In honor of Transgender Awareness Week and Transgender Day of Remembrance, we wanted to share Ethan’s story. Sara and I met Ethan’s moms on our Free Mom Hugs Tour of Hope in 2019. As always, the Tour had proven to be magical with our stops along the way to San Francisco. The Castro historical district was our Mother’s Day destination and we already knew something special was in store for us. As soon as we topped the hill in the Free Mom Hugs jeep, we saw all of the rainbow flags and iconic signs. The emotions and tears took over both of us. We knew we were on an important mission representing the movement of Free Mom Hugs. But just like every tour, there are personal elements as well that begin to bubble up in your skin. The gratefulness of the stories to hear and the stories to tell. The pain to carry for others and the healing to offer too. This is the one chance to speak your truth to people you may never see again. And then of course, we were also giddy, tourists from Oklahoma, too!
We had spoken of many things we wanted to do once we arrived in San Francisco. But two specifically… Sara HAD to take a picture of a street car… and we needed to memorialize the trip with a tattoo. We were in awe of the sights and sounds. The bells of the streetcars, the musicians, the laughter, and the freedom. Yes, freedom has a sound and it sounds like San Francisco. We spun around in circles often, trying to capture it all and take it all into our senses. I’m always grateful for being on this journey with Sara and seeing her experiences from my view. This particular view was the beginning of the most incredible day I will never forget.
As Sara put her phone down after taking pictures of the streetcars, we turned to see a sandwich board sign next to us which read Castro Tattoo. We both looked at each other like kids who just found the hidden Christmas presents. And with our eyebrows, we signaled to each other… let’s do it! Now, of course we became moms as well and we started saying all the right things to each other. “Let’s just get prices. We don’t have to do it. We will see if it feels right…and so on.”
We walked up the stairs to find the tiniest waiting room with two couches facing each other and art all over the walls. As we sat down, we noticed two women across from us who noticed our Free Mom Hugs hoodies. They made eye contact, tilted their heads and asked, “Are you with Free Mom Hugs? Are you Sara with Free Mom Hugs?” They told us how they follow us on Instagram and how much the movement means to them. They were there from Kansas and divine timing was already started to let us know she was very much a part of this moment. You see, our specific arrival time was due in part to a fire across from our hotel that morning as we were trying to leave. That, along with slow trains and missed exits, had completely thrown our travel schedule off that day. But within moments of meeting these two women, we were understanding why.
As we began to talk to the ladies, they shared with us that they were married and foster parents to some amazing humans. They had also adopted a special young man named Ethan and had provided a safe and loving home to him as he went through the process of transitioning. They told us that they had planned their trip to the Castro district a year ago and then the tears began to come. Only a few months earlier, their beloved Ethan had passed away by suicide. He had the most accepting moms and loving home. And yet, it was still too hard and too painful to be Ethan. As we all shared the heartbreak, and blended our tears, Ethan’s moms told us they made the decision to come on the trip anyway…that’s what Ethan would have wanted. So they began to tell us their plans to memorialize him with their tattoo designs. As they did, Sara and I knew there was no way we could walk out of this tattoo shop without memorializing him as well.
We knew beyond a doubt why the Tour led us to San Francisco on this specific day and in this particular moment. And we also knew the girls would forever be a part of our family. Just like all of those in the Free Mom Hugs movement with the mama bears and the LGBTQ+ community, there is a story that bonds us all. Ethan’s story changed my life that day. I knew as we continued our journey, speaking from city to city, state to state, that I could not share my own story and not share Ethan’s. I was given a new drive and urgency to protect our transgender youth. Because I saw first hand that even in the best, most loving homes, it can still be impossibly hard to be transgender in America. So the decision was clear to me that not only would Sara and I get tattoos of the word Hope, I wanted mine to be specific to Ethan so he would be with me always and even nudge people to ask questions. So I decided to capitalize the “E” in Hope on my arm.
We were joined that Mother’s Day by more San Francisco Mama Bears. One in particular named Denise sat next to me and held my hand while I was getting my tattoo. (Of course she did, right?). We invited Ethan’s moms to join us all that evening for an event and they accepted. They joined the Free Mom Hugs crew at Asia SF where all the staff and performers are in the transgender community. It was bittersweet to see these beautiful humans be free to be their authentic selves while also thinking about Ethan wishing he could have seen it and had hope. We loved our time with them so much and we left just wanting to hold them tight as they traveled this treacherous journey. In the midst of sadness, it was so good to know they would never have to walk this journey alone. They became family that day.
We were so grateful for our time with them. And it only added to how hard it was to leave San Francisco and go to our next stop. But we knew we had to see them one last time before we left. You see, we had the jeep full of blankets that had been hand made by the Mama Bears in the private online Facebook group for moms of LGBTQ+ kids. It was up to us to decide at each stop who received these meaningful tokens of love. Sara describes these blankets, just like she does our hugs… they won’t let go until you do. And we knew if anyone should have one of the blankets, it was Ethan’s moms.
We continued the tour with the next stop in Phoenix, Arizona where I started to altered my story to allow time for Ethan’s. It always surprised me how people would come up afterwards to thank me for bringing light to transgender youth and the world they face trying to be their authentic selves. This is where we can all make a difference and rise up, speak out, share these stories and bring humanity to an often misunderstood part of our population and culture. Too many transgender people are rejected, wounded, abused, fall into self harm and are victims of violence or taken from us in tragic ways. We must not be silent any longer. There are too many Ethan’s in the world that have so much to offer. It’s time we treasure them for the gifts they are.
Today, we are still close to Ethan’s moms. They even travel to Oklahoma City to see us. One visit in particular was star studded when we were able to get front row tickets to see Comedienne Cristela. She is a famous, Latinx performer who was actually one of Ethan’s favorites. I heard she was performing at our iconic Tower Theatre, so I tweeted about Ethan’s story and asked if we could meet her. She didn’t miss a beat and responded, “Consider it done.”
We have lost too many brilliant souls to fear and ignorance. Love and education are how we can change the world to make it safe for our transgender kids to experience the freedom to be their authentic selves. I believe it is our mission to speak for the Ethans of the world and make sure their voices are never quieted. Ethan is with me everyday. Not only on my arm and in my heart, but also in my hands. One day after returning from the tour, my partner and I ventured into a truck stop store and discovered a rack of novelty key chains with a selection of names. I always look and expect disappointment as I look at the K section for an off chance they have a “Katrina” key chain. To my surprise there was a sign that said Katrina with one key chain left hanging. I grabbed it to see if it really was my name. The air went out of my lungs as I held it in my hands to read the name “Ethan.”