LX Song leans on Jessica and Harper at their home on the North Side.

LX Song leans on Jessica and Harper at their home on the North Side.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

‘A magic life’: Trans Chicagoans find joy in finding and starting families ‘in spite of’ tribulations

Members of the transgender community find affirmation and support from those closest to them despite rifts with relatives over their identities and laws targeting them.

Jessica Gorden-Song sat at the kitchen counter of her West Ridge apartment — just below artwork her 8-year-old daughter Harper had made in kindergarten — and talked about the importance of her family having at least one meal together each day.

Gorden-Song said her family is usually busy with chores and making sure Harper’s homework is finished, even if that means playing card games to make math more fun.

She said they’re also a creative bunch, with LX Song, her partner of several years, teaching Harper to play multiple instruments so they can perform covers and original music while Gorden-Song listens from the living room. A favorite is Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”

“We’re just like any other family. We just do the simple things,” Gorden-Song said, including watching “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and cooking together.

Jessica Gorden-Song LX Song Harper Gorden sing ukulele

Jessica Gorden-Song watches as LX Song and Harper Gorden and LX plays the ukulele at their home on the North Side.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

Gorden-Song, who is Harper’s mom — whom she calls Poppy as a feminized version of more masculinized words for parents — and Song, Harper’s step-parent, are both transgender. Gorden-Song is a trans woman who came out a few years before Harper was born. Song is nonbinary, using they/them pronouns.

They are among nearly 30% of Illinois’ LGBTQ+ population who have children — putting the state above half the country in LGBTQ+ parenthood, according to 2019 data from the University of California’s LGBT Data and Demographics Project.

‘Can’t show that love like a cis family might’

Despite being “like any other family,” Gorden-Song said she’s often painfully reminded that being multicultural with a trans parent and step-parent changes the way strangers view them. She said it affected what is or isn’t allowed with “everyday activities” and how they express love for each other.

“I have to watch the affection that I show my daughter, especially since a lot of people want to villainize trans people as these groomers or people who are horrible for children to be around,” Gorden-Song said through tears. “It does put an emotional stress on you when you can’t show that love like a cis family might in public.”

Jessica Gorden-Song LX Song Harper Gorden photos

Family photos of Jessica Gorden-Song, LX Song and Harper Gorden at their home on the North Side.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

“I experience more race-related tension than gender-related tension,” Song said, saying their more fluid identity stops them from getting the “stares” that Gorden-Song often gets in public. “That’s a little bit of the comfort zone I still hold.”

The family often sticks to hiking and walking on beaches — solitary activities. When they go out, it’s often to see Song’s folk-punk band play.

Harper, an outgoing kid who’s eager to show off the apartment and talk about her interest in chemistry, notices how things are different when they’re out in public.

“When I can’t show love, support and that I care about my Poppy, I do feel like it’s really sad,” Harper said.

But she said she’d been able to set boundaries with what people call her, in part due to the introduction of that at a younger age — though she still uses she/her pronouns.

“Everyone sometimes made fun of me because I didn’t want to be called ‘miss’ or ‘sweetie,’ ” Harper said. “I’m trying to see what’s right and fits right with me. Some days, I wake up, and I don’t really wanna be a girl today … LX and Poppy let me be me.”

Laws targeting trans kids ‘hit close to home’

Mallory Klocke, who is Planned Parenthood Illinois’ program director for gender-affirming care and a trans person, said increasing acceptance and promoting autonomy for children through talking about gender is important for kids.

“Young people knowing and trusting that they can set boundaries is so important for them as people who don’t have a lot of power,” Klocke said. “That’s really important for their safety and to protect themselves. If people can set boundaries when they don’t have a lot of power, it makes it much easier for them to set those boundaries when they shift into places where they do.”

The bans on care usually go against the advice of medical professionals and the American Medical Association, which Klocke said wasn’t surprising and was similar to the fight for reproductive rights. To Klocke, it comes down to bodily autonomy and targeting people who have less power.

“We’ve been using these medications for kids for years and years,” Klocke said. “There is safety that’s established. It’s not that these medications are unfounded or not safe. It’s just that we, as a society, are hesitant to believe children can know who they are and what they want and need … It’s not a surprise that most of the bans are taking place for people who literally don’t have political power to prevent that from happening.”

States increasingly have targeted transgender people, especially trans youth and their parents, through legislation. In May, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a 2024 Republican presidential hopeful, signed a law reclassifying gender-affirming care as abuse, allowing the state to take custody of children who are receiving anything from gender-related therapy to puberty blockers, which are regularly used for cis children.

Klocke, an Iowa native, said a recent ban on gender-affirming care for minors in that state — which prevents doctors from providing care that could “alter the appearance” of a child or affirm a kid’s perception of their gender — “hit close to home.”

“Not knowing that [my kids would] be able to be safe, comfortable and happy and living their lives to the fullest is really scary,” Klocke said. Parenting “has restricted the energy I have for myself sometimes but also has allowed space to understand myself in ways that are fuller … I think my children are some of the people who are most affirming to my identity.”

Mallory Klocke Planned Parenthood Illinois baby

Mallory Klocke, Planned Parenthood Illinois’ program director for gender affirming care, said increasing acceptance and promoting autonomy for children through talking about gender is important for kids.

Provided

Unlike some states, Illinois has become a haven for trans people seeking refuge from these laws, though activists say more needs to be done so they can live their lives “freely.”

The UCLA statistics show LGBTQ+ individuals face more food insecurity, are more likely to be paid less at work and are less likely to be insured. Studies show trans women make 60 cents on the dollar compared to the average American worker — even less for trans women of color.

The differences that some in society see don’t make sense to Harper Gorden.

“Just because Poppy is trans doesn’t mean that she’s different,” Harper said. “She’s her. That’s all that matters … She’s my mom, and I’m happy about that.”

Jessica Gorden-Song Harper Gorden

Jessica Gorden-Song hugs Harper Gorden at their home on the North Side.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

‘Love without inhibition’

Alexis Martinez, 73, a paralegal who was raised on the South Side, has a packed schedule of clients at the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois, where she helps some of the transgender people fleeing to Illinois from other states and helps people navigate things like name changes.

She’s held a lot of roles in life: an organizer with several groups, most recently the Chicago Dyke March; a screen printer at the business she worked at as a manager until she bought it in the late 1980s; and most importantly, a teacher to her two grandchildren, whom she home-schooled when they were younger.

Alexis Martinez Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois photo of grandchildren

Alexis Martinez, a trans woman who works as a paralegal for the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois, shows a photo of her grandchildren in her office in the Loop.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

It’s her connection with her daughter and granddaughters that “saved” her life.

“I was able to love without inhibition,” Martinez said.

Martinez said she has had a rough relationship with blood relatives since she first came out as a trans woman when she was 14. Since then, and through multiple stages of coming out again, she said she was kicked out of her church, she and her wife separated, and her brother threatened to kill her the next time he saw her.

She said she focuses on the family she has, teaching her granddaughters to make tortillas, an important tradition, and spending time with “her community” — the queer community, especially those she’s worked with who became “more than friends.”

“I wish I was still connected to my siblings, but, at the same time, I have a family now that is huge,” Martinez said. “A lot of people call me ‘grandmother. ... I know I’m respected and am doing things that are beneficial to my people.”

Alexis Martinez Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois

Alexis Martinez, a trans woman who works as a paralegal for the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois, stands in the atrium of her office in the Loop. “I know I’m respected and am doing things that are beneficial to my people,” Martinez said.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

As someone who might be seen as an elder in the trans community — due to shorter life expectancy, in part a result of decades of discrimination and violence — Martinez said it’s important for transgender people not to allow themselves to be scared away from living their lives.

“In spite of all the crap, the oppression and all that, you can still raise children and grandchildren in the midst of that,” Martinez said. “I’ve done it. I know it can be done. … Don’t give in to the bitterness … That’s how you get to 73.”

Martinez said her perseverance has led to the times she shares with her family, including allowing her granddaughter to practice special effects makeup on her, which the granddaughter hopes to pursue as a career, and spending time with other families with trans parents. She said she wouldn’t give up these things “for the world.”

“I would’ve loved going to my prom and wearing a wedding dress — maybe in the next life,” Martinez said.

But what’s more important, she said, is this: “I held my babies in my arms. I think I have a magic life. I grew up very tough, and it hasn’t been a pretty ride. But I look at the good stuff, the results and everything, like my daughter and granddaughter. I wouldn’t change anything.”

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