Mother courage: portrait of a transgender mom
Published Thursday, 10-May-2007 in issue 1011
If you call the GrantSmith household and ask for the missus, one of the two teenagers who live there will probably answer. “You want mom? Just a minute, I’ll get him.”
That’s right, “him.”
Les, née Leslie, GrantSmith began transitioning from female to male in 1998, 10 years after giving birth to daughter Amanda and seven years after giving birth to daughter Thea.
But, although Leslie became Les, GrantSmith has never stopped being a mom. And, this Mother’s Day, Thea, Amanda and their father, Scott, will all celebrate Mr. Les GrantSmith.
Given that Les, like all transgender people, has struggled mightily with issues of identity, it wouldn’t seem unreasonable if he now, as a male, saw fit to give Mother’s Day, a highly gender-specific celebration, a pass.
But Les is mom and mom he’s going to stay.
“You’re going to be hard pressed, I think, to find people who give up their biological reference when it comes to the children,” says Monica Helms, father, transgender activist and designer of the transgender Pride flag.
“I think there is a deep connection there, and people usually maintain that point of reference. I’m not saying it’s 100 percent, but I am saying it seems to be the standard.”
Whether or not a transgender person decides to continue in the role of mother or father after having transitioned depends on the number of years spent with a child prior to the transition, as well as the marital status of the individual, says Vickie Estrada, father and local transgender activist.
“In some ways, I think it depends on whether the children were old enough when the transition took place to remember the person as their mom or as their dad,” Estrada argues. “The further along the family goes before the transition, the more likely the person is to maintain their biological reference.”
In other words, it appears that the concepts of “mother” and “father” transcend gender labels. Les is one of many transgender persons who maintain their biological reference with their children.
“I am their mother,” Les says. “I carried them in my body. I nursed them. I raised them. I am as close as they are going to get to the typical American mom. My partner, Scott, is their dad, and he will have his day in June. I am not uncomfortable being their mother.”
Nor is Scott GrantSmith uncomfortable continuing being married to Les, whom he wed 20 years ago.
“I see Les as [our daughters’] mother,” Scott says. “We would never reject that Les is their mom. Les has all the experiences of being a mother, and having gone through all of that. I see Les as their mom.”
Life hasn’t always been so easy though for Les, who says he’s always struggled with his biological sex.
“I have always thought I didn’t own my body,” Les says. “It was like I was driving around in a vehicle or wearing a mask. What people saw wasn’t who I really was. I felt like an imposter. I couldn’t be open or intimate, really.”
Being pregnant and giving birth brought the only relief from this sense of disconnection that Les had ever known.
“I know in my heart I have always been a man who went through the process of being a mother,” Les says. “But when I was pregnant and nursing, a lot of things made sense. My body had a logical function. My womb and my breasts were performing a logical function. But the important thing is that they still weren’t mine, they were the kids.’ But, for a while at least, it was OK to have that body, because I was walking around with a little person inside, and it was serving its purpose.”
In fact, Les says, it wasn’t so much that his body made sense to him, as much as it was that finally, all of the female parts of his body could be used for love instead of hurt.
“It really was more that my body belonged to the kids,” Les explains. “I could step away from owning it and having it be mine, and that was a huge relief. My breasts belonged to my kids, because they are the ones who needed them and benefited from them during nursing. Suddenly, I had proof of my authenticity.”
While Les’ experience is a powerful testament to motherhood, he realizes not every person feels the same way he does.
“I want to clarify that I know I am only speaking for myself when I say that being pregnant and nursing were times that I felt my body was in sync with its function,” Les says. “I know there are trans men who have had children, who have nursed, and found it very uncomfortable. Some haven’t, some have. This experience may have just been mine. Someone else may have found the experience extremely unpleasant, unnatural or strange. But for me, at that point, everything was as it should be.”
That being said, after Les weaned his second child, his emotional state took a turn for the worse.
“I had always kept how I felt away from Scott because I didn’t want to lose the kids,” Les recalls. “And I didn’t really know what was wrong or how to get better. I am a pretty well-read and educated person, but we had only had contact with people in the straight world, so I had no idea there were such people who were male-to-female or female-to-male. But then I started reading about them, and I thought: ‘That’s how I feel. This is my problem. I am living in the wrong-gendered body.’”
Like many parents with problems, Les chose not to address those issues out of fear of losing the children. But the more he realized that he was in the wrong body, the more depressed he became.
“There was so much [information] about how when people transition, they lose their kids, their family,” Les says. “But it became so unbearable, I had to do something.”
That “something” was transitioning from female to male.
To Les’ surprise, Scott was willing to stay together.
“Scott and I decided we would stay together, that we would make it, and that it would be OK,” Les says. “In my mind, I made the transition very slowly so that [Thea and Amanda] could get accustomed to the changes. I didn’t tell them I was transitioning at first. I had cut my hair really short, and my voice was dropping. I had been binding for quite a while. But I didn’t tell them I felt that I was a man until I decided to have the top surgery. I was really hoping that I could deal with the body dysphoria without surgery, but I wasn’t able to endure that.”
“‘If you have to change into something, why can’t it be a cat?’ I wasn’t really ready for that question.”
At the time, Thea was 10. Amanda was 7.
“By then, Scott and I had friends who were trans, so I think [Thea] knew that was a possibility,” Les recalls. I think she kind of knew something was up. She was very upset and cried. But at the same time, she said, ‘If this is what you need to do to be happy, then this is what you should do.’ Amanda was a little different. She knew right away. I didn’t have two words out before she broke into tears and threw herself into my lap and said, ‘If you have to change into something, why can’t it be a cat?’ I wasn’t really ready for that question.”
Ready or not, the GrantSmith family was about to experience an enormous transformation in their lives – change that, to their surprise, would turn out to be the best thing to happen to the family since their daughters’ births, they say.
At first, the girls were apprehensive.
“At first, I was kind of upset because I kind of thought he would be a different person,” Thea says. “But he kept reassuring us that he would still be himself. And really, a giant wound was let out in the open. I thought, like, ‘I don’t know how to deal with this, but I am here for you.’ And then he got a lot happier. It was really strange. Before, [Les] was less social. I mean, he took care of us and all, but there was a kind of absence because he was so, like, depressed. I had noticed it when I was younger and it just got worse and worse.”
Now 15, Amanda was only 7 when Les and Scott told her about the transition.
“I was almost young enough not to remember most of that time,” Amanda recalls. “At first, I was kind of nervous because I thought: ‘My mom is changing. Is my mom going away?’ But then I saw the good things, like I had less depressed parents, which is always a good thing. My parents were sort of more connected. They became allies who would get together to fix problems, and that’s good when you have teenagers.”
Once the early hurdles were past, life after the transition resumed its usual, both difficult and rewarding, course.
“I would say that it hasn’t been easy,” Les says. “But what was harder for them was when their mother was depressed and withdrawn. I was really absent in that time period before I started to transition.”
One of the primary factors that allowed the GrantSmith household to grow in a loving and meaningful way was Scott’s willingness to stay with Les.
The significance of their parents’ continuing union is not lost on the children.
“I remember saying to my dad that I thought being a mom equaled being a woman, and I wondered how my dad could still love [Les],” Thea recalls. “He just said that he fell in love with Les because he was Les, not because of some label. It was really interesting to hear that a person can be a mom no matter what gender they are, and that someone can continue to love them no matter what gender they need to be.”
Les and Scott have, over time, developed a far stronger relationship and connection than they could have if Les had not transitioned.
“We’ve really become a parenting unit,” Les explains. “He calls me his spouse or partner, and technically, I fulfill the more feminine roles, as society might define them, since I stay at home and he goes out and makes the money and brings it back. We’ve divided up the cooking, and there really aren’t boy chores or girl chores.”
Even their love life has improved since the transition, the GrantSmiths say.
“I don’t want to talk a great deal about that,” Les laughs, “since the kids might read this. But, let’s just say, ‘Thank God for hormones.’”
The kids groan. “Ewwww, gross! Mom! Don’t talk about that!” End of conversation.
One of the challenges that Les and his children face is when they are out in public. Both children use male pronouns when referring to Les, which can be awkward.
“When you are transitioning, sometimes you are in this place where you are sort of half-way in between,” Les says. “Some people are calling you ‘ma’am’ and some are calling you ‘sir.’ So, if you’re standing there, presenting as a man, and a clerk is calling you ‘sir,’ but suddenly one of the girls says, ‘Mom, can I have some gum?’ Suddenly, the clerk thinks, ‘Boom, I’ve used the wrong pronoun,’ and the girls feel bad because they don’t mean to ‘out’ me, so to speak, but at the same time, they wanted something, and I am their mom.”
Les says he has tried a number of nicknames for himself, but it’s not easy avoiding having to constantly explain the discrepancy between his gender and his role as “mom.”
Often, people decide the GrantSmiths are a family headed by two gay men.
“When we go out to restaurants or something, I think it’s clear that we’re a family,” Les says. “People always make up a story in their head for what they are seeing, and I think most people would say that they are seeing two gay men with their children. A lot of times, people will see me and Scott in a gay male partnership, and ask when we adopted the girls. Then I have to out myself as a transgender mom.”
Thea says she was often concerned about how things would go in public.
“I was really nervous about going out in public at first,” Thea explains. “I wanted to be protective, but I was pretty nervous about what people were thinking, and how I was supposed to act and how people would perceive my family. It took up a lot of brain space, and I had to get over a lot of that.”
Unlike most men, Les has an advantage when it comes to raising teenaged daughters – he knows the hormonal changes they’re going through, because, not only did he go through puberty as a female, he’s a female-to-male transgender.
Thea remarks on the convenient, if improbable, similarities in their experiences.
“I just think it’s very interesting that my mom and I are sort of both going through puberty together. There are these parallels, where I am becoming a woman and she is becoming a man.”
With all the challenges the GrantSmiths face, no one in their home doubts the love that Les has for Scott, Thea and Amanda.
So, how will the GrantSmith family celebrate Mother’s Day?
“I remember saying to my dad that I thought being a mom equaled being a woman, and I wondered how my dad could still love [Les]. He just said that he fell in love with Les because he was Les, not because of some label. It was really interesting to hear that a person can be a mom no matter what gender they are, and that someone can continue to love them no matter what gender they need to be.”
“Seeing as how Les is still my mom, we still do the Mother’s Day thing,” Amanda says. “It’s like what we should be doing – celebrating our parents, even if that mother does happen to be outside of the norm.”
“Usually, we just say, ‘Happy Mother’s Day,’ and give him a card or something special,” Thea adds.
You know, just the usual.