A Mother Tries To Understand Her Daughter's Gender Identity

Jun 4, 2017

Lynn Girton, 69, never came out as a lesbian to her parents. She never even heard of the term lesbian growing up in a Christian household in Ohio. She dated men, because that was what she says was supposed to do.

Then at a summer job, she met Pat Freedman.

"We fell in love, and we did not know what that meant," Girton says. "We just wanted to spend the rest of our lives together."

Both women didn't tell anyone. Their parents were in the dark about who they were, and in a sense, Girton and Freedman were too.

"There was no language to describe it back then," Girton says.

It wasn't until the early 1970s, when both women were at the University of Michigan that they finally heard the word "lesbian" during a lunch conversation.

"We came home and thought, 'Oh my God, that's what we are,' " Girton says. "From that day forward...we began the journey of figuring out not only were we lesbian but what that meant in the world, and that's a lesson we're still learning today."

When Girton finally told her parents about Freedman, Girton says her parents stopped talking to her for nearly eight years.

By then Girton and Freedman had settled in Massachusetts, a state known relatively for its progressive stance on LGBT issues. Among these issues were when the state made it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation in 1989, and in 2004, when it was the first state to legalize same-sex marriage.

The couple built a career on civil rights litigation and went on to adopt two children from India.

The first, Molly Girton, 34, is an accountant for a private firm in Massachusetts.

Molly came out as lesbian in her teenage years in the 1980s and her parents had no problem with her sexuality. What Molly was more worried about was what society would think of her parents.

Molly worried that others would think her parents were unfit, or blame them for who she was. She thought society would have the point of view held by some that "gay parents made gay kids."

"I was very aware that the world did not like us," Molly says. "They didn't like my family. They didn't like me. I wanted to protect my parents."

Molly wasn't the only one worried about society's perception of her family. Her parents worried that despite Molly's sexual orientation as a lesbian, she did not quite fit into the gender role of "boy" or "girl."

They found the way Molly presented herself as "masculine," including wearing men's clothing, as a sign she could be transgender and advised their daughter it would be easier to transition and live life as a man.

"As a mother, all you want to do is put this bubble around your kid, and not let anything or anyone hurt them," Girton says. "My thought was, before I understood any of this: 'Why are you making your life more complicated than it already is?' "

Molly didn't see it that way.

"I don't think that putting on makeup and dresses, and growing my hair out and putting on lipstick would make any more sense, than transitioning into becoming a man," Molly says. "Both are gender performances and identities that didn't reflect who I was."

Molly says she identifies as a masculine-presenting, Indian person of color.

Her mother identifies simply as a white lesbian, and an old-fashioned feminist. In the '60s and '70s, Girton says she fought for the rights of women to be treated equally to men. And during those decades, she says her work in the LGBT community felt like it was centered around gay white men.

In her mind, women were confined to one box. When Molly challenged that notion, it would start more than a decade of arguments between mother and daughter to understand how gender identity differs from gender roles and sexual orientation.

"I struggle with this," Girton says. "But I'm doing better."

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And finally today, the latest in our Generation series. We've been bringing together family members from different generations to talk about their shared experiences. Today, a story about a mother and daughter who share the experience of being part of the LGBT community, but who were nevertheless surprised by the differences they do have. Lynn Girton is 69 and a civil rights attorney in Massachusetts. She and her partner Pat Freedman have been together since 1968.

In the 1980s, the couple adopted two daughters from India. Molly Girton is one of them. She's an accountant in the private sector. She's now 34, and she's also gay. But this story isn't just about coming out. It's also about labels and the words we choose to describe ourselves. We begin with mom, Lynn, who grew up in a Christian household in Ohio. She never came out to her parents. She didn't even know what a lesbian was. She dated men until the day she met someone who eventually became her partner for life.

LYNN GIRTON: We met at a summer job and immediately fell in love and had no idea what that meant. We just knew that we were crazy about each other and wanted to spend the rest of our lives together and moved together to Michigan where we were both in school and came home one day. And we both said - we had lunch with someone who said don't you find it difficult to be a lesbian in our respective environments? And so we came home and said, oh, my God, that's what we are. So we were beyond naive, beyond hopeless in terms of having any sense of who we were.

MARTIN: You settled in Massachusetts, and I think many people may know that the state has been on the forefront of human rights for people in the LGBT community. The state made it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation back in 1989. It was the first state to grant legal marriage to same-sex couples in 2004. But I did wonder - that's on paper. I wonder what it was like living day to day. Did you feel like you were in a place that you could be free to have your family the way you wanted it to be?

L. GIRTON: We always work in work environments where people were incredibly loving and accepting, and, in fact, I felt went out of their way to make sure that our relationship was honored and taken care of. Where it became a issue is at the time that we adopted, I had to adopt Molly in my name, and then when Jenny came home, Pat adopted Jenny in her name.

Soon thereafter though, one of the many cases GLAD did was the co-adoption adoption case where two women or two men could go into court and co-adopt children. So any fears that we had about either people in our family or other people coming in at some point and jeopardizing the non-adoptive person's relationship was totally solved at that stage. And so we basically did two single adoptions, and then I'll never forget the day we went back to court and did the co-adoption.

MARTIN: That's where we turn to Molly. Hello, Molly.


MARTIN: So tell me about when you came out. What was that like for you?

M. GIRTON: I think I first came out to my parents when I was 3 before my sister Jenny came home, and I said, oh, it's just us lesbians to which I'm not really sure - what was your reaction?

L. GIRTON: It sounds like a plan, honey.

M. GIRTON: OK. And then I came out officially, if you will, in ninth grade. And probably when I was like 12 or 13, it was like the height of, like, where the far right was saying, oh, you can catch gay, not just catch like AIDS, but catch gay from toilets and, like, gay parents make gay kids.

MARTIN: So this is interesting, though, Molly because I think a lot of people just not knowing anything about your family might think, well, it has to be easier when you have two parents who are lesbian. But you're saying it's different.

M. GIRTON: It's complicated in that I'm adopted so there's that lesser degree of, like, obviously biological. So the idea that, like, I as a totally separate human being from India would catch this disease from my parents made it, I think, more complicated in my 12-year-old head. I was very aware that the world didn't like us. They didn't like my family. They didn't like me, and I get this question often, like, you know, oh, must've been so easy coming out.

Well, what is interesting is that my sexuality and who I choose to want to spend the rest of my life with is women, other women. My gender is something that I think my parents struggled with. And I remember you guys asked me if I was transgender. But I was like I'm not trans, like, I am a woman who gender non-conforms. I wear men's clothes.

MARTIN: Did you think your parents wanted you to wear more feminine clothes or to transition or live as a man? What was their advice to you?

M. GIRTON: I think it would be to transition to life as a man. I don't think that putting on makeup and dresses and growing my hair out and putting lipstick on would make any more sense than transitioning into becoming a man. Both are gender performances, and, you know, identities that didn't reflect who I was.

MARTIN: Lynn, can you pick up the thread here? Tell me your side of this.

M. GIRTON: The many gifts that our daughters have given us is to challenge us around issues that we thought we were comfortable in and thought we knew all the answers about. And it turns out, we didn't. And the two that stand out in my mind are the gender identity issues and matters of race. And I remember as a mother, all you want to do is put this bubble around your kid and not let anything or anyone hurt them. So when Molly presented who she definitely was, my thought was why are you making your life more complicated than it already is? And can't we do something? Either can't we make you fit in as a man or can't we do something or other?

And that arose out of a place of wanting her not to be subject to the pain that was pretty obvious. And I remember many conversations that Molly and I in particular have had around my misunderstanding about the difference between gender identity and gender roles because I am sort of the old-fashioned feminist. So for me, the gender identity issues were so tied in to the role confinement that we fought so hard about. And to some degree, it's still a struggle, but I'm doing better.

MARTIN: You've both been so involved in activism over the years. And I just wanted to ask you what you think remains to be done?

L. GIRTON: You know, I wake up every day and think how lucky Pat and I are that we have are two incredible daughters who have taught us too much. Just as I've learned a lot about Molly about gender roles, I've learned a lot from Molly about race. And she will periodically come to our house and say you white people are driving me crazy.

And, you know, there was a time when I did the classic white thing where I thought, you know, that - they didn't really mean that. That wasn't racism, honey. What you could have done - and my mind isn't blown apart. I'm often struck - the amount of progress we've made around gay issues compared to the little progress we've made around racial matters and the treatment of women is astounding. And if anyone can figure that one out, I'd love to hear the answer.

MARTIN: That was mother and daughter Lynn Girton and Molly Girton. They were both kind enough to join us from member station WBUR in Boston. Lynn Girton, Molly Girton, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

L. GIRTON: You're more than welcome, Michel.

M. GIRTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.