When My Mom Finally Accepted I'm Transgender, We Became Best Friends

dibs baer
Dibs Baer

A few weeks ago, I walked into my mom's bedroom, my soul crushed and eyes filled with tears. "What's wrong?" she asked as soon as I opened her bedroom door. Moms know. "Why are you crying?" Moms don't know.

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"Did you see it?" I asked, referring to the series of tweets by President Trump that gut-punched me as soon as I'd woken up that morning.

"After consultation with my generals and military experts, please be advised that the government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the US military..."

"Yes, I saw," she said. "But why are you crying?"

I was hurt and a little dumbfounded. My mom should've known why.

By definition, I'm transgender -- emphasis on the "trans" part. I have a vagina but I had my 36DD breasts removed intentionally five years ago. Unlike Laverne Cox or Chaz Bono -- who are now 100 percent living as the opposite gender they were born as -- I'm not that cut and dry. I feel neither male nor female, and, at the same time, both male and female. I dress almost entirely in men's clothing and have super-short hair but right now, as I type, my toes are painted baby blue, and my legs and pits are freshly shaven. On a typical day, I'm called "sir" anywhere from one to six times. Living on the West Coast, I also get "señor" a lot, though once at Whole Foods I was thrilled to hear "young man," because I'm certainly no spring chicken.

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Most of the time, when people realize that I'm technically a woman, embarrassment washes over their faces and they apologize sincerely. It's always an awkward interaction but not always friendly. Going into a public women's bathroom, especially at big venues like concerts or stadiums, gives me massive anxiety. I've been followed, yelled at, and had security called on me. With all of the "bathroom bill" debates lately, it's actually become dangerous. People are unleashing their hatred. One time I was walking my dog and a truck slowed down right next to me. A guy stuck his head out the window, looked me up and down with disgust, then spit out venomously, "What ARE you?" The coward peeled away anonymously into the night, which was unfortunate. Because if he had stuck around for an actual conversation, I might have given him an answer to his cruel, but not entirely unwarranted, question: "Dude, I have no idea what I am either!"


If I had to put a number on it, I'd say I lean towards the male side 70/30. I have eight fantasy football teams and burp loudly but I also love gossiping and hate action movies.

As Lady Gaga put it so eloquently, I was born this way. I truly can't help that I must wear skateboarding attire and walk like I just got off a horse. It's as inherent as my psycho PMS meltdowns and undying love for The Bachelor. And even though my mom would eventually admit she knew I was transgender from the get-go, it took us both four decades to acknowledge it, accept it, and deal with it in a healthy way.

Mother-daughter relationships are complex to begin with. Add this into the equation and it's even more of a train wreck. My mom was so excited to have a daughter but her dream was shattered when she ended up with a "tomboy" she couldn't relate to. I don't blame her for being disappointed. My mom's generation just didn't question gender roles. To this day, she won't leave the house unless she's wearing earrings.

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From the day I was born until I left for college, my mother tried desperately to conform me to my birth gender and failed. It was a constant struggle and it tore us apart. In preschool, I'd only play with boys' toys in the sandbox, and my teacher pulled my mom aside and told her that my life was going to be "difficult." The warning fell on deaf, in-denial ears: On the first day of first grade, she put me in a dress, so I faked being sick and got sent home. I hated my long tangled hair and I'd scream bloody murder when my mom would force a brush through it and make me sport pigtails tied with colorful ribbons.


I worshipped figure skater Dorothy Hamill, who later gave me a legitimate reason to chop my hair off into a wedge.

There were some things I couldn't change, like my very feminine name, Deborah. I remember in penmanship class, I'd scribble "Debbie Baer" so illegibly that my teacher would put a frown face next to it. I wanted to play softball and basketball and the drums. Like my dad, I was an excellent athlete, so there was no keeping me from sports, but drums were a no-no. I also had to take ballet and play the cello.


Emotionally I relate to women but everything typically associated with the fairer sex -- makeup, clothes, etc. -- doesn't compute.

There was a lot of bartering in our relationship. I didn't have my own money, so I couldn't buy my own clothes. Shopping with my mom was a nightmare. In order to get one boyish thing I liked, she made me try on 10 girly things she liked. I could write an entire book about the PTSD I have from bra shopping. My resentment and depression about it was off the charts and we fought viciously, often in the dressing room. That was another thing. My mom always insisted on coming in there with me. As I went through puberty and my body became ultra feminine, I was distraught and didn't want anyone to see it. She saw other moms and daughters having a lovely day together and was crushed when I kicked her out. It caused more arguments. It was anything but fun for her. It was traumatic for me, and to this day, I loathe shopping for clothes. Online shopping is my savior.


I was told I look like Princess Di, but I hated my body.

I need to be clear that my mom was not a bad person. She was/is a wonderful person, who loved me to pieces and supported me in every single way except for this one thing that happened to be pretty major. She came to every game I ever played as a three-sport athlete, often sitting in the stands in freezing Chicago wind and rain, but there would be hell to pay if I cut the shoulder pads out of a jacket.


Looking back, I see that I dressed like a 50-year-old woman (aka my mom) because I wasn't allowed to create my own style.

I felt that she didn't allow me to be my authentic self and it created a gigantic chasm between us. When I wasn't at school or at practice, I spent most of my teen years locked in my bedroom, secretly reading GQ and my brother's Penthouse magazines, and fantasizing about the day I could finally leave home and be free. I shared nothing real about my inner life with my mom, lying like a rug or snapping at her like a beast if she dared ask me a question about dating boys. But I knew at that point neither of us was ready to have a real convo about what was going on, which at that point was that I was gay. So, better to just shut her down and get out of Dodge ASAP.

I thought all my problems would be solved once I left for college, free at last. I could wear a garbage bag if I wanted! I loved being independent, but I went a little bananas with my newfound liberation. I nearly flunked out (I got a 0.9 one semester) due to my drinking and carousing. After I managed to graduate, and could earn my own money, I came out as a lesbian to my parents. If they rejected me, I could now support myself. But they were so relieved it was finally out in the open and handled it like champs. It was tears of joy all around.

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Is this the happy ending? No, not quite. I wasn't a lesbian, I was transgender -- and there's a huge difference between the two. I was still too terrified to admit it to myself, let alone out loud. Until I had the courage to face it, my life was a mess. I hated looking in the mirror because I couldn't stand the sight of my body. My sexual awakening was humiliating. I was deeply ashamed of my body, so getting naked was awkward and unsatisfying for all parties. It was the antonym of hot. My relationships were an unmitigated disaster.

Like lots of people who have major self-loathing and feel profound loneliness, I covered it up for a long time -- like 15 years -- by drinking my face off in bars, where I felt accepted by the other misfits covering up their own damage. I tried group therapy for Female-to-Male (FTM) transgender people but that just made me feel worse. Everyone in there went by a male pronoun and when I said I didn't, I felt judged and left out. On the few nights I'd stay in, I'd lay on my couch in a trance trying to figure out exactly how I was going to kill myself. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, anywhere from 31 to 50 percent of the transgender population has attempted suicide (by comparison, the national rate is 1.6 percent). I totally get that.

My mom, who is a psychologist, knew I was depressed, and often urged me to go on antidepressants, but she didn't see it. I lived in New York City and only visited a few times a year. Once a week I talked to my mom on the phone but if the convo went sideways, I had an easy out. I never told her I was suicidal because I thought she was professionally obligated to check me into a hospital if I did.

Before this all gets too dark and scary, the good news is that I pulled myself out of that horrible place. With loads of therapy, I quit drinking, which tempered the suicidal tendencies, and came to terms with being transgender. Then I mustered the courage to come out a second time, at the age of 42, as transgender. Once again, my parents were totally accepting. My mom told me she wasn't shocked because everything about me -- from my style of dress to the things I liked -- indicated that I preferred a male image. She felt sorry that she'd never go shopping for a wedding dress with me or participate in some of the other stereotypical rituals of having a daughter, but ultimately she realized my ability to accept myself was more important than anything else, and she felt happy that I was happy.

I'm extremely lucky to be in such a loving, supportive family. According to a 2011 National Transgender Discrimination survey, transgender people who are rejected by their parents are 3.5 times more likely to attempt suicide. With my parents' full support, I scheduled top surgery with the same doctor who removed Chaz Bono's breasts in San Francisco. I paid for the surgery; they sprang for a rental apartment for post-op recovery. My mom stayed with me for seven days, lovingly changing my dressings and drains, which was a really gross job. For the first time in my life, I didn't mind her seeing my body, giant scars and all. That was the turning point in our relationship. She finally saw me and we bonded in a real way, talking about life while binging Family Feud marathons. She told me that she and my dad discussed that they were willing to do whatever it took to make me happy.

That week, my mom became my best friend.

And thank God because two years later, my dad was diagnosed with cancer. I moved in with them to help out, which would have been impossible before I came out as transgender. Sadly, my dad is gone now, but my mom and I still live together and we've never been closer. We are making up for lost time and do everything together: We go on Alaskan cruises, watch Jeopardy religiously at 7:30 p.m. every night, bake peach crumbles -- we even love shopping together now (gasp). We just split up -- me to the men's section, her to the ladies' -- and meet up later. My mom says I'm the same person I've always been, only now I live without the anger and resentment that comes with hiding who I am, and that's what's allowed us to find harmony.


Mom and me on an Alaskan cruise.

My mom's my #1 supporter, though she still hates my clothes and introduces me to her friends as "Deborah." It's okay, I just ask her to try to say, "This is my daughter Deborah, but she likes to go by Dibs." Her best quality is that she's always been open to learning. Like the morning I came in crying about the transgender military ban. I explained to her that Trump's hateful tweet was not only a slap in the face to the thousands of patriotic soldiers serving so honorably, but, more ominous, it also put those brave soldiers' lives in immediate danger. It put my life in danger the next time I walked into a public bathroom.

She got it. An hour later, she was furiously posting comments and memes on social media like that Kermit the Frog typing GIF:


Linda Baer/Facebook

My mom knew how much those posts meant to me. She had my back -- and that is the definition of a best friend.

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