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“I Was Watching and You Were Clear”: A Conversation with Carolyn Hays

Acclaimed bestselling author Carolyn Hays wrote her memoir Letter to My Transgender Daughter: A Girlhood (Blair, 2023) under a pen name to protect her family’s privacy, especially that of her sixteen-year-old daughter, Maude. With the full support of her parents, Maude showed the world that she was a girl from a young age, but at least one person in their Bible-Belt community complained to the Department of Children and Families that Hays and her husband Jeff were “dressing their son in girl’s clothes, forcing [their child] to be a homosexual.” The resulting knock on the door from a case worker features strongly in the book: while the family got through the harrowing investigation, they knew the only way to keep Maude safe was to move north to a more supportive community where they could be close to their extended family.

Hays and I are both parents of trans kids. We spoke on Zoom from the illusory comfort of our own “blue” communities—Hays from somewhere in the Northeast and I from Southern California. Our conversation covered many topics, including making art, gender-affirming care, the role of faith, and when it’s right to wear the supportive T-shirt.


The Rumpus: Maude was the name you and your family used for your daughter in utero, inspired by the refrain from the theme song of the 1970s TV show Maude. You do a glorious job of bringing her to life and helping us see that there was never any doubt of her gender identity. One of the most poignant moments for me was her yearly birthday wish of “Girl, girl, girl” as she blew out the candles on her cake. How is she now?

Carolyn Hays: Her life is very much a typical girl’s life. She hasn’t come out too much. In middle school, she came out to two friends. In high school, some administrators know, but I don’t know that any teachers know. And again, two friends. She’s very particular. Every once in a while, she’ll think about coming out to the school in a larger way, but it’s just so rough out there, the news is so bracing. It definitely has to be her call about her safety and feeling good in the world.

Letter to My Transgender Daughter cover

It’s a little bit different from people who transition later in life because she transitioned so long ago. So telling people that she’s trans doesn’t help her to be seen more clearly. Instead, it actually puts up blurry lenses in front of her. She still doesn’t feel like she’s known necessarily in a way that she would like to be known. She feels like she’s being seen through a veil.

Things get thrown at her—a classmate will make some kind of trans slur, not knowing that she is, and she has to deal with that. She bumps up against things in the medical settings, which are so fraught. She says that one of the things that she finds frustrating is that “people just assume I’m just some blond cheerleader,”—which she is—“who has no problems whatsoever in the world.” It’s a strange thing. She navigates every day in ways that I can’t ever imagine.

Rumpus: You wrote beautifully, “Some of us are handed a life and accept it. No questions asked. Some of us are built to ask questions. Some are handed a life and—with so many questions—make art from it.” How is Maude expressing her art right now at sixteen?

Hays: One way Maude makes her art is through her hair, her makeup, and her wardrobe, which is an expression of herself that is even bigger than gender. She is still very, very interested in fashion and is taking classes in this. When she was younger, she said, “I want to go to college.” I asked where she wanted to go. She replied, “I want to go to college at the Met Gala.”

I see her building a persona. Who is she? Who is she going to be? And doing that with a sense of flair. She is also very comedic. We are a family that privileges humor. My kids would always say “You could get away with anything if it’s funny.” She really enjoys comedic novels and memoirs of comedians like Molly Shannon, Ellie Kemper, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler. Maude’s art might continue to be expressed in fashion and comedy, but who knows?  She might surprise us. 

Rumpus: This is undoubtedly a rhetorical question, but did Maude see Barbie?

Hays: Maude saw Barbie three times. It’s her favorite movie!

Rumpus: I’m sure it varies, but how do you and Jeff navigate who you tell or don’t tell that Maude is trans?

Hays: We do tell certain people, particularly somebody who works in a medical profession, who’s an educator, or parents of other trans kids. And we need some people on the ground to know. We need our community that we can count on just in case something goes wrong. We can’t tell certain friends of ours, and it’s just such a huge part of our lives. And we don’t feel like we can because that’s just not going to be part of that friendship, which does stop us a little bit.

Then we have our friends who are parents of other trans kids, where we can completely let our guard down and say what we need to say. We’ve built those friendships over the years, they have been so important, also for the kids to know each other kind of like cousins, to have their friendships with each other. Even though they never talk about anything related to being trans, they hang out, go shopping, or go to the pool together. Normal teen stuff.

Rumpus: You show Maude laughing in her sleep and state that your job as a mom is to try to be the bulletproof vest to protect her joy. In hindsight, is there anything that you would have done differently as a mom?

Hays: The raising of children is, at a certain point, a process of humility. When you ask the question—I think of all of my kids, not just Maude specifically—“Did we dial it right? Were we too strict?” We were very strict in certain ways. “Were we too permissive?” We were permissive in other ways. We had to be intuitive, and we had to go with our gut, and then we had to be strategic on top of that and just do the best we could. So, I don’t go back and think, “I should have done it differently.” I go back and think, “I’m so glad that we got through it,” even though it’s still in there for each of us. 

I think every parent trying to protect their child wants to be the bulletproof vest. At the same time, we also know that we shouldn’t necessarily protect them wholly. You know they have to live in the world and know how to fight their own battles. It’s great to see how Maude has started to do that.

Rumpus: Gender-affirming care, ranging from puberty blockers to hormones to surgery, is such a controversial issue at times. What’s your view of these treatments? Do you think it’s up to parents and their children to make those decisions—if they’re even allowed to do so?

Hays: One thing that came to me recently is how parents working to increase autism awareness have done really good groundwork. They’re saying, “This is something that’s going on with our kids. Autism is a diagnosis. It is real, and you have to treat these children accordingly.” Parents of kids with ASD have made really good strides there. They did not say it’s a social construct, they said, “These are medical issues.” It’s frustrating to me to talk about my child’s medical diagnosis and treatment as a social construct or a social debate when, in fact, my daughter has a medical diagnosis. She deserves the same privacy and respect as any patient with another medical diagnosis. What matters is that we respect the trans person who stands in front of us. It’s really simple and clear for me—they deserve to get the appropriate medical care.

Rumpus: What would you say to families who are struggling with these issues?

Hays: We’ve been here before as a country. While there’s still incredible discrimination and oppression of people of color in America, civil rights activism created a roadmap for other communities. We need to think about the ways that we’ve been successful as a country in trying to right some wrongs. The pendulum swings one way and then swings back.

What I teach my daughter are catchphrases to use: “This is a violation of Title VII;” “This is a violation of Title IX;” “This is a violation of HIPAA.” She knows these things to say. I think we’re going to see interesting migrations of LGBTQ families, just as we’ve had with other populations. I think there’s a real need for the safe states to shore up their policies on every level to create legislation that protects LGBTQ people and not to take any of that for granted, to push every single piece of supportive legislation through.

Rumpus: I was struck by your openness about issues of spirituality. You write to Maude, “Because of you, I see God everywhere.” You describe saying prayers with her when she was little.  How would you define your faith now? 

Hays: The Catholic Church is a frustration for me right now, especially the American Catholic Church. I was very happy that Pope Francis came out and just gave the American bishops a hard time for not being full of grace and love and, from my perspective, just for not living the faith of Christianity and what it asks of us. I don’t have an active relationship with Catholicism. I could see us going to church at some point, but right now, we don’t. But I would say that my personal faith is as strong as it’s ever been. Maybe the strongest in my adult life. So my faith, my relationship with God, is hugely important to me.

Rumpus: Do you still say prayers? And would you like to share what you pray for?

Hays: Yesterday was a hard day. I prayed for the ability to surrender to God and to let go of what I was holding onto so tightly. And I pray, going through all the people in my life, including those who I specifically know are suffering. So a lot of prayers for peace, more peacefulness among human beings, and our stewardship of the earth, which I think we are failing. We’re failing each other, and we’re failing the earth.

Rumpus: When and how did you know you were ready to begin actually writing this story?

Hays: As Maude got older, I felt that she was old enough forme to tell her the story and have her understand it. And then by the time I’d finished writing and was ready to take the book to editors, she was even a little older still, so she could weigh in and tell me how things felt to her.

I also was hoping that the book would be unnecessary and that our society would continue to make such great progress that our family story would just become an odd little footnote. Then Trump came into office and began to stir up anti-trans sentiments, fueled mostly by Mike Pence. From then on, everything escalated astronomically. The far-right (Republicans) has found something that really works for them, inciting fear against a very small minority and thus creating a common enemy. That’s when the book became more urgent. I’d been really hoping it would become less urgent.

Rumpus: You wrote the book as a letter to Maude, but who did you envision as your broader audience? Has that changed since it was published?

Hays: I was completely paralyzed as I was writing, trying to figure out if I was writing for people who have a really good understanding of what trans is or for people who have zero understanding. When Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me came out, I saw that he was playing with tradition in his direct address to his son. I also thought of Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. I started to think about direct address, and it was much, much clearer. Once I decided that the book was for Maude—both now and when she’s an adult—I had to make a document that wasn’t watered down in any way.

Of course, I was also aware that there would be a readership. I wanted trans readers to feel like they were listening in as opposed to being written for. I’ve gotten moving letters from adult trans readers that helped me to understand what I wrote. Because of the direct address, I’m saying “you.” This is what I’m thinking about for you, this is what I’m imagining for you. That’s a door that can swing open. Then, suddenly, who’s standing on the other side of that door can be anyone. The book has been, I think, cathartic for a lot of older trans people to hopefully receive that love. I don’t know if there’s a book that has notes on those early years to this level.

Obviously, a lot of trans people have written incredible memoirs. Diana Goetsch’s This Body I Wore, Jennifer Finney Boylan’s She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, and Nick Krieger’s Nina Here nor There: My Journey Beyond Gender come to mind. Trans people have been telling their own stories for a long time, and that’s not my space. I did get to give this loving kind of adult eye, saying, “Hey, I was taking notes. I was watching, and you were clear.”

Rumpus: In addition to these books by trans authors and the scientific and historical research you describe in the book, were there other books that were helpful?

Hays: I’m looking at my bookshelf: Truth & Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett. Pain Studies by Lisa Olstein was helpful. Diana Goetsch’s memoir The Body I Wore was very helpful—the writing is propulsive, smart, and lyrical all at the same time. Her perspective as a trans woman was incredibly valuable, a gift. I very much recommend her brilliant book. 

Rumpus:  What are you reading now? What’s on your list?

Hays: We just ordered a copy of Loving Disagreement: Fighting for Community through the Fruit of the Spirit, written by Matt Mikalatos and Kathy Khang, who are part of The Fascinating Podcast. I’m looking for good ways to have conversations amid all of this divisiveness. It will be added to Think Like a Pancreas—A Practical Guide to Managing Diabetes with Insulin by Gary Sheiner.  I want to read some poems again, so I’ve just added Warhorses by Yusef Komunyakaa to the stack. I’m eagerly awaiting Caroline Leavitt’s new novel, Days of Wonder, and Samuel Kolawole’s debut novel, The Road to the Salt Sea.

Rumpus: You write “I want to wear the proud-parent-of-a-trans-kid T-shirt; I also know that I’d fold it if it meant someone was really coming for you.” Since Maude isn’t out fully, there are a lot of reasons why you can’t wear it. Where and when would you feel safe wearing it? And when not?

Hays: Everybody in our family has a Human Rights Campaign “Protect Trans Kids” T-shirt, and it’s interesting to wear it. Jeff wears it to the gym and gets looks, but he also wears it in our neighborhood. This allowed him to strike up a conversation with the parents of a trans kid we hadn’t met.

I would hope that if I did not have a trans kid, I would still want to wear a shirt that said, “Protect Trans Kids.” It’s tricky. Where is that line? When do you wear it?” Jeff wearing it to the gym is bold, pushing into those “bro spaces,” but how else do we stand up? I would have loved to write this memoir under my own name but knew I couldn’t. I would have been terrified to do that. The whole thing would have started all over again for me in terms of my vulnerability and feeling unsafe. I don’t know how that would have gone.

Rumpus: Have you written a memoir before?

Hays: This is my first memoir.

Rumpus: How did your process of writing in the first person differ from writing your other books?

Hays: Most of my other books are a lot more about discovering and building. This book was about carving because I had so much to work with.  I was given all the material and then wrestled with questions: What am I going to do with it? How am I going to make this make sense? How will it be read? I thought about the people who are in the book. People don’t know who I am, and I was careful that people wouldn’t know who other people were.

The post “I Was Watching and You Were Clear”: A Conversation with Carolyn Hays appeared first on The Rumpus.

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