by Helen T. Cohn
One day, coming home from the temple where I served as rabbi, I spotted a bag from our local pharmacy on the kitchen counter. It was stapled shut, but the attached prescription for my 25-year-old daughter Laura announced its contents: testosterone. My worst fears were confirmed. I went to my bedroom and cried.
My daughter had always seemed to me completely feminine and interested in boys. Sometimes she even seemed reckless in her sexuality. At age 20 she gave birth to my granddaughter Rosie “out of wedlock.” A year or so later she got married—wearing a puffy white dress and bright red lipstick—to a young man whom she had not known very long. When the marriage failed, Laura and Rosie came to live with me.
Later that year, Laura began a relationship with a woman.
I was not able to discuss this development with her, I’ll admit. I was too astonished and confused. I told myself the relationship was temporary, all the while I acted as nonchalant as possible, as if I accepted what was happening.
Then one day my mother, who was much more comfortable talking to Laura about her life than I was, told me that Laura had begun seeing a counselor about a possible gender change.
I couldn’t believe it! Where did such a desire come from? Although Laura had several difficult years as a teen, I never saw an indication that she was unsure of her sexuality or questioned her gender.
Then, several months after her lesbian relationship ended, Laura arrived at our extended family’s end-of-year celebration dressed in the masculine clothing—slacks and a plaid shirt—that had become typical over several months. Suddenly I noticed something different about her: She didn’t appear to have breasts!
When I asked her what happened, Laura explained that she had started binding her chest with an athletic bandage so her breasts would not show.
The prescription for testosterone appeared three months later.
For many months after seeing that prescription I led a double life. Outwardly I tried to stay calm and accepting, interested without prying. Inwardly I was consumed with worry: Would the physical changes happening to Laura be permanent, or could she return to her female body once this “phase”—it had to be a phase—was over? After all, how could my 20-something daughter possibly know herself well enough to make such a totally life-altering decision?
I worried, too, about my granddaughter Rosie. What unimaginable and terrible effects would this have on her life? As an adult would she have a confused gender identity? Would she be incapable of having a stable, loving relationship? More immediately, how would she adjust to her mother turning into her father? Fortunately, the staff at our temple’s preschool was loving, sensitive, and accepting of cultural and gender diversity. Only later did I hear about the day Rosie announced to her four-year-old companions at lunch that her mommy was getting a penis. The children didn’t seem to think much of it, but the teachers called Laura in for a conference. Laura then coached Rosie on things that are to be discussed only at home and things that can be discussed publicly, and that was the end of it.
Throughout this period Laura was an extraordinarily loving parent, carefully explaining her transformation in language a preschooler could understand and reassuring Rosie of her enduring love. It took Rosie about a year to make the change from “Mommy” to “Daddy,” about the same length of time it took for Laura’s body to turn into Lawrence’s. It took me longer to switch verbally to “Lawrence.” (I still occasionally slip and say “she.”)
Inwardly I wrestled with the changes in my child: shoulders broadening, cheek fuzz turning into beard, voice deepening. In a way it was fascinating: Who could imagine that a body would respond so dramatically to hormone treatment? And yet…where was my daughter? I couldn’t bear the thought of her disappearing before my eyes.
Outwardly, with the exception of my mother and one or two other people, I kept what was happening private. Talking about the situation felt too uncomfortable. I was embarrassed and ashamed that such a shande(shameful thing) could have happened in my family.
That year I met with a therapist several times. I also prayed. Psalm 118 was my daily focus: “I called on God from a narrow place; God answered from a wide expanse.” I hoped that God would help me open my heart in acceptance and love.
I thought of the story of the heartbroken father who came to the Baal Shem Tov for advice: “My son has turned his back on Judaism. What should I do?” The great Chasidic master replied, “Love him even more.”
The moment of my own transformation happened during a phone call with my mother. As we talked about Lawrence’s latest physical changes and I once again expressed my fears, she said, “But he’s still the same loving person inside!”
Suddenly my world clicked into its rightful place. The floodgates of love opened to the truth of it: Laura or Lawrence, daughter or son, was my child, and truly the same person. Yes, this person had a different exterior now. But Lawrence was better able than Laura to cope with the inner turmoil that had plagued her as a teenager. And Lawrence had gained self-confidence, both personally and professionally.
That was 14 years ago. Rosie has just graduated from high school and is planning to travel for a year before beginning college. None of my earlier fears about her have come to pass. She is a bright, loving, responsible, thoughtful young woman. She is completely comfortable and accepting of her father’s journey.
I measure my own comfort and acceptance by my willingness to talk publicly about our family. At the beginning of Lawrence’s transition I met separately with each of my colleagues at the temple. I wanted them to know before they heard from someone else that there was turmoil in my life and heart. They were supportive and sympathetic and not nearly as shocked as I thought they might be. Personal dramas, I learned, are much less dramatic to the outside viewer.
Nevertheless, I generally chose not to reveal the truth to others. I told myself that what had happened would take too much time and energy to explain. Only later did I come to see that my own discomfort with what Laura/Lawrence had done was the reason I felt so emotionally drained and reluctant to talk about it.
A couple of years after Lawrence’s transition, I met a woman who knew my kids when they were teenagers. She asked about Laura. I’m not sure if she noticed the slight hesitation—a quick internal conversation—before I answered: Does this person “need” to know? Would this person care? Will he/she be able to absorb the news without undue shock or upset? Is this appropriate to discuss, given the time and place? If, for any reason, I come up with a “no,” I respond with a general, “Thanks for asking! She’s fine.” In this case I did tell the young woman about Lawrence. She seemed politely interested, even curious, but within two minutes was on to a different subject. So much for my deep, dark secret!
Even now, years later, I am sometimes circumspect around this subject. When I meet people socially and they ask if I have children, I simply say, “Yes, I have two sons.” They are not asking for a family history and I see no need to give them one. On the other hand, Lawrence’s story is a central part of our family’s narrative and my life experience. When it is appropriate—such as explaining why I wanted to be on our Jewish community’s LGBT Outreach advisory board—I am comfortable speaking with pride about Lawrence, my son who has fashioned the life he wanted.
As I look back over the years, I smile with appreciation for how much I have changed. What initially seemed a disaster—a source of embarrassment, shame, and confusion—has turned into another rich layer in the complexity of human relationships. I no longer feel a need to keep any of this a secret. This is my life, and this is the child I love.
Rabbi Helen T. Cohn, HUC-JIR class of 1994, is a spiritual director and a meditation teacher who also serves a congregation in Tucson, Arizona.