One year ago last night in the mountains of NC, on a mini vacation we’d been hoping to make for years, my husband and I sat at our cozy dinner, in silence. Above the small, roaring fireplace next to our table was a big screen TV, monitoring the 2016 election results as they rolled in. State after state turned red and projected Donald Trump as the potential winner. I looked around, contemplating asking for another table, but TVs were everywhere, and they were all broadcasting the same thing. Five years of anticipation and planning for our 3rd, private, without kids getaway in 17 years of marriage had led up to this moment, and I felt disgusted.
Matt had gotten a new job and a sign-on bonus, and we were able to allocate some of that bonus to take this trip. We needed the time together. As two ships passing in the night with differing work schedules where the two of us were never awake at the same time, we deeply needed to reconnect. We love our kids desperately, but for the sake of our relationship, we needed reconnection without the distraction of three kids, their varying schedules and needs, two elderly pets, and the stressors of every day life. Summer of 2016 had been a whirlwind. After writing for hobby most of my life, just prior to our mini vacation, I had stood on a stage and read some of my deeply personal and painful writing, for the very first time out loud, before a live, paying audience and a worldwide YouTube audience.
Thus, I “outed” myself as the mom of a gender creative child (how Charlie was publicly identifying at age 10) – a child assigned male at birth who expressed stereotypical female since the age of 2.5 years old. Instead of shaming my child for not conforming to the brand of machismo that we’re taught to celebrate in America, I decided to embrace my son’s femininity. After all, it was just how Charlie was born, just another part of who my child was, and I happened to see the beauty in it. Some of the best photos I had of Charlie were the ones captured candidly, in the every-day, not so glorious moments of motherhood with three kids under the age of nine. Any day, any time, Charlie was running around the house in a Disney princess costume and heels, so the candid photos I captured reflected that.
Around the same time, social media had really taken off and had become the default way of showcasing family and vacation photos, and the amazing growth of kids over time. This was wonderful; it allowed you to instantly share your proudest accomplishments and relationships with your friends and family around the country, in a way we’d never known before. It was a great way to keep up with family on the opposite coast, long-lost college friends, and even close-by friends. I definitely enjoyed using this new medium, but one day it occurred to me that I was not posting my candid photos of Charlie. I wasn’t posting them because I knew I’d be judged, and worse, that Charlie would be judged, even though Charlie obviously looked the happiest in those dresses.
In America, we raise our boys to be boys, and our girls to be girls. The mold is set and predestined for them when we find out via ultrasound and throw our gender reveal parties during pregnancy: Will it be “Glitter or Guns,” “Tutus or Ties,” “Wheels or Heels?” Are we welcoming a “Quarterback or Cheerleader,” “Cupcake or Stud Muffin? “ Will our newest addition be “Staches or Lashes?” (There are hundreds of these themes). If not at gender reveal parties, then it certainly occurs the moment they’re born. It’s the first thing the doctor declares. The moment we find out boy or girl is the moment that changes the course of literally everything – the way we subconsciously speak to them, play with them, treat them, the words we choose, the clothing we select, the books we read, the toys we steer them towards.
We did that. We did it with all three children. Giant pink or blue bows on the mailbox heralded their arrival, followed by years of us dressing our kids in ways that broadcasted to the world, “I’m a cisgender, heterosexual boy (or girl).” Kate had onesies with sayings like “Diva in Training,” and a Supergirl romper reading, “I only date heroes.” Jack and Charlie had bibs that read “Future Ladies Man,” or “I Love Boobs.” We totally bought in, thinking it was cute or funny.
But I came to realize that Charlie, despite having the nickname “Bubba” for being the biggest baby in the Rex Hospital nursery, was actually quite delicate, dainty, and demure. The older Charlie got, these traits only became more evident. When we realized this wasn’t a phase, our knee-jerk reaction became protective. Matt & I knew what kind of cruel world lied ahead for our child if this “phase” didn’t end. Fairly quickly, though, somewhere around age 5, we realized it wasn’t a phase. From then on I blogged about our life as I tried to make sense of the gender segregated world we’d bought into, and how our child would fare in it.
The truth was, we could’ve dressed Charlie in army fatigues and combat boots, and Charlie still would’ve moved through the room more like a graceful ballerina. And then we realized, why do we need to change this child? Charlie is exactly who Charlie was meant to be. I started reflecting on my youth and remembering all the kids I knew who were gender non-conforming. Girls were called “tomboys,” boys were called… well, there was no good word for them. I wanted to change that, because this seemed to me an epic, sexist, ethical injustice. I knew there had to be more families out there like mine, struggling to find resources, education, or support in actively raising a gender nonconforming or gender creative child.
Listen To Your Mother was my sort of “public” writing debut, and it opened all kinds of doors that were not only closed before, but doors I didn’t even consider accessible to people like me. Writing was just something I did for my own personal therapy, especially as I struggled in the early years of raising a TGNC child with no resources or support, when we were living in a very conservative, very evangelical, very right-wing, small town.
On the coattails of LTYM, doors opened on radio, TV news, and other media outlets. That summer my writing got published on HuffPost and often elevated to front page status, and soon after, other media outlets were syndicating my pieces. When a letter I wrote later that summer to Justice, the tween girls clothing store went viral, our family was propelled overnight into complete media inundation. The kids all loved a bit of limelight, but the timing was bad, and the school year had just begun. It didn’t help that I had also recently gone back to my full time day job, and was performing a major role in a play at a well-known local theatre nights and weekends.
There weren’t enough hours in the day to absorb the massive tide of media saturation, yet I felt the need to reply to every desperate parent who reached out to me saying, “It’s as if you were telling my story. I have a child just like yours. Please help me, I need resources.” Plus, I needed time to continue learning how to support the needs of my family and my TGNC child. I was no expert and I was still learning. So, I made a goal of responding to 5 messages per day. But one year later, I still have over 500 Facebook friend requests, dozens of unread Facebook Messenger messages, and an ever-growing email inbox that I set up to receive mail specifically from this experience. (There still aren’t enough hours in the day for all of it.) But this thing was blowing up, and it was way bigger than me and my family.
I accepted a volunteer board position for the Family Equality Council. I got in touch with and worked with amazing organizations including Safe Schools of NC, and Gender Spectrum. Matt and I had already started a group called S.E.A.R.CH. (Safe Environment for the Acceptance of Rainbow CHildren) that supported TGNC children ages 12 & under and their parents, but now we needed to use our wider platform for maximum reach and service to our community. So, we partnered with The LGBT Center of Raleigh and became an official, year-round program. We hadn’t cared much about politics before, but now knowing that families like ours were being deliberately threatened by our local government caused us to wake up and start paying attention like never before.
We learned about, and through writing and advocacy, we helped expose the ugly underbelly of corrupt politics in the NC GOP-controlled legislature – the anti-LGBTQ measures, the flagrantly racist gerrymandering and voter suppression, the instituting of a one-party system, the fake news in the form of GOP allegations of widespread voter fraud, the nefarious diverting of funds, the GOPs disguised “emergency” special sessions held to strip the incoming Democratic Governor of his executive authority, the arresting of journalists at the public galley of the Legislature who were just trying to do their jobs, the barring of our public citizens’ right to hear our representatives by turning off all cameras and audio recording for large portions of special sessions, and so much more. Sound familiar?
We saw the things happening locally and realized our state was serving as a test model, a playbook for the national politics of Donald Trump and more importantly, “Trumpism.” Trumpism at its root is really about disdain and outright anger at inexorable changes in society. As many people warned, under a Trump presidency we would see a rapid and drastic deterioration of civil discourse and social standards. And that even after all his lewd, publicly seen and heard behavior was out there, if he was still elected, then that became the new standard, and nothing spoken from that office ever again would be too harsh, too crude, or too off-limits.
We named all the things Americans stood to lose: justice, with the appointment of over-the-top, ultra-conservative justices in the Supreme Court; fair legislation, with an emboldened, right-wing congress; LGBTQ+ rights like same-sex marriage and public restroom access for trans people; women’s rights to choose and make decisions about their own bodies, health, and birth control; social security and Medicare; health insurance; The Affordable Care Act (aka, “Obamacare”); immigrants and sanctuary cities; our constitution would be grossly misrepresented or exaggerated; there’d be more tax breaks but they would only benefit the richest – the top 1%.
A moratorium would be called on climate change action, NATO, and the free press. Not only would we lose civil liberties, but also scientific fact and reason. We’d witness the destruction of our relationships with international allies, and face potential war in Iran or anywhere, really. We’d enter a period of economic, political, and social uncertainty unlike anything our generation had ever known. The vulnerable, marginalized people Trump had so recklessly demonized on his one-man political freak show campaign tour would suffer tremendously, including my gender nonconforming child who had just recently felt bold enough to shout from the roof tops.
We predicted that conspiracy theories would grow and false information would widely circulate like 1930’s Nazi propaganda. Trump would continue on his path of demagoguery looking to benefit no one but himself as he filled his administration with nepotism. He’d guarantee a world where his family would be next in line for our new monarchy. He’d enshrine the 1950s model of patriarchal, authoritarian society bordering on fascism, and reverse social progress by reinforcing the cisgender, heteronormative family unit as the only acceptable family unit. He’d widen the berth for police and border patrol unions to enforce vague and terrifying immigration orders, riding the coattails of his declaration that Mexicans were rapists.
His messages of nativism, discrimination, misogyny, bigotry, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, classism, ableism, ageism, sexism, and racism would spread like a cancerous tumor upon our nation. Previously somewhat more dormant groups like white supremacists would feel suddenly energized and emboldened to parade around chanting populist rhetoric like “blood and soil.” Millions of us predicted it. And then? All those things happened. Also predicted? That he’d even stoop so low as to destroy the United States, literally, at the cost of saving himself for whatever wrongdoings he might be held accountable for. I’m still hoping we don’t get that far.
That night, in that cozy restaurant nestled deep among our favorite mountain range, Matt and I sat at our dinner in silence, watching TV as state after state continued turning red and declared Trump the projected winner of the 2016 Presidential election. We knew this was a possibility, and yet, we still remained hopeful that the kindness and decency in humanity would cast a vote to not reverse decades and decades of progress. Hours later we went to bed, hoping to wake up in the morning to better news, to hear the news was wrong, that we’d woken from a bad nightmare, anything other than “Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States.”
The morning of November 10th, I awoke early in the hotel room and immediately turned on the TV. I so badly needed to hear that the night before had been a bad dream. But the news was not good. In fact, it was sickening, literally sickening. I ran to the bathroom and vomited, trying not to wake my sleeping husband who didn’t yet know. That morning we awoke to a different America, an America where millions felt betrayed by their own people. This election had not been about platforms, policies or politics, but about basic human values.
Ultimately, we learned things about others that we didn’t previously know – or maybe refused to see. Racism and resentment had never gone away; it slowly simmered under the surface of eight years with President Obama. In 2016, people voted for Trump on the basis of that resentment, and on adoption of reactionary politics – or, on a more conscious level, they voted Trump on the resentment of change. A woman president? It was too much, especially when combined with the alt-right news media collectives spouting propaganda in the names of Andrew Breitbart and Rupert Murdoch. When these people said the status quo wasn’t acceptable anymore, what they really meant by status quo was: the inexorable civil progression of society.
They voted Trump not because they liked him per se, but because they were loyal to Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, or the like. They voted Trump because they hated Hillary. They totally bought the deluge of fabricated falsehoods, conspiracy theories (Pizzagate, anyone?), and intentionally misleading stories from Russian-based counterfeit profiles and accounts that infiltrated social media. These voters were able to somehow resolve in their minds that they would simply “tolerate” Trump’s racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, so long as he delivered on bringing back their jobs. I never understood why these people couldn’t see the snake oil salesman standing before them. They had to be either white, upper-class Americans living comfortably who didn’t give a damn about jobs but just didn’t want that kind of threat or change, or they were lower and middle class Americans who simply drank the Breitbart/Murdoch flavored, toxic kool aid.
As I let the news sink in that day, I realized our only hope would remain in the outdated, undemocratic system we know as the electoral college, who’d cast their ballots in December, but hoping for enough defectors there was a long shot. We wouldn’t find out until just before Christmas that, as suspected, Hillary had not only won the popular vote, but that also, more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than any other losing presidential candidate in US History. It made the election of Trump so much worse.
Malcolm X once cautioned, “If you aren’t careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” Breitbart, FOX, Rush, and several others seem to have capitalized on this, and we need to change it. How? By changing the narrative. I began telling my family’s story, and writing more publicly to change the narrative. Writing is no longer my personal therapy; it’s a crusade to change the narrative.
I’m a beneficiary of privilege in the ways of systemic racism and cisgender, heteronormative culture. I see it as my duty to help my fellow beneficiaries of privilege understand that marginalized people don’t owe solutions or explanations to their oppressors, and the reasons behind why we need movements and events like Black Lives Matter, Gay Pride, or organizations like the National Center for Transgender Equality. in the first place. What I’ve learned under a year of a Trump Presidency is that I’m no worse for the wear, but we, collectively still have a lot of work to do. A lot. I hope you’ll roll up your sleeves and join me.
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