"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.

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.


The breakthrough

Brenden has gone through the three stages required by his counselors and physicians at Howard Brown. "I had an extensive physical to make sure body could handle the transformation. I've done my research," he says. "I'm excited about this."

"I haven't really decided with gender reassignment surgery."

For Brenden, his fellow college students provided a peer support network after all the kids he'd gone to high school in Brownsburg with broke contact with him. And the staff at Roosevelt were incredibly helpful at a time when his family was still coming to terms with gaining a son.

"A lot of academic advisers in college helped me figure out my financial aid stuff," says Brenden, recalling how he'd found his economic footing after his parents had cut off his tuition. "Three main people at Roosevelt helped me. Without them I wouldn't have graduated college.

"They're not my blood mom and dad, but they're parents, and their being able to take me under their wing was exactly what I was hoping for.

"The only selfish decision I've ever made is doing this process. Doing this on my own — it was tough. Dealing with college and all the negative attitudes from my family was hard. My friends' support system, going through college at same time ... tough."

But when Brenden delivered the commencement address at Roosevelt, when his mom saw how warm and accepting his classmates were, when Sheila met Brenden's girlfriend, Sheila finally came to the realization that her child wasn't just OK, he was thriving.

As Brenden's classmates roared their approval for the speech Brenden gave, a speech about how much his time at Roosevelt had meant to him, Sheila was finally ready to celebrate her son.

After Brenden's speech, after the switch had gone off in Sheila's head, she was ready to put her story online and share it on Facebook with anyone who'd read it.

The pride in her child is unmistakable in that post.

"Brenden is off to University of Illinois at Chicago in the fall to finish his master's degree with a partial scholarship," Sheila beams.

"Yes, my life has changed a lot over the years and yes, I have had a lot to deal with it.  And yes, I have been unreasonable and fought with my kid unfairly.  There have been a lot of arguments, a lot of tears, a lot of things I don't understand.  But what person in their right mind would CHOOSE to be like this?  To be discriminated against? To have a harder life with more obstacles?  So I have finally come to realize this is not a choice but an identity. Is it easy to call my child Brenden? NO. But it gets easier.

"I want this kid in my life and I want to love him with everything I have and be the best Mom I know how to be.  Do I know it all?  No.  Do I struggle with it and cry about it? Yes.  But I am hoping in time, it will be natural.  Keith was very proud of our kid and it showed in the pictures and he wasn't afraid to hug Brenden.  I don't know when or if Keith will ever call our kid Brenden, but I feel safe to say that he loves him."

The Carlsons are healing as Brenden's journey continues. Sheila and Keith have seen their marriage improve dramatically, and Keith and Brenden now spend time together.

Brenden wants to remind me, though, that some of the pain of his transition lingers. "My mom and I are in a good place now but it was NOT an easy road. ... [Journeys like mine] are ugly and rough and [there's] a lot of family backlash which often leads to child suicide. I fortunately was lucky enough to find Howard Brown Health Center to give me mental and physical support so I didn't get to a self-harming point."

So what about that notion regarding the higher power that's such a force in Sheila's life? What about God making mistakes?

I put the question to Matthew Myer Boulton, President and Professor of Theology at Christian Theological Seminary in Indy. He sent the following response via email:

"Whenever someone who believes in God makes any kind of major change in their life – in their life's path, location, vocation, identity, marriage, family, and so on – they may do so not with the idea that God originally made a mistake, but rather that God is calling and accompanying them even in the journey and process of change.  

"After all, many of the most important religious narratives are narratives of change and transformation.  In the story of Exodus, for example, we can well imagine the ancient Egyptians saying to the Israelites, 'You were born to be slaves — how dare you dream of freedom?  God doesn't make mistakes.'"

"The modes of divine presence in the world are many and mysterious.  Sometimes God calls us to endure; other times, to change.  But perhaps the most persistent call is to love one another with compassion and open arms, even and especially when we find ourselves face to face with people we don't understand."

And finally this, from Dr. Michele O'Mara: "While I do not do religious counseling, I agree that there are no mistakes here.  Now let's figure out how to move you into a place of peace with who you are.  When you are connected to the truth of who you really are, who you were made to be, then you are showing up in this world as well as you possibly can and the world is a better place.  Happiness brings out the best in all of us.  To live with the pain of inner conflict, separated from the truth of who you are, censoring your feelings, hiding your gender, you live small in this world.  We all lose.  When you are true and authentic, we all win, because you show up as the best version you are capable of being."


Check out:

Indy PFLAG (indypflag.org) for info on support. Their mission statement: "We work to keep families together through education, acceptance, understanding and support. We promote truth and education about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender loved ones."

Indiana Youth Group (indianayouthgroup.org) is another excellent source. It's a place where "self-identified lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth are empowered through programs, support services, social and leadership opportunities and community service."

A great resource for more info is GLAAD (glaad.org/transgender). GLAAD's Transgender Media and Education Program can provide answers to a broad range of questions.

Some quick facts about transgender people:

Many don't have sex reassignment surgery. It's expensive and it can be very difficult. Female to male surgery is the most difficult, and therefore it's the priciest — it can run into the six-figure range.

Transgender people can be men or women without the traditional "parts." Dr. Michele O'Mara tells us: "Gender occurs from the neck up.  Sex occurs from below the neck.  Anatomy is not gender, it is sex.  Gender is the socialization of our maleness or our femaleness, or wherever we land on the continuum.  Gender is complicated."

Transgender people can be straight, gay or bi. Dr. O'Mara: "There is no sexual orientation without gender. Sexual orientation is simply an identifier of two things ­­— how one person identifies their own gender, and to which gender that person is typically romantically attracted.  Both ingredients are necessary.  Without knowing one, the other variable is irrelevant.  These labels get very tricky, and become fodder to sensationalize the whole business of being transgender.  There are plenty of cisgender females dating other cisgender females who identify as straight too. 'I am not a lesbian, I just love her.'  There are a lot of reasons that might explain this, but these semantics are personal to the people involved, and in my opinion it is best not to generalize."

It can be tough for transgender people to get health care outside of their transition treatments. According to a survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, "Survey participants reported very high levels of postponing medical care when sick or injured due to discrimination (28%)" and "Respondents faced significant hurdles to accessing health care, including:

• Refusal of care: 19% of our sample reported being refused care due to their transgender or gender non-conforming status, with even higher numbers among people of color in the survey;

• Harassment and violence in medical settings: 28% of respondents were subjected to harassment in medical settings and 2% were victims of violence in doctor's offices;

• Lack of provider knowledge: 50% of the sample reported having to teach their medical providers about transgender care."

Many stories don't end as happily as Brenden's. While Brenden found his old classmates rejecting him, often families will disown relatives — even their children — who come out the way Brenden did. Suicide is a huge problem among transgender youth. Nearly half have considered it. Nearly one-quarter have attempted to take their own lives. {Grossman, A.H. & D'Augelli, A.R. (2007). Transgender Youth and Life-Threatening Behaviors. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behaviors.37(5), 527-37.}


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