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bodies in transition

What my trans teens son's journey is teaching me about accepting and embracing my aging disabled body.

Robin Wilson-Beattie

remember the exact moment my son told me he was a boy. Colchester, England. May 2018. He was 13, and until that point, was named Abigael, and my daughter.

As a mother of the #OneAndDone club, I used to joke that I “got it right the first time” when people queried why I only had one child. Being a Mom, and rearing a caring, intelligent, bold, daughter with autism was a large part of my identity. Hearing my son explain to me that he no longer wanted to be identified as female confused and shocked the hell out of me.

I identify as queer, femme, fat, disabled, Black, Southern, progressive, and sex-positive. I’m a 40’s GenXer on the cusp of Millenial. Tech has been in my life since I was in elementary school, after receiving my first computer in elementary school in the 1980’s. In college, I met my son’s father online in 1995. Early adoption of technology, enabling connection with folks worldwide, shaped my life and thinking in ways that are Millennial in mindset- but my physical being is definitely GenX.

While my kid was embarking on transition to another gender, I was undergoing my own body changes, struggling with accepting the reality that is aging. 15 years ago, I acquired a spinal cord injury (SCI) , and I’m classified as a C-4 quadriplegic, incomplete. This means that the upper cervical level of my spinal cord is damaged, and as a result, I have impaired sensation on a lot of my body (no feeling), and I’m partially paralyzed. As a walking quadriplegic, my body experiences chronic pain, daily spills and falls, especially due to having uneven gait. 75% of my body doesn’t sweat. Nightly, I check my naked body daily for scrapes, bruises, and sores in places that I don’t feel, in order to prevent infection. Using a walker for mobility keeps me from busting my ass, stability, and to have autonomous mobility. I have good physical days, where I get out and live life, and terrible ones, when I can’t leave my bed. The bad periods have taught me how to be appreciative of the better ones.

What no one talks about is aging with a chronic condition, and how it affects how you physically, and mentally. Perimenopause is currently here, signaling the end of my reproductive cycle. The change of hormones mean my libido and sexual needs have started to change. I’ve gained weight, and finding fat shifting to my abdomen. I don’t produce as much natural lubrication.

A couple of years ago, my body decided to develop psoriatic arthritis, an autoimmune disease. Itchy raised patches and circles of thick, silver gray scales began to appear all over my body-(including inside the crack of my ass.) I described it to my healthcare providers as looking like grayscale from the television show Game Of Thrones. The inflammation, swelling, joint pain, and appearance was doing a number on my mental health, too. I felt unattractive, depressed, and resulting in having a seriously negative impact on my sex life. Professionally, I am a disability and sexuality educator, speaker, writer, and advocate. I felt like a fraud for talking about giving and receiving pleasure when my personal interest in having sex was lacking. I was feeling the opposite of body positive, and experiencing a lot of negative emotions around aging and the changes it brought.

My legs, the part of my anatomy I loved to display, were so covered in crusty patches, that people often mistook it for injury or infection. Leggings and tights to cover up my calves became staples in my wardrobe. I had shaved my head, wanting to experience freedom from the complicated internalised issues surrounding femme black hair. Psoriasis put a stop to that- my head was looking like dandruff on steroids, so back to wearing weaves and wigs to cover my head. The accompanying swelling and joint pain, along with the paralysis, made walking and moving much harder and slower. I was having more “bad” physical days, and unable to leave the house. My feelings were reflecting outward, apparent to my friends, as they noticed that I wasn’t my typical flirtatious self, and hiding myself away from them.

Meanwhile, I’m figuring out how to help my son navigate his journey as a trans masculine person. How do I teach my child about embracing and loving his body when I’m struggling with my own biological changes? Turns out in order to provide support and guidance, the answer was seeking out others who are experiencing similar journeys, and learning from them.

Later that year, teen and family (Dad,Step/ Bonus-Mom) moved back to Atlanta, GA, which meant I was able to co-parent him in person. Part of my educational journey was returning to school and attend City College of San Francisco. I decided to earn a Sexual Health Educator Certificate of Achievement, and taking courses like Transgender Healthcare Approaches, Human Sexuality, Politics of Sexual Violence, and Heterosexism. These classes helped me better understand the biological, mental, and sociological issues transgender people face. I talked with my trans friends, community and absolute strangers I met about body issues, dysphoria, mental health, all the while asking questions about how I could best support my child. Kid got therapy to help him figure shit out, because I was at a loss on how to help him process his feelings. Joined a metro-Atlanta chapter of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbian and Gays) for peer support and advice from other parents of trans youth undergoing similar journeys. Through them, I found a Facebook group specifically for mothers of trans boys. Binders, genders, bathrooms, “T” for testosterone, dysphoria, pronouns- all of this is part of my lexicon and thoughts, too, now.

// Photo of my son and me at the Atlanta Pride parade, 2019. Image description: Robin posed next to her son, She is wearing a Mama Bear Trans Pride T-shirt, and her son is wearing a pride shirt and trans flag.

Working with my son on body representation and acceptance via professional and personal means meant learning how to implement this advice for myself.

I began researching and seeking medical interventions to help clear up the psoriasis, determined to keep trying treatments to clear up the rashes and control the aching and swelling. Thankfully, my health insurance covered an injectable medication, which has cleared up a lot of the patches (including my ass!), Most importantly, it treats the arthritic pain. Nutrition and foods have helped with the inflammation. Finding blogs online from fellow mid-life folks, having real discussions about GenX issues, was incredibly educational and supportive- because there are millions of other 40 and 50 somethings undergoing similar generational changes and feels. Talking to friends with disabilities about aging has been the best support, however. They understand the fears around becoming increasingly disabled,the uncertainty of what is coming next as we age, body shame, image, societal attitudes, and have offered support in ways people without disabilities simply can not understand.

Guess all of this work helped- because I finally got the confidence and interest in having sex, again. 2019, I embarked on a boot-leg version of “Hot Girl Summer” to get back in the saddle.

I initially planned on ONLY hooking up with someone I met online- but I met a man who has morphed into a partner. His interest and love for my body (and self!) has helped me process feelings about my appearance, and has gone a long way to restoring sexual esteem and interest. One shouldn’t need another person to validate you, but not going to lie…having someone who is attracted and appreciative of my body has been amazing for reigniting the enjoyment of having a sex life. Professionally, this experience has made me think differently about the realities of disabled bodies, and what it means to be sexual. Through explorations and open communication, I’m feeling empowered by embracing aging and it’s changes, and living my sexual now. I discovered the magic that is lube, so vaginal dryness is no longer a barrier. My mindset about my personal sexual functionality also changed. It’s no longer dejected “all good things must come to an end” thinking because my ass is getting older, and shit doesn’t look or work the same. My body’s sexual response isn’t a worse or better situation- it’s simply shifting and different.

This journey has opened my eyes and views about how to listen to my son, and recognise that he is a unique person, with his own body and life. I did not grow up having a sense of autonomy apart from my parents, and was reared to believe my responsibility as their child was to follow the gendered and social template they desired and set for me. That parenting model does not work for us. My child is not an extension of me, and will continue to develop and evolve as an individual. As his Mom, it’s my job to ensure that he physically and emotionally reaches adulthood safe and supported. Our communication, discoveries, and activities that support his trans journey has actually strengthened our bond, and caused me to reevaluate what it means to be a good parent. Like all parents, I’m winging it, and don’t know or have all of the answers on how to best do this. I love this kid so hard, though, and will do whatever it takes to support his development and growth.

// My awesome son! Image description: full profile of teen boy sitting on train, looking ahead. Photo by author.

Life is a cycle, and my son and I are in different places on the timeline. We’re still growing and learning about our ourselves, and figuring out how we want to continue to exist. Peer support, education, treatment, and community have been key to helping us do this. I think (hope…pray!) that we’re on the right track to continue working with what we’ve got, and enjoy life in our bodies as it happens.

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