My 9-year-old son doesn’t have a political agenda; he’s just a kid. You wouldn’t think so given the backlash against a photo I posted of him on Facebook this weekend, though: a crying child, sitting exhausted on the floor of the Texas capitol, as his concerned mother wipes his tears. Somehow that struck a nerve with people across the country, and the criticisms of my parenting and the validity of my transgender child’s experience have been the centre of online conversation ever since.
We live in Texas, which despite being nicknamed “The Friendship State” isn’t exactly very friendly to our LGBTQ neighbours — with 30 anti-LGBTQ bills filed in the last legislative session, Texas is No. 1 when it comes to trying to legalise state-sanctioned bullying. And when not a single “bathroom bill” passed in the 2017 regular session, Governor Greg Abbott deemed it necessary to spend more than $1 million of additional taxpayer money to continue this fight during a 30-day special session, which is happening in Austin at this very moment.
During this “Session of Oppression," Governor Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have made it their political agenda to pick on my son — a vulnerable, innocent fourth grader — in exactly the same way a schoolyard bully would: by finding that one thing that makes Max different, and making sure that everyone treats him and anyone like him as “less-than” because of it.
But they vastly underestimated me: because when one of those transgender people under attack happens to be my son, I refuse to take it lying down. I will fight with everything I’ve got until the threat is gone, and my son is safe.
Usually I fight from home, calling my legislators, writing letters to the editor, speaking in classrooms about diversity and equality — as the mother of two kids and as a small business owner, I don’t usually have a lot of time to travel all the way to Austin. But on the particular day that this photo was captured by Bob Owen at the San Antonio Express, I was in Austin with Max, and we were among the hundreds of transgender Texans and allies who had gathered from across the state to raise our voices and show that we exist, that we matter, and that our representatives are responsible for our rights, too.
We were there to defend Max’s right to exist in public. That’s what this bathroom stuff is really about, because let’s face it: If you prohibit someone from using a public bathroom, how much is he really going to be able to exist in public? He couldn’t go to school, he couldn’t see a movie with friends, he would have to worry about being able to find a bathroom to use every single time he left our house. The Texas Legislature is trying to erase my son and shove him into a dark corner — and no one does that to my baby, even the Governor of Texas.
Deciding to make the trip to Austin is always hard. It’s a fine balance, you know? I’m his mom, so I want to protect his privacy and keep him safe from people who believe his very existence is controversial and that he needs to be erased. But I also know that if we don’t speak up and put a face to this, nothing is going to change, and that Max would be at a very real risk of self-harm and dying by suicide because of it.
Don’t believe me? 41% of transgender youth report that they have attempted (not contemplated — actually attempted) death by suicide at least once. Not because they are mentally ill (sorry to burst your bubble, trolls), and not because we forced our kid to be transgender (it took years of him insisting to us that this is who he is, before my husband and I finally understood him). These deaths are the direct result of the systemic discrimination that leads people to believe it’s okay to harass, bully, and attack transgender people; that they are dispensable. It’s the result of the rhetoric from elected officials, especially, that says it’s perfectly okay to question whether my son’s identity is real and valid, and whether he or people like him have any right to exist.
There are plenty of days when I ask myself whether I’m a good mom, but this was not one of them.
Max knows what’s at stake. We don’t talk about it much, because he's 9, and social justice and gender identity aren't really top of mind for him. But even without all the lengthy, adult conversations, he gets it. Max wanted to be present that day, to speak to our legislators face to face and remind them that he is important, too. So I proudly brought my baby with me, to show him that it’s important to stand up to bullies, even if some of those bullies work in marble offices in your state capitol.
It was a long day, and I was proud of his composure and courage. We do things big down here in Texas, and our state capitol building is no exception: with wings, extensions, chambers, and security at just about every turn, it can be intimidating even to enter the building. When the legislature is in session, the building is crammed with elected officials, their staff, interns, lobbyists, reporters, and constituents from every corner of the state, and the noise and crowds are overwhelming, especially for a kid like Max, who is only half the size of everyone there.
Local reporters who had been following these “bathroom bills” closely had also been following us around all day, too, and Max was on his best behaviour because of it. After the hot outdoor press conference with cameras trained right on his adorable freckled face, the noise and commotion happening inside the building, and the frustration of having to articulate to grownups that the only people who are bothered that he’s transgender are the very people who swore an oath to protect him, Max had had enough.
Exhausted, he sat his little butt down, confessed to me how tired he was, and asked if we could go home. So I did what any loving mother would do: I canceled the rest of our legislative visits, wiped his tears, and took him out for ice cream. That’s what parents do when their kids have a tough day. That’s what you see in this photo.
Internet trolls have had a field day with this heartbreaking image, and are busy sharing their all-knowing criticism of my parenting ability: I’m a bad mom for allowing my “daughter” to be “delusional.” The only delusional ones are people who insist that there are only two genders, or who spend their days criticising the way other parents show love.
I’m a bad mom for having a political agenda (which I don’t, unless you count the whole “separate isn’t equal” thing and wanting to defend basic human rights).
I’m a bad mom for “coddling” my elementary-aged child and not teaching him to “man up.” For those keeping score at home, trolls are telling me that Max isn’t transgender, while simultaneously using male pronouns and saying a 9-year-old boy should know how to “man up.” Can you say “cognitive dissonance?”
I’m a bad mom for making him cry — because that’s something I did, not Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott, who made it necessary for us to be there in the first place.
I’m a bad mom for posting this picture to Facebook to raise awareness about a whole group of people who deserve the same rights and respect as anyone else. But the thing is, I don't regret it for a second: I’m glad I shared it and I'd do it again. I can never get enough of my child's beautiful face, for one, and apparently plenty of people don't understand what's at stake right now without seeing my kid, devastated, holding his freckle-faced mug in his hands.
Like most parents, there are plenty of days when I ask myself whether I’m a good mom, but this was not one of them. I will always teach my son to stand up to bullies, even at the highest reaches of government. I will always remind my son that he is just as miraculous and beautiful today as he was on the day he was born. I will always expect my son to protect the vulnerable among us. That doesn’t make me a bad mother — that makes me a mom, doing my best. Some lessons are harder to learn than others, but I’m sure my son will never forget that day at the capitol, when the people elected to protect him instead made him cry. And I hope y’all never forget, it either.