Love Makes a Family

And sometimes, love also makes the man. Tyler Driscoll, Michele Burton-Driscoll, and their son, Johnny, show us how.

Editor’s Note: The following narrative was written by all three members of a Madison family that has seen many challenges and changes. They are glad to have the opportunity to share their story with Our Lives readers in the hopes that people within the LGBTQ community and beyond can benefit from their message.

Johnny

Hi, my name is Johnny. I’m nine years old, and I’m in fourth grade. My parents are Tyler and Michele.

My family is a different family because my dad is transgender. Transgender means that he was a girl but he wanted to be a boy, so he transitioned from a girl to a boy. He took a type of medicine called testosterone. He didn’t have a beard; that’s basically what he looked like. He was my mom and also, I felt like he was my dad. I didn’t exactly know that he was my mom at first. I thought he was a man, but he wasn’t. And I was friends with him when I barely knew him. When I first met him, he gave me a little cup that I still like to use. I started being with him a lot more, and I felt that he was my parent, that he was my dad. It just feels, I don’t know, fine, regular.

A little bit before their wedding, I found out that my mom was going to be my dad. I don’t know, I just remember being excited for him, because I did know that he wanted to be a man (and he wanted to change his name), and I felt excited that he could. I don’t really know how people know if they’re transgender. I think it is okay to change your gender. Gender is if you are a boy or a girl. I didn’t tell any of my friends because I didn’t ask if I could. Two or three of my friends know now, and they think that it is okay and just fine. It’s not really a subject I bring up very much. Sometimes I don’t like talking about it because it makes me feel uncomfortable. It makes me feel uncomfortable because I don’t want to really share my family’s stuff; it’s personal. I do feel that sometimes someone is going to hurt me or make fun of me because my dad is transgender. Some people at my school do use an insult; they say “gay” in a mean way. I don’t want to be called gay because I know they’re not using it to be nice. In a perfect world, if people knew about it and thought it was fine and okay, it would be better. I would be open to answering questions so people can learn more and feel more open-minded about it.

My favorite part of my family is that we’re different. We’re different from other families because my parents are queer, and we talk about our feelings a lot. We’re the same as other families because we love each other and help each other feel safe and strong.

I plan to go to college at UW-Madison. I’m going to learn to be an oceanographer so I can study artifacts from the sea. I want to have a family when I grow up, and I don’t know what it will look like, but it doesn’t really matter to me because there will be love. My mama and daddy show me that love is the most important thing for my family. I hope that people can understand that it is okay to be transgender and queer. I think that no matter what, we are all people, and we all need love.

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Tyler and Michele

Johnny plays soccer and golf and would prefer to spend most of his time in the water. He loves Pokemon and video games. He cares about his friends’ feelings, and he is kind and gentle, smart and silly. He reads a lot, and we take pride in calling him our absent-minded professor. We believe in who he is, and it is clear to us that he does, too. As parents, our top priority is Johnny’s health and happiness. We both feel strongly about nurturing and encouraging our son’s sensitive and kind-hearted personality. We want him to have the curiosity to explore this world and the courage to learn how he will thrive here.

Together, we teach him that being different is a good thing—if you are being honest to yourself and respectful to others. Our family’s transition from a two-mommy household to a visibly mama-daddy one has taught us our true happiness is found in loving who we are and that we are stronger people because of the differences.

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Tyler

It wasn’t until I was writing this narrative that it was clear what I was facing when I sat down, pen in hand, staring dutifully at the clean, white pages staring doubtfully back.

I’m facing a life that, until recently, was spiraling dangerously close to a life about to end. Instead of dying, I dug down to the very roots of me, the ones with little grip left, and I changed the direction of my path. I am what I’m sitting here writing about. I tucked my son, Johnny, into bed tonight and lovingly covered my snoozing and adorable wife with “Quilty,” this faded and threadbare, handmade quilt, sewn by my grandmother. It is believed to hold special powers including the ability to put to sleep any and all sick little ones, whether the suffering is a fever, a tummy ache or a tender, calomined shoulder of a restless wonder. As I pulled the tattered corners up to her chin, she roused, and I asked if I could go on a bike ride. It was when I was pedaling that I found the words to explain myself.

Only sometimes can I almost forget that I lived for 27 years as a person that I didn’t want to be. I survived by getting good grades in high school. I moved to Madison and finished college with a degree that I wanted and had a general interest in. I had friends, a job that I liked, I was physically healthy, and I was poor but financially independent. I had all these things, yet every night when I closed my eyes—when there was no other sound besides my breathing—I felt trapped and overwhelmingly alone. A lot of us know how desperate and heart-achingly dreadful being lonely and confused feels. But the difference for me was that I didn’t have the language for how I really felt. I was doing everything I should and wanted to, but something didn’t add up. I had a lot of pain invested into figuring out who I really was. I thought I was an artist, maybe with the gift of genuine soul-searching, but it turns out I was transgendered and lost.

My gender-identity crisis peaked at a point only after years of my getting snapshots of what wasn’t right. I struggled with clinical depression and had to pick up the pieces of a life post-breakdown. I was going to finally accept the fact that I was too screwed up for love, but miraculously, I fell into the loving arms of my partner.

It wasn’t until I became intimate with Michele that my gender identity problem came into focus. I began to be able to point at the things in my lesbian life that didn’t feel right. It was like putting together a puzzle where the pieces look to fit, but just don‘t quite snap into place. We were reading a book about lesbian lovemaking, and the chapters on butch/femme role-playing appealed to me, less in regards to intercourse, but more so in the day-to-day world. For example, I always pumped the gas, and I always marched downstairs to change the blown fuse. After lengthy discussions about desire, it became apparent to both Michele and me that I was growing both comfortable and curious about doing more of the things in our relationship that are typically seen/perceived as male. At first, these were very conspicously masculine behaviors, like I was tending to the family as a 1950s dad. I did the chores that required the muscle, and she embraced the gentleness of motherly fem-dom. I think we both struggled with this outdated division of labor because it felt anti-feminist, but we were torn because it worked so well for us. As time went by, my brain seemed to figure out that I was, in fact, living in the wrong body, and I was setting up a lifestyle that I was failing to live up to.

“It doesn’t matter what other people think.” Almost everyone who confides in a friend a flaw they find in themselves will hear this sentence. And, to a certain extent, it doesn’t matter. But, on a level under the surface—scratch your ego with a fingernail and you’ll find it—is a reality built on what others see, or think they see. Are we all scared and vulnerable? Yes! Are we all pretending we’re not? YES! I’ve always thought about this, but I never worried about it until I realized that I was transgender, and I wasn’t going to make it if I didn’t honor that identity.

I found a good therapist, someone who finally could ask the questions that enabled me to pull the right answers and put them out for me to look at and contemplate. The hardest part about my gender transition from female-to-male was uttering the sentence, “I am a female-to-male transsexual, and I want to live as a man.” And, although the logistics of making this change happen have been, at times, daunting, the memory of every phone call and appointment to do so feels as smooth as butter compared to my scratchy throat leading up to that one sentence. When I decided that transition was the route for me, I studied the “Harry Benjamin Standards of Care,” the essential tranny handbook, and started, step-by-step, to turn my life in a new direction.

I didn’t have to spend a long time fighting to be seen as male by the general public. Within three months of starting testosterone injections, I was passing as male. I attribute this to a supportive work environment and a strong family. Those in transition tend to earmark their progress by the number of months on hormones. I went through a second puberty that lasted for eight months, and I felt all sorts of new feelings then. At first, as my appearance started to change, I felt awkward and anti-social. But, as my facial features became more square and the weight of my torso shifted from my hips to my beer belly, I started to see in my reflection what I always wanted to see but never thought was possible. I’m sure I would have faced much more difficulty had I been less hairy, but I was able to grow a beard almost immediately, and that didn’t hurt my ability to be seen as male.

A popular question within my queer spaces is, “When did you know?” Everyone has a different answer, but for me it was something that grew from the inside out, not something that I got to try on and check the fit of. I could never understand my life, and after years of unrest and emotional uncertainty, a nervous breakdown and depression, I met Michele. My relationship with this special woman was the catalyst to unlocking who I was and who I could be. Michele continues to be a huge strength and fighter for my happiness and acceptance as a man. I know that my struggles have been her struggles, too. I have needed her to be strong for me, and she stood tall and fierce for the both of us. I don’t know how she was able to soar, or what questions she had posed for herself, but whatever she had to do to get us to the other side, she did with dignity and grace.

My gender presentation doesn’t necessarily influence my parenting. I just want to show and teach my child how to grow to be a happy, healthy adult. The fact that I’m trans doesn’t change what kind of lessons I want him to learn. He’s kind and respectful, sensitive and smart. I want to support his interest and nurture the wonderful things about him. I can do this regardless of what gender society perceives me to be. Ultimately, I believe I can be a better parent now, after transition, because I feel more grounded and fulfilled. I also think my unique experience adds perspective to our little family which can only further our abilities to love and know others.

I think over time, as I grow into this new life, I will remember this journey with something not unlike fond memories of a difficult project well done. My craftsmanship isn’t as stellar as I’d like perhaps, but it is my own. It has been my experience that transitioning hasn’t been like I imagined it would be, but so what? Instead of opening a seemingly small door to a huge Technicolor landscape of succulent edible gardens, like in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” becoming Tyler has been like unwrapping tiny but precious gifts, lovingly placed and decorated by a loved one’s hand—each more perfect than the last. I know Michele is the one behind all the little bows on each gift I’m finding along the way. She has shown me love and patience and honest respect and passion in ways I only thought could live on the pages of the best stories. She has walked with me through times that cover every inch between good and bad. She has pushed and pulled me through darkness. She has sacrificed and compromised, and we have stayed together, and I couldn’t love her more for her generosity and strength.

I really am a man, but have finally been able to understand that I’m a different kind, perhaps, than the others I meet. But that doesn’t make me less of one. I had a very radical rite of passage compared to biological boys, but it won’t stop me from being the kind of loving and understanding Father that my son needs. This realization is what it took to let me write about my experience and my family’s journey to here. There is no doubt in my mind that I am meant to be.

Michele

I’m a mother, a nurturer, a nurse, I’m queer and I know how to fight. Fighting has never been anything new for me. I fought my way through an abusive childhood, I fought my way out of an abusive relationship with my son’s biological father, I fought hard through being a single mother, I fought hard for the strength to come out to friends and family as a lesbian, I fought hard for respect as a lesbian family, and now I am fighting hard in my latest and greatest fight, for a new life for my partner.

I fell hard the night I met Holly. I was sitting quietly in the corner of a neighborhood bar after working my ass off canvassing for Howard Dean on the night of the Iowa caucus. This adorable girl, charming dimple in her left cheek, came up to me with so much confidence and swept me from my feet. She was my knight in shining armor. And, when she met my three-year old son Johnny, the puzzle was complete. These two, I know, are cosmically connected, and now the universe makes sense to me. She babysat every weekend while I studied myself through nursing school. Ten months later, we were a two-mommy family living in Madison. Things were about to get interesting, and I was about to learn so much about myself and my partner that I had never imagined. In those 10 months and beyond, there were signs that my girlfriend was indeed someday going to be my husband.

I entered this relationship as a woman loving another woman. And, loving another woman was comforting; I felt safe and secure. I expected to live the rest of my life with this woman. I had a plan for my family. We were going to raise a sensitive, intelligent boy as two moms. Like an approaching train in the distance, you don’t know how powerful it is until it is right on top of you. Even though it was becoming clear that Holly needed to transition, when she decided to, it hit me like a ton of bricks. This was real, and I was scared and felt like running.

Initially I didn’t stand up to fight; I did run away. I was terrified of the words coming from my partner’s mouth and soul. I didn’t know what to do with any of this new knowledge, and I froze. I had to step back, take one very deep and very long breath, and figure out how to stand strong and fierce with all of this. I started doing research. I learned all the vocabulary. Up until that time, I never used the word “transgender.” Researching was tough, though. There is not much out there about the transgender topic, let alone the topic of being a tranny wife or being a transgender parent. The only consistency I could find throughout my research was that other couples going through this type of transition typically failed to keep their relationship together.

Eventually, I set my research down, I took another deep breath and I remembered why I even started the research. I love this transgendered man. I love him more than I can put into words. He is the man who taught me to believe in myself, the man who selflessly took on the role of being my son’s father, the man who thinks I’m the most intelligent and most gorgeous woman in the world. Tyler is my husband. I picture us at the age of around 75, swaying on our porch swing, wrinkled hand in wrinkled hand, looking back on how brave we both were.

I take so much pride in our ability to parent Johnny together. If there were only one thing I was meant to do in this life, it is to be a mama. There is no other person on this planet I would choose to co-parent with. Together as parents, Tyler and I are a force to be reckoned with. Johnny is a gorgeous, brilliant, sensitive human being, and I feel honored to be his parent.

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