By Katie Muldowney, John Tummino, and Leslie Walters
SYRACUSE (NCC News) – Terri Cook and her son have spent the past week-and-a-half together looking at colleges, something she did before with her older son. However, this time is different.
Just like most incoming college students, Cook says her son has many new feelings and fears towards the prospect of going away and adjusting to college, such as living with a roommate and having to use shared residence hall bathrooms. But these fears are anything but average to Cook’s son.
That’s because her son was once her daughter.
Figuring it all out
Growing up as a girl, Cook’s son was happy and full of life. A straight-A student and a member of numerous clubs and activities, her son had many friends, Cook said. However, they didn’t always have the same interests.
“When all his girl friends liked guy singers, he liked Hillary Duff and Miley Cyrus,” Cook recalled. “I didn’t think anything of it.”
But the child she knew and raised soon began to change. By middle school, he became increasingly withdrawn, not wanting to leave the house. He stopped talking to many of his friends, did not want to go to school, and started to hide behind his hair and baggy clothing, according to Cook. Cook attributed the changes to normal adolescent growing pains.
“I told myself, ‘This is normal; this is adolescence,” Cook said.
It took a suicide attempt to convince her otherwise.
“I found him covered in blood, shaking, crying, scared,” Cook said. “It’s hard for me to describe.”
Her son was rushed to the hospital. That’s when she learned that the problem was much more complex than just a typical teenage phase.
“It was the hospital that I saw all the scars,” Cook said. “He had been cutting himself for quite a while.”
After her son left the hospital, Cook sought the help of numerous doctors, therapists, and counselors, all who treated his case as depression or anxiety. However, all her son would say is that he didn’t feel like he fit in with the other kids, but couldn’t say why, according to Cook.
For several years, her son started the year at public school, but ended up finishing through home-bound instruction to avoid physical and verbal bullying. He began to avoid all contact with other teenagers, Cook said.
Finally, her son started to discover the person he really was, at first coming out as bisexual. This led Cook to approach a school guidance counselor, who handed her a brochure for the Q Center, a local safe haven for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth.
At the Q Center, her son finally found a place where he could be himself.
“He didn’t want to leave the house for three years,” Cook said. “If we went shopping, we had to go to another town. He went [to the Q Center], and after the first night, he never wanted to leave.”
Finding a safe place
If you were to drive by the Q Center, located at 617 W. Genesee Street in Syracuse, you probably would not stop to look twice. From afar, the building, made of white cinderblock and devoid of any signage, looks plain. Yet, to the LGBTQ youth who go there, the place is anything but plain. It’s something more.
“The Q Center is a safe space that provides an opportunity for transgender youth to meet others like them,” said Tyler Sliker, the programming director at the Q Center.
The Q Center, part of the AIDS Community Resources, is funded in part by the Onondaga County Department of Aging and Youth, United Way of Central New York, and donations, Sliker said.
It contains a library replete with shelves of books, games and movies. On top of the shelves are colorful drawings and paintings, many of which contain the signature LGBTQ pride colors of yellow, orange, blue, red, green, and violet.
The Center primarily provides youth support and educational groups that meet multiple times throughout each month along with a host of other services, Sliker said. For example, tutors at the center help the youth with core classes at school. They also aid LGBT youth in applying to college or getting a job, according to Sliker.
Like Cook’s son, Sliker is a transgender male. He started volunteering at the center after he graduated from college and took over as programming director in February 2012.
“Tyler is the life of the Q Center,” Cook said. “You just walk in there from day one and kids who don’t feel like they fit in anywhere feel accepted. It takes a special person to get to know each kid and their different needs.”
Terri’s husband Vince agrees that the Q Center is a great place for the youth.
“There’s a lot of camaraderie at the Q Center,” he said.
However, the Q Center didn’t just provide Terri and Vince’s son with a safe place where he could be himself. Its staff also helped point them in the right direction, answer a lot of their questions, and most importantly offered them comfort.
“[The idea of being transgender] was never something that was a part of my awareness,” Terri said. “[The Q Center] wasn’t just support for [my son]; it was support for us.”
“Our son is alive today because of the Q Center,” she added.
The transition begins
Even after finding the Q Center, the struggles did not cease for Terri’s family son and her family.
“When he decided to transition, it got really hard again,” she said. “He would say, ‘It’s never gonna be normal. I’m never just gonna be who I am.’”
After telling his parents that he needed to be somewhere safe, Terri and Vince accompanied their son to the Golisano Children’s Hospital at Upstate University Hospital. Until then, home and the Q Center were the only two places the Cooks considered to be safe for their son. However, at Upstate they met a social worker who changed everything.
“She instantly got the pronouns,” Terri said, noting the social worker referred to their child as “he.” “She just knew. We got to see and experience from the outside looking in somebody else affirming who he is.”
Not long after that, in January 2011, doctors at Four Winds Hospital in Saratoga officially diagnosed her son with gender identity disorder. In May 2011, he began taking testosterone.
In early June, the Cooks traveled to Philadelphia to attend the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference. There, Terri began to relate to what her son had been going through.
“As a mom, I could finally see his life,” she said.
The conference provided the Cooks with access to medical resources and answers to the questions they had been looking for, including doctor consent for her son to undergo a bilateral mastectomy (or “top surgery”), which would be a significant turning point in her son’s life, according to the Cook.
“Our son is alive today because of the Q Center.”
But, one of the more memorable moments for the family came before the surgery. Not surprisingly, it had to do with the Q Center. Every June, the Q Center holds a “Pride Prom” for all its LGBTQ youth. The prom allows the youth to come as they want, and with whom they want, according to Cook. Her son decided to go as a boy.
“He was so excited to go out and buy a suit,” she said. “He used to never look us in the eyes, and never smile, but there he was dressed in a suit asking us to take his picture.”
That night, her son’s peers crowned him king of the Pride Prom. Cook recalls picking up her son afterwards and being in disbelief.
“He was wearing a crown and so many beads,” she said. “It looked like he was going to fall over. I can’t tell you the joy and excitement I felt.”
Hope for the future
Things have gotten better for her son as of late. He started last school year with a legal name change and is set to graduate in the spring. Yet, with college around the corner, Cook remains unsure of her son’s future.
“I know he needs to be who he is, but I don’t know how hard it’s going to be,” she said.
That’s why she’s doing everything she can to normalize the idea of what it means to be transgender.
In addition to co-facilitating meetings at the Q Center with parents of transgender youth and lobbying for gender equality, she and her husband have just launched a website entitled “The Ally Project.”
“We hope to share many people’s stories on the website,” she said.
The Cooks are going to be sharing their own story too. In early 2013, a book about their personal experience will be published. The book, like this article, doesn’t mention their son by name in an effort to protect his privacy and identity as he goes off to college.
“Our son is at a place on his journey right now where he just wants to be a guy… not ‘the trans guy,’” Terri said.
Nonetheless, no matter what the future holds for Terri and her family, she always carries hope with her wherever she goes, literally and figuratively. It’s in the form of a silver necklace given to her when her son was in fifth grade. Inscribed in it is one simple word: hope.
“I wear this every day,” she said, clutching it in her hand. “I always hope. It’s been a really hard journey, so I hold onto hope. I grab it. There’s always hope that it will get better.”
Check out the slideshow below for a virtual tour of the Q Center. You can pause the slideshow by clicking on the icon in the upper-right hand corner. You can also enlarge the photographs by clicking on them.