When I first heard about the jewelry artist Karen Boelts, and the activist she had become as a result of her son being part of the LGBTQ community, I knew I had to reach out. My brother came out as transgender only four years ago in Egypt, and we moved to New York to start a new life for us both. My brother has changed the way I view the world; and, I knew when he decided to start hormone therapy that I would do everything in my power to stand for equality. Even before contacting Karen, I knew we had that drive for love in common.
“The truth of the matter is that it’s not only the person who is changing genders; families, friends and love ones also transition.”
Karen is a mother who knows this journey well. During the 90s, her son Hal was the first documented transgender person to transition as a child in the US. As a mother to a person who has experienced transition, she became inspired. Karen created Little Bridget, a jewelry company whose purpose is to support equality especially for LGBTQ people. Through her jewelry, Karen infuses each piece with messages of love and equality.
I often wonder what’s stopping my own parents from being fully comfortable with their son being transgender. I know for a fact that my parents are leery about exposure. I decided to phone Karen to see how she and her husband handled their child’s transition. She told me, “The truth of the matter is that it’s not only the person who is changing genders; families, friends and love ones also transition.” And as she told her story from the very beginning, it came as no surprise that she’s been supportive and passionate about social awareness ever since.
I am a sibling of a transgendered person; although that experience is invaluable and life-changing, ever-powerful and resonant in my life, I never knew the extent of its effect.
Interview by Sara Elmessiry
Edited by Joselito Corpus
How did you come to know that you were pregnant? And how was your pregnancy with Hal?
It took four very positive pregnancy test results for me to believe I was pregnant. My husband and I didn’t care about the gender of the baby; but after having our sonogram, we found out we were expecting a girl. I immediately began to imagine her nursery. Stepping away from the traditional pinks and blues, I bought a bright colored whimsy animal print fabric. From the moment I found out she was in my womb, I felt the bond that so many mothers before me had spoken about. I couldn’t wait to meet her.
“I tried to convince myself it was just her being a kid but something stuck with me.”
What was the discovery process like to learn to you were a mother to a transgender person?
Halle was an ordinary, happy, easygoing baby. When playing she would often pretend to be Peter Pan, Phoebus or John Smith. But at the age of three she told me, “God put me in the wrong body. I’m supposed to be a boy.” Clearly, this time she wasn’t telling me she was a Disney character, and I could see in her eyes there was something going on. But, I brushed it off and told her “You’re supposed to be a girl and that is a wonderful thing.” I tried to convince myself it was just her being a kid, but something stuck with me.
One afternoon I put her in a dress for her friend’s birthday party and she told me she didn’t like to wear dresses. I noticed how sad and desperately uncomfortable she looked, so I told her to take the dress off and to pick out whatever she wanted to wear.
That was one of the first times I felt in my heart there was something troubling going on with her. At that point I figured she was a tomboy and this must be what it is like to be a tomboy. I looked straight into her eyes and told her she NEVER HAD TO WEAR A DRESS AGAIN!
By age four, her easy-going personality had changed. She was frequently agitated and angry. She had no interest in playing with girls which was really starting to concern me. I told my husband that I thought it was important for her to learn to at least be around girls because they make up half the population. To help her get comfortable with girls we put her in a girls youth group at church…I hate that we did that. She really struggled in that group and cried after each meeting so we took her out.
One afternoon, she packed her bags to run away. She told me “I am different, and I can’t explain it.” My husband and I started to think she was a lesbian and not so much a tomboy.
“She explained the difference between gender and sexuality, which until that day I honestly didn’t know there was a difference.”
What concerns did you have for Halle at that point?
By first grade, the Halle we knew had disappeared entirely. She wasn’t sleeping, and it became apparent she was depressed. This really motivated me to search for a therapist, but I wasn’t going to let just any therapist get inside Halle’s head. I wanted one who could clarify what was going on with her and help her accept and thrive in whatever that might be.
Within months of working with Halle, the therapist told my husband and I that Halle is transgender. We were so clueless that we kept asking the therapist if she means Halle is a lesbian and she kept telling us: “No, it isn’t about sexuality it is about gender.” She explained the difference between gender and sexuality, which until that day I honestly didn’t know there was a difference.
What was your reaction with the initial news?
We went home and began to research. At that time in 2001 we found only one website that had any information on gender identity pertaining to children. I had to pace myself with the information. I found myself getting overwhelmed with fear, fear for her future as well as fear for my own future. My dreams had just been yanked away from me; dreams of watching my little girls grow up together, my dreams of giving my children an easy childhood.
“Everything changed, and my life took a sharp turn into a world I had never known.”
I had no idea what was ahead of me. Everything changed, and my life took a sharp turn into a world I had never known. There were a lot of times when I wanted to cry. Halle was already keenly aware that things were not good for me. As hard as I tried to act as if everything was OK, she knew it wasn’t and she knew it was because of her. I didn’t want to add to her stress so I would make a deal with myself that if I could get through the next conversation without crying, I would let myself cry later when I was alone or in my car.
One day, I was eaves-dropping on my kids, and I heard Halle’s sister in her cute three-year-old lisp ask, “Halle, what do you want me to call you, a boy or a girl?” Halle answered, “a boy because that is what I am.” Hearing this made me realize that this was really happening, it was very serious and drastic measures needed to be taken.
How did you help Hal transition to his true gender?
Little by little we started transitioning at home. I got rid of her pink chenille bedding and changed it out for Harry Potter. I went through all of her drawers and got rid of whatever girls’ clothes were left, which at that point were a few pairs of underwear and socks. I replaced them with boxers and socks like her Dads. We changed to male pronouns and started calling him Hal instead of Halle.
The results were immediate! His happy demeanor started to return and he was more relaxed. This was a step in the right direction, but everything still didn’t sit right with me. I am a big believer that secrets are shame. If we were telling him he could be his true self at home but had to hide it in public, how was he going to be proud of who he was? That’s when we decided it was time for him to completely transition, to make the outside world match his inside world.
Although scared, he decided to be proactive. With the principal, I set out to talk to all the kids in his school. The kids wanted to know how they could make him feel comfortable. We held a community meeting with the parents educating them and most were supportive. The few that had issue went to the school principal and complained that it wasn’t appropriate to be talking to the kids about sexuality. She told them in a very firm, polite way that “It was not about sexuality, it is about gender, and we will educate our kids.”
“Once again, I tried to make it look like everything was normal while there was a crazy shit storm of emotions going on in me.”
What was the response from your family?
We received mixed reactions from our family. Some wouldn’t accept it, while others were totally supportive. My Dad, was concerned that Hal was too young to really understand what was going on. This was a question that came up nearly every time I spoke to someone about Hal’s transitioning. I explained to them that kids start to go through their gender identity stage at age two.
Shortly after opening up to our relatives about Hal, my sister and I were going to be in Arizona at the same time with our families, so we made a plan to get the cousins together. When I called her to see what park she wanted to meet at, she told me her husband forbid it. He didn’t want his kids around Hal.
I was devastated. Hal was the sweetest most innocent kid, and I felt like they were treating him like a freak. I sat on the landline with her as my kids and husband were in the other room playing games. I cleaned myself up enough to tell the kids that their cousins couldn’t go to the park, but their Dad would take them. Once again, I tried to make it look like everything was normal while there was a crazy shit storm of emotions going on in me.
My sister suggested we meet for coffee and talk it over and for some crazy reason I agreed. I sat across from her as she told me she was a teacher, she worked with kids and didn’t know what kind of emotional damage it might do to her kids. I felt betrayed, bewildered, sad, angry and ashamed.
The interaction with her was an important lesson for me. It taught me that the depth of fear fueled by ignorance is very powerful and destructive. I knew that she loved me, that she loved my son, but that this fear pushed her into reacting the way she did. After that interaction I decided to put the relationships with family and friends who weren’t supportive on hold.
My husband and I knew it was going to be tough [growing up transgender], so we focused on surrounding Hal with a loving community in order to provide him with a strong foundation.
“I sat in my car feeling humiliated and angry. It changed the scope for me and I realized in that very moment I would work for equality at some capacity for the rest of my life.”
As Hal grew up, how was he accepted as a transgender person?
One of the hardest parts of parenting is seeing your kids suffer. I had to witness my son Hal go through a lot of pain being inflicted by people in pain. During his high school years there was a time when the bullying had gotten so bad that he called from school to let me know he was coming home. I jumped in my car to meet him. It broke my heart to see him so sad. He ended up staying home from school for a couple of days to let the dust settle.
While he took this break, his new high school friends sent him messages letting him know they didn’t care if he was transgender. They brought him cake and hung out with him after school. He told me, “I’m not going to let them hold me back,” and he didn’t. I was very proud of him for that. He became stronger and more resilient after that year. I believe that the harsh incidents in school helped to make him into the man he is today.
How was the reaction from the medical community?
The thought of my son having to take hormones for the rest of his life and possibly undergoing multiple surgeries was hard for me to grasp. Therefore, I struggled with Hal’s medical options from the start. I also knew there was no other option, so accepted it.
One afternoon, I got a call from our doctor who told me there was a letter on the way from our insurance company stating they would not treat anything having to do with Hal’s gender. They were going to cut off his blockers and would not cover his gender reassignment or testosterone.
I couldn’t understand how our insurance would cover anything having to do with my gender but not his? Things that I took for granted came rushing into my head like being denied a job, housing or services due to your gender or sexuality. I sat in my car feeling humiliated and angry. It changed the scope for me and I realized in that very moment I would work for equality at some capacity for the rest of my life.
“Even the most accepting parents can take years to let the process of gender transitioning settle.”
What have you learned on your journey with Hal?
Although the dreams I once had swept away, at the same time they remained. The fact that I gained a son didn’t negate the fact that I lost a daughter. The baby girl I was so excited to meet is gone, yet not gone. Their soul remains even though the body has transformed. I didn’t know the strength I am now so familiar with. I didn’t know the full capacity of compassion, love, and generosity of people I barely know. For me, I wouldn’t change a thing, the crying, the grief, the screaming at God…all worth it. It made me the passionate person I am today. For Hal, though, the world is still harsh, so if I could, I would change the world to make it a little easier on him.
Even the most accepting parents can take years to let the process of gender transitioning settle. It is important for both sides to give a little, for all involved to have patience and compassion for each other and themselves. Some parents worry this is a reflection on them as parents, neither of us cared what other people thought of us. We knew we loved our children deeply and that we didn’t bring them into this world to abandon them.
We were in it for the long haul. I did a lot of the research and decision making, while my husband tried to keep us afloat financially as medical bills and other added expenses piled up. We were all in therapy on and off over the years. I think raising children puts a strain on any marriage, even in the most fortunate of circumstance.
The added stress of Hal being transgender intensified that strain. Although the experience brought us closer, at times it pulled us apart. We are still putting the pieces back together, even with my extended family, and fortunately working through it we are closer than we were before.
“The more people understand what it is to be transgender, the safer it is to be transgender.”
How has your activism affected your life?
A large population of the world does not understand what transgender is and this lack of understanding is what causes so much fear, which in turn creates hate. Because of this I have always felt a responsibility to educate my community. Through organization like PFLAG and the Safe School Coalition I have spent much of my time educating teachers, doctors, clergy and anyone else that would listen. I did interviews with trade magazines on education, health care and even religion. I was very careful with which media I would open up to. I wanted to be sure that Hal’s story would not be sensationalized. It wasn’t entertainment.
More often than not, trans kids aren’t being ignored, schools are supporting these kids, doctors understand, families aren’t falling apart. Don’t get me wrong there is a lot of work to be done, especially in a time when politicians introduce barbaric bills that mandate what bathroom a transgender person can use. The world is not always kind, especially to the LGBTQ community.
When people transition and finally get to live in their identified gender, they are happy. They don’t have to hide or pretend anymore. The more people understand what it is to be transgender, the safer it is to be transgender.
“And through my own transition I realized the importance of love and equality, and knew I wanted to incorporate the message into my work.”
And finally, how were you inspired to create Little Bridget Jewelry?
When I started making jewelry the kids were toddlers. I had home parties to sell my line, which quenched my creative thirst and helped out with the bills. One day, inspired by her favorite movie Aristocats, I overheard Emma ask “Hal, will you call me Little Bridget from now on?” He said, “Why yes Little Bridget I will.”
At that time my business name was Karen Jewelry, pretty boring, so I changed it to Little Bridget Jewelry. And through my own transition I realized the importance of love and equality, and knew I wanted to incorporate the message into my work. It feels good to see a piece of my jewelry go out into the world, I feel like I am doing just a little every day to make the world a better place.
As Karen reflected on her journey, I found myself wondering if the fear she spoke of is what’s stopping my own parents from being fully comfortable with their son being transgender. Before ending the phone call, I thanked Karen for opening up about her journey and how her son has made her who she is today. I go back now to my own family, and Karen’s words guide me. Especially what she says about patience.
“It is important for both sides to give a little, for all involved to have patience and compassion for each other and themselves.”
To view a list of resources dedicated to helping make the world a safer place for LGBTQ youth click here