02/01/2023 12:56 AM By Lisa Anderson
Rainbow of Love
Jill Carel
Jill Carel
Story by Jodi Anderson • Photos by Joshua Jacobs


Mom of Trans Man Says Trying Is Key

When Jill Carel’s son Kelly came out as a trans man at the age of 20, she was shocked and attributed the change to a bad breakup. Kelly was assigned female at birth, and as Jill’s “daughter” started wearing boy’s clothes and then cut “her” hair short and sported a bandana, Jill thought maybe Kelly was a “butch” lesbian. “As Kelly bravely came out, I still couldn’t fully believe it,” recalls Jill. “It didn’t make sense to me.”

Kelly was dating a trans man and suggested that Jill talk to his mother, but she declined. “I ended up going to a PFLAG meeting—parents, families, and friends of LGBTQ people. The very first meeting I went to actually had a panel on transgender. There was a trans kid, a mother of a trans kid, maybe some medical professional, and somebody else. So, there was this panel talking about this very subject that I needed to know about. That was the beginning of my learning and accepting of this new reality.”

Jill kept learning, attending a trans health conference in her city of Philadelphia, sponsored by the Quakers. She was lauded by the attendees, especially members of the trans community, because their own families had cast them out. This initially caused a rift between Jill and her son. “Kelly was actually upset and later was crying, because according to Kelly’s perspective, ‘They all think you’re so great, and you’re not so great!’ And I was like, ‘I’m trying!’”

It was a long process, but Jill says that her relationship with her son “became stronger and better, as I became clearer about appreciating [and] respecting Kelly’s gender identity. We got really tight and good.”

A few months after Kelly had top surgery, Jill was diagnosed with breast cancer. She got a double mastectomy. “Kelly was my best advocate and support. He was fabulous!”

Speaking Out

Jill stepped out of her comfort zone to begin telling her story. “I ended up becoming an advocate for LBGTQ people, since PFLAG was so helpful to me. I got on the speaker bureau for the Philadelphia PFLAG chapter, so I would go to schools and talk to kids about it.”

She enthuses, “I loved it! To me, it was a gift I could give to other people, to see that it’s not a scary thing. It’s not a bad thing; it’s not a sinful thing. It’s just, you know, my kid.”

Jill was surprised to find other trans moms enforcing gender norms in the other direction, as in not allowing their trans daughter to play with trucks. “Parents, the kids, they all have different personalities, ways, and needs when dealing with stuff, so I had all these judgments popping up, insecurities at different times. But in general, I felt real clear about who Kelly was and who I was and so we got along great.

“I didn’t impose on Kelly any way that he was supposed to act,” Jill continues. “So when Kelly would knit or dress up in costumes or do drag shows, I was like, ‘Oh wow! This is cool!’ So people would say to me, ‘Oh well, you’re the perfect mom for a trans kid, because you’re so accepting.’ And I’m thinking, ‘It took a while to get there,’ but once I was there, I was there.”

Being a Mentor

Jill has some gentle advice for parents whose children have recently come out as trans. “Be a good listener, be respectful. [Parents should] allow their own process to organically move along in whatever process that they need to. They don’t need to beat themselves up if they said the wrong pronoun, said or did something that was a mistake, to just be okay with it.

“You don’t have to be perfect on Day One,” Jill advises. “You can be vulnerable and share, ‘I’m really trying to get it right, and I’m sorry that I get it wrong sometimes. But I’ll get there at some point. I’ll be there with you.’”

Jill says there is a kind of grief that parents experience, as they let go of certain expectations they had around their child. “I didn’t experience it as a loss of a daughter, but just grieving some of my expectations that had to be adjusted, to have a different sense of Kelly’s expression in the world, and that was beautiful and good and right.”

In the end, this mom didn’t see much of a change. Recalling a conversation she had with Kelly, she said, “Theoretically, you have made a huge change in your life, but it’s still you. You’re not different. You’re the same personality and intelligence and kindness and humor and all that. It’s still you. You’re the same person.” Kelly took that as a huge compliment, states Jill. “So in a way, there wasn’t a change. There was and there wasn’t.”

Jill retired from the City of Philadelphia in 2012 and moved to On Top of the World in 2015. As a member of Ocala’s fledgling PFLAG chapter, she continues to mentor other trans parents. “I’m grateful every day for those wanting to reach out and understand and love their LGBTQ kids, grand[kids], and all who deserve love, respect, support, understanding, and rights as citizens of this great country.”
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