by Gretchen Peters / Singer, Songwriter
My least favorite word when people ask me about my son is “become,” as in, “When did he decide he wanted to become a man?” When do we decide to become the gender we are? Does it happen at toddlerhood, at school age, at puberty? My son has always been male. The only difference between him and me and probably you is that his body betrayed him, once at birth and again, traumatically, at puberty. Being the parent of a transgender child has led me to some interesting analogies. Being trans is a state which most of us cisgender folks can’t quite wrap our heads around, at least initially. But this question ofbecoming vs. being reminded me a lot of something that’s bothered me about the music business (I’m a singer-songwriter) for years: people used to ask me the same question after I’d had success as a songwriter and was making my first album as a recording artist. “When did you decide to become an artist?” I felt a similar sense of indignation. I’ve always been an artist. You just didn’t know it.
Learning that my child was transgender was like turning a key and feeling all the tumblers fall into place. Everything made sense: his firm conviction at 3 that he was a boy, his refusal to wear dresses, his persistent dis-ease throughout childhood, his reaction to puberty (horror), and, most alarmingly, his bouts during his teens with suicidal feelings. He knew who and what he was — he always had. When he finally told me, I knew in my bones that it was true. I’d even had inklings before he summoned the remarkable courage to come out. None of that makes the emotions any less raw upon learning that the child you raised as a girl for 26 years is, in fact, a boy. This is the child to whom I gave a girl’s name, imbued with my own girlish hopes, nurtured the mother-daughter bond that I had with my own mother — a bond based, it seemed to me, on our common gender. What was my relationship with this person if he is my son? How do I learn how to have a son? I’d thought of myself as the mother of a daughter for a quarter of a century.
As a songwriter, singer and musician, I explore the emotional terrain of everyday life on a regular basis. I am interested in shining a light into some dark corners, even compelled to do it, to take the secrets that we all keep and bring them into the light, give them a name, treat them with compassion and humility, but, above all, to tell the truth. Art has the power to transport us into other people’s lives, and thus, ultimately, into our own hearts. The act of empathizing with another, no matter how different, breaks down the walls built by secret-keeping and fear, and forever binds us together in our humanity. So naturally, I turned to music to help me process this sea-change in my life and my son’s.
I wrote, and wrote, and wrote. I thought about my struggle to own my identity as an artist in the world. I thought about my son’s struggle to stand up and be seen for who he is. So many people prefer you to assume a role that makes them comfortable. But life is not about making other people comfortable. This idea seeped into the songs that were coming out of me — the old adage, “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I wanted to say what seemed unsayable. That life is tough, heartbreaking, unfair — and short. And that there is unspeakable beauty to be found. My son unknowingly gave me a tremendous gift last year when he bravely shared his truth with me. He gave me the courage to share mine.