It’s a small but mighty group of allies, one to celebrate on this Mother’s Day: Mothers of trans people.
The most famous one in the Kansas City area is Debi Jackson, whose daughter Avery graced the cover of National Geographic last year and who serves as an organizer at the National Center for Transgender Equality.
But for today, I want to talk about a couple of other moms in a smaller town in the middle of Kansas.
One of them, Sue Gerth (pictured above with her daughter Bree), was the subject of a prominent “Our Neighbors” profile in her hometown paper last month. “Longtime Manhattan resident active in LGBT issues, church” read the headline in the Manhattan Mercury.
I’d met Gerth in the course of my reporting for No Place Like Home. At the annual TransKansas conference, she gave presentations with titles like “We Are ‘Other People,’” referring to “those things that only happen to other people.” As in, having a child come out to her as trans. I didn’t tell Gerth’s story in my book, but I’ve always wanted to.
“We were some of the first moms, me and Mary Sier and a few of us other moms, who were telling our stories from the perspective of parents who find something out about our kids fairly late in their lives,” Gerth says. “And it becomes our struggle, too.”
“We’ve all transitioned,” Mary Sier says of the process her family went through. “At first I thought, ‘I don’t want anybody to know this. Everybody in the world is going to see.’ Now I couldn’t give a fig who knows. I’m so proud of my kid.”
The two families knew each other when their children were in Sunday school together, but they drifted apart after the Gerths started attending a different church. Decades later, they reconnected after someone told Gerth there was another parent of a trans daughter in town.
Gerth’s journey as a trans person’s mom began a decade ago. She was teaching engineering and construction science at Kansas State University, an institution whose evolution into a surprisingly progressive ag school (at least in terms of LGBTQ issues) forms the center of a chapter in No Place Like Home. One of the people responsible for that evolution is a woman named Alley Stoughton, who came out as trans while working in K-State’s computer science department in 2008. Thanks to Stoughton’s influence, the university started training staff and faculty about how to create “safe zones.”
“Construction science was not your real warm, fuzzy field of progressives,” Gerth remembers. She figured it would be good to learn how to create a safe space in her department, so she took the training.
“It was not just for LGBT issues but anything race-related, or sexual assault, anything. I took the training, and they had a panel on LGBT issues. I thought, ‘Well, it doesn’t apply to me, haha.’ But I really wanted to be more aware.”
Stoughton was on the panel, along with two lesbian students.
“The first girl told her story. She was from a smaller town, and when she said, ‘Mom, I’m a lesbian,’ her mom said, ‘Not in this family you’re not. Not in this town you’re not.’ I thought, ‘How can you dismiss your kid? If it were my kid, nothing would matter.’”
Gerth was so moved by the stories that when she went home that day, she told her family all about the panel – including that part about how, “If it were my kid, nothing would matter.”
A few days later, one of her kids said they needed to talk. Bree Gerth was 26 at the time.
“Did you mean it, what you said?” Bree asked.
Gerth didn’t immediately remember what Bree was referring to. And Bree was having a hard time with whatever it was she needed to say. Finally Greth dragged it out of her.
“She said, ‘I think I’m bisexual.’ I thought, ‘Oh, OK, this is easy.’ I said, ‘Honey it’s OK. You’re still my son. I’ll always love you, it doesn’t really matter.’ I was patting myself on the back for handling it so well. She just kind of stood there and I said, ‘Is there something else?’ She said, ‘Oh never mind.’ Obviously there was something else. She said, ‘Well, I like to dress in women’s clothes.”
Gerth knew enough to ask whether Bree was a crossdresser or transgender.
“I think she was surprised that I wasn’t totally clueless. She said she’d never put a label on it, though I suspect she had. I’d done enough research to know people get kicked out of their homes. I said, ‘You’ll always be my kid, it doesn’t matter. But I gotta tell you, you have to help me. I don’t know how to be a supportive parent.”
One of Gerth’s first calls was to Stoughton. She and Bree met with Stoughton and the woman who is now Stoughton’s wife, Cora Holt (the couple now lives in Boston). That gave them someone to talk to. Then Sue told her husband Al, knowing he’d be fine with it – which he was.
“She’d been so depressed,” Sue says. “I had felt her slipping away for 15 years. I knew I was going to lose her to suicide. She’d been on anti-depressants but was still so hopeless.”
Al’s main response: “If that what it takes to be happy.”
Bree’s siblings, however, were not so willing to accept this new reality. So now there are other kinds of zones in the family: certain homes where Sue and Al are not allowed to talk about Bree, holidays celebrated multiple times in separate places. All of which is hard.
“I have my moments,” Gerth says, “but most of the time I’m at peace with the way things are.”
That’s mainly because of the welcoming and affirming faith community she has found at Manhattan’s First Congregational United Church of Christ.
“I don’t subscribe to the feeling that ‘God only gives us what we can handle’ or things like that,” Gerth says, “but I do believe that when things happen, God gives us what we need and puts us in touch with the people we need.”
In Gerth’s case that was Stephanie Mott of the Kansas Statewide Transgender Education Project. Mott invited Gerth to tell her story at KSTEP events, and now Gerth has testified at the city commission and given talks and sat on panels for middle-school teachers, for classes at K-State, for groups of other parents.
“I say, ‘This is my story, this is what happened. I’m not telling you what to believe.’ And as I was telling the story over the years, people would tell me: ‘Just knowing your story helped me to see things differently, that you’re just a mom and this is just a family.’”
At some point, someone told her there was another woman in town with a transgender daughter. It had been a long time since Gerth had seen Mary Sier.
An Army family who’d lived a lot of different places, the Siers moved to Manhattan more than three decades ago, when her husband, Bill, was transferred to nearby Fort Riley. Their kids grew up and after high school graduation, one went off to join the Air Force — and came home a few years later saying they, too, needed to have a conversation.
“We both were kind of flabbergasted,” Mary Sier remembers of that first conversation with their daughter Rachel. “We sat there a minute and I said, ‘Well how did you reach this conclusion?’ She said, ‘I’ve done a lot of research.’”
Rachel had a tendency to be gung-ho about things for about six months and then lose interest, so Sier figured the same might happen now.
“I thought, ‘Well, something’s happened. We’ll wait and see.’ I admit right at first I thought, ‘If this is true, I really don’t want it.”
Not because of what was going on with Rachel, but because Mary had always thought she was better with male children than with females. (Rachel has an older brother who has Aspergers. Fairly quickly, Mary says, he decided he was “not going to lose his best friend” just because that friend would be female instead of the male he was used to.) Mary feared she wouldn’t be a good role model for a girl.
“I’m kind of a tomboy. And I’m definitely not a frilly pink anything. I was kind of glad we hadn’t had any daughters.”
But after her initial shock, she thought, “I’m not losing anybody. God gave me these two.”
A couple of months later, Rachel moved to Colorado and started culinary school. But after that first conversation, Sier says, “She hadn’t said another word (about being trans). She hadn’t even given us a name she wanted to be called. I decided we needed to drive to Colorado to see her and find out some details.”
Bill was having a harder time with it all that Mary was, but that changed after they visited Rachel in Colorado.
“Before her transition, she was a fairly angry person. We sat down with her – she was smiling and laughing like she had when she was five or six. We hadn’t seen it in so long. She was at peace with herself. She was happy. When we started back, Bill said, ‘OK, I’m on board. I haven’t seen that in so long. I’m not losing anybody either.’”
That was about 12 years ago; Rachel’s now in her late 30s. Sier says she has “blossomed.”
Hearing that her child was trans was daunting at first, Sier says, because she and Bill had never thought about it before. They had to educate themselves.
Now, she says, “This has been a blessing for our family. She’s happy, and we’ve met a whole new group of people we never would have met otherwise. I have friends online, other trans moms from Canada, Australia, all over the country, and we talk online. These are people I never would have known, who I love dearly. All the horrible things I expected to happen haven’t, and I don’t think they ever will.”
Gerth feels the same way.
“I’ve always felt as if I was given a gift of my daughter. When some parents go through grieving because they feel like they’ve lost their son – I had already lost him. I’d seen him slip away to depression. I just celebrate the child that I thought I’d lost because she’s alive and happy. That’s what really matters to me.”
Gerth met other parents of trans kids in Manhattan, too.
“It really made me realize that this is way more common than people think. Here, there were kids in three classes in a row at school. Each high school class was about 500 people, so there’s your 1 in 500. It just seemed like in this small town, I’d find out there’s another one whose kid is trans.”
Some of those parents started a support group at church, which Gerth has now taken over.
“I asked God to use me for what he sees fit – now I look back and laugh. But I feel privileged that God has seen fit to use me through this experience I’ve had. It’s such a privilege when somebody calls me and says, ‘Hey I’ve got somebody who’s got a trans kid, can I put them in touch with you.’ I feel the grace of God in everything.”
Now 33, Bree works the overnight shift at a Target. She’s soft-spoken and reserved, but her smile lights up the room.
Early in her transition, Bree says, she was “chomping at the bit” to get out of Kansas. But not anymore.
“This is my home. I like it here.”
That’s partly because of what her mother has done to make Manhattan better.
“Seeing her in front of the city commission, just being an advocate, seeing her at rallies and marches, seeing her giving presentations, using her voice to inform others – it’s magnificent,” she says. “It makes me so proud to be her kid.”
C.J. Janovy is the author of No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas. Follow her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.