by Rachel Pepper. $16.59; Cleis Books; 203 pages
There is a moment in Rachel Pepper's anthology, Transitions of the Heart: stories of love, struggle and acceptance by mothers of transgender and gender variant children, when Geraldine Boothe, unable to sleep, sits down and writes a letter to her transgender 8-year-old about her deepest fears.
Boothe, a lesbian, faults herself for having a transgender child, and she simultaneously worries she has suppressed her child's masculinity.
It is a heart-rending moment in a collection of 32 stories that largely focus on the sense of loss mothers experience when their children come out as trans.
Transitions of the Heart is an unprecedented success by virtue of existence; it is one of a handful of books that speak to parents of transgender and gender-nonconforming children. (Pepper co-authored another with Stephanie Brill, The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals.)
The book, which Cleis Press recently released, is a kind of Chicken Soup for the Soul for parents of trans kids. It is a collection of first-person essays about how mothers reacted when their kids came out. Overwhelmingly, the stories are wrought with fear, anxiety and remorse.
Nancy Moore, mother of a transgender boy, writes about saving pictures and a voice recording of her child before he transitioned because she "doesn't want to lose evidence that Sean existed in another form." Ingrid Charbonneau admits that after two years, she still struggles with using correct pronouns for her transgender son. The author of an anonymous essay writes of the difficulty accepting her transgender child due to her Southern Baptist Upbringing. Jennifer Kahler still questions if allowing her transgender daughter to live as a girl is the right thing for her.
For transgender and gender non-conforming people, this may be a difficult read. It is hard not to wonder if some of the children portrayed won't struggle with being described with old names and pronouns, to having their bodies and surgeries described publicly and to reading about the profound loss their mothers felt when they came out as trans. Transgender readers may also take personal exception here. While ultimately healing, some stories border on unintentionally injurious at times.
Still, such stories and feelings are commonplace in transgender circles, and books that speak to the experiences of parents of trans kids are not. "Transitions of the Heart" explores the reactions of mothers from many walks of life, with children that range from toddlers to older adults. Some of the writers are simply grappling with how to give their transgender children as much freedom as possible, while others are still wishing away the burden.
Most of the stories, while poignant, are not particularly well-written. This is what makes them feel so relatable and candid. In this sense, the anthology feels like less a literary masterpiece than it does a series of coffee dates with other mothers of trans kids. It is essentially a support group condensed into a book, an important contribution, especially for parents who live in areas without relevant support groups or who have not yet worked up the nerve to attend them.
There are a few literary gems scattered throughout. Boothe's "To My Child" and Mary Doyle's "Hatch! Mister Sister" stand out.
A future anthology of this sort could benefit from more stories about non-binary children, as nearly all of the subjects seem to identify as male or female, bordering on a kind of essentialist overall image about what transgender is. Still, the diversity of experiences represented in the anthology makes for a relatively complicated look at families with trans kids.
Pepper and the mothers in this book have created what will certainly be an invaluable resource for countless parents and future parents. In that, perhaps they have made the world just a little bit better for transgender people themselves.
Disclaimer: Pepper occasionally contributes to Windy City Times.