What My Daughter Taught Me When She Came Out As Trans

"When my child told me she was trans, I remember the fear: for her safety, for how the world might treat her, for her heart. I hadn’t realized the joy her revelation would bring us."

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Author Debra McGrath at home in Toronto with her husband, Colin Mochrie, and their daughter, KinleyPhoto: Raina + Wilson

The day my daughter came out

"I am a trans woman. I would like she/her pronouns and my name is Hannah.”

This is the sentence my child blurted out to me over the phone three years ago. Despite its bluntness, the statement wasn’t callous or even ill-timed. Truth be told, I had forced the declaration. My child had called with something important to say and wanted to talk to my husband, Colin, and me at the same time, but Colin was out of town. Given that I possess a not-insignificant panic strain in my genetic makeup, I found myself, well, panicking. Was my child injured? Ill? Dying? I conjured the thin thread of authority I had over my then 25-year-old and said, “No, you have to tell me now!”

“I would rather wait,” was the measured response. I could feel all the saliva I possessed leaving my body for damper pastures. I couldn’t have this matter hanging, so I pushed and pleaded, cajoled and begged. It was a shameless display—clearly, I wasn’t above that.

After more back-and-forthing, out it came: “I am a trans woman. I would like she/her pronouns, and my name is Hannah.” I paused to take in the situation—or at least lie to myself that I was taking it in. Then, relentlessly upbeat, I exclaimed: “I’m so happy for you, very happy. You know that your father and I will support you 100 per cent, and it’s wonderful and I’m not super surprised and you are such a wonderful person and we really don’t care what you do with your life as long as—” Dear God, I had to find a way to shut up. I was exhausting myself.

I’m what I call an emotional first responder—when a loved one is sharing something difficult or complex, I put on my support cape and swoop in to distribute accolades and platitudes willy nilly. Breathe, I urged myself. Breathe.

“So, um, why ‘Hannah’?” I heard myself ask. There it was. Apparently my takeaway from this huge moment in my child’s life was a name. “Hannah” seemed to be my issue. Shallow waters run deep.

She responded to my question in a very calm manner. “Mom, you know how much I loved Cheryl’s dog.”

“You are naming yourself after Hannah the dog? Really?”

“I thought the name was soft and pretty, and I needed my name to be soft and pretty. Does that make sense?”

Of course it made sense. My heart ached with shame. I was officially a bad person. Because it had been a few moments since I’d launched into a breakneck run-on sentence, I said, “Well, if you love the name Hannah, I love the name Hannah, and I am sure your father will love it, and I am so glad it makes you feel beautiful, because you are beautiful, inside and out, and I support this choice wholeheartedly, honey. It’s your life and you are old enough to make your own choices and—”

At this point I was desperately hoping someone would hand me a pill. Hannah stopped my runaway train of thought by cutting in: “Thanks, Mom. I love you so much and I knew you would support me. Why don’t I come over the day Dad gets home and we can have dinner and spend time talking?”

“Of course, yes, um, Hannah. We can do that. That would be great. What a wonderful idea, um, Hannah.”

Mercifully, she wrapped up the conversation with “great, love you, bye” and hung up before I could respond.

Time to process—together

I spent the next few hours pacing up and down the stairs of our Toronto home, our two cairn terriers at my heels. As I attempted to sort out why I was upset, the dogs kept their gaze trained on me: Walk? Are we going for a walk? Walk?!

After really analyzing my reaction and my feelings, it came down to one thing. I was fine with my child’s transition. I wasn’t invested in her gender, just her humanity. But there was so much fear: fear for her safety, fear for how the world might treat her, fear for her heart.

The two following nights were fraught with nightmares. I dreamed our son was lost. Our son was dead. We never had a son. I gave birth, but when I looked for my son, they told me at the hospital that I was mistaken and had simply had my appendix removed. Our son had joined a tiny-house cult and was never heard from again.

Once I woke up, I was a zombie, the despair of those horrible dreams clinging to me like possessed dryer sheets. I had made peace with our child’s news and had no issues with the concept of her transition, but I was still mourning the loss of our son. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.

She is a woman. As much as I thought I was prepared for that, I guess I wasn’t.

I had to remind myself that this shouldn’t have been a huge shock. A few years before our daughter came out to us as trans, she had broken up with her girlfriend of four years. She told us she was bisexual and wanted to explore that. Then she began, as she put it, “experimenting with my feminine side.” After almost a year of seeing her integrate more traditionally feminine looks into her wardrobe, we became used to this new bi, fluid, femme, butch, male/female person.

LGBTQ+ wasn’t all-encompassing enough. It’s like she was rocking the whole alphabet with her identity. And then she landed.

Here are the things you should never say when someone comes out.

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McGrath holding one of the cards she had printed upPhoto: Raina + Wilson

Nothing really changed

The day after Hannah’s call, her dad came home. He was fine—no anxiety, no nightmares, just a loving parent in a relaxed state of acceptance. Show-off! As a result of my constant anxiety, I resembled an 80-year-old with dirty hair who had lived hard. Having no control over much else, I opted to shower. An all-around good choice.

The following afternoon, we were in the kitchen making pasta primavera—our daughter’s favourite meal—as we waited for her to arrive. We were also spending the time diligently practicing pronouns. I was busy “she”-ing and “her”-ing it up with zeal, but every time I said “Hannah,” the name came out garbled, like I was drunk and wearing my night guard.

At some point, we heard a key turn in the front door, and in she walked. To my elation, no one was lost or missing. They were all here in the hall: the hes, the shes and the thems, in one beautiful package. No one had left us. The same human we first met 25 years earlier was standing right in front of us. We all started to cry. (Thank God it was all of us—I was tired of being the loopy one.)

We moved into our sunroom, wine in hand, to chat. The three of us talked all the talks there were to talk, and Colin and I asked all the questions we could think of. Over the course of an afternoon that can best be described as an acronym-o-rama, we listened and learned. We so wanted to respect and understand what she was going through. We could see that she was exploring, too, taking time to listen to her heart and her mind.

At some point, the conversation moved into more familiar topics: her work and social life, Japanese films. It was as if nothing had changed. And nothing had, really. It had always been the three of us, our tight little unit, and today was no different. We ate her favourite meal and then our lovely daughter went home to her apartment.

Since that day, we have sometimes slipped up on pronouns, and she has always patiently, gently corrected us. We’ve gone out in public, and people have been mostly supportive, but there have been looks. Stares. Our daughter says she’s often fine with that—people are just trying to figure her out. She’s a more generous soul than me.

Facing challenges—and finding joy

As time passed, I realized that I was somehow still stuck on the name.

“Hannah” was lovely, yes, but not nearly unique or powerful enough for my girl. But I knew I had to let it go.

Then, in a surprise turn of events, our daughter told us that many trans people come out using a name they don’t end up keeping. She said she had been thinking about it and she wanted a new name and would love for us to be part of that process. She asked us to pitch names from our Scottish and Irish backgrounds. I was elated and set to the task as soon as she was out of our sight. What a glorious privilege to get to help name her! I know it sounds silly, but it was like she was being born all over again.

After copious research, Colin and I presented our daughter with 40 names. She decided on Kinley, from the Irish side. Kin for short. It fits her. It belongs to her.

What is more difficult is figuring out how to move through the world such as it is. One day a year or so ago, Kinley and I were at a local fair. As we passed by a woman and her twenty something daughter, they shot a look of such hate and disgust that it left me breathless.

The object of their ire was Kinley. The daughter, mouth agape, had exclaimed,

“There’s a transvestite!” and the mother then wheeled around to spew,

“Where is it?”

“It.”

She said “it.” I was gutted.

The younger woman circled my daughter, looking her up and down. We were stunned, frozen in place. As she walked away, I stumbled over to her on legs suddenly made of rubber. Circling her the same way she had circled Kinley, I looked her up and down, then moved close to her face, uttered “uh-huh” and stalked away.

In an attempt to recover, I said to Kinley, “This must make you so angry.”

Her reply: “Mom, I can’t afford to be angry. I just get frightened.”

Frightened for just living her life. Frightened for existing.

I came home and, weeping, told Colin what had taken place. But after thinking about it, I realized that my reaction, although possibly warranted, was also aggressive. That didn’t sit well with me.

So I had cards made up. If things got ugly again, I would hand out a simple statement, embellished on one side with a lovely pink flower, that reads: “My daughter is a trans woman. She is a loving and kind human being. Please join me in supporting her and every person who is trying to live their authentic life. Peace and love.”

I remember the day the package arrived in the mail. Colin laughed as I opened the box of 250 cards. “Wow, you’re expecting trouble!” he told me. What can I say? There was a special if you ordered in bulk. I am happy to say that I have not handed out a single card.

Instead, I get to focus on Kinley, my lovely, brave, poised, bright daughter. I have a daughter! There should be a newer, more powerful word for pride. As for our family, life as a trio continues as before, filled with old favourites (like watching movies) and new experiences (like buying bras).

A little while ago, Kinley and I were out shopping for clothes. As we exited our separate cubicles in the change room, we realized, laughing, that we had tried on the exact same dress.

I ended up buying one dress for me and treating Kinley to hers. At least that way I know she won’t be raiding my closet—because that’s what daughters do.

Next, read the story of how one woman helped her husband come out as gay after 21 years of marriage.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada