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When My Daughter Laura Became My Son Lawrence

When My Daughter Laura Became My Son Lawrence

Coming home from the temple where I served as rabbi, I spotted a bag from our local pharmacy on the kitchen counter. It was stapled shut, but the attached prescription for my 25-year-old daughter Laura announced its contents: testosterone.

My worst fears were confirmed. I went to my bedroom and cried.

Laura had always seemed to me completely feminine and interested in boys. Sometimes she even seemed reckless in her sexuality. At age 20, she gave birth to my granddaughter Rosie. A year or so later she got married, wearing a puffy white dress and bright red lipstick, to a young man whom she had not known very long. When the marriage failed, Laura and Rosie came to live with me.

For many months after seeing that prescription, I led a double life. Outwardly, I tried to stay calm and accepting, interested without prying. Inwardly, I was consumed with worry about Laura and my granddaughter.

A loving parent, Laura carefully explained her transformation to Rosie in a language a preschooler could understand. Fortunately, the staff at our temple’s preschool was sensitive and accepting of cultural and gender diversity.

It took Rosie about a year to make the change from “Mommy” to “Daddy” – about the same duration it took for Laura’s body to turn into Lawrence’s.

With the exception of my mother and one or two other people, I kept what was happening a secret. I was embarrassed and ashamed that such a shande (shameful thing) could have happened in my family.

That year, I met with a therapist several times. I also prayed. Psalm 118 was my daily focus: “I called on God from a narrow place; God answered from a wide expanse.” I hoped that God would help me to open my heart to my child in acceptance and love – in spite of my inner turmoil.  

I thought of the story of the heartbroken father who came to the Baal Shem Tov for advice: “My son has turned his back on Judaism. What should I do?” The great Hasidic master replied, “Love him even more.” 

The moment of my own transformation happened during a phone call with my mother. As we talked about Lawrence’s latest physical changes, and I once again expressed my fears, she said, “But he’s still the same loving person inside!”

Suddenly, my world clicked into its rightful place. The floodgates of love opened to the truth of it: Laura or Lawrence, daughter or son, was my child, and truly the same person as always. Yes, this person had a different exterior now. But Lawrence was better able than Laura to cope with the inner turmoil that had plagued him as a teenager. And Lawrence had gained self-confidence, both personally and professionally.

A couple of years after Lawrence’s transition, I met a woman who knew my kids when they were teenagers. She asked about Laura. After a slight hesitation, I told her about Lawrence. She seemed politely interested, even curious, but within two minutes was on to a different subject.  So much for my deep, dark secret!

Even now, many years later, I am sometimes circumspect around this subject. When I meet people socially and they ask if I have children, I simply say, “Yes, I have two sons.” They are not asking for a family history, and I see no need to give them one. On the other hand, Lawrence’s story is a central part of our family’s narrative and my life experience. When it is appropriate – such as explaining why I wanted to be on our Jewish community’s LGBT outreach advisory board – I am comfortable speaking with pride about Lawrence, my son, who has fashioned the life he wanted. 

As I look back over the years, I smile with appreciation for how much I have changed. What initially seemed a disaster – a source of embarrassment, shame, and confusion – has turned into another rich layer in the complexity of human relationships. I no longer feel a need to keep any of this a secret. This is my life, and this is the child I love.

Rabbi Helen T. Cohn is the spiritual leader of Congregation M’kor Hayim in Tucson, AZ. This article is adapted from Reform Judaism magazine.

At the recent URJ Biennial, the General Assembly unanimously approved this comprehensive resolution on the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming people. In addition to highlighting the URJ’s commitment to equality, the resolution urges congregations to advocate on behalf of transgender rights and to accommodate transgender people in our communities.

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