“Can I have people over to make signs on Saturday?” Indigo called from the staircase. Saturday was the Seattle Women’s March of 2017.
“Of course,” I said, putting down my laptop and rising from the daybed. “Does that mean you’re going without me and Dad?”
“You can come,” they said. Indigo is nonbinary. That day, their head was shaved on one side with long wavy hair on the other, colored its natural brown. My high schooler turned away, willing to march but not chitchat with me.
“How many friends will be here?” I called to the back of their head.
In those teenage years, I didn’t know if Indigo would laugh and hug me, or scowl and shut the door. When they were younger, they enjoyed my extroversion. Big, blonde, loud, and happy, now I was too much. I tried to love them from the background, spreading Nutella on graham crackers for an afternoon snack, like when they were four years old, safe upstairs in their bedroom wearing fuzzy footsie pajamas. But sometimes, I fumbled.
In the TSA line at the airport one time, shuffling toward the scanner, Indigo leaned into me and whispered, “You don’t know what it’s like, Mom, people staring at your body.”
“You think I don’t know?” I asked, which was decades of true, but not the truth my baby needed. I saw it in their eyes, the fear that I would never understand. Quickly I said, “It must be so hard. I’m sorry,” and reached to rub their shoulder, but they shrugged me away.
After Indigo went upstairs, I watched the empty staircase, wondering if I could find a way to help my child. They knew we had art supplies, since I ran a preschool. But why confine the teenagers to little children’s leftovers? I could give them a sign-making party.
I love throwing parties. When Indigo came out as transgender in middle school, my husband Jason and I put invitations in our neighbors’ mailboxes for a cookie celebration after work on Friday night. I have since been accused of being rah-rah about my child being trans, but making myself the center of people’s attention is my version of fight-or-flight. Indigo came out almost a decade ago, when movies showed transgender people as prostitutes or psychopaths. Parents with trans children posted online that they lost all their friends; they were yelled at in public; someone killed their dog. I wanted the people who surrounded our child to be different. Celebrate with us, I told everyone we knew.
I heard Indigo close their bedroom door and returned to my laptop. A squirrel distracted me by bounding along the fig tree outside our living room window. My mind bounced from the newsletter I needed to write, to phone calls I owed, to breakfast dishes still in the sink. I would need to get supplies for the sign-making party. I would need to clean the house.
I know how to do this, I thought. I would welcome the teens, yet not take over their party. I would be as imperceptible as furniture so Indigo would not mind me being in the room. I opened a new document and typed at the top, “Activity Plan.”
❑ Prep the workspace
Before the sign-making party, I covered my dining room table with a plastic shower curtain. Children are known to leave pen marks. An hour later, seven teenagers sat at the table, sharing chairs and coloring signs. Seven teens, five genders, four ethnicities. Indigo’s friend Sammi teensplained the difference between pansexual and bisexual to me. While she talked, she pressed her marker into the shower curtain, leaving an ink spot two inches around.
Earlier that morning, while the kids disappeared into our dining room, two eastside couples had huddled at our front door.
Tai’s mom asked, “Will you and Jason stay with them the whole time?”
“They’ll stick to each other,” I said, “and Jason and I will stick to them.”
“What if someone gets separated?” asked the other mom.
Until our child started high school, we had lived in the suburbs east of the city. In the suburbs, children grow up in fenced backyards and well-groomed parks, their parents’ eyes scanning like drones overhead. Indigo never crossed a street on their own until we moved to the city.
Half of Indigo’s friends, many of whom were also queer, still lived in those suburbs, and needed their parents to drive them to Seattle across the Lake Washington bridge.
“Your kids have cell phones,” I said. “I’ll make sure they have Jason’s and my numbers before we leave for the march.”
Tai’s mom leaned against her husband, pulling on her boots while the other couple left. She bent toward me and whispered, “He’s not a city kid like Indigo.”
“But you want him to be,” I whispered back.
At the preschool where I taught, I asked parents to let their children walk through the classroom door all by themselves. “Your children want to be independent,” I told them. It’s Child Development 101.
In my front entry now, either the mom’s zipper was stuck on her boot, or she was pretending.
“It’s like a field trip,” I told her. “I suppose I could have brought home the preschoolers’ walking rope.”
She laughed. Her boot zipped up. The couple left.
After that first sign-making party, our house became the meeting place for several years of marches. Until the teens started driving to our house themselves, I set up the worktable where it was visible from the front door. When nervous parents from the suburbs walked their teens up to our house, they saw happy children coloring with markers.
For straight parents who know or wonder if their child might be queer, love is mixed with fear and inexperience. Our teenage years were decades ago, when boys were supposed to keep their hair short, girls were supposed to keep their legs together, and queer people were supposed to stay hidden until they moved to the big city. The other parents and I were not raised with a checklist for when our children come out as transgender, nonbinary, or pansexual. I knew how to throw a party, so that was my reaction, but what did Indigo need from me? As a teacher, I doled out advice; as a parent, I needed it.
Some of the parents of Indigo’s rainbow-loving group of friends jumped into the uncertainty. One morning, sipping our lattes, another mom and I walked along a muddy path in a Seattle park. The mom told me she and her husband believed their son was gay. They wanted to be the good kind of parents, she said, and the night before had knocked on their son’s bedroom door and sat together on his bed.
“We want you to know we will always love you,” the dad said. “You can tell us if you’re gay.”
“I’m not gay,” their child said.
“We know you might be scared to tell us.”
“I’m not gay.”
“Would you feel safe to tell us if you were?”
“Yes. But I’m not gay.”
The mom asked if I could check with Indigo, and Indigo said, “Yeah, he’s straight.”
❑ Decorate the house
I staged my home for the teens. I put every kind of rainbow flag I could find in the flowerpot on the front porch. I hung shiny bead necklaces on the coat hooks for anyone who needed to sparkle. It’s like taping family photos to the preschoolers’ cubbies, or letting the threes’ class hold stuffed animals during circle time. I wanted the children to feel safe.
That’s not the only reason I decorated. One year during Pride, which in Seattle lasts the whole month of June, Jason and I walked past a giant Craftsman house a few blocks from our home. The show-off house had flags and rainbow bunting strung along its balconies.
“I want bunting,” I told Jason.
Fabric bunting is expensive, but I found rainbow tablecloths at the dollar store, taped them together, and made my own. And I had more flags.
“Did you win Pride this year?” asked Jason.
Maybe the parents who saw my rainbow bunting thought I knew how to support my transgender nonbinary teen. But if you’re a hammer, you hit a nail; if you’re exuberant, you throw a party. I wanted to have the most rainbow-covered house and throw the best sign-making parties. Did I believe if I did those things, my child would know how much I loved them? Did I believe if I won Pride, it would keep my baby safe?
One boy kept clothing at our house. After his parents dropped him off at the sign-making parties, he ran upstairs to change into something floral. His mom knew about the clothes, and sometimes squeezed my hand when she and her husband said goodbye.
One kid said their parents never mentioned queer people. Those parents, however, had said supportive things to me when Indigo came out as trans in middle school, and they drove their teen to our house on the morning of the Pride parade. Teenagers see their parents as fully grown, as unable to still be growing.
I remember the Saturday our family was eating lunch at Americana. Casey, one of the high school’s art teachers, was on the weekend wait staff and stopped by our table. Holding a tray above her shoulder, she told Jason and me about an independent project Indigo was working on.
“They’re using variations in color to explore negative space,” Casey said. I didn’t completely understand, but sensed it meant something good.
Indigo grinned while the art teacher walked away, and I leaned over to kiss their half-shaved head.
“You should feel proud,” I nodded.
“It’s not that, Mom,” my teenager said. “She called me they.”
Indigo had told me when they were misgendered it felt like a slap, but I didn’t understand until I saw them smiling. Even then, I was still growing.
❑ Play music
The teenagers picked the music, connecting their phones to our speakers. They seemed to know all the words to the songs.
I didn’t know the lyrics to popular music when I was a teen. I was raised on hymns and show tunes. My mother grew up in a missionary boarding school and was introduced to Broadway musicals when she moved to the United States.
When my sister, Thora, was six, and I was four, our mother taught us the words to “Whistle a Happy Tune” from The King and I. Thora had to walk several blocks to school, crossing a major intersection. If she felt scared, she should stand up straight and whistle that tune.
“You’re a big girl,” our mother told her. Our two younger sisters were a toddler and a newborn. Our mother could not pack us up to cross the streets with Thora, so I stood at the front door and watched my sister march off to first grade, armed with a song.
My mother taught me to whistle the fear away. Act happy. Keep walking.
The summer before Indigo started high school, I worried about how the new school would protect my transgender child. At the end of middle school, four of Indigo’s classmates were in charge of choosing photos for the graduation slideshow. Mina, the only girl in the group, told her mother the boys were making fun of Indigo by selecting photos that looked like the gender my child had been assigned at birth. Mina’s mother called me, and I called the supervising teacher.
“We want the students to own the process,” the teacher said. “If you don’t like the photos they are choosing, we can take out all of the photos of Indigo.”
“Could Mina choose the photos?” I suggested.
“Oh, no,” she said, “We value student collaboration.”
I didn’t argue for the photos. Jason and I had already fought for Indigo to not be segregated on the overnight trip, for our child’s name to be updated in the yearbook. At eighth-grade graduation, the 20-minute slideshow highlighted every student except one. Indigo said it didn’t matter; what mattered was that Mina tried to help.
I worried there wouldn’t be enough Minas in high school. Instead, Indigo gathered a fine group of friends, who brought their music to our home—although they never played any of their songs all the way through. Bang, a new song, a new genre. It startled me every time.
It wasn’t like that for me—a bang—when Indigo came out as trans. My child had always been gender creative. Short hair, long hair, short hair, long. A Bob the Builder lunchbox and sparkly barrettes. Photos couldn’t name the gender of my child. When they came out as transgender, a girlfriend gave me an email I’d sent when Indigo was three. “There are boys and there are girls and there is my kid,” I had written.
When Indigo transitioned, I made myself the center of attention. I knew how to project the sweetness of my preschool-teacher voice. Look at me, the mother of a transgender child. Keep your focus on me and leave my baby alone. I wasn’t trying to be rah-rah. I was afraid of what people would do to my child, so I wrapped myself around Indigo as though both of us were trans. Whistling while I walked.
Within a year, the story had been told. Indigo no longer needed me to shelter them with my loudness, and I no longer felt like I knew how to help.
❑ Buy poster markers
I learned that Giant Sharpies last through three years’ worth of marches if the caps are closed securely. Preschoolers are good at replacing the caps; teenagers have other priorities. A high schooler might forget to close a marker because they were interested in the kid who was sitting across the table. (The teens at our sign-making parties dated each other like loop-de-loop.) Or a teen might be a little pisser and deliberately not close his markers, although that might be the most rebellious thing he did all day.
I tried to not give reminders to put on the caps. The kids were going to a march where a bad someone might call out a gender slur or racist word, or a good someone might accidentally use the wrong pronoun. It takes energy to be different; I didn’t want the teenagers spending their energy snapping the caps.
Although I tried to grab people’s attention, Indigo was in the spotlight when they came out in middle school. Tired of being the Transgender Kid, tired of the stares and comments, Indigo applied to a high school in Seattle. When they got in, we moved.
It wasn’t only for the high school. We wanted to live in the city.
It wasn’t only for the city.
Our eastside neighbors joined us for the cookie celebration. The conservative family who lived next door even brought a gift. The kids and adults tried to use our child’s new name and pronouns, except for one of the children. Six of our houses were open in the back and the kids ran through each other’s yards. One afternoon, that one child circled Indigo in our yard, calling Indigo’s old name over and over. I heard the yelling, went outside, and sent the child home. I called her mother, she apologized, and I told my baby it wouldn’t happen again.
The next day, the child stood in the yard next door and called out the old name. Again, I called her mother. The other neighbors rallied: The child was old enough to know she was hurting Indigo. The neighbors said she couldn’t use their yards.
She stood in her own backyard and screamed my child’s old name.
I called her mother. I begged her mother. Indigo refused to go outside or to invite friends over.
We wanted to move to the city anyway.
❑ Cut foam board into rectangles
Preschoolers write their names with gigantic first initials, shrinking each letter as they go and often having letters left over at the end of the line. Teenagers’ first attempts at sign-writing look the same.
“I ran out of room,” Sammi groaned, and I knew she was thinking, as every teen does, that everyone would notice.
I wanted to whisper, “Oh, sweet child, if someone sees your funny letters it will make them love you even more.” But it was not my place to say that, not in a room full of highschoolers. Besides, those words would not be true. Being different would not always make those teens beloved.
We were lucky to live in Seattle, where some of the crosswalks are painted with rainbows. My child could walk around the city with neon or half-shaved hair, and rarely be harassed.
The rhyme about sticks and stones makes harassment sound benign, until one has held their breath, waiting for it to end. One summer while Indigo was in high school, the summer their hair was fluorescent green, we spent a week in Rome. At airport security, our family walked past a row of polizia, each man boasting an automatic rifle like a sash across his chest. One of the men muttered the slur for gay that starts with F, and I looked at him, mama-bear angry. Keeping eye contact with me, he flicked his chin toward my child and rubbed his hand up and down the barrel of his gun.
❑ Set up a glitter station
At the preschool, I often had glitter-butt by the end of the day. It was worth it. Children love the shiny magic that is sprinkled from a jar. I tried to get the high schoolers to do their glitter-sprinkling over my kitchen sink to make my cleanup easier, but it didn’t matter. They shook their festive signs while walking through my home, and no matter how much I vacuumed, magical fairy dust twinkled for months in the cracks of my floorboards. I wanted to reserve glitter for Pride events, but the first time I didn’t put it out, Tai asked, “Where’s the glitter?”
Jason and I went with them to the Seattle Pride Parade until the summer when Indigo’s hair was dyed fluorescent green. The high schoolers, looking glorious in their wild or subtle rainbow gear—depending on the outness of the child—said they wanted me to drop them off across from the Space Needle.
“You don’t want to see the whole parade?” I asked.
“We’ve seen it,” one of them said, and I realized the excitement was in the shadow of the Space Needle where they would meet their friends. I remembered being their age and hoping I would see a boy I liked. I remembered believing my life could change with one encounter.
For the Trans Pride parade that year, also in June, it was just our little family. Indigo had long ago stopped holding Jason’s and my hands, wanting us to count to three and fly them up with a giant swing. Still, we walked together, with Indigo between us. Most people know someone who is lesbian or gay. Someone being trans is less familiar; the unfamiliar stimulates adrenaline; adrenaline goads the impulse to fight. Jason and I walked, like flag-waving bodyguards, on either side of Indigo.
The parade started near Seattle Central College. We tried to ignore the fanatic with his giant black sign who screamed that our child was going to hell. I watched a gender-nonconforming individual walk up and kiss the screamer on the cheek. It made the screaming almost festive. It made me wish that I, too, could kiss the danger away.
❑ Think of sayings for the signs
I realized the teens should come up with the messages. At the first sign-making party, they stared at blank rectangles before pulling out their phones to gather ideas. Another time, a high schooler in a fedora brought a list of 50 sayings he collected online from marches outside of Seattle. When that kid grows up, I thought, he will host the sign-making parties.
The teenagers came up with messages that made me laugh, some of which were inappropriate. “Damn right we’re snowflakes … and winter is coming,” said a sign for the Women’s March. “Grab ‘em by the patriarchy,” said another. For the March for Science, one of the kids wrote, “Science is the cure for bullshit.”
Indigo’s first march was in a stroller. At the base of the Space Needle, two thousand people chanted for an end to gun violence while our toddler napped, head hanging over the side of the stroller. After that, it was Pride parades, kid-friendly marches, and candlelight vigils in city parks. Jason and I talked about why we attended. Was it to teach Indigo what we believed? Look-at-me righteousness? The excitement of loud, stomping crowds?
Now it was the teenagers’ turn. Over the years, the teens in my house made signs for immigrants’ rights, Black Lives Matter, love is love. When I wasn’t replenishing supplies, I hid in the kitchen with Jason. We listened to their conversations: pretending they knew things they didn’t, yet knowing more things than I did at their age. They used words like resonant and intersectional. Jason and I sometimes had to look up definitions, our two heads huddled over his phone.
❑ Ask Jason to make his chocolate chip cookies
At the first sign-making party, my husband baked the cookies while the kids were coloring signs. When the scent of brown sugar and melted chocolate reached the dining room, the teens looked up, expectant. I hoped the fragrance murmured love. No matter how many cookies Jason made before the marches, the plate was empty when the kids huddled at our front door, putting on their shoes.
At one of the marches, we saw a bear of a dog, a Newfoundland, standing on the sidewalk. Its muzzle was grey and white. A man held the dog’s leash and cheered the people walking past.
“Does your dog want to march with us?” asked one of the teens, and we stopped so the kids could pet the bear.
“He can’t walk that far,” said the man. “I could march, or I could bring my dog, and I figured it would help people more if I brought my dog.”
He shared his Newfoundland, Jason made homemade cookies, and I threw those sign-making parties. Were our small offerings enough?
❑ Leave for the march
After the first sign-making party, the kids were on the porch playing swordfight with their signs. I made them line up for a photo while Jason locked the door.
Many parties later, when most of the kids were juniors in high school and their parents no longer drove them to our house, Indigo left the sign-coloring in the dining room and joined me in the kitchen.
“We want to go to the march on our own,” they said, leaning their head on my shoulder.
“Of course, baby,” I said. I wanted that, too. Child Development 101.
The teenagers’ lives—even in my home, using my materials—faced away from me. They were supposed to face away. I was supposed to watch from behind. Still, when they were ready to go, I felt eastside-parent nervous and asked them to let me take a photo. They posed with their arms around each other, children in sight of adulthood.
My child would go to marches on their own, to college on their own, into the world without me. I would not be there to gather attention away from Indigo. We swing our children by their hands and then we set them free and watch them fly away from us. I didn’t know how to make the world safe for my child. I put out the glitter. I bought enough foam board. I smiled and tried to stay quiet.