In its October 2014 issue, the magazine Woman’s Day strayed outside its usual comfort zone with an article about a Christian mother learning to accept and support her transgender son. In The Son God Gave Me, Gina Kentopp tells Barry Yeoman about her coming to terms with her son’s identity and the process of its formation and the changes she had to go through herself.
When my second child, Kyle, was born in 1994, and the nurse told me I had given birth to a daughter, I was thrilled. I already had a son, Alex, and now, I thought, a baby girl. During the first year of Kyle’s life, I dressed him in every frilly outfit I could.
I use the pronoun “he” when talking about Kyle, because I now understand that he has always been male-his inner soul, when he was born, didn’t match his body.
Back then, though, he seemed to be a tomboyish girl. He played paintball and basketball, and loved to build with his dad. On special occasions I could get him into dresses, but it was always a fight-they were, he said, itchy. I didn’t think twice about it, because that was exactly how I was at his age.
Gina grew up in a very Christian community, where God was a part of every interaction.
Example: I went shopping yesterday and a discovered a woman trying to clear space for her feet on the lowest level of groceries so that she could climb up to get what she needed. Being tall, I asked if I could help. After getting her two jars of apricot preserves from the top shelf, she thanked me profusely. I told her I couldn’t take any credit for being tall. She responded, “That was God’s doing.” Actually I was thinking it was my parents’ genes that made a major contribution.
Traditional Christianity tells you just how to achieve a strong family: The man heads the household-in our case, Nick, my husband of 28 years. The woman takes care of the children, as I did. You pray together and teach them Bible verses, and about heaven and hell. There is a checklist: If you do what you are supposed to, you receive God’s blessings. We did it all, and it seemed to be working. One day when Kyle was around 8, I picked him up at school. “When I grow up, I want to be just like you,” he said. “I want to be a good mom and I want to love God as much as you do.” That meant so much to me.
When Kyle was 14, however, Kyle developed a serious case of love for another girl…and told her mother she might be gay.
I couldn’t breathe. I had always been taught that homosexuality was a sin. I truly felt we were being attacked by Satan. I also thought it was teenage rebellion: Because my faith was important to me, Kyle was thumbing his nose at what I believed.
I recall staying calm and saying, “Everything is going to be all right and we love you.” (In Kyle’s memory, I acted more tense and upset.) Then I went into the bedroom, shut the door and fell apart. I just bawled. My world was blowing up. I called Nick and said, “Come home.” I had never done that before, and I didn’t even tell him why. He thought someone had died.
They took Kyle to meet with the girls’ youth pastor. The pastor told Gina that she didn’t think Kyle was a lesbian…that it was probably just a fad, in order to be “hip.”
So Kyle was taken to a Christian counsellor and they all prayed for God to remove those feelings from Kyle.
But He did not. We’d be at dinner, and suddenly Kyle would say, “Mom, you know you’ve got to accept that I’m gay.” He was never disrespectful, but I was so upset, sometimes I could hardly even look at him. Nick kept up better communication with Kyle. I’d beg him to take Kyle out to dinner and tell him how miserable he was making me. I hoped Nick could talk some sense into him.
I began reading a lot, hoping to learn how to change Kyle. I believed I was helping him. I mostly found memoirs written by people who felt comfortable being gay and Christian, which ran counter to my beliefs. But I knew the answer had to be out there.
And it was. One day, I was reading one of the memoirs in the bathtub. Instead of asking God to change your child, the author suggested, why don’t you ask Him to change your heart? It was a revelation: I had never even considered that idea.
I put the book down and sat there until the bathwater had cooled. I contemplated what it would mean to change my thoughts and feelings. Could I even do that? I said to God, “If this is the way You have made my child, and this is the way You want me to love her, I pray that You give me peace in my heart.”
If only more parents of LGBT children learned that lesson. And the sooner the better.
And another thing had happened: Around the same time, at age 16, Kyle had a girlfriend whose mom and dad found them cuddling. The parents called at 11 P.M., very upset, saying my child was no longer welcome in their home. The father even threatened physical violence. Kyle came home inconsolable and we held each other and cried together. My baby was going to face so much hostility in the world that he needed a soft place to fall. He had to be able to count on us.
The family learned to be open to one another. Then one day,
I don’t really feel like the word lesbian fits me. He was so excited. Mom, II think I know who I am. I’m transgender.
–Kyle, after reconnecting with an alumnus of his high school who’d come out as transgender.
I was stunned, but so relieved that he had confided in me. I wasn’t 100% sure what “transgender” meant. I thought Kyle was talking about dressing as a male. But I knew I needed to be there for him. I had already done the hard work of reconnecting with my child’s heart, and there was no way I was going to let fear and lack of understanding keep us apart again.
As he grew older, Kyle made it clear that he badly needed to transition to living as a male, including hormone therapy and possibly surgery.
In order for me to survive, I need to be true to who I am.
–Kyle at age 18
We spoke to a therapist, and she explained that Kyle, like many transgender people, needed to align his body with his spirit. I’d wanted Kyle to wait, but I came to see that living a false life would be hell on earth: More than 40% of transgender people attempt suicide. Strong family relationships dramatically reduce that danger.
So we made an appointment with an endocrinologist, who agreed to start him on testosterone. I had never seen him so happy.
Kyle is now a college sophomore majoring in international studies. He says he would like to help the children in Afghanistan.
He wants to be a dad. And he has taught me so much-about living authentically, and about not passing judgment on others. Of course, he’s had some rough times, but he got through them. His adult journey has begun.
Women’s Day added a link to True Colors.
While there were some negative comments in response to the article, Kentopp said the majority of the feedback she has received has been “beautiful” and positive.
We’ve wanted to touch on this subject for some time, and when we found Gina, we were so moved by her story that we knew the time was right. A devout Christian, Gina came to believe that loving your child and putting him or her first is the most important thing, regardless of one’s preconceived notions or personal beliefs.
While we did receive some negative comments online and through letters, we were thrilled to have received mostly positive reader reaction, which reaffirmed our hope that by telling a story through the eyes of someone with whom they have much in common, our readers would be able to embrace a point of view that may not be prevalent in their communities.