S.F. Spring 2008
“No, see Brer Rabbit lives in the briar patch,” I say, “so it’s reverse psychology when he begs Brer Fox not to toss him in there.”
“Like if I pleaded with you not to take me to San Francisco?” Alice says.
“Well kinda, except that you’re not from San Francisco.”
“But I want to be.”
“Lucky for you, we’re halfway there.”
Alice has taken over the stereo and we’re listening to Devin The Dude’s “Briarpatch” as we fly along Interstate 5 on our way to San Francisco. I’ve spent the last ten minutes giving her the Cliffs Notes of Uncle Remus, complete with cultural context. It’s part of our little unspoken game; I listen to her music and she abides my literary lectures.
We’re making our third trip to Dimensions Health Clinic today. On our first visit, we met Dr. Diane and Alice submitted to a full physical. On the second visit, we acquired a prescription for Spironolactone, an anti-androgen which blocks the production of testosterone. This means that she won’t develop further secondary sex characteristics any time soon. For as long as she continues the medication, her voice won’t get deeper and she won’t grow facial hair. It is, in effect, as if puberty has been put on pause. One of the things that makes agreeing to Spironolactone a no-brainier is the fact that its effects are reversible. If she stops taking this particular medication, puberty will proceed normally.
In the month since Alice’s revelation, we’ve had many conversations about estrogen. I’ve researched the hell out of hormone therapy and still wasn’t ready to agree to it until a couple of nights ago when Jay brought it up.
“Al has a hint of an Adam’s apple. I noticed it tonight at dinner.” He lifts his hand to his own throat. “And all I could think was six months sooner and we could have caught that.”
It hits me then that if we are committed to going down this road, then withholding one of the necessary keys simply because I’m afraid of what other people will think is cruel.
If I honestly believe that Alice is Alice and not Jordan, which I do, then withholding hormone therapy makes little sense. If she were ten or twelve, there’d be more time to think about it, but she’ll be sixteen in three months and I’ve seen those sixteen year-old girls. She’s got some catching up to do.
With her arm out the window, riding the waves of wind, Alice sings along with Devin:
“You can carve me
tie me up and starve me
put me on the grill
still nothing can harm me
like the briar patch.”
Nestled into San Francisco’s Castro District, Dimensions Health Clinic is known for its treatment of and support for transgender youth. Currently, our insurance won’t cover these visits or her meds, so we’re out-of-pocketing the sliding-scale fees. It’s worth it though to walk into a place where no one looks at you funny, where you don’t have to explain yourselves and educate people with an alphabet of letters after their names, hoping to god they understand.
The waiting room itself makes me smile. We sit among girls with traces of facial hair and boys with visible binders beneath their t-shirts. Some of them blend in like Ari and William, others will never blend but still dare to be who they are. Just a few short weeks ago, I might have felt out of place here, but sitting beside Alice, in this long line of plastic chairs, I am completely at ease.
Dr. Diane spends twenty-five minutes with us. She asks Alice more probing questions and answers every one of mine. She’s clear about what kind of physical results we can expect from the estrogen as well as the common side effects.
“If you can find a GP near home who’s willing to manage Alice’s meds,” Dr. Diane says, “I’ll be available to consult.” She hugs Alice as she hands over a prescription for Estrodial. “Otherwise, I’ll see you next month.”
On our way out, I stop at the reception desk to make a follow-up appointment. Alice stands beside me, fanning herself with her prescription. A red-headed woman seated near the front of the waiting room leans towards her.
“Titty Skittles?” she asks, gesturing towards the prescription.
I laugh out loud.
“Yes!” Alice says grinning .
“First time?” the redhead asks.
Alice nods, still grinning.
“Welcome to the club. I’m Marie. Two years HRT.”
We must look momentarily confused because she follows with, “Hormone Replacement Therapy,” then pivots and with a perfectly manicured finger, starts pointing at others in the waiting room. “That’s Julia, four months; Emma, six weeks; and over there is Yvette…forever.”
The last woman Marie points to scowls. “What the hell you talkin’ about my business for?”
“Little sister here just got her first E scrip,” Marie says.
There’s a smattering of applause, but the older scowling woman just says, “Harrumph,” and goes back to her magazine. As we’re walking out past her, though, she looks up and gestures for Alice to come over. Timidly, Alice complies.
“Fourteen years I’ve been on Hormone Replacement Therapy,” Yvette says, rubbing her deeply-lined cheek, “but I got a late start. You’re young. You’ll fill out nice.”
Alice whispers “thank you” before following me out the door.
The Castro District has been the gay cultural center of San Francisco since the early 70s. Still, I didn’t even know the neighborhood existed until college, when I came to the city with a couple of friends to explore the shops and eateries of Castro Street.
On each of our clinic trips, Alice and I have treated ourselves to some window-shopping, ultimately ending up at Escape from NY Pizza for a couple of slices before we head back over the bridge and into the Valley. The twenty dollars I gave Alice earlier is burning a hole in her pocket, so I frequently lose her as she dashes into stores in search of the perfect souvenir.
At one point, she makes a beeline for an antique shop that has a cabinet of trinkets and old cigarette cases in the window. I follow her into the narrow space and wander around while she tries to get the shopkeeper’s attention. I’m halfway to the back of the store before I realize that nearly all of the statues, paintings and knick knacks are phallic in nature. I am, in fact, standing beside a six-foot tall redwood carved penis. I am not horrified by this, just surprised.
When I turn to get Alice’s attention, I can’t help but notice the expansive canvas with a well-endowed nude sprawled across black velvet hanging just above her. The gentleman behind the counter, now pricing antique Zippo lighters for my teenage daughter, is visibly irritated. As casually as possible, I make my way back to the mouth of the store and call out to Alice.
“Come on, honey. I’m starving.”
Finally, much to the relief of both the shopkeeper and myself, she abandons the shiny things and exits the store. I walk fast until we’re at the end of the block. Alice has to jog to catch up.
“What’s up with you?” she asks once I’ve slowed down.
“Did you look around at all while we were in there?”
“Is this like how you wouldn’t let us go into Spencer’s Gifts at the mall when were kids?”
“No. Spencer’s Gifts is raunchy. That store is just clearly a male space.”
“Admit it Mom, you ran out of the cock shop because you were embarrassed.”
“Alice, your mouth!”
“I’m sorry. Would you prefer Penis Palace?”
“And I did not run. I walked…at an accelerated pace.”
“I really wanted that old Zippo.”
“Yeah, well I wanted the marble phallus with wings, but I suspect that both were out of our price range.”
Up on the next block, she spots a Human Rights Campaign (HRC) outpost. She starts to open the door, then turns around with a smirk.
“You think you can handle this?”
I swat her and we enter the store laughing. We’re in there for a long while, due in no small part to the twenty-something clerk with obscenely beautiful eyes who flirts mercilessly with Alice. As I watch them I’m acutely aware that this is the first time I’ve seen her flirt with a boy.
My little Romeo has morphed into a Juliet, leaning onto the glass counter as the boy behind it pulls out trays of bracelets, rings and whatnots, all stamped with some version of the HRC logo, that big yellow equal sign on a bright blue background. In the end, she selects a chunky ring and a fistful of stickers which will end up plastered pretty much everywhere she goes for the next three weeks.
We finally make our way to Escape From NY Pizza where I grab a couple of gourmet veggie slices and root beers from the cute hippie boy behind the counter. I bring them to a table near the window and sit down across from Alice.
“Were you flirting with that dude?” she asks in an exaggerated whisper.
“I was smiling,” I correct her, “not flirting.”
“That was some awfully loud smiling.” She sits back, looking smug as she takes a sip of root beer.
“This from the girl who just spent twenty minutes making googly eyes with the boy at the HRC store?”
“Yes, but he started it. This poor pizza boy was just mindin’ his own business.”
I love her so much in this moment, in this place. There is no chip on her shoulder, no defense-mechanisms set to high alert. There are no strangers staring at us unabashedly and the few glances that do come our way are accompanied by sly smiles. I can’t help but think of how much easier her transition would be if we lived in a place like this.
As we leave the city and head back into the Valley, Alice is sleepy and doesn’t talk much. At one point, though, she curls around in the passenger seat to face me.
“I don’t really like boys, but that guy in the Human Rights shop was cute.”
“Indeed he was.”
“And he said I should come to the Pride Parade this summer.”
“Let’s wait a couple of years on that one.”
“It’s a little like Spencer’s Gifts.”
“Yeah. But we can go to the parade in Santa Cruz in June. You’ve always liked that one and everyone we know will be there.”
A while later, Briarpatch comes around on the stereo again. Halfway through the song, Alice speaks without opening her eyes.
“Santa Cruz was my briarpatch, wasn’t it?”
“Mine too, babygirl.”
“San Francisco would be okay though. It’s nice not feeling like a freak.”
She sleeps while I drive and I feel a little jealous. I am exhausted from navigating Market Street with its awkward lanes and lack of left turns, from scouring the Castro District for suitable parking, from thinking of the work piling up in my office as I’ve taken yet another day off to manage Alice’s life and, most of all, from the necessity of making this terrifying journey in the first place without a well-marked road map. One of those familiar black and yellow “…For Dummies” books dedicated to parenting a transgender teen would be nice right about now.
When I signed on the appropriate line in the doctor’s office at 10:45 this morning so Alice could start estrogen therapy, it was not on a whim, but rather the result of an agonizing process, weighing the risks and benefits for her in the long term. It was also a conscious choice to parent in the manner I believe to be best, rather than the one which would sit better with everyone else. I was confident that I was doing the right thing, but of course, I second-guess myself all the way home.
[Escape From The Penis Palace is an excerpt from “The Complicated Geography of Alice“, a memoir currently in search of the perfect publisher. If you would like to read more, you can find Laurustina.com on Facebook and get notification when the blog is updated and the book is released.]