Just before the end of the year, our family went on a weekend trip to New York City. In “Chevy Chase Vacation” style, the four of us, along with with my sister, her family, and our parents all piled into a rented 12-passenger van and drove to NYC.
The ride down was uneventful, relatively speaking. We arrived on Friday afternoon, had a mid-afternoon Lunch-Dinner type situation and then went to check-in at the hotel.
Some of us went to a concert that night (which is a great story but not the focus here) and Night 1 was in the books.
The next day, we went for a great walk on the High Line and then to lunch. We had tickets for all of us to see a matinee showing of Jersey Boys that everyone was excited for. My wife and I have always been huge fans of theater. When we were dating, she was living in NYC and I was living in Boston. We would visit each other every other weekend, alternating locations. Since we both love theater, that was a pretty regular activity during the New York visits. Both Julianna and Chloe are starting to enjoy seeing shows.
The first Broadway show they saw was School of Rock and it was a perfect first for them. The actors are mostly kids and the kids all play their own musical instruments. It is funny and cool with catchy music. We loved the show and brought the kids to the stage door after the show so they could hopefully see some of the actors up close; maybe even get some autographs. They got to say hi to most of the main characters, take some pictures, and get a bunch of signatures in their playbills.
They even got to meet the lead actress in the show, Jenn Gambatese, who unknowingly played a subtle, but significant role in the family: She was in the original cast of the Broadway version of Tarzan. As a result of being in the original cast, she also sings on the original cast recording. The song that my wife and had our first dance to, at our wedding, was called “For the First Time” and is from Tarzan. It is a duet between Tarzan and Jane, played and recorded, originally on Broadway, by Jenn Gambatese. I didn’t realize this until intermission of School of Rock but thought it was pretty cool. I am pretty sure it was cooler for me than it was for Julianna, Chloe, my wife, or Jenn.
This stage-door, autograph routine has now become a thing for us as a family. I think the kids not only like getting the autographs and saying hello to the actors who they saw on stage, but subtlely, I think it helps them calm any nerves and reminds them that it is all pretend and these are just people, on a stage, performing. I think it also helps them have a greater appreciation for what they they just saw.
Since then, we’ve seen some other shows, including Hamilton in Boston, where they managed to get autographs for almost every main character. So, it is pretty common for us, when we see a show, to wait around after to see if we can meet anyone. This brings us back to Jersey Boys. That show has been around a while and is now playing in a just-off Broadway theater. After the show, which the girls loved (for more than just the exhaustive use of the word “fuck”), we waited near a door we thought might yield some cast members. It happened to be right near the coat check.
As usual, the girls managed to meet a few cast members who were incredibly gracious, to stop and chat for a few minutes and sign their programs. It turns out though, that this stage door encounter was not the most interesting thing that happened that afternoon…
Chloe tapped me on the arm, gestured for me to look over to the coat check, and whispered:
“Is that person transsexual?”
Well, I didn’t see that coming. We’ve never had that conversation and I wasn’t even sure where she had learned the word. I looked over at where she was looking and answered that I wasn’t sure. Before we could get into any more of a conversation, she got distracted by more cast members and then with her cousins, sister, and everyone else standing around, I didn’t feel like it was a good time to bring it up again.
Skip ahead a few hours to dinner and all 10 of us at a long table. I’m sitting in the middle and Chloe is on my immediate left. At some point in the meal, she leans over, unprompted, and quietly says:
“How does being transsexual work?”
Well, I guess we’re going to have this conversation. She had no judgement or concern in her voice or eyes. She was wondering about something that frankly, is pretty confusing for a lot of people. I certainly don’t know nearly all the answers on this topic and I didn’t feel at all properly prepared to answer whatever questions she had. I was, however, determined to allow the converversation and to be as honest as I could be.
I started by telling her that I don’t exactly know how it all works. I explained that I might not know how to answer all her questions but I would try. Between you and I, I don’t know if I know all the appropriate terminology and I certainly would never want to offend anyone or put anything in Chloe’s head that she might later use to offend anyone.
So we dived in.
I tried to explain to her that while people are born with “boy parts” or “girl parts” that they don’t always feel, in their hearts, like they are a boy or a girl. She asked how someone “who was born with boy parts could grow boobs?” We talked about how transsexual people, just like people who aren’t transsexual, are all different and everyone makes different decisions for how they want their bodies to change, if at all and that no matter what, we should always respect and love each other for whoever we are.
She was very engaged in the conversation and then she asked a question that revealed why she had been thinking about this to begin with:
“Will I become a boy?”
She went on to tell me that she had been nervous that she would “wake up one morning and be a boy,” and is that how it works?
I told her that she isn’t going to just wake up randomly and BE a boy.
She confirmed that she wouldn’t just “grow a penis,” and then told me, with relief:
“Ok, that’s good, because I really like being a girl.”
The conversation continued. I was interested to see how much she would say. We’ve always known Chloe was very introspective and always has a thousand things going on in her head but its not often that she opens up and engages in a deep conversation, for more than a few minutes. Throughout our conversation, the rest of the table, with perhaps the exception of my mother, who was sitting across from me and quietly listening in (I think), kept their conversations going. It never turned into a big table conversation.
She asked me if I knew any people who were “girls but used to have boy parts” or “boys but used to have girl parts.” I never, for even a moment, felt like she was being at all judgmental. She, like many of us, is just trying to learn as much as she can.
I asked her if she had any friends who had two moms or two dads. I wanted to bring the conversation to a level about acceptance and open-mindedness. I told her a story about a friend of mine who came out of the closet to his friends and family relatively late and asked her how difficult she thought it might have been to not feel comfortable enough or safe enough to proudly be, to everyone else, who you knew you were for much longer. I told her that I believed it was our responsibility to always be accepting and to do everything we could to help make people feel comfortable and accepted.
I asked her if it mattered to her if someone loved a man or a woman; if someone identified as a man or a woman, regardless of which parts they were born with. She said no, not at all.
I consider myself to be a pretty open-minded and accepting person BUT I’m fully aware of the prejudices that exist and the difficulities people face. When any type of conversation like this happens with one of the kids, I find that the hairs on the back of my neck stand up a bit and I get tense because my instinct is based on the context that I have about the world. This has happened before with similar conversations about the color of peoples’ skin.
What became clear during this conversation with Chloe, although, was that her context is very different: she seems to inherently believe and know what many of us have had to learn, that being transsexual or being homosexual aren’t choices that people make in the same way that the color of our skin isn’t a choice.
It just is.
Talking about these things and asking questions is how we learn and how we grow. It makes me feel great, and proud, that her context is one of acceptance first.
She’s 9 and teaching me something new every day.