A mother’s story: Hate crime brings new bond with transgender child

OPINION - From one parent to another, more work needs to be done to protect our children regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Early on, l knew my son Michael was different. While my three other sons begged me to buy them G.I. Joe figurines and were obsessed with football, Michael preferred playing with My Little Pony and taking tap dance lessons.

In Prince Georges County, Maryland where we live, we have a diverse group of friends so the idea of having a gay son didn’t scare or shock us. Sure, we feared he had a hard road ahead of him – being bullied at school, getting fired from his job for being gay and facing the possibility that he may never be able to be legally married – but with our love, we knew he was going to be okay.

When Michael turned 16, he told us that he wasn’t a gay man. Instead, he was a transgender woman named Michelle who had been dressing as a woman when he left the house. At that point, my husband and I both realized that this was a big deal. My son was now my daughter.

Even though I am an activist and somewhat liberal, I didn’t know what being transgender meant. After doing some serious soul searching, my husband and I concluded that our child needed us. Unlike too many of her friends whose parents had kicked them out for being gay or transgender, we were going to open our minds even further than what we thought was possible. It was difficult. But we started going to family therapy and things were slowly getting better.

But everything changed in December 1999, the day my daughter Michelle became the target of a hate crime.

While standing in line with her friends at a club in Atlanta, Michelle was struck in the head with a metal pipe by a stranger who did not like the fact that she was a transgender woman. She fell to the ground and her skull split open.

The doctors weren’t very hopeful – they didn’t think she was going to make it. As she lay there unconscious, she was unrecognizable. Her head was shaved, there was a V-shaped scar down the side of her face, and she was bruised and swollen.

For weeks, my family, my friends and my minister prayed by her bedside, not confident that we would ever hear her voice again. When she finally woke up, we were ecstatic. But we were realistic that a full recovery was miles away. Michelle had temporary amnesia and didn’t even remember me. One day, I asked her if she knew who I was and she said, “No, but you seem like a really nice lady.”

Those moments made my heart break, but my daughter was alive and that’s all that mattered.

After her attack and full recovery, I reached out to the Gay, Transgender, Lesbian and Bisexual National Hotline for support and was referred to the Sexual Minority Youth Alliance League. They offered me educational workshops about the transgender community and they introduced me to other women like Michelle. Most important, they encouraged me to bond with Michelle on a mother-daughter level. So we started shopping for clothes and makeup together, getting our nails done and hanging out at home more. Now, Michelle feels more comfortable with me and vice versa -she even puts pressure on me to dress more fashionable when going out.

I look at her and I see someone amazing – someone fabulous.

I was fully aware of the homophobia that haunts our community. However, it was not until my child was beaten and left for dead did I ever truly believe that having the courage to be true to oneself could result in being killed. Yet, Michelle’s story is not rare. Unfortunately, for many trans women living in the U.S., violence and death are a way of life, especially those who are African American. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 1 in 12 transgender Americans faces the chance of being murdered; while the average person has about a one in 18,000 chance.

From one parent to another, more work needs to be done to protect our children regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity. We are all products of God and deserve to live, be loved and have peace of mind.