This post is written by Amaya's paternal grandmother Elaine Radoff Barkin. Elaine and her husband George have always been loving and supportive Grandparents. I invited Elaine to write about her experience as the grandmother of a transgender grandchild because I love her writing style and I knew she would have interesting and moving things to say. Elaine is an American composer, writer, and educator. Read more about her here.
Amaya’s birth in January, 1998, occurred three months after the premature death at age 58 of Aaron Masia, Janna’s beloved dad, which brought great sadness to the Masia-Barkin households. “This baby was not supposed to be an ‘A’ baby,” cried Janna, but alas, Amaya was an ‘A’ baby. And she was, thought I, a second girl with loads of clothes awaiting her, including a bunch of pretty batik dresses I had bought for her sister Emily during my many summers spent in Bali and Java.
On Amaya’s 3rd or 4th birthday, we drove to a toy store at the Northgate Mall and I asked her to pick out whatever she wanted. After a few moments, she—rather sheepishly I thought—pointed to a large toy Ford F-150 pickup truck. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Yes.” she said, and home we went with the truck. Admittedly, I was a bit surprised; maybe the truck choice was some sort of statement, but if so it wasn’t totally out of character. And why shouldn’t girls play with trucks?
So let’s fast forward a few years, by which time Amaya not only had refused the pretty batik dresses but also had begun wearing boys' underwear and pants and kept her hair cut short. Okay, I thought, a tomboy, like me—although I’d worn girl’s underwear.
Before I continue, I want to say something about my own history and awareness of gender and sexuality issues.
I was born in the Bronx in 1932 and by age 12 had read Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. During my teens I spent time in Greenwich Village, where being with homosexuals was just part of the scene. As a young musician and college student in the 1950s, I hung out with dancers and theater people and had several gay and lesbian pals. That was the way the world was in New York, loads of minorities of all stripes and colors, way before the March on Washington, Stonewall, La Cage aux Folles, and AIDS. Homophobic police harassment and physical violence were an everyday occurrence, as were suicides.
But also—voila!—there was the revelation in 1952 that someone called Christine (born George) Jorgensen had undergone sex reassignment surgery in Denmark, not a procedure much known or used back then! She was a worldwide sensation and tabloids had a field day: “Former GI becomes Blonde Bombshell!” Transgender was a new word for me, even if I had visited lesbian bars with friends where many women and men cross-dressed, but in later decades I read about cultures in which “third gender” persons have long been integral members of communities from Albania to India to Polynesia to several Native American tribes.
Back again to my erstwhile second granddaughter, after a look through photograph albums from Amaya’s birth to the present.
As Amaya grew up it became more than evident that “tomboy” was a totally inadequate description. Basically, I didn’t care much insofar as the most critical factor was for Amaya to feel comfortable with who she was or who she was becoming. The disconnect between what was going on in Amaya’s mind and what was perceived or assumed externally by others must have been near breaking point for Amaya, but many of us were unaware of any inner turmoil. Maybe Rocko knew. (When she was a young child, Rocko was one of Amaya’s secret-pretend pals and confidants. I once overheard a one-way conversation with Rocko coming from Amaya’s bedroom, and when I asked whom she was talking to, there was a sly smile but no answer.)
In 2007, my husband George and I celebrated our 50th anniversary, and Amaya, now 9, decked herself out in a long-sleeved print shirt, long pants, and (if I recall) a tie. In restaurants, waiters would ask Amaya, “And what would you like, young man?” Her parents had stopped correcting waiters and waitresses; Amaya didn’t seem to mind. For me, no matter what she looked like to strangers I thought of Amaya as a girl, a she. And if Amaya had to go to the bathroom while we were at the movies, I would go along to be sure that she wasn’t hassled or told to use the men’s room. (Designated, non-unisex, public bathrooms are ground zero for the trans community!)
Insofar as I didn’t live with Amaya and her parents, all I could do was speculate: maybe Amaya was going to be a very butch lesbian, or perhaps she was some sort of third gender person. Amaya was the only girl on her Little League team, and many of the boys didn’t even seem to know that she was a girl—while those who knew didn’t care as long as she played well. Moreover, there were/are role models aplenty: Ellen DeGeneres, Rachel Maddow, Robin Roberts for starters.
When Amaya did “come out” at age 15 as a trans FTM, none of us was surprised, but the full implications of transition would take a while to be assimilated and understood. Amaya hadn’t changed. Who she was, and who he had announced he was becoming—both were totally recognizable as the Amaya we had always known, or at least the Amaya that we were permitted to know. Whatever perplexity had been brewing inside for over a decade had mostly been externalized only via short hair and boy’s clothing, not such a big deal I’d thought. She had characteristics that reminded me of my son Gabe (knuckle-cracking, a loping walk), and of my brother Bill (quivering knees). But the desire at 15 to minimize the appearance of breasts suggested a bigger deal; alas, menstruating isn’t as safe to modify or do away with, not yet at least. If the medical community was more certain about long-term effects of HRT, I’d have been less anxious.
One of my concerns was, and still is, the fear of an antagonistic response or bullying from classmates and strangers. Teenagers can be brutal; social media can be deadly. I wished for the best and feared if not the worst, then damaging negativity. Teena Brandon’s story frightened me, and Michel Foucault’s 1980 retelling of the memoirs of intersex person Herculine Barbin saddened me. The latter was hardly the same circumstance but worrisome nonetheless.
And yet, whenever I told a friend or my two sisters-in-law about Amaya, I was told similar stories: of Andrew who’d lived in Paris for a year and returned home at 18 a beautiful and happy Andrea; of a friend’s FTM child who transitioned and is now a married orthodox Rabbi; and Amaya’s maternal grandmother, Linda, is close friends with the grandmother of well-known MTF teen trans activist Jazz Jennings. In a recent LA Times “Dear Amy” column headlined, “Nephew Wants to be Niece,” a letter from a confused aunt led to Amy’s compassionate advice: be supportive. (Several days later the column’s headline read, “Disclosing One’s Sexuality,” and contained a letter from a bisexual person asking if and when it’s okay to disclose one’s sexual identity in new relationships. Amy’s practical advice: wait until the third date!) FTM and MTF personae now appear on network TV and cable regularly, comparable to the slow-but-steady appearance in the 1970s of people of color on TV and in ads, and also comparable to the ongoing increase of women in politics. And regarding politics—in Oklahoma recently, the state’s first openly trans MTF candidate for state legislature lost by just 22 votes.
Back in my old days, LGB’s were slowly, in many instances painfully, finding acceptance. Nowadays it’s the T’s “outing” their way in.
For sure, hundreds more LGBTQ people of all ages remain closeted and fearful for personal, religious, financial, professional, and political reasons. A large number of my UCLA colleagues were closeted gay men; several were married, several were alcoholic. Not until the early 1990s did most of them fully come out. My dear friend and colleague Paul came out at age 75!
In New Zealand, Georgina Beyer (born George Bertrand) of Maori heritage became the world’s first trans MTF Member of Parliament in 1999, representing the Labour Party. She had had sexual reassignment surgery in 1997, at age 30. (Among New Zealand’s other world firsts was giving the vote to women in 1893.) In the U.S. among many others, there’s Jennifer Finley Boylan and Martine Rothblatt, both of whom came out as MTFs in midlife, both of them married with children and wives. And then there is, perhaps more pertinently and certainly more famously, FTM Chaz Bono!
In the early 1990s, music historians and theorists began organizing ad hoc sessions to discuss Queer Music Theory, a then-new concept and field exploring the intersection of musical and LBGTQ spheres. They met, at first timidly, at national annual conferences, and now such sessions are a regular feature at such events. In 1994, I was asked to co-edit a collection of essays concerning composing women, feminist music theory, and gender. My co-editor for this project, Lydia Hamessley, is a musicologist and a lesbian active in the field of Queer Music Theory. Our book Audible Traces, was published in 2000, and joined a spate of similar collections. I had, and still have, doubts about the audibility of gender or sexuality in music—for if one accepts such a premise, one also accepts narrow and limited definitions and boundaries. Nowadays, courses and programs on gender and sexuality in music are widespread. Academicians love jumping on new bandwagons.
But back again to Amaya. For him, fortunately, there is today a community of similarly conflicted or decisive youths and adults with whom each can share experiences, doubts, and support via YouTube and social media websites. He has access to meet face-to-face with dedicated counselors, and some of them are also trans people. None, or few at best, of these support groups were available to the LGBTQ community 60 years ago when many of my friends could have benefited from empathic advice or commiseration. Doubly fortunate for Amaya, the Bay Area is one of the better places in the U.S. for a trans person to find simpatico voices and counselors and doctors and lawyers and insurance coverage. Most significantly, Amaya’s family, the entire Barkin-Masia clan, fully supports him.
But the shift of pronoun has been a bitch. At the start, I told Amaya that if I put a quarter into a jar every time I said “she” instead of “he,” Amaya would soon be able to buy a completely new wardrobe. Gradually and self-consciously, I have tried to use male pronouns whenever speaking of, about, or to Amaya. But it still seems weird to say “he” or ”him” or” his” when I speak about or think of Amaya as a very young child, when she was still wearing dresses and had longer hair. And I can no longer casually ask Gabe, “How are the girls?” (I try to ask “How are Em and Am?”)
Fact is, the shift of pronoun brings with it the shift of reality, the acceptance of a new reality. The welcoming, the acknowledgment. Along with the awareness that Amaya might be gay, straight, or bi, just like the rest of us. That there are multiple ways of being.
What might seem to be a set of confusing statements expresses an enrichment of sexual-gender identification, all referring to Amaya’s relationship to me and vice versa:
She is my youngest grandchild.
He is my youngest grandchild.
She is my youngest granddaughter.
He is my youngest granddaughter.
She is my youngest grandson.
He is my youngest grandson, or transgrandson.
After his disclosure, it didn’t take anyone in Amaya’s family long to accept his decision and ultimately be proud of him for transitioning at such a relatively young age. Teen years are tough any way they’re sliced, but to overcome compounding issues of sexuality and gender identification takes confidence, strength, and a sense of what’s real and how one wants to live one’s life.
Of course I worry about physical and physiological issues. I never imagined that a grandchild of mine would opt for a double mastectomy at 16! But I think it was a mature decision. He has comrades and is rather calm when facing the confusion of strangers. I do suppose I wish Amaya would change his first name or add a name to it, but that’s my problem and none of my business.
And then at some point there’s HRT and I worry about that as I do about any medical procedure. I worry that nasty brutes out there will make trouble for him. A recent LA Times article describes the many problems facing LGBTQ youths in foster care, reporting that, “Gay foster youths are twice as likely to report being treated poorly by the foster care system than their straight counterparts, according to a new study of Los Angeles County's foster care system.” Amaya will never face this issue, but homophobia and trans-phobia will never disappear. So I remain anxious. “What, me worry?”
To all LGBTQ’s and the rest of us, I close with Miranda’s words from The Tempest by William Shakespeare:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is!
O brave new world,
That has such people in't.
Valley Village, CA
PostScript: My Amaya 2
It has been more than a year since I wrote the words above. Amaya is now preparing to go to college in Portland, Oregon, a milieu he says is congenial to the LGBTQ community. Now post double mastectomy, now taking testosterone, Amaya’s voice has deepened, his chest is flat—and as I wrote above, he has remained the same person but not the same person. That’s the odd rub. More self-assured, as independent as always, valuing his privacy and yet perhaps a tad more sociable. And the pronoun shift has become easier for me.
2014 and 2015 have been the years of T-conscious-raising! Pundits and politicians and POTUS have all referred to trans people in public commentaries. Documentaries, books, and websites are available for those who want to learn more. A spate of midlife adults and seniors have come out publicly. All of which, we hope, has been good for Amaya and the rest of us. Confusion, negativity, and nastiness will remain among various individuals and entire nations. But Amaya has a lot to look forward to and I am confident he will live a full, productive, and fantastic life.
With much love,
Valley Village, CA