At the Broken Places: A Mother and Trans Son Pick Up the Pieces, by Mary Collins and Donald Collins. Beacon Press, 2017. ISBN 978-0-8070-8835-7.

AtTheBrokenThis book certainly provides insights into why an estimated 40% of trans youth end up homeless at some point in their lives. It is a back and forth discussion between a mother and her trans son tracing the evolution of a very strained relationship that began when he announced he was trans. It would be nice to say that it goes some way to bridging the divide between parents and their children, but much as I tried to understand the mother’s point of view, more often than not I found her rationalizations upsetting.

However, let’s put ourselves in her shoes a while and see if we can’t understand her argument a little.

Donald Collins started his transition in high school. While he had to wait until he was 18 to have his name changed legally, he was entitled to be called by his preferred name in high school. Trouble was he never told his mother. She heard his new name for the first time when the school emailed her about Donald’s college application. She was furious and felt her parental rights had been negated. Compassion allows me to see why she found this hurtful. She had raised her child as a single parent and had invested much in seeing her (him) grow into a successful adult. And yet…

In Donald’s chapter he reminds her that he had told her of his intention to transition. She rejected the notion outright. He felt he had no choice but to proceed without her: “…she could have been part of this process. My mom needed more time, and I had no more time left to give.”

Well, here’s the problem, isn’t it? There’s a huge gulf between a transgender and a cisgender reality, one that is not easily bridged, but education goes a long way to the beginning of understanding. She could have educated herself about her son and why this was necessary to him. Instead, she said no. Case closed. She chose, in Donald’s words, to be “part opposition, part victim”.

Okay, I’m losing my sympathy for her again. Let’s try another argument.

It is common to hear that parents of trans children go through a process of grief for their “lost” child. Again, I feel for their sense of loss, but only to a certain degree. Talk to a parent whose child has died before you start wallowing in your “grief”. Perhaps your grief is only your unwillingness to let go of a certain conception you had of your child.

Indeed, Donald observes that “my mother grieved for my symbolic feminine future and my literal feminine present.” Mary Collins is so heavily invested in her child’s gender that when Donald was young, his hair was always “something of a miniature battleground” between them. While his stepfather was indifferent to whether he cut it short, his mother always fought him over it. She even admits at one point her disappointment that she would not be able to participate in a mother-daughter tea at Donald’s high school. She elevated what she thought was Donald’s gender over Donald himself. “Going into college, I couldn’t cope with my mom’s attachment to the very things I hated most about myself.”

Mary has some good observations about her discomfort living in a transphobic world. What she should disclose and to whom. The ignorant remarks that leave her stunned. (“All the people I know that are like that were sexually abused as kids.”) Welcome to our world, Mary. It’s awful you have to experience what we go through, but it’s not Donald’s fault.

I commend Mary Collins for her contribution to this dialogue. I agree with her completely when she says, “I seriously believe the homeless rate for transgender youth can be cut in half with more support programs for conflicted parents.” She notes how the parents “hunker down. They close out everyone, including their child.”

Perhaps she sees this because that’s exactly what she did. Her rejection of Donald is in stark contrast to the response of her mother and Donald’s grandmother. “My ninety-year-old mother was the first to tell me to my face without flinching that J. [Donald’s previous name] was never coming back and Donald was here to stay and I must accept it.” She had this loving example right in front of her yet she couldn’t emulate it.

To her credit, she does eventually arrive at a point where she can say she has a son, but can also tell people about her daughter’s childhood. “My revised world view now includes a new gender continuum that can hold these two things in my mind at once.” For someone who once refused to let Donald stay in her house because she wasn’t comfortable with him taking hormones when he was of legal age to do so this is significant progress.

Still, I never got the feeling Mary has entirely accepted her trans son. Despite seeing how successful and happy he is now, she never admits she was wrong about anything. That’s what’s so discouraging. If an intelligent, independent woman like Mary Collins responds in this way, what chance do trans kids growing up in a less privileged environment have? For so many parents the solution is simple. Put up a wall and just say no. It’s a very difficult road ahead for their trans children.

At the Broken Places is a fairly short book whose audience is likely parents of trans children. Each section is preceded by a page of definitions and it contains a reading list of Donald’s books on trans issues at the back. It is available for loan from the Ottawa Public Library.