When I became a mother five years ago, it seemed everything in my life was falling into place. My years of advocating for a trans program at the local LGBT center came to fruition in 2011, the same year I had gender-confirmation surgery, spoke at Johns Hopkins University, and accepted my first award for my advocacy work. That's also when I first met my daughter, Leighanne. She was 15 at the time.
When we first learned about my daughter, my wife offered a witty retort to sum up my monumental year: "What, we buy you a vagina and a 15-year-old pops out? What else do you have hiding in there?"
I knew my daughter was a possibility, but after not hearing from her birth mother for nearly 16 years, I felt that possibility fading. But in October of 2011, I shared an unforgettable evening with the most amazing young woman I've ever met. Leighanne and her mother met me for dinner. Although we'd been chatting on Facebook for about a week, this meal marked our first in-person meeting. We shared our likes and dislikes, which were shockingly similar, and told stories about our lives over the past decade and a half. Over the course of our time together that night, I watched a sense of comfort and peace wash over my daughter, as if she was putting together the missing pieces, understanding for the first time, "Oh, I'm like you!"
Three weeks later, Leighanne came out to me as bisexual -- I was the first adult she'd ever shared that with. I'm guessing that coming out to your trans lesbian parent seemed like a pretty safe bet for an accepting reaction, but still, I was honored. Shortly after, she began calling me "Mum" and "Mummy," and melted my heart forever. Seven months later, she was living with us full-time.
Neither my wife nor I had any experience raising kids, which means our learning curve living with Leighanne was steep. I certainly had no concept of what it meant to parent a teenage girl, especially a bi teenage girl. But my biggest concern wasn't our lack of collective knowledge on parenting best practices -- it was for the safety and well-being of our daughter. With her being the child of a transgender parent, I was terrified of how her friends would treat her. My mind leapt to the worst possible scenarios: Would she be an outcast, would she be bullied, would she be beaten up because of me? To say I was riddled with fear for her is an understatement.
I checked in on Leighanne much more than she would have liked, until one day she barked back at me and told me to stop asking if things were OK. Unsatisfied with this profoundly teenage response, I probed further -- and was stunned at what I learned.
"All of my friends think you're cool," she affirmed. I was dumbfounded. While I tried to wrap my head around the notion of being considered "cool" by the very same people I was worried might be harassing my daughter, she offered more context. "You're not like the other moms, and they like that," she explained.
Wait. I was the cool mom? Because I'm trans? Is that a real thing?
Leighanne has just wrapped up her first year of college -- which has been a challenging time for both of us. "You are not suffering from terminal uniqueness," a friend recently told me as I recounted our struggles. The statement rubbed me the wrong way at first; I was proud of our unique relationship. But my friend reassured me that the roadblocks we've encountered have been hit by countless families before ours. Sure, our family looks a little different from some, but we're working through the same issues that parents and children have been navigating forever.
In talking with a friend about this article earlier this week, she reminded me, "Struggling with your teenage daughter is a motherhood rite of passage." At the time, I fired back, "I'm sure someday I'll agree with you." As it turns out, that day is today.
Yes, there are portions of being a mom that are hard and at times even painful. But this heart-swelling anguish is, in fact, a rite of passage. All of it has been. The joy and the pain have both been a crucial part of forging of a relationship between mother and daughter. It been her testing me to see if I'm still here; it's been me pushing her to strive for more and to know she can trust me to have her back. My daughter is the most powerful affirmation of my motherhood and my womanhood that I've ever had the privilege of associating with.
I'll admit: I'm still learning how to do this whole parenting thing. I think I've done some things right, and I know I've screwed up more than a few. But if I'm being honest, I must say Leighanne has taught me more than I've taught her. As I'm her biological father, she certainly didn't have to accept me as her mom -- especially since she has plenty of them, between her birth mom, Mum (me), and stepmom (my wife). But Leighanne went above and beyond mere acceptance -- she made me a mom. For that I'm eternally grateful.
She's granted me access to a side of womanhood I never would have known otherwise, and settling into my role as a mother is incredibly affirming. She's given me a stronger sense of purpose; she's made me more responsible; she's made me think about the world in a whole new way.
But there's something else Leighanne has given me that has been invaluable. In a country that's full of anti-trans legislation, hateful comments, and presidential hopefuls telling us we shouldn't use any restroom, my daughter has shown me a window into a generation that is more than just "tolerant" of trans people. Leighanne and her friends actually celebrate trans people and encourage us to be ourselves. From that window, I can see a future that looks very different from what I've known. And that future, much like the relationship Leighanne and I have, just keeps getting brighter.
So, Leighanne, thank you for making me not just a mom, but your mom. Thank you for accepting me as the woman I am, complete with all my flaws. Thank you for giving me hope for years to come. Thank you being my fierce advocate and friend, and granting me the immense privilege of being your mom. Happy Mother's Day!
COURTNEY GRAY is a nationally recognized, award-winning transgender civil rights advocate, trainer and consultant. She has provided trans-competency trainings and developed programs with the Denver Sheriff's Department, the Larimer County Sheriff's Department, the FBI, the Department of Justice, and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Her dedication has earned a coveted spot on the 2014 Trans 100 list and an invitation to the White House.