By Chris Olsen
“Mom! I know what is wrong with me,” 8-year-old Sam said, running into the kitchen after school.
“Honey, there is nothing wrong with you,” Leslie Lagerstrom replied automatically, her motherly instincts kicking in.
Sam could not be swayed; he was excited to share a lesson from his third-grade science class that day. “Girls have two X chromosomes, and boys have one X and one Y chromosome.” He sat down at the table and drew the letter X twice on a piece of paper. As he erased part of the second X to make it a Y, he said, “Something happened to my Y! It is an X, and that is why I’m a girl, but it was supposed to be a Y!”
As Leslie observed the look of relief and joy on her child’s face with this simple explanation, she held back tears.
While Sam’s gender was assigned female at birth, from the time Sam could talk, he identified as a male. When all his friends were princesses for Halloween, Sam donned a Harry Potter costume. In fact, Halloween was his favorite holiday, but not for the reason most kids loved it; it was the one day of the year his outside appearance could reflect the gender Sam knew he was meant to be.
Leslie had searched for information about transgender children (or gender-variant children, which was the term used by the medical community at the time) since Sam was in preschool. The internet was in its infancy, and the information she found ranged from condemning and cruel to clinical and convoluted. On that day, sitting at their kitchen table, Sam’s proclamation made Leslie realize she wanted to learn more and do more—not just to help Sam, but also to provide support to families like hers.
Leslie began compiling resources and recording her journey as the mother of a trans child. But she wasn’t quite ready to share it with the world. A few years later, after Sam transitioned socially, and Leslie’s 20-plus-year corporate marketing career wrapped up, she discussed it with Sam and launched a blog called Transparenthood. Her original vision was to share the accumulation of what felt like a lifetime of experience navigating the complexities of raising a child whose gender identity did not correspond with their sex assigned at birth. She hoped to make others’ journeys easier. But even more, she wanted society at large to better understand those who identify as trans and accept them for who they are. She hoped to inspire others to join her in advocating for trans rights—the same basic rights intended for all humans.
Despite Leslie’s focus and efforts, she still made mistakes. She didn’t always know what to say or do as Sam faced new challenges. When Sam changed his pronouns to he/him and cut his hair short, he was bullied by other children at school. Leslie encouraged him to keep his eye on the big picture—after graduation, he would be free to be himself, and the world would be his oyster. At least she hoped so. Sam began to withdraw, which he later admitted was even worse than the relentless harassment he endured, because he felt completely isolated and alone. Still, staying true to who he knew himself to be inside and out remained most important to Sam.
Several of Sam’s middle and high school teachers turned a blind eye to Sam being bullied and ostracized. One teacher took notice and invited Sam to join her for lunch in her classroom every day—just the two of them. Her kindness was a lifeboat that helped Sam stay afloat until he transferred to another school for his senior year, where he thrived. At his new school, Sam had many friends who loved and accepted him exactly as he was. He was recognized for “Best Senior Speech,” an honor determined by student body votes.
It occurred to Leslie that some of Sam’s teachers simply weren’t equipped to address the issues students who identify as LGBTQ+ face. She began attending educational conferences, hoping to further define her advocacy path, and it was at one such event that she met Dr. Todd Savage, a professor in the school psychology program at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. She wondered if there was a way to take Transparenthood to the next level by partnering with Dr. Savage to provide K-12 educators with information to better support their students. While Dr. Savage was an expert in the science of gender identity, Leslie had a wealth of firsthand knowledge regarding how teachers could be instrumental in changing the lives of trans students.
It ended up being a perfect match. In 2009, Leslie and Dr. Savage developed a partnership to create programming to help schools become LGBTQ+ inclusive. Since that time, they have reached hundreds of schools and thousands of students, educators and administrators. They have served thousands more through community organizations and corporations interested in providing more diverse, equitable and inclusive environments for patrons and workers.
One college professor said of the programming: “I can’t thank you enough for taking the time with our class today! So many students stayed after to tell me how valuable they thought it was and how much it will help them now and in the future.”
A trans college student said of the programming: “If we inspired even one person in that room to make a change, I consider that a win for our community!”
A middle schooler who identified as LGBTQ+ said: “It’s great to know [I’m] not alone and that people are advocating for the community.”
As an adult, Sam dabbled in joining his mom on the speaking circuit, but he ultimately decided it wasn’t for him. Still, with legislation once again targeting those who identify as LGBTQ+, and especially the transgender community, he believes the work Leslie is doing is needed now more than ever.
Leslie has now been advocating for the trans community for two decades. She has achieved the original goal of Transparenthood, which was providing critical information that was not widely available when Sam was young, as well as making it known to trans children and families that they are not alone. She has remained transparent about her family’s journey—the good, the bad and everything in between—to show others that people like her son are an important part of the fabric of humanity.
“I do this work for the brave children who are true to themselves no matter what society throws at them. I do it for the supportive parents who will do anything to see their children happy and alive,” Leslie said. “And I do it for the unsupportive parents and others who are willing to listen and learn and eventually become some of the fiercest advocates for our cause.”
To learn more about Leslie’s advocacy and speaking efforts, visit Transparenthood.net.
About the Author
Chris Olsen is a broadcast media veteran turned communications consultant, educator and the author of “Whyography: Building a Brand Fueled by Purpose.” The founder of Publish Her and Publish Her Story, Chris has helped thousands of women tell their stories and publish their books.
About Publish Her
Publish Her is a female-founded independent publisher dedicated to elevating the words, writing and stories of women. We are passionate about amplifying the voices of women of color, women with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ+ community. We aim to make publishing an attainable, exciting and collaborative process for all.