First person – New RNZ podcast Let’s be transparent it is about demystifying the gender transition process.
Host Joe Stockhausen and his mother Pauline tell how it all started for them.
It was the summer of 2015.
You know that when you are driving in the car, it is sunny outside and you are looking forward to reaching your destination, the beach. You are already imagining yourself jumping into the water to cool off and all is well in the world. Music plays softly in the background and you get lost in nothingness.
That was me. Happily unaware of what was about to happen. My daughter was sitting next to me, she had been singing softly, a little out of tune. To be honest, I hadn’t even realized that I had stopped singing until I heard, “Mom, I need to tell you something.”
The tone of his voice gave me goose bumps. I shrugged at that sentiment, and in a realistic tone of voice replied, “What?”
I was thinking that she was going to get into a teenage dribble over things that happen at school and I would have to painfully act like I was interested.
He took a deep breath and quickly blurted out the words as fast as he could.
“Mom, I think I’m trans.”
My heart skipped a beat. Suddenly everything came into focus and she had my full attention.
I remember my pulse beating in my neck and a thousand things running through my mind. Did I hear it right? Trans? What the heck is ‘trans’?
After dropping the bomb that I thought was a boy, I looked at Mom. I couldn’t measure his reaction. I remember rubbing my sweaty palms on my lap to dispel the nerve knot in my chest. I looked down. Silly stuff. She was wearing a skirt, a ruffled skirt. With sunflowers. Mega shit. I’m sure you could have picked a better time.
I really don’t remember what mom said about the excitement in my ears. I had worried for months about this moment, telling him. When was the right time to tell your mom that you are not a girl?
I thought of videos I had seen online, children sitting down to their parents, handing them a letter, and waiting in silence as they read it. Waiting to see if they would be kicked out or received outright love and acceptance. No way was he doing that!
But as he agonized over how he would break the news to Mom, the months had flown by and he couldn’t take it anymore: the pretense. I watched her slow down the car to one step off the gravel road, which led to our summer vacation destination.
After months of thinking about how, the plan came to fruition in seconds: tell him I’m transgender, get out of the car, unload the gear, pretend everything is fine, and forget this happened.
It didn’t really occur to me that we needed to talk about it. Why would anyone want to talk about it?
Mom’s response was, “Okay” and something about needing to do your own research.
While he had imagined all kinds of reactions, that was not one of them. It was definitely not the unconditional acceptance I was hoping for.
‘Great,’ I thought, ‘she will see things online, learn about everything, and then … what?
The reality is that I love my son and always will, no matter what. I guess I didn’t really articulate that, that hot summer day, sitting in the car, reeling with the change in my reality.
It took me a long time to understand the fact that my son was trans.
I had to fight myself not to put my head in the sand because all I wanted to do was pretend that nothing had changed.
I was hoping it was a phase. Not because she didn’t accept him or his choices. But because he was afraid of all the unknowns.
If you Google (what I did) ‘coming out as trans’, there are pages and pages of horror stories of people who have come out. I don’t think I saw a good story.
It was a terrifying road to travel alone and I felt very lonely. I didn’t know any other parents who had sailed it before me. There are no rule books to guide you through this.
I found myself doing everything about myself. Because of what I was going through and how this affected me and that affected our relationship for a few months.
We stopped talking because we were both navigating our own paths and when we spoke it ended with both of us frustrated with each other.
I was ignorant and scared and that slowed down the process. That is something I deeply regret.
I wish I had done more research, found online support groups, and reached out to those who knew the answers. Because they are out there.
I think I felt ashamed of my ignorance and did not want people to know my failures.
While I was supportive of it, I just didn’t know enough to feel comfortable discussing it with others.
The turning point for both came after we met with a psychologist who cares for young people who are considering transitioning. Lyndon Moore assured me that this was not a phase and that my now son knew better than anyone about his body.
As soon as it came off the bag, I wanted to fully accelerate my transition. I had spent years knowing something was wrong, months preparing for the consequences.
In my mid-teens, I had taken on the appearance of any other teenager, but I had had enough.
Enough of trying to be something that I wasn’t.
I went to school in a girl’s uniform during the day and at night I dreamed of a boy: a space hero using laser guns and galactic justice. I couldn’t be Luke Skywalker, but I could become the person, the boy, that I knew he was.
I learned a lot from the internet – binders, hormone injections, tips and tricks to make it look like you have facial stubble. But there was no roadmap on how to talk to Mom about all of this.
I left him alone for (what I thought was) a long time, but then I got impatient, then I got mad when she confused me and I was frustrated by her lack of knowledge on all these topics.
She was on the same internet that I was on, right? I assumed she hadn’t done any research. It affected every other area of our relationship. We just … stopped talking for a long time.
I decided to take the reins, shaved all my hair, bought boy’s clothes, and went to a GP to ask about gender-affirming hormones. The latter resulted in the biggest fight we’ve ever had.
She wasn’t angry, she was livid.
We were driving home from school when she went crazy, saying she found a letter from the doctors, that she couldn’t believe I would have gone behind her back like that.
I was a little concerned for my life considering she was white-knuckled on the wheel, waving the envelope like a helicopter.
“What were you thinking?” he yelled, demanding that he needed more time. She used my birth name, then fell silent. The car was completely silent.
Very awkwardly he apologized and I nodded, “okay.” Things started to change after that.
We’ve always been close, it was her and me against the world, only now it’s me and the blimmin ‘Luke Skywalker hahaha.
For me, everything fell into place once I received the news that this was not a phase for Joe, this was his path. I let go of all my insecurities and trusted the process, and most importantly, I trusted it.
Once Joe was on the road to becoming who he needed to be, his transition actually began to take a back seat and everyday life settled into place. When they don’t show up in the body they should be in, it consumes all your thoughts and everything else becomes a bit difficult.
We happen to meet Joe and he’s not as scary as you think he will be.
I had nightmares thinking that I had lost my daughter and I was worried that I did not know who this new child would be.
But honestly, they are still the same kid you raised, they have the same characteristics, they laugh at the same silly jokes, they still leave their clothes on the floor, they eat ice cream in the middle of the night, and they have the same silly dance. does it move.
The only thing that has really changed is the packaging.
I laugh and tell people that Joe has had a complete rebrand.
Later that year, Joe was diagnosed with Stargardts, a macular dystrophy of the eye which means that he will gradually lose most of his sight.
That diagnosis was more difficult for us than Joe coming out as a trans. It really put things in perspective.
I remember a father calling me because his son had come out as trans and he was struggling a lot with it. My advice to him. what he said helped him the most was “it’s really simple, do you love your son?”
The answer was of course “yes” to which I replied, “so why does it matter what gender they are? They will always be your children and their happiness is the most important thing in this world, does it really matter what packaging they are? on?”
Throughout this entire transition, both Joe and I noticed a lack of resources, and the ones we encountered didn’t have much real-world context. But it took Joe a few more years to settle into himself before he felt like he could talk about his transition without the teenage angst.
And let me tell you, when we talk about those early days, their memories are not how I remember them.
Then an idea was formed. A resource for parents, broader whānau, and trans people to be a part of this journey. And that’s why we created the podcast Let’s be transparent.
Our story is not one great reunification, with dramatic music and redemptive character arcs.
It’s a simple parent-child journey with a few bumps along the way. But we hope it will help others take courage and realize that they are not alone, that challenges can be overcome, and that having a child who lives life as his or her authentic self is as rewarding as any milestone parents treasure.