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One family's transgender journey

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Sheila Carlson - MICHELLE CRAIG
  • Michelle Craig
  • Sheila Carlson

"God doesn't make mistakes."

Sheila Carlson is sitting in her office at Gleaner's Food Bank in Indy, where she's Director of Volunteer Engagement. Her eyes are clear, and the quaver in her voice is natural; it's always there. It's fairly apparent she's not overly upset by our discussion. She's fielding questions she's clearly fielded before. Still, there's a little catch in her voice when I broach the topic of religion.

You're a self-described woman of faith. When your child told you she would be living and identifying as a man, what was your reaction?

"God doesn't make mistakes."

Along with a slight tremble, there's some bit of steel when she recalls her initial response, the moment when her devout Christianity was shaken to its foundation. She's working beyond this notion now, her old concept of an inerrant higher power. Or at least she's trying to.

"It's still a hard one to reconcile," she tells me, "because I grew up in a private school, Lutheran church all my life, but I also was brought up to not judge. So I'm very accepting. I judge people on are you a good person or a bad person. I don't care what color you are, I don't care what religion, what your sexual orientation is, I don't care about that. I care if you're a good person or a bad person. That's what I judge you on."

Sheila's a friend of mine. I've known her for years — she's done lots of non-profit work in Indy. Habitat for Humanity, now Gleaners. The work suits her: She's loving, the kind of person who instantly makes you feel warm and at ease. She's a hugger.

But she still has trouble referring to her oldest offspring as "he."

Her son's name is Brenden Paradies. He was formerly Caprice Carlson, but has now legally adopted a male name — and his mother's maiden name as his last name — to fully embrace the man he's become; the man he really always was. I ask Brenden about his Mom's initial reaction, and he's blunt: "Yeah. 'God doesn't make mistakes' — she told me that over and over. I got the sense it was a 'pray the gay away' kind of thing she tried. And with all of the backlash that I experienced I was prepared for it. I understand it's hard. She tried to convert me back to what she'd envisioned all that time. I don't know how she came around. She did, though, at my graduation."

It was Brenden's graduation from Roosevelt University that provided the tipping point for his mom, a "Eureka!" moment that revealed to Sheila that her child was finally happy — and had a massive support network to boot. It was clear to Sheila that all of Roosevelt — faculty and students alike — didn't just like Brenden, they adored the man. Respected him. Cheered him on.

For the first time in Roosevelt's near century and a half as an institution of higher learning, a student would be the commencement speaker, and that speaker was Brenden Paradies.

Sheila felt compelled to post a long missive about what she'd seen, how she'd grieved for the daughter she'd once had, how tough it was for her to accept the change and how she was finally able to refer to her offspring as "Brenden," not just with tolerance, but with joy. (The piece drew a great many looks after Sheila shared it via social media.)

"You could tell that Brenden had the respect of the school, the President and the faculty and was held in high regard," Sheila wrote of her child's address. "What came out of Brenden's mouth was just beautiful.  The most amazing speech I had ever heard!  Such an accomplished, educated, intelligent, thoughtful, funny and insightful person giving an incredible speech. ... I was smiling really big and crying at the same time.  

"I can't tell you how proud I am of my kid – Caprice/Brenden.  I think in that moment I finally accepted what is.  Caprice is no longer, but Brenden IS and Brenden is an amazing person that I am proud to call my child."

Before that moment, though, "pride" was not what came to mind for Sheila when it came to the subject of her transgender offspring.

Brenden Paradies - MARTIN BEUCHLEY
  • Martin Beuchley
  • Brenden Paradies

Coming out — halfway?

When Brenden was around six years old, a career shift moved the family from Virginia Beach to Brownsburg. Sheila, her husband Keith and Brenden's kid brother Spencer adapted to the Midwest quickly, trading surfboards for dirt bikes. Brenden expressed an interest in sports: baseball, ice hockey; eventually basketball, volleyball and rugby. On the diamond and on the rink, Brenden played with the guys; Sheila assumed she'd simply produced a female jock. Brenden, after all, certainly appeared to express an interest in boys.

After graduation in 2010, Brenden was accepted at Roosevelt U in Chicago to study pharmacy, and started that August.

In December, Sheila's dad — then living in Chicago, too — suffered a massive heart attack. Delayed by an ice storm, Sheila finally made her way north to visit her father in the ICU. As Sheila kept vigil at her unconscious parent's bedside, her daughter told Sheila the two needed to talk.

Sheila wrote, "Then ... Caprice decided to drop a bomb.  'Mom, I think I'm gay.'  Okaaayyy.  I never saw that coming, but OK. I have lots of gay and lesbian friends and it never bothered me.  So I asked her, 'Why do you think that?'  'Well, I was crying about Grandpa and my friend, Emily, was hugging me and then we kissed and made out.'  OK, this was just the situation, not reality, I thought.  She's experimenting."

The shock of that initial conversation hasn't worn off — Sheila still can't square any of these revelations with her concept of "traditional" gender behaviors. "I was surprised," Sheila tells me. "She had this encounter with this woman who was a lesbian who was comforting her in her time of vulnerability, so I felt that she was confused ... because Caprice had always been interested in boys. I just wouldn't allow her to date because she's a strong student but she needs to focus and I felt dating was going to distract her. I mean, she loved Taylor Lautner from Twilight. We went to New York and there were billboards everywhere and we had to go to Chinatown to get a Coach purse ... I couldn't make sense of it."

Speaking with Michele O'Mara, LCSW, PhD, a professional sex and relationship therapist about this — the seeming disconnect between Brenden's early expressions of traditional "girliness" and eventual coming out as trans — the circumstances aren't unusual. "[F]or a child who is allowed a wide variety of gender expression, it may not be as noticeable as it is to the little boy who must play sports and doesn't want to, or the little girl who must wear a dress," says O'Mara. "The resistance to who one is 'supposed' to be seems to draw greater attention to the reality that it doesn't fit."  

And the timeline of Brenden's self-realization lines up with what O'Mara has seen in her practice. "The three major life phases I see most people becoming aware of their gender during are:  early childhood (pre-school or in grade school where gender is introduced strongly); puberty (where one's body feels like it is betraying them); or early adulthood when relationships don't make sense and it's difficult discerning that it is about gender."

Brenden was actually trying to share his feelings in stages. If he started by coming out as a lesbian, that might somehow lessen the shock of an actual change in gender identity.

"I came out as lesbian so I didn't throw it all on her at once," he admits. "I tried to be as strategic as possible for her although it didn't ultimately matter — she'd have to deal with all of it."

Just before Christmas, Sheila's father passed away. As Sheila dedicated herself to helping her mother and coping with her own grief, her daughter announced she was changing majors at Roosevelt.

Sheila's life seemed to be about nothing but struggle — her oldest kid seemed to be in full revolt, her dad was gone and she felt her marriage slipping away.

And then Caprice handed her the next shock.

"During this revelation of changing majors," Sheila wrote, "Caprice decided to tell us that she felt she was a boy.  

"I said 'You're gay, fine, but you are not a boy.  You are a tomboy and if you are trying to justify liking girls by feeling you are a boy, you are wrong.'"

In retrospect, Sheila realized how ridiculous her pleading was: "Here's me telling her she is wrong [about] how she feels."

At the time, though, all Sheila could feel was grief — and rage.

"It was really hard when she did come home to visit, maybe twice a year.  Keith (Sheila's husband) was embarrassed to be around her and have her around his friends or family. As she was changing her name and her identity [to] a boy, she was also changing her physical appearance.  She had cut off her hair and it was really short, shorter than Spencer and Keith's.  She grew out the hair on her legs and under her arms and she wore a binder for her chest.  She wore male clothes and shoes, no makeup and had a man's wallet.  How do you introduce your daughter to people when she looks like a boy?  Keith and I decided that we would NEVER call her Brenden.  My mom said it one time to me and I went off on her and told her if she EVER said that name again around me, that would be the last time she would speak to me.

"Sheila's family stopped paying Brenden's tuition. There were fights, accusations. The family told Brenden they needed to "straighten him out" — Brenden's parents were certain he was mentally ill. Maybe their child needed counseling. Maybe a stint in the Army would do the trick.

As Brenden began treatment at the Howard Brown Health Center in Chicago (a non-profit facility for uninsured LGBTQ people), the only familial ally he seemed to have was his maternal grandmother. "My biggest ally was my grandmother for sure," says Brenden. "She never judged me. She told me, 'I don't understand what this means, what this is, but I'm there.'" That's why Brenden chose the name "Paradies."

As for his time with Sheila, Brenden says "We were lucky we could see each other for a weekend and not fight for about two or three years."

"I had panic attacks," recalls Sheila. "I'd wake up in the middle of the night. I couldn't breathe. I was freaking out. I couldn't go back to sleep and my heart was racing. I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I was just — I had a hard time dealing. And I cried a lot — so I had to get Lexapro, that helped a lot. Not on it anymore, but it helped me."

Other members of the family were even more troubled by the change, says Brenden. "My brother and I are best friends — losing him was the hardest part. He's come around now that he's in college. [At the beginning he] said 'You're ruining our family. I hope you know that.'"

"My husband and my son; she's still sis. She's still Caprice," says Sheila. "They have not switched over. And so I do not call her Brenden in front of them. Even though they've seen the physical changes, because she's on hormones, so she's hairy and shaving, and short hair, and deep voiced."

One of the fights Brenden and Sheila had gotten so ugly and heated that Brenden began entertaining thoughts of harming himself. "I had to get picked up by one of my Roosevelt  advisors — she drove all the way from Chicago to Indiana to make sure I was safe." The counselors at Howard Brown were equally helpful.

Understand: Brenden was in profound pain. Understand: Brenden's family thought the real pain would come from the lack of societal acceptance for a transgender person.

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