Interview with Rachel Pepper, Editor: “Transitions of the Heart”

About Rachel Pepper and Transitions of the Heart:

When she was working as Coordinator of Lesbian and Gay Studies at Yale University, Rachel Pepper was shocked by the paucity of resources available to gender variant people and their families. Her book The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals, co-authored with Stephanie Brill, did a great deal to fill that void and has sold almost 10,000 copies in the three years since its publication.

In the same way that the 1987 Cleis Press book Different Daughters: A Book by Mothers of Lesbians changed the discourse for many families in this country, TRANSITIONS OF THE HEART shares an intimate view of the joys, challenges and triumphs of families with trans members for the first time. As Kim Pearson, Executive Director and Co-founder of TransYouth Family Allies, writes in her foreword, this book “is a support group, a tutorial and an educational text rolled into one.”

Rachel Pepper, who earned Masters Degrees in both Counseling and Journalism, is uniquely qualified to be the force behind this pioneering book. She is now a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern, specializing in the care of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and gender variant communities. Pepper lives with her family in Oakland, California.

Hi Rachel! Thanks so much for the interview. I think you did a wonderful job of taking samples from many experiences and walks of life. I don’t have children, but I was deeply moved by many of the stories, and I have a number of trans friends. I’m very happy for the opportunity to help support and promote this book.

What first brought your attention and interest to transgender issues?

I have considered myself an ally to the trans community for a long time. But I would say I began to try to advocate for trans people and their issues while working at Yale University, when I worked there for 5 years as an administrator in the LGBT Studies program. We had several students who were just beginning their transition journey, and I talked with them a lot about their lives. It helped really bring something to consciousness for me. That experience was reflected in my work in the book I co-wrote, The Gay and Lesbian Guide to College Life, which came out in 2006. I made sure the needs of college students were addressed in this book and wrote most of the content that could be helpful for trans students.

After that, I began to advocate for trans kids and their families, and co-wrote The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals, with Stephanie Brill. Writing that book, and interviewing some of the cutting edge experts in it, was another incredible experience for me. After that book came out, I decided to go back to graduate school and I have just received my second Masters degree, this one in Counseling Psychology. I am on my way to becoming a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and hope to work with trans children and their families once I have my own private practice. I specialize in working with transitional age youth (ages 18-25) and have worked with many LGBT young people in various agencies I have been in.

So you can see it has been quite a journey! Many people have asked me before if my own child is trans, but she is not. However, she is a great ally to the trans community and is the most aware and educated about LGBT issues among her peers.

What do you hope that people, not just mothers, can take away from this book?

I hope people will be touched emotionally by the book as it has touched me so deeply. I hope that it may help some people to either feel validated in their experiences as a mother or perhaps help others understand the experiences a mother may go through in learning to understand or accept their child. We have talked a lot in the gay community about our need for acceptance, but what does this need look like from the other side? I have learned myself from this project that mothers have their own unique process around their child’s transition, and it happens on a timeline that works for them, which is not always the timeline their child wishes for or even demands.

Mothers have to go through a grief and loss process as they accept that the child they gave birth to, or adopted, is not the gender that they as a mother knew. Usually acceptance comes, but it may take some time, which trans young people especially don’t usually understand. It can take months or even years for a parent to be able to use the child’s new pronoun, after a lifetime of saying the old one. And that mothers deserve a voice, that they deserve to speak out about their child’s transition, because this is their story, as much as it is their child’s.

The book also asks people to consider that LGBT are not isolated, that they do not exist without a family. I ask readers to consider what the possibility for social change might be if trans people are not cast off from their families, but held lovingly by their families and communities as they transition. We are used to thinking of LGBT as outsiders, only allowed to be considered “normal” if they mimc hetero-normative behaviors like having kids or getting married? But what if we allowed all people to be who they are, without risk of ostracism? What if we could also choose to be radically queer, or transition, or be gender variant as a child, and still be loved and valued and supported? What amazing social change may be possible!

I also hope people realize that behind this new wave of very young trans and gender creative kids is a whole gang of moms that are advocating for such change, and advocating for their kids, in ways we have not yet seen. They are willing to do whatever it takes to protect their child and make his or her life safer and more accepting. And that these moms, mostly heterosexual and previously quite unaware of LGBT issues,  are also therefore a new wave of advocates for the trans community, a rather astonishing crossover of worlds.

If you could ask any specific person or audience to read this book, who would it be and why?

I think those who will take most comfort in this book are other moms, but I’d also like to see educators, politicians, and health practitioners to read it. Also obviously anyone unfamiliar with the issues the book discusses, it may be a great introduction to trans issues of all kinds. I’d also like to think that adult trans folks might pick it up, and that it might help them understand the difficulties that their own mothers might have gone through in learning to understand issues around gender identity, transition itself, the grief an dloss of losing the child they thought they had, and what it means to live an authentic life.

TRANSITIONS OF THE HEART: Stories of Love, Struggle and Acceptance by Mothers of Transgender and Gender Variant Children

Edited by Rachel Pepper, with a foreword by Kim Pearson, Executive Director of TransYouth Family Allies

Paperback original, $16.95
200 pages, 5” x 8”
ISBN: 978-1-57344-788-1
Publishing May 13, 2012

Contact: Brenda Knight, bknight@cleispress.com

Press release:

2011 was the year we had our first celebrity who transitioned in the media spotlight, someone we’d known since she was a child, and America cheered as Chaz danced his way into our hearts. While there are no concrete statistics on the number of transgender people in the United States, Human Rights Campaign estimates that the number of transsexual people is up to 1 percent of the U.S. population. The Learning Channel and The Oprah Winfrey Network have run programs featuring transgender people and their journeys, and “Becoming Chaz” was a primetime hit. As Cher so poignantly illustrated, parents whose children transition also face profound changes and challenges.

On Mother’s Day 2012, May 13, Cleis Press will publish TRANSITIONS OF THE HEART: Stories of Love, Struggle and Acceptance by Mothers of Transgender and Gender Variant Children, the first collection of essays by mothers, who are often “transitioning” socially and emotionally alongside their children.

What do mothers really think about their transgender and gender variant children?  Journalist, therapist and gender specialist Rachel Pepper was determined to find out. Co-author of the groundbreaking book The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals, Pepper has gathered voices of mothers from all walks of life, diverse in ethnicity, race, national origin, sexual identity, age and class. As they have struggled to understand the gender identities of their children, and their own new emotional landscapes, many are thrust into roles they never imagined they’d have to take.

Often coming up against some of the very institutions that support children and their families—spouses, ex-partners, family members, school administrators, neighbors, teachers, coaches, pediatricians, psychiatrists, therapists or communities of faith—these mothers have had to fiercely advocate for, protect and educate others about their children.

Only a handful of the mothers whose work appears in this collection have written professionally or been published before. Most have used their real names, though a few concerned about the privacy of their families and the safety of their children used pseudonyms. The resulting essays are stunningly honest, often heart breaking, and have blazed a trail for all the mothers who will grapple with this issue.