It was four days before my son, who is transgender, was to have gender affirming surgery, and my insurance company, Aetna, informed me that it would not be covered. This was a shock, as I lived and worked in New York, where such discrimination is illegal — but because the health insurance policy of the company I worked for, Scripps Networks, had been written in Texas, this could happen. I pleaded with Scripps to make an exception, though I didn’t have much hope. But there was no turning back; we would have to pay the $40,000 bill.
My son taught me how to be a parent to a trans child. It was not easy. I was hobbled by gender concepts that kept me stuck. I made mistakes and learned from them. As a feminist, being the parent of a daughter had been part of my identity. But we never really clicked on typical mother-daughter things. In hindsight, I get it. He was always gender nonconforming. We didn’t have that language, but it was true.
The name change was especially hard for me. At birth we had given him an old family name that I was very attached to. You think you choose your child’s name, but transgender children often choose their names to express their identities, and everything you brought to that must be let go.
I completely embrace my son’s gender identity, but it took time. He was in college when he began his transition. When he first started taking hormones, I was terribly anxious. How would he change? When he came home, would I recognize him?
I told him of my fears. “I’m scared that you’re going to be different,” I said.
“I’m not different,” he said. “This is who I’ve always been. I just now know who I am.” That stopped me in my tracks. During transition, we bonded in ways we had never been able to before.
When he was hassled on the subway, I worried about his safety.
But my son is incredibly brave. “Are you sure you want to transition?” I asked him.
He was really clear. “If you can’t be with me,” he said, “I am still going to do this.” I am awed by his honesty and grateful to him. I am a better human, being his mother.
This is a scary time for families like ours. A legion of hateful right-wing legislators wants to marginalize us for political gain. In Florida, the “Don’t Say Gay” law undermines free speech under some twisted idea of parenting. Alabama has made it a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, to provide medically necessary care to trans youth.
Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas wants to investigate parents for child abuse if they seek evidence-based lifesaving treatments for their transgender children. Thirty-nine states have introduced anti-trans youth legislation.
Transgender and gender nonconforming children are at risk of violent abuse and suicide when parents and communities aren’t supportive. When we went with our son to see the top surgeon, the first thing the doctor said was “It makes such a difference when the family’s here.” Being supported by families, he told us, is key to successful treatment. It is astonishingly cruel to accuse those families of child abuse.
We in the liberal Northeast may think we are protected from this viciousness. But this is our problem, too, if an employer can deny health benefits in New York because its insurance policy was written in Texas.
I called the company again to make one last plea on the day before the surgery. This time they told me that they had decided to cover the cost — and not just as an exception but as a change in the company-wide policy. I have never felt prouder of my son, who is helping to change the world.
This Mother’s Day, stand with the parents of trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming youth. Stop the haters. We have the most amazing children who deserve our unconditional love and protection. They make us the mothers we are.
Katherine Alford lives in New York City and Wellfleet and writes regularly about food for the Independent.