2 Years Ago My Facebook Post Went Viral
Here’s More of Our Backstory, and What Happened Next
Two years ago, I sat down at my kitchen table to write a letter, having no idea that letter’s message would resonate beyond my own community, let alone around the world. I had just been on a shopping trip with my (then, gender creative son — a label my child had recently picked after seeing CJ’s story, from Raising My Rainbow). It was a much-anticipated and first shopping trip to Justice, the glittery tween girls clothing store. My child finally, after a long bout of crippling anxiety, panic attacks, and depression, sprang to life in the little girl’s dressing room mirror earlier that night.
I never wanted to forget the transformation happening before my eyes, so I proudly took photos of each potential outfit and accompanying smile. It was a smile I hadn’t seen in years. Scrolling through the photos later that night, I broke down sobbing as I began to experience this feeling I didn’t recognize. For the first time in 16 years as a parent of three kids, this feeling was a first. I didn’t know exactly what it was or how to name it, even. But, being led by this new, bittersweet but emancipated emotion, I just started writing.
Fear and Uncertainty: The 2016 NC Political Climate
Normally I wouldn’t have cared about or even been emotional over a shopping trip. I kind of dislike shopping in general, but now, my cherished home state had caused me to fear it as well. North Carolina had just passed HB2, the notorious “bathroom bill,” the most anti-LGBT law in recent history. In fact, the national headquarters of the ACLU described North Carolina’s HB2 as the “most extreme anti-LGBT measure in the country.”
In addition to nullifying local ordinances that would’ve expanded legal protections for LGBT people, HB2 also discriminated against TGNC (trans and/or gender nonconforming) people by prohibiting them from using public facilities that correspond to their gender identity. More specifically, this ill-conceived law mandated that people could only use public restrooms, changing and locker rooms, and shower facilities that matched their biological sex. The bill drafters even deemed it necessary to give new definition — so there was no confusion whatsoever — to exactly what they meant by biological sex: “The physical condition of being male or female, which is stated on a person’s birth certificate.”
Aside from the fact that intersex people and plenty of other individuals exist under the trans umbrella who aren’t physically male or female, there also exist non-binary people, genderqueer people, Native American two-spirits, and others who don’t necessarily identify as male or female, but some combination of both, neither, or a third (or other) gender altogether. Aside from the fact that many trans people can’t or don’t have their birth certificates changed (which in NC can only be done after a person undergoes the gender confirmation surgery better known as “bottom surgery”), there are also trans folks who don’t elect to take any hormones or other medical interventions. And still, there was another glaring problem: there was simply no way to enforce this law.
Which seems obvious in hindsight. But at the time, there was much uncertainty around this bill, especially within the LGBTQ community. And I was about to take my 10-year-old child, then obviously a boy, who dressed like a boy, had short hair and fairly masculine features, to a store whose windows boasted “Just For Girls.” Furthermore, I was going to let my boy use a girls changing facility. Was this considered breaking the law? Since HB2 clearly designated “changing rooms” under the single sex occupancy mandate, it seemed like it could be.
What about other customers in the store? Did I need to be concerned with how they might react, especially if another parent noticed a boy in the girls dressing area and freaked out? What would they say to my child or to me in front of my child? Was there any chance the store employees might make things awkward — or worse — deny us a dressing room because of HB2 and the presence of other girls in the store?
I needed to know, because with an already anxious and panicky child, I reeaaally didn’t want this first experience tinged with fear or tainted with negativity. Unfortunately, my child was already aware of HB2 from the many ads our (then) governor, Republican Pat McCrory, repeatedly ran on TV, like this one:
In 2010, Republicans had gained the majority, and have since grown into a supermajority in the NC General Assembly. This has limited the ability of Democratic legislators (and now, Democratic Governor Roy Cooper) to influence how the state is run. In 2016, the NCGOP for years had been pulling off unconstitutional feats. Now, they were just being more blatant about it.
After congressional redistricting in 2011, Republican legislators in 2013 requested data on voting patterns by race and, with that data in hand, drafted a law that, according to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, would “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” By the time HB2 was drafted the NCGA was straight-up fearmongering, and they seemed deadset on feeding an ignorant mindset and perpetuating a false myth — that trans people are synonomous with sexual predators.
North Carolinians Showed up and Stood Up
Between the passing of HB2 and writing my open letter, I’d done a lot of research to try and understand what was happening politically and socially in my state. If the NCGA could push through legislation overnight which reversed civil rights and social progress and think no one would notice, care, or understand, they sure picked the wrong time and they sure picked the wrong state. But furthermore, I worried what more damage were they willing to do to the good people and the good name of North Carolina?
I don’t believe we should have to micromanage our government; as busy citizens just doing our best to live and thrive, in theory, we should be able to trust that our government leaders both locally and nationally will be fair, equal, and bipartisan. We should be able to trust these leaders to have moral integrity rather than moral corruption, and to enact laws and polices that progress society forwards rather than backwards. Yet, here we are.
As someone who’d never taken a serious interest in politics before, what I couldn’t have foreseen in September 2016 was exactly how much the people of NC (and the entire USA) would grow to detest HB2 and all that it stood for: blatant discrimination, blatant bigotry, and blatant corruption of power. And these citizens certainly didn’t appreciate laws made in the dark that were meant to prey on fears and perpetuate myths and lies, especially to people who were ignorant of the difference between transgender people and sexual predators.
It was awe-inspiring to watch members of my community, in various ways, expose, protest, and shine a spotlight on the reprehensible, backwards antics of the NCGOP. Governor Pat McCrory, who defended and doubled down on this law to the bitter end, became one of the most despised politicians in North Carolina, if not the nation. The Raleigh “airhorn orchestra” gathered every Wednesday night — the night McCrory was known to be in the governor’s mansion on a weekly basis — to serenade his evening with airhorns, noisemakers, trumpets, trombones, drums, and more, to make well-known their disapproval of discrimination and stupid laws like this one.
There were also people on the streets and in communities mobilizing, organizing, registering others to vote — in some cases, folks who had never voted before. North Carolinians showed up, and they stood up for who we are as a state, and who we aren’t. I am still proud to say that with this kind of energy, motivation, and bandwidth, the state of North Carolina was able to unseat the incumbent governor for the first time in NC history since the dissolution of the Whig party in the 1800s. This, despite the fact that our districts were grossly gerrymandered, destined to ensure a Republican Governor for the next decade, at least.
As I reflect on that now in 2018, where our country is facing a very similar political climate, albeit much larger in scope, I can’t help but feel a sense of hope.
A Journey Started, Alone and Afraid
My third and youngest child was assigned male at birth. When he was born, my husband and I already had a 5-year old son and a 3-year-old daughter, so this baby boy was just icing on the cake. But at age two-and-a-half, it started becoming evident that this child was not just any old typical boy. It was that age when (he, then) first mentioned, casually but seriously, “Mommy, you know I’m only a boy because of my parts, right?”
With that phrase, I felt my heart fall into my stomach. I’d never heard anything like that before, and by the way my child said it I knew it was profound, not something said out of make-believe. I knew nothing of trans or gender nonconforming kids at that point. “It’s just a phase, he’ll grow out of it,” is what well-intentioned people told us with concern whenever they saw our child running around the house in big sister’s used ballet costumes.
“It’s just a phase” became a robotic mantra that we heard over and over again from people who started seeming way too preoccupied with our son’s princess dress-up habit. “It’s just a phase” echoed in my head at night as I lay in bed thinking, “I’m pretty sure my kid’s just going to be gay, and I’m totally on board with that; I can parent that.” Over time I grew more skeptical, feeling there was something I was missing.
I knew I was hypersensitive for my child’s own protection, but it got to the point where strangers on the toy aisle at Target felt the need to importune me when they observed my very obvious boy squealing with high-pitched delight over feather boas and Polly Pockets. They’d laugh with discomfort as if to say “what an interesting anomaly; I’m so sorry,” or they’d assert with a knowing smile, “my son went through that, too; it’s just a phase.” But in my heart I knew it wasn’t.
As much as others tend to tell parents like me that we “caused” or “encouraged” this, that we’re “child abusers,” that we’re “pushing an agenda,” trying to “draw attention to ourselves,” or trying to be “social justice warriors” engaging in “virtue signalling,” any of us could tell you with certainty that these allegations are all ridiculous and false.
There was no was no agenda pushed on this child, quite the opposite. Looking back ten years later, I now see that I was denying and fighting what my child was trying so hard to communicate; I was fighting it an awful lot, due to my very petty but adult fear of being judged a “bad parent.” Eventually, and in baby steps, I decided to stop worrying and just allow my child the room, permission, and acceptance to explore, judgment free. With an older boy and girl in the house already, we had all kinds of toys, games, and activities available, but my youngest never had interest in older brother’s trucks, robots, or legos. The fascination was always with all things sparkly, pink, pouffy, and pretty.
My degree, background, and experience in psychology and early childhood development permitted me to know it was deveopmentally appropriate for many 4-year old boys to have interest in princess dress up and dolls. At some point — usually by kindergarten — most would begin to gravitate towards more rough-and-tumble, stereotypical “boys” games, activities, and toys. But my youngest never lost interest in the pretty, delicate things. Not only that, but this child never gained interest in “boys” things, either. Gifts of matchbox cars, play tool sets, and superheroes never even made it out of the packaging. I know now that all behavior is communication, but at the time I didn’t think anything of it other than “it’s just a phase.”
I regret this, but it wasn’t until 4th grade that I allowed my child to pick (his, then) own backpack. My husband and I had feared this in the past, knowing our child would go straight for the hottest, pinkest, sparkliest backpack that screamed “GIRL!” if given the chance. You know, the kind of “girly” backpack that could get a boy’s ass kicked in 4th grade, especially in a very red state in the south where boys and their dads have a steady diet of fishing, football, four-wheeling, and formula racing.
We were fearful and protective. And this child was so innocent, having no idea that wanting such a backpack could earn an ass-kicking. “Why wouldn’t you like this backpack? What’s not to like?!” our kid would argue. And when I’d always warn of how “others can be unkind,” our child would sigh and respond, “I know, Mom. You don’t have to keep telling me that. I already know.”
The truth was, this child had already known a lifetime of being mocked, teased, laughed at, and questioned for liking “girly” things — that was already well-established. I didn’t need to serve as another reminder of that. Our kid was already what some would consider “bully bait,” but we knew allowing (him, then) to express even more feminine might create a situation beyond return, might be too over the top.
And yes, as many inquired, we did enroll this child in Taekwondo, gymnastics, and more, to learn things like self-defense and self-confidence. But our child never enjoyed those things. All this child wanted to do was be a gentle, quiet, creative soul who loved acting out princess roles from Disney movies, playing with dolls that had pretty hair, and befriending the other outcasts in school. As we approached the large wall of backpacks during back-to-school shopping, my husband and I had a quick huddle, and something just clicked. Thankfully we were on the same page. It occured to us that as parents of this child, we were both being hypocritical and sending perplexing messages.
We’d always taught our kids to be themselves. I’d taught them and lived by a Judy Garland quote, “Always be a first rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.” But the message we’d been sending to our youngest was, “be a first rate version of yourself, but only behind closed doors in the safety of your own home and yard.” In doing so we were not only saying, “be yourself… just not in public,” but we were also assigning an unnecessary stigma. If this was our child, then we were going to embrace them exactly as they were, all the time, every day, in private and in public, however that looked —and especially if that looked different than the life we’d imagined for them.
Isn’t that what unconditional love is supposed to look like? Not to say we allowed our kids to call the shots willy nilly and walk out into oncoming traffic because they thought it’d be fun, but we needed to give our youngest the chance to explore and live authentically, just as we’d done with our older two. This was just clothing and expression. It literally wasn’t hurting anyone for our child to like, have, and wear “pretty” things, but it was hurting our child to not be able to live freely.
After that 2016 trip to Justice, which was wildly successful, becoming basically the only place this child has wanted to shop for clothing over the past 2+ years, I sat down and tried to compose my thoughts in the form of an open letter. It was my first time writing such a letter, and my first time posting something publicly on social media.
It was a moment of revelation after a journey I started alone and afraid when my youngest had been (for nearly ten years) showing me with insistence, persistence, and consistence that they were most certainly not identifying with or even comfortable as the gender assigned to them at birth. It’s a bit ironic that the revelation came to me with such conviction in the confusing aftermath of HB2 which had been made into law only a few months prior, but, you know, we don’t get to pick the timing of these things!
My motives in 2016 for writing and posting this letter publicly were simple: to let my local community know that this store was a judgment free, LGBT-friendly store, and to thank the team of amazing women who supported us, from friends who surprised Charlie with Justice gift cards, to a friend who visited and vetted the store manager, to the store manager herself, whose last name I did not get in my haste to leave the store and get home before dark. Justice would be one of the many businesses across the state of NC who would openly refute HB2 over the course of that year, but at the time, parents like me didn’t know a tidal wave of support was coming.
A tidal wave indeed, and almost immediately. Two mornings after making that post, I awoke to an unusual buzz of activity and notifications on my phone. Not having time in the morning to realize what was going on, I pushed through my usual routine, getting the kids and myself out the door for school and work. During my lunch break I logged on to Facebook and learned I had over 1,000 friend requests, and more Facebook Messenger message requests than I could scroll through. My first thought was I’d been hacked and there was a problem, and I really didn’t have the time to deal with that right now.
When I got home from work that day, I still hadn’t had the time to to learn exactly what was happening, other than realizing my story was really resonating with people. By then, my social media feeds were so clogged up from continuous comments, shares, and requests that my notifications were disappearing before I got a chance to see them. But there was no time to deal with it then either… it was dress rehearsal for a show I was performing in, opening later that week.
I only had time to throw down a quick bite before heading to the theatre downtown through rush hour traffic. The night ended up running very late, a harbinger of the whole week to come. Once I got home and in bed around midnight, I looked into social media again. Though I wasn’t active on Twitter or Instagram aside from creating accounts, I had a flood of notifications and direct messages there as well.
As I started opening a few of them, I scanned and saw words like “thank you;” “you’re my hero;” “my hope is restored;” “you don’t know how much this means to me;” “I’m 16, trans and my parents don’t accept me;” “I’ve lived for nearly seventy years as a trans woman. I’ve never come out, but your letter has given me the courage to do just that;” and one of my favorites that night, which I read just before passing out from exhaustion into a deep sleep:
“Too many times I watched parents force their daughters to wear things they didn’t want, but you brought your son so he could…”
Wow. This letter I’d written and dared to post publicly — for the scrutiny of the world, I know, but you never think that will actually happen — had transcended being the thank you letter I’d intended. It had meaning and purpose for many, many people, and this was far beyond anything I could understand.
I had no idea the post would go viral, being shared over 40,000 times in the span of about four days across national and international media outlets. It’s really something to see a photo of yourself and your child dead-center on the homepage of Yahoo! News, and under “trending” sections of media everywhere.
I had no idea I’d be relegating time each day just to respond to emails for permission to reprint the letter, or requests to interview, one after another. Upworthy, Buzzfeed, The Washinton Post, NPR affiliates, NPR’s StoryCorps, and so on. Then there was the onslaught of local news, everyone wanting interviews immediately, when I had literally no time to spare between work, running a household, raising kids, and performing in a play. I had to learn to say no, and a few reporters got really snarky about that — which oddly surprised me.
It’s an understatement to say that it always amused me to be asked, “did you have any idea this would go viral?” Yet that’s the one question I found myself answering over and over again as I interviewed for various media outlets. But that’s the thing with viral stories — nobody ever thinks they have one, nor do they plan accordingly for the ensuing whirlwind. Above all, I didn’t plan for the ensuing whirlwind that also snatched up my husband, my older two kids, and most importantly, my youngest, who was at the center of this story.
Fortunately, I already had my youngest’s consent to tell parts of their story from my perspective as a mother. Earlier that year — at the urging of a friend plus my husband and three kids — I’d auditioned for a series of national, live readings by local writers, called Listen to Your Mother. I was cast, and preserved on their Youtube channel, and later, was one of the writers who made their featured playlist for the 2016 season. I’d been blogging about this gender creative journey for several years, and my youngest always loved to hear and tell parts of their story.
When the LTYM opportunity came, I told my youngest, “I’d be reading one of my stories about you…potentially the whole world could see it and hear it, including kids from your class at school. So if you don’t want me to do this, just say the word and I won’t do it.” My child, in their super-sweet, honest, selfless, and altruistic way said to me, “Mom, not only do I want you to do this; you have to do this!”
But, if I’d had any idea whatsoever that the Justice story would go viral, I would’ve chosen to write the post perhaps during a time when it was not frantic production week of a highly emotional show in which I had a relatively large role and was stressing over getting my lines just right. I’d have maybe waited to post it until after I got through the first month back at my job after an idle summer break. I wouldn’t have posted it during the time when my oldest was starting his very first job, driving himself and his sister to school independently for the first time, or during the time when my middle child was first entering high school. I certainly wouldn’t have posted it right as soon as my husband’s work schedule had just shifted again, this time, to not family-friendly hours. But again, we don’t get to pick the times that life happens. Instead, like the saying goes, “Life happens while you’re busy making other plans.”
Going Forward: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
So many amazing opportunities arose in the aftermath of going viral, especially after the interviews died down. There were tangible, extremely generous opportunities, like an eyewear company in Canada who reached out to say they noticed our child wore glasses, and they were so inspired by our story that they wanted our child to select 3 free pairs of high-end glasses from their store.
Closer to home, we had a local cosmetologist & Redken Master Specialist (i.e., angel on earth) who reached out and said she was so touched by my child’s story that she wanted to offer my child a full, pampering, salon experience with cut, color, and style, in a judgment-free zone, free of charge. She was also able to swing a Facetime call with an original Hamilton Broadway cast member for my child, who was at the time a HUGE Hamilton fan.
The most distinguished tangible opportunity, and the one my child enjoyed the most (due to getting to play “supermodel” for a few hours) was when a local and prominent artist contacted us, asking if we’d be willing to come to her studio so she could paint my child’s portrait for an upcoming art exhibition on gender. It was also around this time when, on the wings of confidence, our child saw a “they/them” pronoun pin at the LGBT Center and unequivocally said, “That’s me. Those are my pronouns,” and we began practicing using those at home.
It felt awkward, unnatural, even a bit odd, but when our amazing therapist who specializes in gender & the LGBTQ community explained to us what it meant, and how disrespectful and even dangerous it was to continually misgender trans youth, we found it much easier to do going forward.
After 5th grade graduation in 2017, the first thing our child said was, “Finally!! No more ‘he/him,’” and they shed that 11-year persona like a snakeskin and never looked back. Over the next year though, my child decided that trying to go by ‘they/them’ in middle school sort of makes you stand out like a sore thumb when all you want to do is fit in. So it then became, “I’ll go by ‘she/her’ or ‘they/them’… anything but ‘he/him.’”
At the time of the viral story, my husband and I had recently founded and begun running a program of our local LGBT Center that served two purposes: a playgroup for TGNC youth ages 12 and under, and a discussion group for parents. As a result of our story going viral, our TGNC program for youth & parents quickly spread by word of mouth and grew so much that we ended up creating a third extension — a secret Facebook group that allowed us to connect with a broader community, i.e., people who weren’t in our area but still needed the support.
With a story that goes viral, especially one that may not express a popular topic, you also have to deal with the onslaught of hate mail (of which I got plenty.) But I choose to focus on the love and support which always, always (to this day) outweighs the hate, in spades.
I only regret that I’ve never been able to get caught up. There are still more “friend” and connection requests and more comments than I’ll ever get to address, and with the anniversary of the viral post having just come and gone for a second year, along with Facebook’s “memories” option, I experienced another surge of mail and messages from folks just coming across the story for the first time.
But what really matters to me is the sheer number of messages that come through my blog or from email, where parents are desperately looking for support in another parent who “just gets it.” The fears and needs specific to this community, especially in today’s hostile political climate where marginalized groups no longer feel safe, is a special kind of hell that parents of cisgender kids (meaning their gender identity aligns with their sex assigned at birth) don’t even have to give a second thought to. These parents who reach out are often scared, they’re realizing for the first time that this may not be a phase, that they might have a TGNC child, and they’re lacking resources. I always at least try to respond to those.
Most importantly, though, from this experience our child got connected with a whole community of kids just like them, as well as a world of friends outside of our state and even beyond our country. People often assume that a child caught up in a viral story is a bad thing, but, at least for our family, it has been the opposite.
As I mentioned in the beginning, my child had already spent their whole life plagued with anxiety, panic attacks (which started at age 2), and had begun exhibiting signs of serious depression throughout their 4th grade year in school, growing more and more inwards, lonely, withdrawn, and quiet. The Justice shopping trip was just the medicince my child needed two years ago. More specifically, the freedom to embrace themself and live authentically was the antidote my child needed. The viral post was just extra fluff.
In the wake of the viral post, many awesome kids reached out to us. Many had their parents record videos of positive, supportive messages and sent them our way. Entire high school GSA’s wrote “fan mail,” giving our kiddo a much-needed boost in that newfound self-confidence. And it had the serendipitous benefit of connecting my husband and me with hundreds of other parents raising TGNC kids, who were already out there in the trenches, fighting the good fight and leading the way in advocacy for them. As well, I’ve met many, many TGNC adults, all of whom I’ve gotten to know better and cherish a whole lot.
I’m still learning how to be an advocate. I’ve learned not to try to fight for anyone’s civil rights unless I’m willing to fight for everyone’s civil rights. I’ve learned that it’s pretty impossible to be a “silent” advocate. I’ve learned I need to listen and read and listen some more whenever a marginalized or minority voice is speaking. I’ve learned how to acknowledge the many ways in which I’m a privileged person living in America, and what to do with that privilege. And yet, I’ve only scratched the surface. One thing I know for certain, and that is if we have privilege and a platform — and all of us do, if we have a social media account — we must strive to use it responsibly, spreading education, facts, and awareness, so that there’s no more excuse for willful ignorance.
The message in all of this is: Don’t ever think you don’t have a voice. Don’t ever think your story doesn’t matter. Don’t ever think you can’t somehow make a difference. And definitely don’t get complacent, tune out, or take your rights and privileges for granted. And yes, I’m going to get political here and say, if you’re unhappy with the state of our nation right now, the single most important thing you can do is vote! Mid-terms are right around the corner. Take one hour out of your life to research your local candidates, and VOTE! Always, always vote locally — it cannot be stressed enough how important those elections are. Change has to start locally before it can change nationally.
Don’t wait for the perfect candidate, or the one whose message sufficiently “inspires” you. Vote for who you think best represents what you want your city, state, and country to be for your children, nieces and nephews, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and generations you will never meet, many of whom (I can guarantee you) will be members of at least one marginalized community whose basic civil rights will always be at-risk or threatened by those who choose to remain willfully ignorant.
The United States of America is at a point of reckoning, much like my state, North Carolina was, in 2016, at the time of my post that happened to go viral. But now we are faced with making a decision about what kind of country we want to be going forward. The enormousness of this task should not be underestimated. We have to be willing to get in the arena and fight for something if we really want it. The newest, youngest generation of voters is also the largest voting generation in American history. I’d be remiss not to say I feel safe in their hands, though I feel horrible that we’ve left such a mess for them to clean up.
Let’s start cleaning it up.