When Liam Lowery came out to his mother, he expected the silence that followed. He was 16 years old, a senior in high school, and had faced the same quiet when he had been outed as a lesbian two years prior.
On the phone with BuzzFeed News, Liam describes that initial conversation about being transgender as "not that great." His mother, Michele, didn't know what the word "transgender" meant, and when he explained, she shut the conversation down. Years later, she would attribute her reaction to the misguided belief that people who identified as transgender would be forced into narrow and dangerous lives. "She didn't want me to have a harder life, didn't want me to be discriminated against or to struggle," Liam says, looking back.
Parents of trans or gender-nonconforming teens, often explain their refusal to accept their child's identity by saying they simply don't want their child to struggle. Some families — like the parents of the now-deceased Leelah Alcorn —believe being transgender is an illness or perhaps a choice. Initially, Liam's parents believed something similar. "My parents are devoutly Catholic and my mom was suffering from cancer for the majority of my life. The general attitude was, Well, this is a life where you suffer a lot and you get the ultimate reward if you do the right thing. So, why should you pursue these kinds of things?" Unexpectedly, Liam's mother's long history of illness would provide an entry point for understanding, and ultimately, acceptance.
After his first year of college, Liam returned home home to work because he couldn't afford to stay in New York City. For his parents, this trip meant confronting their son's transition head on. This was two years after he'd come out to his mother, and only months since he'd come out to his father. As the three of them lived together, the silence couldn't continue. His parents had questions.
Liam's family started doing simple searches on Google for the word "transgender" and similar terms. What they saw only further encouraged the idea that their son's life would be a nightmare. "Fortunately, it came back to discussion between the three of us. They asked me what I wanted, and I told them I wanted to start taking testosterone," he said.
Because of Michele's long-term illness, his parents were admittedly more comfortable with medical terms and research. They contacted their own doctors, and Liam's older brother — a cancer researcher, to make sure taking hormones wouldn't cause complications for him down the road. When they had the all-clear, they came back to Liam satisfied with their information. "It made them feel good as parents to be on the same page about my safety." Even if it took two years, all three Lowerys were beginning to find themselves on the same page. When it came time to pick a preferred name, his parents were touched that he chose "Liam". It was the name they planned to give him had he been assigned male at birth.
That his parents came around is a narrative Liam feels is missing from most stories about trans teens who come out. "When I was initially struggling with my family, it seemed like the only option that was being presented was if you have to cut your family off, do it." For Liam, giving up on his family wasn't an option. Even though he wouldn't call the work he did with his family easy, Liam admits his experience was never unsafe. "I was very lucky in that I was never treated with violence or any kind of abuse by my parents or family." Of course, this is not always the case for a trans teen coming out to loved ones. Still, he felt abusive stories were the only ones being told, not stories like his where the parents were willing to have conversations, read books, and do the work to understand their kid. "I would have been more grateful to see more examples of stories like mine when I was coming out."
As his parents' understanding and acceptance grew, new kinds of changes were occurring all around them. The good change came in the form of a woman. Liam fell in love with Marisa. So in love, in fact, that he used the money he'd been saving for chest reconstruction surgery to buy her an engagement ring. His parents also loved Marisa. "It really benefitted our relationship because they were able to see from my relationship with her that I was loved outside of my family, and that this person loved me as a trans person." Soon after their engagement, Liam's parents helped him cover the costs of the chest reconstruction surgery. A less happy change was the deterioration of Michele's health. Though she'd been perpetually ill for a number of years, it was becoming clearer that every moment was a little more heavy with a lack of certainty.
On one of their every other weekend trips to see Liam's family, Marisa, who had become increasingly close to Michele, bonding over fashion and makeup, suggested they scrap plans for a June wedding and get married at his parents' house, in their pajamas, on Thanksgiving. She argued, "Who knows when we can all be together again? Let's make sure your mom can be there and she can remember it." By this time, a tumor was pressing on Michele's brain and she had begun to lose function in her left hand. The family was running out of time.
At first, Michele was completely against the idea of changing the date of the wedding. She was worried that Liam and Marisa would be sacrificing something they wanted out of misplaced guilt. So the couple calmly and firmly explained to her that she couldn't be more wrong about their reasoning. They told her, "It's because we love you, and we can't imagine you not being there. It's too important to us to take a chance." Then she reluctantly agreed. Liam says the joy he feels about his mother being present on his wedding day "could bring [him] to his knees." He shares his gratitude for his wife's foresight. "One of the last big memories I have with my mom is my wedding. I don't think either of us could have pictured a better day." On December 19th, Michele Lowery passed away.
As the day of the his mother's funeral approached, Liam found himself faced with the possibility of more trauma, seeing family and friends he hadn't seen since before his transition. His father, Frank, who had always let Michele do most of the assuring of their love and acceptance rose to the occasion declaring, "We're going to handle this." He proceeded to gracefully introduce Lowery to everyone at the funeral, shaking their hands, and saying, "I don't think you've met Liam yet. This is my son."
Using his family as an example, Liam would like to spend the rest of his life assuring trans children and teens that parents can grow a lot. He says, "One of the hardest things I've done personally is working with my parents on our relationship, and I'm sure it was one of the hardest things they had to do. But as a result, I have a relationship with my dad and I was able to have a relationship with my mom that was beautiful."