Member Spotlight: Mom Kristy Ashley "demystifies" gender reassignment surgery
Though we speak of transgender people as going through a period of transition, it is often everyone else (the family members and friends) who experiences the change. Our trans children, siblings, spouses, and friends have always been who they are. It is we who must adjust.
The same could be said of many parents who learn of their child's homosexuality or any sexual orientation outside of a heteronormative view. Parents close the story they had written of their child's future life and learn to read the story their child is writing. It's a powerful journey. There's no wonder why many narratives by the LGBTQiA+ community and their families devote considerable attention to the coming out story.
PFLAG Austin member Kristy Ashley has a story like that. Two of them, actually—the first, when she learned that her 15-year-old son was actually her daughter and the second, when her 14 year-old son told her that he is gay. Both accounts, though serious in nature, convey the open-heartedness and quick wit that Kristy exudes.
Hiding from the Austin summer heat inside Snooze on South Lamar, the energy consultant recalls reading the email from her trans daughter Elizabeth ("Ellie"): "My reaction was a million-mile-an-hour cascade of questions. I need to—I need to—And Ellie was like, Slow down. I just need a therapist." About a year later, Kristy's son Guy pulled her aside and said, "I'm gay, but I don't want you to go out and throw a big party or anything," to which Kristy responded, "Okay, well, I wasn't going to throw a party for your heterosexuality, so . . .would you like some tea?"
The children's trust in their mother, no doubt, stems from her welcoming nature and inclusion of the LGBTQiA+ community in their lives. Kristy's brother, who came out thirty years ago, runs the LGBT program at Emory University. Michael has been honored by the Human Rights Campaign and has served as Grand Marshall in the Atlanta Pride Parade. He is also the first person Kristy called when she learned about Ellie.
"I know there are a million ways I can f*ck this up," she said to Michael over the phone. "I know there is probably only one way I can get it right. I don't know what to do. Help me."
Michael responded, "I will tell you what I tell every parent who is in the position you are: Thank you for loving your child enough to ask for guidance."
This is where many stories of transitions begin, but as Kristy is quick to assert, the journey does not end with the family's acceptance of their child's transgender identity. Late last spring, Kristy began to discuss two more journeys with select friends and family via a secret Facebook group. On the Ellie's Big Day page, Kristy shares details of her daughter's physical transition through gender reassignment surgery and her own experience of nursing her daughter to health and happiness in a body that finally reflects her gender identity.
In addition to providing logistical details about the surgery and recovery, backstory about the family's emotional journey, educational information about what it means to be transgender, and suggestions for advocacy, the group serves another important purpose:
"My goal here, in addition to keeping you in the loop," Kristy writes, "is to demystify all of this a little. Because if [my husband] and I can help foster empathy, then perhaps down the road, when you are talking with someone who uses inaccurate, unkind, or hateful words against people like our daughter, you may find yourself educating and spreading acceptance and fostering inclusivity."
Kristy has already written this story. With her permission, we share selections here. We hope that, one day, she will make the page public in order to help and inform a larger audience.
Ellie's Big Day
It's hard to believe we are just over two weeks out from Ellie's surgery. I haven't really allowed myself to think about it other than from a medical checklist perspective. What will insurance cover? What supplies do we need? What will she need in the hospital . . . But frankly, I am scared shitless. What if something goes wrong? What if something goes wrong once she is home? What if, what if, what if?
As you can probably guess, this surgery is very intense. The surgery itself is expected to take six hours and she will be in the hospital at least three nights. She hasn't shown any emotion other than a strong desire to have it done and over with. I am sure that there must be a fair amount of anxiety as well, but she hasn't talked about that with us.
It's interesting to me how many people ask (and maybe silently wonder), "what if she changes her mind?" Fear not folks, that's not how gender dysphoria works. Did you know that when a child, even one as young as 2 or 3 years old, tells you they are not the sex they were assigned at birth, there is more than a 90% chance it is not a phase and you need to listen and respect what they are saying? But beyond that, going to a doctor and simply saying you'd like your penis cut off and have a vagina instead is not how this works. Nope, it is a very long process that involves years of therapy, letters from mental health professionals, letters from physicians, time that must be spent living as the other gender, at least one full year on hormones...so you see, do I think there is even a snowball's chance in hell that one day my girl is gonna say, "whoops"? Nope, not a chance. Transitioning is not something that happens over night. It takes years, for some it takes decades, for others it takes a lifetime. So please, go ahead and stop wondering if we are going too fast or making a mistake, I can assure you, that isn't the case. [...]
One question I get a lot is, "How is Billy [my husband] doing with all this?" [...]
[...] [Billy] said to me once during this process that he does not think of it as having a child born a boy and is now transitioning to a girl. He believes our child was born a girl with the wrong pieces and parts. This surgery is just fixing that. We have always talked about this surgery as not some voluntary thing. For us it is no different than if our child was born with some issue that required a necessary life saving surgery. And Billy is right. Elizabeth may have told us just a few years ago that she is a girl, but that doesn't mean she has only believed that for a few years.
Don't think of it as we had a son who is now our daughter. Don't think of it as a male to female surgery. This surgery is matching Ellie's body to her identity, her true inner person. This surgery, in our minds, IS necessary and, quite literally, life saving for her.
Top of Form
[...] while there are a million books on parenting cisgender kids, there isn't much you can turn to when navigating through this realm. [...] I get it now, there is no before trans and after trans—there is and was always our daughter, we just didn't know it. And I would encourage everyone to think about it in those terms.
Mourning occurred - make no mistake. But like I said, I didn't mourn the loss of a child, I mourned the loss of a book I had written in my mind about her life. I mourned my own vision of what her life would look like. And I have discovered that it was never my story to write in the first place. This isn't my life. This isn't my story. I can choose to be a loving character who is included in her story, but I cannot be the author. And once I figured that out, the grief loosened its grip a lot. [...]
And while I do not feel a sense of loss any more, I do carry a lot of anxiety about the harm, both physically and emotionally, that society as a whole can bring down upon her. [...] I know we will all worry about our children, no matter how old they get, but I literally fear for her life every time she ventures out of the Austin city limits. I am trying very hard to just relax and get out of her way and let her live her life. But I would be lying if I didn't admit that I have had times where I have laid in bed and cried with grief just imagining her death. I think of these episodes as practice for if it really happens. That sounds ridiculous I know. But in my frightened mind, I am preparing myself for what I truly hope never happens. I wonder if my parents went through this when my brother came out in the early 90s. It has always been something too painful for me to ask. [...]
Met with the surgeon, nurses, hospital physician, etc. today. We learned Ellie will be in the hospital for two nights instead of three. So, in on Friday and home Sunday afternoon. One interesting point we learned in talking with the hospital physician is that people who have this surgery tend to do much better in terms of pain and recovery if they have loving and nurturing people with them. The doctor said it was something he has actively witnessed over the years. I can't even imagine not being by my child's side for something like this, regardless of how old she is. Heartbreaking to know how often that's not the case.
June 21 [day of surgery]
Remember that scene from Terms of Endearment when Shirley McLean opens up a can of whoop ass on the nurses in the hospital? I think I may channel her if I can't go back and see my baby girl soon. Knowing she is out of surgery and just laying somewhere and I can't see her is worse than waiting during surgery itself. I'm giving it 20 more minutes before I start running down the halls yelling.
Ok, so this has been a rough day. Her pain has been thru the roof. She has been resting comfortably for the last hour. [...] As Ellie struggled to keep her eyes open, her friend asked, "How are you doing...down there?" Barely opening her eyes, Ellie responded, "A lot of pain...you know...phantom dick" and she rolled back to sleep. I'm still laughing.
Well our girl has been in great spirits all day. Has told some amazing jokes and has walked around a few times. Fingers crossed that we can go home tomorrow. She will come home with a lot of surgical packing and a catheter. Both will be removed at her first post op appointment on Friday. I am in awe of her. She still has steps in this transition process, but hopefully the biggest part is behind her.
She knew, but didn't really know, how major of a surgery this was. She has been taken off guard by how intense the pain and the recovery is. She also doesn't realize how strong she is.
She has had friends come by and that has been a huge comfort to her. It's been a rough road for all of us, but in the end it will all be so worth it. My baby girl is pretty amazing.
First things first: the packing came out. She is healing as expected. But she has been thru trauma today...no other way to describe it.
Today I have experienced things, as a mom, on a whole new level. I am not really even ready to try to put words around it.
Ellie is healing as expected. Her recovery is incredibly intense, for her and for me. It is an all consuming, nearly around the clock process. I think we both go to bed at night exhausted, for different reasons.
"...but how are YOU doing?" This is a question I get asked daily, sometimes multiple times per day by many dear friends. And honestly, I really don't know how to answer that question. Ask me on any given day at any given time and you may get a different answer. I am putting 100% of myself toward Ellie and her care. I am her nurse and her mom. I am seeing her hurting physically and I see her anxiety about her healing process and both are excruciating to witness. I don't think I have relaxed in weeks.
But there is something else going on. Something that has taken me completely off guard...something that has surprised me and also brings me to tears, in a different way. Our relationship has fundamentally changed.
This hard-headed, know-it-all 18 year old who sees me as the battle parent now looks at me with love. I have to help her with this very intimate recovery process. I can only compare it to how we care for babies. I have to get up close to her surgical site, make sure things are ok, help guide her through things that no 18 year old wants their mom to help with it. But she has not complained. We have both just given in to it. She speaks quietly to me, she shares her fears, she apologizes if she feels like she snaps, she tells me she loves me every day And at the end of the day, when the last exercise is done and she is comfortable in bed, I crawl in next to her and she reaches for my hand and that is how we fall asleep. This may be what makes me weepy more than anything. We both see each other through a different set of lenses, sharing this experience in different ways.
So, how am I doing? I feel stressed. I feel tired. I feel helpless at times. But I also feel a deeply profound love, acceptance and patience that I didn't think was possible with an 18 year old know-it-all. For the first time since she came out, I have experienced that sacred thing that is a mother-daughter relationship. And I am overflowing with love for my daughter.
How am I doing? For the first time EVER I can look in the mirror and see a f*cking amazing mom who has raised a f*cking amazing daughter.
Ellie had her second post-op appointment yesterday. She is healing as expected but it was a rough day. I think we both suffered from a bit of anxiety and caregiver fatigue. She is bored out of her mind, wanting to get out. She is still in pain and is fatigued about that as well. But she is doing everything she is supposed to in order to have a successful outcome. At the end of the day, though, she wanted nothing more than to hang out with me. So we talked and laughed for a few hours and it was fantastic. She still reaches for my hand when she goes to sleep and I love it more than anything.
Well, tomorrow is the final post op appointment. Friday marks the three-week point and at four weeks she can drive. There is, obviously, a lot of healing that still has to take place. Her healing, all told, will be about a year.
I have been asked if she is excited, happy, etc. now that this big surgery is behind her. But frankly, no, I don't think so. She hasn't had time to really look at the big picture because she is so focused on what doesn't look or feel right yet. And this brings with it some anxiety. But we are getting through it. She is becoming more independent by the day.
As for me, I have looked at my adult daughter's vagina more times in the last two and a half weeks than I have ever looked at my own during my lifetime. I will be glad when I don't have to see it or provide commentary about it any longer. The care giving aspect of this journey far exceeded what I planned. But it has been good for both of us.
Well we are nearly at the one-month-since-surgery point. On one hand it has been the slowest month of my life and on the other it seems like it went by so fast. On one hand this month has been my most challenging month of motherhood and one the other it has been the most rewarding.
The weight of Ellie's anxiety about her healing has been incredibly difficult, emotionally excruciating. To hold her as she sobs because she is afraid something has gone wrong or that something doesn't look right has been so painful and the weight of my own anxiety over not being able to calm her nearly crushes me. These episodes don't happen often, but they do occur. Imagine, two years of emotional turmoil and anxiety of trying to transition while in high school and to finally take this huge step of having a major surgical procedure only to find your anxieties replaced by a whole new set. Combine that with the pressure to get a job and start applying for college. It's no wonder that she so easily falls apart. [...]
I have learned a new name for my child. I have watched her experiment with her hair, clothing and makeup. I have stood before a judge with her as we officially changed her name and gender marker. And yes, that day was a little hard. And I held her hand through the pain and anxiety of her gender reassignment surgery. Today, as I filled out the affidavit for the birth certificate change, I realized that it is the very last time I will ever write, and hopefully ever see, her dead name. Yesterday, when the notarized letter arrived from the surgeon (a required piece of "evidence" for the birth certificate amendment) it had her dead name on it. It was kind of a shock to see it there. And then when I had to write the name that we gave this kid at birth, for the very last time, on the form, it was…well, I don't know how to describe the feeling. There is this finality to it all. Yeah, I know, you'd think I would have felt a sense of ending once that penis was gone, but this is somehow different. A part of me wants to cry, a part of me wants to celebrate. It is the end of something and the beginning of something.
And as I finish filling out these forms to change Ellie's birth certificate, I am reminded how lucky we are to be surrounded by so much love and support. [...] I am contemplating taking these posts, changing the names, and developing a pubic page in the hopes that it may help other parents who are going through this. In the meantime, you can find me sitting by my mailbox waiting for that final document from the state of Georgia that shows my baby girl is and always was my baby girl.