnessing his courage and strength, which continues today, as he finds the full expression of his whole self as a male and as a human being.
As I've written bits and pieces of this story, though, I've realized that I cannot tell it without also telling the story of my own transformation, from southern debutante living out the traditional roles of wife and mother to a woman prompted, by the experience of raising a transgender child, to examine the origins and unspoken rules of both female and male roles and to ultimately discover my own inability to follow the prescribed path I had followed as a heterosexual female. The story of the two transformations - mine and my child's - are parallel and intertwined.

Gilligan:  How did you come to do this work?

Susan:  What got me started was pursuing an MFA in creative writing, which I completed in 2006. Through the work, I began to write more authentically about my experiences as a female. Ultimately, I wrote myself out of my second marriage and into something else entirely, which I can only describe as a kind of opening beyond those narrow boundaries I'd been raised with to other ways of being, including loving a woman. I began to find my voice as a memoirist. I had been wanting to write a book about raising a transgender child. In fact, the mother of another trans child and I were going to write a book together, but it didn't pan out. In graduate school, I developed the vision and confidence I needed to write the book myself, in a way that most made sense to me.

Gilligan: How does that influence/been influenced by your writing?

Susan:  The MFA was invaluable to me. I realize not everyone needs one, and now they seem to be almost cliché, but I learned so much about good writing, gained the confidence to call myself a writer, and the confirmation that I have a really valuable story to tell.

Gilligan:  How has writing about your experiences impacted how you process and perceive gender identity and transitions, and connect with trans* folk and their friends and family?

Susan:  For me, writing equals examination. Writing about my experiences has forced me to examine so much about gender and gender identity - mine and those of others. I once perceived gender identity as black and white - either you are a male or a female. Now I know there is a gender spectrum, along which are many variations of gender expression. My son found his place as a heterosexual trans man. But others are content in a less-defined place on the spectrum. For example, my partner is a female who identifies with many male qualities but stopped short of being trans. There are people who don't identify as either gender.  I'm perfectly okay with all of this in a way I never would have been if I wasn't a writer.

In addition, writing about my experience as the mother of a trans child allows me to feel that I have something to contribute to the larger community of trans folk and their friends and families. After having an essay published in the anthology Trans Forming Families: Real Stories About Transgendered Love Ones, my son and I were invited to sit on a panel on dealing with one's family at an FTM conference. Afterwards, all these sweet young FTMS came up to me, so hungry for advice and maybe also some mother-love. Having that opportunity to interact with them meant so much to me. At that same conference, I was invited to participate in an evening reading so I got to read my essay in an environment of mutual appreciation, which felt powerful for all concerned.

Gilligan: What are some of the most important things learned from your experiences?

Susan:  I used to think that there was a "normal" way people and families should be; Some call it the "hetero-normal" way of being, which has been defined by heterosexuality. Without thinking of it that way - I had nowhere near the awareness I have now - I see now that I once subconsciously prided myself in being "normal" and could not even conceive of being any other way. I hate to admit it, but I used to look somewhat askance at people who deviated from this normalcy. I thought I was somehow better or superior to them. Now that both my child and I live outside the margins of hetero-normal acceptability, I have much greater compassion for others, regardless of who they are, how they live, or the circumstances they find themselves in. I've learned that the most important thing in this life is connecting with others; we are all floating on that same great sea of humanity. 

Gilligan:  Is there anything you especially want readers to take away from your writings?

Susan:  For general audiences, I hope that as an honest, non-sensationalized account of a mother and child who could be anyone's next-door neighbors, my story helps humanize trans people and create compassion and understanding for their experiences. I believe the story contains some universal truths that apply to any parent or family member struggling to deal with the disappointment of having a child who is not what they expected or hoped s/he would be. My story brings to life the challenges of learning to see and accept those children for who they are, the difficult process of offering them unconditional love and support in becoming the person they were meant to be, and the ultimate reward of being enriched beyond measure by that experience.

For parents of trans kids, I hope the story helps them feel less alone or isolated. I hope those who feel unable to tolerate their child's differences can find comfort and the strength to love and support their child instead of rejecting their child. I hope that they will see that staying connected to their child is more important than anything else.

Gilligan:  Are there any pieces on gender identity and gender-related experiences that you’d like to work on in the future?

Susan:  I think the book is going to keep me busy for the foreseeable future.