How these parents with a transgender son learned to deal with conservative hate
Religious Right politicians hoping to exploit transphobia may be up against one of the most powerful forces in the world: parental love.
Jo and Jon Ivester don’t exactly have kind words for North Carolina Governor McCrory and religious right legislators who called an all-day session to push state sanctioned discrimination against transgender people.
“Shame on you!” says Jo. “Shame on you, Governor McCrory, for spreading hate and fear when you could be doing the opposite! A true leader would recognize that transgender individuals deserve all the love and respect that is deserved by all. Our transgender son is a sweet, loving young man who has displayed more courage than anyone else I know. Stop being a bully and leave our child and others like him alone!” Her husband Jon called McCrory and his Religious Right cronies haters and bullies, and says that sometimes he struggles to hold back his anger.
A decade ago, Jo and Jon Ivester struggled to describe their teenage daughter—a tomboy who played football with the guys in both 7th and 8th grades. They had no language to define their child, save the language of love. Today they understand their son Jeremy to be transgender; and by telling their story, and his, they hope to help other families on a similar journey.
The baby Jo and Jon named Emily was their third of four, and they knew from the toddler years that Emily didn’t fit the typical girlie-girl pattern—preferring hand-me-downs from her brother and stereotypical boy toys over the other clothes and activities on offer. But it would take two decades and a bridesmaid dress before the family—Emily included—realized that “tomboy” really meant “boy”—that Emily was transgender and needed a name and identity that fit.
In April 2015, at age 25, Emily appeared before a judge and legally became Jeremy Andrew, with Jo and Jon as witnesses. Afterwards, Jeremy’s parents say, they shed a few tears—not tears of sadness but of pride at their child’s journey of insight and courage. And maybe a few tears of regret that they hadn’t figured things out sooner so they could have made things easier along the way.
Not that Jeremy was an unloved or particularly lonely child. The family felt close. While Jeremy emulated his brother Ben, Jo and Jon’s elder daughter Elizabeth loved having a sister, even one who didn’t take much interest in being dolled up. And their youngest son, Sammy, adored Jeremy from day one, no questions asked. In the Ivesters’ kid-oriented Austin, Texas neighborhood, a close knit group of half a dozen boys accepted the girl in cropped hair and t-shirts as one of their own. After school, they played rough-and-tumble games, baseball and football. Come summer, they all swam in shorts; and through grade school Jeremy was included in sleepovers.
But some experiences make a parent wince in hindsight. Jon recalls a trip to the mall when Jeremy was in second grade. Jeremy made a beeline for the boys clothing and Jon balked: “I said, ‘Hey Emily, don’t you want to go to the girls’ section?’ And he said, ‘Daddy! I’m atomboy!’ And now I realize that to him that meant he was some gender other than boy or girl. Things that wouldn’t have been important to me but were very, very important to him. I used to think he was just a particularly stubborn little girl. It didn’t dawn on me that it wasn’t a stubborn streak in his personality but a fundamental identity.”
Jo is an author. Her book, The Outskirts of Hope, chronicles her own experience as a child who didn’t quite fit in. In 1967, her father moved his Jewish family to the segregated Deep South, and set up a medical clinic in all-black Mound Bayou, Mississippi. At age 10, she was the only white student in her class; she knows what it’s like to feel different.
For the past four years, Jeremy has recorded a video-diary describing his experiences and feelings, beginning before his top surgery. Jo and Jeremy together will use these recordings in Jo’s next book, with the working title of Jeremy’s Journey. In these recordings, Jeremy confessed that beneath the surface, from preschool on, he was already trying to make sense of how he fit into the world. As Jo describes it, “In his toddler and preschool mind, he thought he’d grow up to be like Daddy. He always pictured himself growing older as a man long before we had the terminology of transgender.”
Jeremy also says that almost every night from age five onward, he would pray as he went to sleep that he would wake up as a boy.
That’s what makes Jon wish they had known more when he was younger. It’s the thought of Jeremy struggling to sort things out alone, not knowing what to make of his own differences. It’s the thought of him trying to tell them with words they didn’t fully understand.
“What is our biggest regret?” Jo asks, “It’s that we didn’t figure it out sooner. If we had the language when he was three we might have recognized earlier who he is. If we had done so, the way that some children are being recognized now, his childhood and teen years could have been so much more fulfilling. He missed out on something we can never give back to him.”
Childhood had enveloped Jeremy in a cocoon of acceptance and love, but then came middle school. Jeremy played football well—to the point that his high school brother took some teasing about it in the form of your little sister plays better than you do. But increasingly, he didn’t really fit in anywhere. In Jo’s words, “If he hung out with his football buddies, they would clam up because they were talking about their crushes and their bodies. The girls were uncomfortable including him because he was too friendly with the guys they were interested in. Jeremy would walk out into the school lunch room with his tray of food and not know where to fit in.”
Jon sees this as a parallel to the fight going on in North Carolina and elsewhere about which bathroom transgender people should use. “Think about it,” says Jo, “Jeremy always used the women’s room, but once he made the decision to present as male—as Jeremy not Emily—he looked and sounded like a guy. If he were to walk into a women’s restroom, the women would say he is in the wrong place.”
For Jeremy to fit even in his own skin has taken time. Back when Jeremy was presenting as female, Emily could look quite pretty if she chose, and she sometimes got complimented for dressing up in feminine clothes. But that approval came at a price; it was praise for being something you are not. It felt good, but it also felt bad.
It all came to a head when Elizabeth got engaged and started planning her wedding. She asked if Jeremy would be the maid of honor, and he agreed. But when the dress arrived Jeremy spread it out on the bed and started crying. He wanted to make his big sister happy and knew the wedding should be her special day, but he couldn’t bear to put it on. At that time, he was presenting very androgynously, but most family members didn’t yet know how deep his feelings were. Distressed and desperate, he turned to his parents, who already knew that he was thinking about surgery. And although Jeremy was not quite ready to speak openly, they said, “You have to tell her.”
Elizabeth’s love trumped her desire for a picture-perfect wedding, and she determined to make it work. Jeremy ended up wearing the same slacks as the groomsmen and a white shirt and then a vest the same color as the bridesmaid dresses. He didn’t quite fit on either side, but it was clear that he belonged. Shortly thereafter, Jeremy shared everything with his siblings, and three months later at his brother’s wedding, he dressed exactly like the groomsmen.
Jo and Jon find the recent flurry over transgender use of public bathrooms to be hurtful and cruel–callus political opportunism that they call a solution in search of a problem. “Trans individuals have been using the restroom of their choice for many many years without any problems!” Jo says. “We want safety for our children just like everyone else, and the idea of presenting trans individuals as sexual predators is an injustice to the loving individuals who are a part of that community.”
They were astounded when Ted Cruz suggested that transgender people should be limited to using the bathrooms in their own homes. But they find comfort and hope from the fact that when people hear what it’s really like to be part of a transgender family, their attitudes change.
Recently the Anti-Defamation League of Austin gave Jo and Jon a humanitarian award for work they have done over the past 25 years to promote greater harmony and cooperation in the community. Trained as an engineer, Jo works today as a writer and an advocate for civil rights. Jon, a retired high-tech executive, has served as board chair for the Red Cross of Central Texas and for BalletAustin. Their lives carry forward the passion for racial and economic justice that defined Jo’s childhood in Mississippi.
At the ADL event, Jo and Jon were each given four minutes to speak, and they decided—with Jeremy’s permission—to talk about transgender issues and their family’s story. They announced that the award money ($1000) would go to Equality Texas. With Jeremy in the audience, Jon gave a speech that left people crying across the room. As he left the podium, Jeremy jumped up, and before Jon could get halfway to his seat, Jeremy embraced him. Even people who had made it through the speech dry eyed found themselves fishing for tissues.
Jon and Jo perceive North Carolina’s recent anti-trans “bathroom bill” and others like it as mean-spirited opportunism—politicians playing with ignorance and fear, preying on some of the most vulnerable members of society for political gain. But the whole anti-trans political strategy relies on exploiting unfamiliarity with what transgender actually is. That’s why the Ivesters are determined to tell their family’s story to whoever will listen.
“Our son Jeremy is still our son,” they say. “Finding out when he was in his early 20s, that he is transgender, didn’t change how we felt toward him. He is still the same loving, wonderful individual. Jeremy is entitled to live the life of his choosing in the gender that he has identified as his own. We want the world for him, in the same way that we did when we thought when he was our daughter.”
To parents like Jon and Jo, it feels enormously significant when a member of government, like Attorney General Loretta Lynch, speaks on behalf of trans people. Lynch’s hard-hitting announcement of a federal lawsuit against North Carolina’s anti-trans HB2 has been called historic. Lynch compared the bill to Jim Crow, saying, “They created state-sponsored discrimination against trans-gender individuals who simply seek to engage in the most private of functions in a place of safety and security, a right taken for granted by most of us. . . .None of us can stand by when a state . . . invents a problem that does not exist as a pretext for discrimination and harassment.”
Jo listened eagerly through the press conference, postponing an interview of her own so that she could catch it all, because what she heard was this: Your beloved son is not invisible. The trans community is not alone.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.