Even when my child was an infant, I had a premonition that our precious baby girl was going to throw some curveballs our way. Something in this long-awaited baby's spirit let me know that a wild ride was ahead for my wife and me.
So, several years ago when my then-middle school kid came out as queer, I was caught off guard, but it was news I could handle. "Your daddy's love comes with a lifetime guarantee," I said, paraphrasing a song sung by Sade, a generation-bridging family favorite. Then, as a native of the South steeped in black- middle-class tradition, I said: "I wonder if they'll still let you be a debutante." We both immediately laughed that hearty, authentic family chuckle that eases tensions.
But I was beyond shocked when a few years later, this high-school child announced "they" were transgender and planned to live life as a male. Many transgender children display characteristics of the opposite sex very early, but this was not the case for our child, whom a family friend once described as "all girl." The deepest fear I have ever known welled up in my gut. There was no laughing at society frills; I worried what the larger society would do to my child. The name change to one that is unique and non-gendered - Zeam - and getting accustomed to new pronouns were challenges but small matters. (For now, we have compromised on "they and them" because Zeam's mother and I are not yet comfortable saying "he and him.") And we thought the gender-bending, eccentric wardrobe choices were cool.CartoonMatt Davies' latest cartoon: The county seatCommentSubmit your letterReader essaysGet published in Newsday
But as we learned what being transgender and black in the United States meant, we feared for our child's welfare and very life with a parental tug so strong it hurt. Planet Transgender, a website providing news and information about the transgender community, reported that transgender people are 400 times more likely to be assaulted or murdered than the general population. While Zeam identifies as masculine, I've been overwhelmed by the number of transgender women murdered this year - 20 that we know of - most of them black.
According to a 2011 National Center for Transgender Equality report, 47 percent of black transgender and gender- nonconforming people have been incarcerated. Moreover, that study found that 78 percent of youth who expressed a transgender or gender-nonconforming identity in grades K-12 were harassed, including by staff, and for one-sixth of those youth the harassment was so severe they left school.
Meanwhile, the media has exploded with reports of two trans celebrities: one black, Laverne Cox; the other white, Caitlyn Jenner. This new attention has been a very mixed blessing because it means more people are learning and talking about being transgender. But the comments can be ignorant and filled with rage. My wife and I understand better than anyone that it can be difficult or confusing to grasp trans issues, but the hate behind some responses is terrifying. Trans identities pose a threat to what some perceive as the natural order of life, and that can cause people to question themselves and their world. Trans life is one of today's greatest phobias and can be filled with prejudice.
Blacks who are transgender endure the toughest challenges.
As a father, one of the scariest moments for me was when Zeam testified on behalf of transgender athletes before the Minnesota State High School League. The adults in the community directed their hate with full force at my child. Fortunately, we have support - from national organizations that help transgender people and their families to the people at our church who know our family and support us no matter what.
How do we face our fear? Zeam is our inspiration. Our child knows all too well the risks of living an authentic life, but Zeam would not have it any other way. Zeam frequently speaks at meetings and conferences and is a leader with the Transgender Law Center and the Gay-Straight Alliance Network's Truth campaign to build a storytelling movement for trans and gender-nonconforming youth and their families. This is a teen who has won school and community awards for courage.
Zeam is part of a generation that evokes the spirit of the 1960s, organizing and protesting with an energy that leaves me in awe. But especially for a black transgender youth, speaking out comes at a price. Words, attitudes and actions of other young people and adults can be cruel - yet Zeam continues to soar.
Not long after Zeam was born 17 years ago, I was beyond proud. I would go on and on about my only child. As the years have passed, family and friends would try to change the subject, but I would have none of that. Like many parents, I was convinced that my child was the greatest child in the world. That's one thing that will not change.
The writer is a Minneapolis-based educator and organization development consultant.