Donald Collins' arms are covered with tattoos. Some have metaphorical meanings. The dandelion symbolizes resilience. The robin and the moth represent new beginnings.
Though only 24, he is an old pro at resilience and new beginnings. In his senior year at Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, Donald came out as transgender. Since then, as he progressed through his transition from female to male — which affected his body, his lifestyle, his name, his interactions with others — he and his mother struggled with their emotions and differing opinions about what was happening to his body and to their family dynamic.
"We've never seen eye to eye about altering my body, my biology, my physiology," he said. "But she's never stood in the way of what is right for me."
Donald and his mother, Mary Collins, a professor of nonfiction at Central Connecticut State University, have written a book about their shared experience, "At the Broken Places: A Mother and Trans Son Pick Up the Pieces."
The book is a collection of essays by the mother and son about the period of his transition, their conflicting points of view and their sometimes fractious relationship. The book also includes testimonies by parents of other transgender children. Mary says the book's goal is to "exchange narratives, not opinions."
Gayatri Patnaik, editorial director of Beacon Press, said she was drawn to the book because of its unique perspective of both the trans person and a parent.
The cover of the book is decorated with Donald's robin tattoo. Prominent gender theorist Kate Bornstein has praised the book, calling it "the best, most thorough narrative of trans experience I've ever read."
The authors, who live in West Hartford, will give a presentation about their family's transition on Thursday, June 22, in New Haven, at a gathering to discuss mental health and wellness.
Young Donald was a tomboy, usually playing with boys, frequently mistaken for a boy, often wondering how cool it would be to be a boy. "As a child, that thought registers as absurd and you just write it off," he said.
In middle school, awash in what he called "gender-corrective unsolicited behavioral advice," he tried hard to be feminine. "It made me miserable," he said. In high school, he chopped his hair short and wore boy's clothes. With help from a counselor, he slowly realized he was trans. He said he never had "that first coming out," referring to the mistaken first conclusion by some transgender people that they are gay or lesbian. "I knew it wasn't the sexuality piece of the puzzle, it was the gender piece," he said.
He came out to his mother and told her he wanted to come out at school. She discouraged it, hoping he would wait until he was at college, where everyone makes a fresh start. Her usually obedient child didn't listen to her.
"I came out at the all-girls' dorm Christmas party," Donald said. "They were all like, 'yay!'"
The news spread quickly on the Loomis campus. The newly rechristened Donald — who says he was Loomis' first openly trans student — met with universal acceptance there.
There was only one problem: Nobody told his mother he was out to the world.
"The school called and said 'We have some questions about Donald.' I said 'You have the wrong family,'" Mary said. Then the school called back and broke the news.
Mary already had conflicted feelings about her child. "I knew he wasn't happy. As a parent, you can see the depression and be concerned. I was relieved an answer had been arrived at," she said. "Then, I was utterly and completely confused. ... I had never met a trans person. ... For lack of knowledge, the fear took over."
Her confusion was amplified by the sad realization that she was virtually the only person in Donald's life who wasn't told he was out. At this point, her conflicted feelings about Donald's gender identity got mixed up with conflicted feelings about Loomis, which embraced Donald but excluded her from the circle of acceptance.
Mary had attended Loomis herself. She makes it clear that she loves the school. Nonetheless, she was hurt by the school's decision not to include her in the warm embrace. "I don't think it was deliberately and willfully isolating, but it was inept," she said. "It was a bizarre storm of isolation. Nobody tried to create a center space for us."
Donald said he understands why Loomis handled his situation as it did. "The national atmosphere for queer kids at the time was very fraught, a lot of suicides. The school reacted by sealing me off in this big bubble," he said. "I am appreciative of everything the school did for me to make me feel safe and comfortable."
Nonetheless, he said it's unrealistic to assume that a parent would react to his outing with the same uncomplicated cheer as others in his life. "It's never going to happen that a kid says 'I'm trans' and the parents say 'I'm so happy' and they hug and everything's OK," he said. "There will be strain."
In the book, Mary describes tense interactions with other Loomis parents, who supported Donald and made uninformed assumptions about her feelings. "They didn't know me. They knew Donald. They had an emotional connection with Donald. They weren't losing anything by not connecting with me," she said.
Loomis Chaffee spokeswoman Lynn Petrillo would not discuss specifics of the Collins' situation. But in an email, Petrillo said the school's LGBT policy is evolving. "Every student and situation is different and we have learned to listen carefully to what each individual and their family needs," Petrillo wrote. "As with many student issues, we continue to examine and bolster our efforts to be an open, safe, accepting and supportive community for all."
During Donald's coming-out, Mary tried finding a counselor who would support her. "I had lost my father at 14. I had the same sensation: Something was in my life and then was gone. It really freaked me out," she said.
Her first counselor dismissed her confusion and told her to just accept the situation. The second told her, "You're just going to be sad, so go deal with it," she said. Neither tried to fathom her complicated emotions.
Then her own mother came to the rescue. "She processed through to acceptance in a short period of time. She reached out to us. She gave us a center space," Mary said. "Both of us were going through a huge emotional transition. She didn't judge either one of us."
Mary is a writer, so she helped process her emotions by writing an essay about "the weirdest grief I've ever felt." That essay was published in a literary journal and was the inspiration for "At the Broken Places." She tried writing the whole book herself but then realized "it's never going to work unless Donald is in it."
Since the book was published in April, Mary and Donald have done a few book signings. But both prefer to present their story at gatherings of mental-health and teaching professionals, such as this week's event in New Haven, to help promote change in educational and psychological attitudes regarding the parents of transgender people.
In short, Mary believes, a parent's hesitance to accept all that comes with gender transition shouldn't be interpreted as homophobia or a lack of love, but rather shock and grief at the loss of one child even as another child emerges. Inaccurate interpretations lead to the assumption, often wrong, that parents don't want to join the supportive community surrounding their child.
"(Transgender people) need all the help they can get. There's so much suicide and drug addiction and homelessness. Hate crimes are skyrocketing. They should be respected and loved," Mary said. "But groups, in an effort to protect them, have gone too far in the other way. They go into crisis mode and put up a bubble. They need to see that other people can come under the bubble, too."
Donald agrees. "Historically, the LGBT community support institutions have been survival-based in the help they offer. Your community takes you in," he said, referring to traditional hostility from relatives, employers, landlords, police, service providers and others. "I think we're finally at a point where families also want to be coming in the door. The operating system for helping queer people needs to modernize."
According to "Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey," which was published in 2011, fostering family harmony is both a life-saving strategy and an idea whose time has come. "In the face of extensive institutional discrimination, family acceptance had a protective affect against many threats to well-being including health risks such as HIV infection and suicide," the study reads. "Families were more likely to remain together and provide support for transgender and gender non-conforming family members than stereotypes suggest."
Donald and Mary now are enjoying a time of peaceful coexistence. After graduating from Emerson College in Boston, Donald lived in California for a while before returning to live with his mother.
Mary, concerned for her son's well-being and wanting him to feel comfortable in their home, did something that still makes her a bit sad. She put away all pictures of Donald's childhood where he can't see them.
Still, she holds that child — whom she refers to in the book as "J." — and her memories close to her heart. She writes: "As a transgender man, Donald has the right to actualize his own identity. As a mother, I also have a right to remember and cherish my baby girl. Those two lines can fit into the same paragraph and not destroy each other."
Donald is now working to save up for graduate school. Mary is treasuring the time together and their improved relationship.
"It's a precious year. Donald and I love each other. That's never been the issue. I want him to succeed," she said. "We're back to just being a parent and child living together."