For 15 years, Terri and Vince Cook thought they had a daughter.
But as they watched their child change from the vibrant, happy kid they’d always known to a withdrawn, depressed and ultimately suicidal teen, they knew something was very wrong.
“We’d been through the hard teenage years with [our older son], and we’d seen this,” Terri Cook said. “This was different. This was someone who was just struggling and nobody could figure out why.”
Drew Cook did not wish to be interviewed for this story, though he fully supports his parents in their efforts to tell their story and promote the book they wrote, “Allies and Angels.” Drew wrote the foreword to the book, in which he said the following:
“I hope that I can help others by enthusiastically supporting my mom and dad as they bravely put their faces, lives and feelings up for public scrutiny. Although I fully support my parents in this endeavor, I’m not going on the book tour or doing any interviews to help publicize their book. I got a late start being Andrew, and I’m ready to begin a new chapter in my life — just as my parents are starting a new chapter in their lives. I look forward to meeting new people in college, and I don’t want to be known as ‘that trans guy.’ I want to be known for my character and achievements, not for my medical condition. I am finally getting to be a teenager and have a plain old normal life. I hope you can understand, respect and accept that.”
It took years of turmoil before the Cooks could determine the root of the problem: Drew Cook was transgender, which meant that although he was physically female, he identified mentally and emotionally as a male.
Since Drew’s epiphany three years ago, the Cooks, who live in Central New York (to protect Drew’s privacy, they have asked not to disclose exactly which town), have come a long way. They’ve also written a book about their journey, “Allies and Angels: A memoir of our family’s transition.” It’s available at alliesandangels.com or on Amazon.com, and social workers, educators and youth workers can get electronic copies for free at alliesandangels.com. They’ve had to educate themselves on a topic on which they freely admit to at one time being completely ignorant. Terri Cook said her hope is that, by sharing their story, they can help others in the same position.
“Until I had a child who was dying before me, I didn’t have a reason to understand it. It was just something that was out there, whether it’s on a talk show or in a news article or something. And oftentimes, those pieces are very destructive or negative and not very informative. They were just sensationalizing something without also trying to provide understanding and dig deeper,” Cook said. “Our experience has been that we have found so many people that are really like us. We had to learn these things because our son’s life depended on it. But so many people are like us in that they are open to learning.”
For most of his early life, Drew was a vibrant, cheerful child.
“He was the happy, crazy, life the party,” Cook said. “He was in every club, in every activity, in Scouts and dance and in student council, outgoing, had lots of friends.”
But that started to change in middle school. Drew became withdrawn and depressed. He didn’t want to go to school. His parents didn’t know, but he was being bullied and teased by his classmates. His parents transferred him to a local private school, hoping that would resolve the problem.
“We thought that was going to be the fresh start and he would fit in there. He thought, ‘Maybe I’m not fitting in because I’m not into girly things and the other kids just don’t get that,’” Cook said. “But still, even at [the other school], he was just struggling. He couldn’t articulate it. And he never stopped to think, ‘Could I be a boy in a girl’s body?’ Because who thinks that? I think like most people, most parents, it never came to our minds.”
The Cooks’ real wake-up call came in the winter of Drew’s eighth-grade year, when he attempted suicide. He started weekly therapy and antidepressants, and his parents pulled him out of school. He finished the school year on homebound instruction. Shortly thereafter, the family moved to a nearby town, where the vicious cycle started again for Drew. The Cooks once again had him finish out ninth grade on homebound instruction.
A glossary of a sampling of terms used in the LGBTQ community. Definitions provided by The Rainbow Project, The LGBT Center at the University of California at Davis and GLAAD.
Allies: People who don’t identify as LGBT but who support LGBT equality.
Bisexual: A sexual orientation in which an individual is sexually attracted to both males and females.
Cisgender: The term for someone whose birth sex and gender are matched exactly.
Gay: Emotionally/physically attracted to someone of the same gender.
Gender dysphoria: The feeling that one’s gender is different from his/her birth sex.
Homosexual: Outdated clinical term considered derogatory and offensive by many gay and lesbian people. The Associated Press, New York Times and Washington Post restrict usage of the term. Gay and/or lesbian accurately describe those who are attracted to people of the same sex.
Homophobia: Fear of lesbians and gay men. Prejudice is usually a more accurate description of hatred or antipathy toward LGBT people.
Lesbian: The term used to describe a woman who is emotionally/physically attracted to women.
LGB: Abbreviation of Lesbian (L), Gay (G) or Bisexual (B). Commonly used abbreviation. Often T for Trans is also added to form LGBT. You may also see QQIA added this would stand for Queer, Questioning, Intersex and Allies.
Queer: Alternative term to LGBT. The term has also been used in a derogatory way so not all lesbian and gay people are comfortable with it, but many young LGBT people use it as an affirmation.
Questioning: Describes a person who is not certain of his/her sexual orientation.
Sexual Identity: Describes the ways a person self-identifies sexually. For example, a person may have sex with members of the same gender without identifying as lesbian, gay or bisexual. Therefore sexual identity is not the same as sexual orientation.
Sexual Orientation or Sexuality: Emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attraction towards the same or opposite gender partners.
Straight: Colloquial term for people who are heterosexual.
Transgender: used most often as an umbrella term, some commonly held definitions: 1. Someone whose gender identity or expression does not fit within dominant-group social constructs of assigned sex and gender. 2. A gender outside of the man/woman binary. 3. Having no gender or multiple genders.
Transsexual: A person who lives full-time in a gender different than their assigned birth sex and gender. Many pursue hormones and/or surgery. Sometimes used to specifically refer to trans people pursuing gender or sex confirmation.
Transphobia: The irrational fear, hatred, intolerance or prejudice towards trans people. It can manifest itself in verbal, emotional, physical and sexual abuse against trans people.
In the summer between ninth and 10th grade, Drew came to a realization that seemed to resolve a lot of the issues about his identity.
“Drew came out to us as a lesbian. We were like, ‘Really? This is it? There’s nothing wrong with you! This is wonderful! You’re attracted to girls!’” Cook said. “We thought we’d found the root cause. He was just struggling with his sexual orientation. And it made sense.”
When Cook brought it up to his guidance counselor at school, the counselor gave her a brochure for The Q Center, a safe place for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth, their families and allies. It offers after-school programs, support groups, outreach and education programs and special events. Cook immediately called and discovered a group was being held the next evening. It took some convincing, but she was able to talk Drew into going.
And that’s when things really began to turn around.
A safe space
The Q Center, a service of ACR Health, formerly known as AIDS Community Resources, officially opened its doors in 2006, though ACR had been providing LGBT youth support groups for up to 15 years prior to that. What started at that point with one or two support groups a month has grown to include more than a dozen group meetings, mental health screenings, case management, cultural competency trainings, an LGBTQ youth library, a cybercenter funded by a David Bohnett grant, family potluck dinners, talent shows, a new group for parents and families of gay and lesbian youth, art programs, educational programs and more. The center serves anyone between the ages of 8 and 26.
The program is overseen by Tyler Sliker, a Syracuse University grad student in the school’s marriage and family therapy master’s program with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and philosophy from SUNY Potsdam. Sliker also happens to be transgender.
“I didn’t even know that the word transgender existed until I was 19. I felt these things, but I didn’t have a word, didn’t have a community. I just thought I had to live my life feeling this way,” Sliker said. “Then I met someone who was trans, and it was like, ‘Wow, other people feel this way, too, and there’s a word for it?’ That was the day my life turned around. That was the day I knew who I was. That was the day I looked in the mirror and I knew who was looking back at me. I hope I can provide that.”
And provide it he has. Cook said it was coming to The Q Center that helped Drew on his journey to self-discovery. On his first night at the center, he transformed from the withdrawn shell of a child he’d become back into himself again.
“It was the most amazing experience as a mom to watch,” Cook said. “For years, he didn’t want to leave the house, and they created this space. The way he described it afterwards, he just was able to be himself, and he still didn’t know what ‘himself’ was, but that didn’t matter. He was able to go in there and talk about things and meet people and no one expected him to act a certain way to fit in.”
It was at The Q Center that Drew started to learn about the difference between sexual orientation —the romantic or sexual attraction one feels towards another or the same gender — and gender identity — the gender with which one identifies.
“He met a [transgender male], and like every teenager does, he went on the internet and started reading and learning,” Cook said. “And The Q Center provides so much education there.”
That’s certainly not to say anything was forced on him at The Q Center or indoctrinated into him. But concepts with which he identified were introduced to him there, and as Drew learned more about them, the more he felt they fit how he felt.
“It’s not like he came home the next day and said, ‘Hey, Mom and Dad, I’m a boy,’” Cook said. “It was more like he said, ‘You know, some days, I feel more like a boy.’ And then it kind of evolved to, ‘There are more days that I feel like a boy than I do a girl.’ And then to the point where, ‘I’m a boy. I’m transgender.’”
Sliker said The Q Center’s mission is to provide a safe space for youth to discuss such issues, not to push them in any one direction.
‘We foster self-discovery,” he said. “A lot of our support groups have an opportunity to share some struggles you have, whether it’s in school or figuring out yourself or with family, what have you. We also have a lot of support groups that, the whole group, maybe we don’t talk at all about being LGBTQ. We offer a lot of different spaces, whether it’s just being safe with other questioning, doesn’t-really-quite-fit-in young people, or some more direct conversations around those struggles. Every teenager goes through a process of figuring out who they are, and sexual orientation is one of the many ways someone can figure out who they are. Having a direct conversation about it really isn’t going to do a whole lot. Just offering a space where you can have those conversations if you want or you meet other kids who’ve had those conversations months or years earlier or meeting adults who were thinking those same things when they were younger — it’s very informal in that way, very organic.”
Though Drew had accepted who he was, that didn’t mean the struggle was over — far from it.
“It’s not like this was easy,” Cook said. “It was a relief to know and to understand, but it was still, oh, gosh, not this. I expected when we got the answer that suddenly everything would just get easier, that his life would become the happy, healthy life of a teenager again. And when this awareness came to us, there was that awareness that this was not going to be easy. This was going to be harder than when we didn’t know. Now we know, and we also know that the whole world is not very aware and not very accepting.”
Cook said, in some ways, it was like getting a cancer diagnosis.
“Our son was diagnosed with a medical condition that was life-threatening,” she said. “It was not his fault or anybody’s fault. He was born with this condition and he could not control it or ‘will it away.’ Survival would require a long and difficult treatment process that included therapy, hormones, and surgery.”
But the similarity ends there.
Transgender Day of Remembrance, which occurs annually on Nov. 20, is a day to memorialize those who have been killed as a result of anti-transgender violence and acts to bring attention to the continued violence endured by the transgender community. The first such event was held in 1998 after a transgender woman named Rita Hester, whose murder on Nov. 28, 1998, kicked off the “Remembering Our Dead” web project and a San Francisco candlelight vigil in 1999. Hester’s murder remains unsolved.
According to transgenderdor.org, the Transgender Day of Remembrance aims to raise public awareness of hate crimes against transgender people, as well as publicly mourn and honor the lives of those lost to violence.
Terri Cook, whose son Drew is transgender, said the fact that such a day has to exist scares her.
“The fact that there needs to be a Transgender Remembrance Day is because so many people are murdered for who they are,” Cook said. “It’s a hard thing to wrap my head around. As a mom, it’s always there for me. It’s not just one day. That’s ever-present in my mind. Every single day, there are people who are killed or beaten or, to a lesser degree, harassed, discriminated against or fired.”
Tyler Sliker, the program coordinator for The Q Center, an LGBTQ youth program run by ACR Health, said he has mixed feelings about the day. Sliker himself is transgender.
“When you’re trans, you really do walk around with a target on your head,” Sliker said. “In our community, just a few years ago, we had a transgender woman [who was] a victim of a hate crime. It puts in your face how marginalized we are, and I don’t like to be reminded of that. I do like when I see events that, there’s the remembrance piece and some type of uplifting, empowerment piece. If we just hung out once a year and cried… I mean, you need to [do that] to some extent, but there needs to be some empowerment to it, too, so I’m glad that I’m seeing that shift.”
For more information about Transgender Day of Remembrance, visit transgenderdor.org.
“When you get a cancer diagnosis, however, you have this enormous community that comes together and supports you and embraces you and loves you and says, ‘This is going to be hard, but we’re going to help you and be here for you,’’ she said. “But unlike a cancer diagnosis, instead, [being transgender] you get a whole group of society that doesn’t understand and now thinks that you’re a freak or a sinner, and instead of support, you get hatred and judgment and criticism and violence and discrimination. We just had this fear — what’s his life going to be like?”
Fortunately, Drew had supportive parents, family and friends who helped him and supported him through the transition. Not all LGBTQ youth are so lucky. According to a 2012 Williams Institute study, 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBT, and the number one reason they’re on the street is because they were rejected by their families.
Again, that’s why programs like The Q Center are so important. Though most of their referrals come through youth workers and Gay-Straight Alliances at local high schools, many kids find their way in through word of mouth.
“It’s really on the streets that you meet those kids. Usually we as staff or adults don’t meet those kids. It’s word of mouth,” Sliker said. “A lot of times the kids will find us. Time and time again we get intake packets where [we ask] where they heard about the Q Center, and they put down, ‘A friend.’ We have one or two young people that we know are chronically homeless, chronically couch-surfing. Every few weeks, they’ll bring a friend who is [in the same situation]. Because they know we offer transportation, we offer clothing, we offer food, we have a warm space, we have all of these other things that a homeless youth can really benefit from.”
Sliker said The Q Center does have a list of mental health care professionals to which it can refer families for counseling to help them deal with issues arising from conflicts over a child’s sexuality. However, too often, those families don’t find their way into the center.
“It’s tricky, because I think the families that need that kind of therapy and support are the families we don’t get to talk to,” he said. “That’s not all of them. There are some families that come to us and say, ‘I don’t support my child,’ or ‘I don’t know how to support my child. Help me.’ But I wish that we could talk to the families that we really need to talk to.”
In Drew’s case, right away, the Cooks began using male pronouns and his preferred name. They supported him getting his hair cut and wearing male clothing. He began taking hormones and preparing for surgery at the age of 15, despite his parents’ many fears and worries.
“His dysphoria and his struggle to be who he is in that body were such that he might not live [if he didn’t transition],” Cook said. “So did we want to try to create a safe environment with drugs and antidepressants and things and try to lock him away from the world until he reaches this arbitrary age of 18, and then say, ‘Okay, you can do this, now you’re old enough,’ when we knew we had the ability to provide him with at least some of his childhood?”
And that’s when the real Drew came back.
“We got to see him come to life, the spark come back in his eyes,” Cook said. “It’s like the depression and anxiety, at least in the safety of our home, just melted away. He was hanging out with us instead of hiding in his room. He was laughing and engaging and just being what any mom would want to see in their child.”
Now 18 and a freshman in college, Drew is once again that vibrant, lively child his parents used to know.
“He is beyond happy. He is healthy,” Cook said. “It’s still a struggle. But he knows it’s all going to be okay. I don’t want anybody to think all of somebody’s problems are solved when they go through transition. It’s not like suddenly it’s all better. But he’s living authentically as who he really is, where every moment of the day doesn’t revolve around being transgender. He can now live where that’s not an ever-present determinant. He is now just able to live life the way we all should be able to. He is happy. He is healthy. He is a stronger, more compassionate human being. I know in my core he is going to be okay.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.