Dear Rabbi Lapin and Susan,
While still in college and near his 20th birthday, my son announced his decision to start hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to help him look more like how he feels inside, a woman. He says he’s felt this way since early in high school, and he told us he’d already legally changed his name to a female name. He asked us to show him our support by embracing what he thinks of as positive changes.
Personally, I believe he is wise to seek a change, as he was desperately unhappy (he eventually had to leave college due to poor grades and a year prior to all this, his long-term girlfriend broke up with him and he attempted suicide). Also of note, he no longer speaks to his father (my ex-husband). We divorced when he was 10, and his dad has remained unreasonably demanding and harsh with our son. But back to the changes, I think it’s good he makes changes, but changing the sex God designed him with seems destructive, rebellious and just wrong.
I don’t know how to respond to his request to embrace his changes. He wants 100% support, but acknowledged it might take some time. So far (it’s been just over a year) he’s been agreeable as I’ve asked him to dress neutrally at my house, and that I still want to call him by the name I gave him at his birth. He was fine with that for a while but thinks it’s time I call him by his legal, female name and address him as she. I believe it’s a lie to call a man a woman, so I don’t use his name at all. The tension can be very high. Sometimes he has outbursts of anger and says he thinks he’d prefer no relationship to one where I won’t accept him for who he is. He says even if I’d just call him by his female name he’d be content because he’d feel accepted for the person he is.
My question for you, Rabbi Lapin and Susan, is would God want me to act with compassion for my son’s state of mind by simply calling him by his legal female name, or would he want me to continue standing firmly in truth and reality? Also, for more background, I’ll add; He has a low paying job but still supports himself. I never remarried so when I use the term “we” I’m including my other son who is 16 and still lives at home. My younger son has no problem being firm (but kind) saying to his brother HRT doesn’t make you a woman. Sign me as…
~ Wendy, a woman who is grateful to have a Rabbi!
What a difficult predicament you find yourself in. Let’s cut to the chase. You love your son and you recognize that his emotional health has been unsteady for many years. You also know that male and female mean something and suspect that this attempted change will not serve your son well.
As we understand it, young people are receiving a great deal of emotional support and even encouragement to take hormones, have surgery and discover that they are not what their DNA proclaims them. What is so pernicious here, is that by joining this group, many of these young people find a community and adulation that previously eluded them. This produces an effect that makes them happier than they have been. We all desperately need friends and having them does improve our life.
However, this is a short-term effect akin to the high we might get after taking drugs or the masking of unhappiness we might get from alcohol. It isn’t sustainable. Your son’s fragility and unhappiness will not disappear. If you haven’t read Abigail Shrier’s book, Irreversible Damage and connected with a community of parents in your situation, we encourage you to do so. Our guess is that those who walk in your shoes may have names and suggestions that will be extremely valuable to you. Is there a competent local psychiatrist or therapist who is pushing back at this agenda with success?
We think your younger son is correct as far as society is concerned. The “masses” should not go along with this illusion that men can become women and women can become men. We would be misleading you if we led you to think anything other than that your son is dealing in a dangerous activity. Taking hormones will make it more difficult for him to have choices going forward. Nothing you can do or say is going to make everything alright.
But let’s not lose sight of the basic question you asked so clearly and poignantly, Wendy. Should you live a lie and participate in one out of a sense of compassion for your struggling son or should you remain firm but kind, explaining that he is a grown adult and can make his own life decisions but that doesn’t mean that you or anyone else has to violate their own beliefs? That is the question. It is not clear from your letter, but is he living at home and if so, is it rent free? If that is the case, you need have no hesitation sitting down with him and explaining that in your house, you will be adhering to your beliefs and will not depart from the name you gave him two decades ago. This has the added advantage of strengthening your younger son who is taking quite a brave position considering the strong societal pressure he must be under.
If however, your older son is already living independently with no financial support from you, you should explain that he is of course free to make any life decisions he chooses but he cannot expect the world to adjust to him. It is not a matter of courtesy or compassion. It is that like many other people, you do not believe that his treatment is really changing his gender to female and you are sure that he wouldn’t try to compel you to go against your beliefs any more than you won’t be trying to talk him out of his belief that he is a woman. (The only thing that gives us pause here, is your comment about your son’s previous suicide attempt. We are sending you a private email asking if that is the key point in your entire letter that might necessitate a different answer from a tactical perspective.)
You can add that like many families, you look forward to remaining close and connected even if everyone has to accept that there are certain taboo topics not to be raised at family gatherings.
It is our hope that your son won’t take any irremediable steps and that one day, hopefully soon, he will overcome his challenges and resume a comfortable life in the body he was born with.
We know that many readers of our response will consider us horrible people but we agree with Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who in 1974 wrote an essay entitled Live Not By Lies.
Wishing healing to you and your son,
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin
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