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A Mother Tries To Understand Her Daughter's Gender Identity

Molly Girton and her mother Lynn have had many conversations about how gender identity, gender roles and sexual orientation are different between their generations.
Courtesy of the Girton family
Molly Girton and her mother Lynn have had many conversations about how gender identity, gender roles and sexual orientation are different between their generations.

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."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.