Photo: PFLAG Philadelphia Facebook page

It’s been 50 years since the LGBT equality movement started in Philadelphia. So Billy Penn decided to look at the transgender experience in the city today, from data to personal stories to health challenges and anti-discrimination policies. This is Trans Philly.

Fourteen years ago, when Pat Tedora stepped into a Catholic church in Center City, she felt like she was coming out. When she entered the room to the right of the entranceway and saw the table of 12 parents of transgender kids, she sat down and hoped they wouldn’t ask her to say much. She was still messing up pronouns, calling her son by his given name instead of his chosen name. She still hadn’t told anybody.

“A part of me still didn’t want to believe that this was real,” Tedora said. She says that something inside of her hoped it would all reset and just go back to “normal.” But there she sat, in a circle of people just as confused as she was, at the first meeting of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays to include the parents of transgender kids.

PFLAG is a national organization that runs support groups for people close to members of the LGBTQ community who are either trying to be more understanding of their loved ones, or are just trying to come to grips with what it even means to be gay, trans or gender creative. Even more pressing for a lot of attendees of PFLAG meetings is the question of their own personhood. What does it mean for them that their child is gay, or is not the gender they originally thought they were? Especially when religion comes into play.

“I was looking for absolution,” Tedora said. “I felt so guilty. I thought that maybe there was something that I had done wrong. During pregnancy, I was a smoker. I took two sips of wine once and threw my guts up.”

Tedora worried she had messed up as a parent. She worried that she had left her child mentally “handicapped” because maybe she hadn’t been a good enough mother.

Tedora knew of Christine Jorgenson, an army vet who became the first trans woman to transition publicly and undergo a gender reassignment surgery, in 1952, documented on the front page of The New York Daily News. She had seen crossdressers on TV and on the street. But when the person Tedora had known as her 23-year-old daughter, Alex, revealed that “she” identified more as a son, it was completely new territory for Tedora.

When teenage angst is something much more

Tedora said she had inklings that her child was more like the boys than the girls. Alex threw a fit when Tedora wouldn’t buy an emerald green leisure suit instead of a dress for the senior prom. Tedora just chalked it up to Alex being a tomboy, or just that grunge was the thing back then, and it was not unusual for girls to wear torn jeans and flannels the way Alex did.

Before he came out, Alex’s depression and anxieties were inexplicable to his parents; they thought the he was just a typical, angsty teen. But when he had his first menstrual cycle and became inconsolable, and when he was distraught over his changing body, Tedora and her husband sent their then-daughter to see a psychiatrist. But he continued to rebel and pick fights. Tedora said that Alex was always out 30 minutes past curfew, just to goad his parents. At that time, in the early ’90s, there was limited internet access for Alex or his parents to look for people who were going through the same thing. There was no one else in their Upper Darby neighborhood going through anything similar, as far as they knew.

When Alex was 23, he finally told his mother that he was becoming a man. At this point, he had been through college, it was the early aughts, and discussions of gender creativity and fluidity were becoming more widespread.

At first Tedora thought Alex was trying to come out as a lesbian. “Oh you want to be a boy because you like girls,” Tedora thought. It made sense that way. But, as she says now, she did not understand at that time that gender and sexuality are two entirely distinct parts of one’s identity.

Tedora spent the next two weeks crying, she said, trying to figure out how to tell her husband, Dennis. He grew worried that Tedora, a breast cancer survivor, was ill again. He thought that his wife was dying and couldn’t bring herself to tell him.

“Finally, I just came out and just said what I said,” Tedora explained. “That our quote-unquote daughter was telling me that she was really a he.”

Trying to understand

Growing up, Tedora had her own moments of feeling like she would rather be a boy. There was a hoagie shop on Buist Avenue near her Southwest Philly home where the boys used to hang out. It was the ’60s and Tedora was 14, and her curfew was two hours earlier than the boys’, so she would show up to the shop early, try to catch the boys before she had to go home.

She was waiting at the shop one day when she decided that she would play one of the two pinball machines that sat in the front of the store, always tantalizing her. As soon as she dropped her nickel in the machine, the saleswoman ran out from behind the desk.

“Girls are not allowed to play pinball!” the saleswoman yelled. Tedora left, thinking how much easier it would be if she were a boy.

But Tedora now realizes that her son’s struggle is biological and not merely social. She is still coming to terms with her child’s changes, and trying to understand them. She now runs meetings for the Philadelphia PFLAG chapter, where she’s been a member for 14 years. Alex is now 35, completely out and running his own business in Philadelphia. Tedora and her husband have become closer with their son now that they have a way to talk about what is going on with Alex.

Pat Tedora has come to terms with the new identity she confronted that first PFLAG meeting at the Catholic church in Center City.

“You have a vision for your child,” she said. “In many ways, that vision is a vision of how your life is supposed to go. That all changes when your child says that they are not the gender you thought they were. And you have to accept that.”

Featured image from the PFLAG Philadelphia Facebook page