Author discusses transgender daughter

Date Published: 
Nov. 17, 20177

Coastal Point • Kerin Magill: Kristen and Rita Nelson discussed Rita Nelson’s book at St. Martha’s Episcopal Church on Thursday, Nov. 8.Coastal Point • Kerin Magill: Kristen and Rita Nelson discussed Rita Nelson’s book at St. Martha’s Episcopal Church on Thursday, Nov. 8.“I am an analyst. I like answers.”

So when Rita Nelson’s son Christopher told her that he was not her son, but her daughter, she immediately “started searching in my head for early signs that we might have missed.” There were, in fact, many “signs.”

“I hope that, if nothing else, you learn a little bit more about the transgender community,” Nelson told the audience at St. Martha’s Episcopal Church in Bethany Beach, where she spoke on Thursday, Nov. 8.

Nelson, a retired Episcopal priest, has written a book titled “Always Kristen,” which relates her family’s journey as her son transitioned to her daughter. Kristen herself sat in the front row last Thursday while her mother spoke and then answered questions from the audience.

“I remember being very awkward with him the day he was born,” Nelson said, adding that she “just didn’t know how to talk to him. I thought, ‘That’s really strange,’” she said, thinking that maybe it was because her first child had been a girl, and so she was more familiar with girls. “A mother should just be able to talk to her kids, whatever gender,” she said.

Nelson also recalled finding some of Christopher’s sister’s clothes in his closet when he was 6 years old. When she asked him why they were there, “He said, ‘I’ll tell you when I’m 9,’” she said. “You see — when you’re 6, 9 is an eternity away. And he never did tell me.”

“When I would take him to the bank with me, the teller would hand him a lollipop and say, ‘What a pretty girl you are!’ and he liked to wear his hair long and he liked to look pretty. I asked him one day, ‘Doesn’t it bother you when the teller calls you a girl?’ and he said, ‘No.’”

“Now, today, that would have been a huge, huge clue,” Nelson said. But back then, she said, the word “transgender” wasn’t even invented.

She said that, as Christopher reached his teen years and she began finding her own clothes in his closet, “I thought, initially, that he might be gay, or a cross-dresser, because it kind of, sort of — in my mind, anyway — fit.”

Later, Nelson said, “As we grew into this,” she learned that Christopher was probably aware of his gender as early as 3 or 4 years old. It would be years, however — when Christopher was a young adult, in fact — before he would be confident enough to put into words what he had felt for so long.

When Christopher finally did announce his intention to transition to female, 20 years ago, “It was like, your kid comes in and says, ‘Hi, Mom — I’m an alligator! Do you like my new skin?’”

“It was as if the impossible had happened. As if the blue eyes on your child suddenly turned to brown eyes,” she said. “Just not something that could happen.”

“We were just stunned,” she said. “For months, we just went around asking ‘Why? How? How did this happen? What is it?’”

Thanks to one book, which was a study on gender dysphoria, Nelson said, “We knew that it was genetic. But we didn’t know how it happened, or why. In fact, today, scientists are still trying to work that out,” she said, citing current theories about things such as hormone losses. “They know it’s genetic. They know it’s not a choice, it’s not made up, it’s not imaginary.”

When Christopher made his announcement, she said, “There was no internet, there was no Google, there was practically nothing. We kind of stumbled through understanding it.”

A family secret

While Nelson said it was not hard for her and her husband, Christopher’s stepfather, to accept the news, it was more difficult for his father. “For him, it was losing his heir, his namesake, to carry on the family name. And so, he was losing his son, in that respect.”

Kristen, she said, has long said that “telling her father was one of the hardest things she had to do.” In fact, she told her mother and stepfather five years “before she had the courage to tell her father.”

“And so, we had a lot of family secrets going on, and a lot of secret conversations going on, and we had to be very careful of what we said in front of the others, because this one knew and that one didn’t,” Nelson recalled.

But there comes a time, she said, “when you have to announce the new gender to everyone else — to your family, to your friends, to your acquaintances, to your church community.” A retired pastor, Nelson said, “I don’t think I ever face-to-face told my bishop.” Some acquaintances, she said, “found out when I wrote a book about it.”

The family chose, she said, to announce Kristen’s gender change “by way of our annual Christmas letter,” which brought chuckles from the audience. “We had two letters,” she said. “We had one for those who we felt were ready to know, and one for those who maybe never wanted to know.”

Nelson said she was surprised, after the announcement, that “some of my more conservative family members were the most supportive. And the ones who didn’t accept her, well, we just don’t see very much of them anymore, unfortunately.”

Speaking about the process of acceptance, Nelson said a huge part of it is “coming to the realization that our child is really still the same person. The only thing that has changed is the gender in which they present themselves. Their brilliance, their brains, their beauty, their intellect, their personality — all of that is still the same. That’s a big part, I think, of the acceptance of a transgender child.”

Getting past the initial “juxtaposed image” of a very physically male person wearing women’s clothes and makeup, in the beginning, is often hard for those who know a transgender person, she said, so the realization that they are who they have always been is very important.

“All that said — it’s still a very difficult and often confusing process.”

She recalled a day in 1996 when Christopher announced that he and his girlfriend were going to get married, and he asked for her blessing. She couldn’t give it, she said, because even though he hadn’t officially announced his transgender status, she knew that he was struggling with it.

She said he, at that point, had decided to remain a male, despite what she felt he knew deep inside. That is a common phase for transgender people, Nelson said, often brought about because of societal pressure to be different than who they really are.

Christopher and his fiancée eventually married, but his transgender struggle continued. Five years later, Christopher decided to move forward with his transition to female. “So, the outward persona that was him became her.”

Although his fiancée initially said she would continue to live with Kristen, as many couples do in the situation, they did separate and eventually divorced.

Of pronouns and persecution

As Chris officially became Kristen, Nelson said, the name change itself was much easier to adjust to that changing pronouns. “Saying ‘she’ or ‘her’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘him’ takes a lot of practice,” she said. Even now, she said, she still slips occasionally. Kristen, she said, says “That’s OK, Mom — I know you’re trying.”

Nelson also addressed the difficulties transgender people have in dressing “appropriately” — largely because they didn’t grow up learning how to “be” that gender and so had to learn those skills as adults. Today, she said, there are groups that help transgender people with those issues, but back when Kristen was transitioning, “we just kind of stumbled along.”

She also touched on the “hormone swings” that come with the hormones that transgender people take to help with the physical transition — especially tough, Nelson said, when your daughter is a 30-something female “who thinks she knows more than I do.”

As a mother, she said, it is difficult to watch a child have to face a society that is not as accepting as their friends and family.

“We need to speak up, and we need to speak out” against intolerance of those who are different, she said. “We have to do that.”

Transgender people, she said, are targeted with bullying and intolerance “more than any other group.”

She recalled one incident when she and Kristen were standing in line at a pharmacy.

“A long-haired, baggy-pants young man walked by, and as he passed by, he said to her, ‘You faggot! Are you a dude, or a girl? You should die.’”

Nelson said she attended a meeting at Camp Rehoboth last year and found the stories told by transgender and gay teens very upsetting.

“It’s just awful,” she said. “They have their whole live ahead of them, and to have to put up with that…”

Both Rita and Kristen took questions from the audience of about 40 people. Kristen spoke of the loneliness of being transgender.

“You’re really not totally accepted by anybody,” she said.

While she has found friendships within the transgender community, she said that they don’t often go out together because “we attract attention anyway. In large groups, we are very conspicuous” and often subjected to bullying.

After her mother’s speech, Kristen watched as she signed books, and reflected on her journey. Asked what she would tell her 6-year-old self if she could go back in time and talk to him, she said, “It’s OK. It’s going to be OK.” Also, she added, “Tell your parents when you’re 6.”