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A mother’s odyssey to understand her transgender child

Just ‘tell them that I love them’

by Gail Strange

Aaron O’Bannon as an adolescent

As an adolescent Aaron O’Bannon struggled socially and emotionally — to the point of attempting suicide. He felt he was born into the wrong body. After counseling and gender reassignment surgery, Aaron became Shemiyia; her inner gender identity now matches her outward gender expression. See a photo of Shemiyia today below. (Courtesy of Sheila O’Bannon)

To begin this story, we have to start at what was almost a tragic end. The year was 2000. Y2K was not nearly as frightening as expected, Britney Spears’ music topped the charts, and many 14-year-old boys were enthralled with their PlayStation 2. But not Aaron. At 14, he attempted suicide.

“I didn’t see any tendencies of my son being different,” said his mother, Sheila O’Bannon. “I had given birth to an older son, and this one was no different.” But while O’Bannon didn’t see any difference, Aaron’s older and younger brothers did. “My sons would say to me, ‘Mom, Aaron is gay.’ I would say, ‘He’s just not like the two of you.’”

But Aaron, too, knew he was different. In retrospect, O’Bannon says, her son knew he was in the wrong body as early as age 3 or 4.

“I have come to realize my son was having problems at a very early age,” she said. In elementary school Aaron would get into fights almost every other day. One day O’Bannon asked him, “What’s going on that’s causing you to get in all these fights?” He replied, “I don’t know. People just don’t like me.”

One day Aaron came home from school and asked his mom, “What does gay mean?”

“I tried to explain the term ‘gay’ to the best of my ability to a 6-year-old,” O’Bannon said. But even then, she never connected his question to his problems at school.

Aaron as a young boy

THEN: Shemiyia (as 3-year-old Aaron) was raised in a home with brothers, but felt he was different. (Courtesy of Ed Anderson)

As Aaron was growing up, the transitions to middle school and high school were difficult for him. Older boys, many questioning their own sexuality, would flirt with him. Meanwhile, the fighting at school escalated. O’Bannon was frequently called to her son’s schools, where principals, teachers and counselors would tell her, “We have to do something about your son.” But, she said, they would never say what the problem was, or why the blame was always attributed to Aaron. Still blind to the real situation, O’Bannon was “really confused and wondered why I was being called to school for every fight when my child was clearly the victim.”

The violence accelerated to a new level when a high school gang member began flirting with Aaron on a school bus, then grew self-conscious when other gang members noticed the two together. To cover himself, the gang member pulled a gun and pretended to be fending off an unwelcome advance. “What was I doing?” Aaron asked him. “You wanted to talk to me.”

The violence that Aaron endured isn’t unusual. Statistics at show that 86 percent of LGBT youth have reported being harassed in schools. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey points out that 43 percent of lesbian, gay or bisexual students in grades 9–12 seriously considered suicide, 38 percent made a suicide plan, and nearly 30 percent attempted suicide. According to various news reports, 2016 was the deadliest on record for transgender women. GLAAD, an organization that promotes LGBTQ acceptance, reports that at least 27 transgender women were murdered last year, almost all of them people of color.

‘God hated them’

Shemiyia today

AND NOW: Shemiyia and her husband, Bobby Sweeney, at their wedding in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. (Courtesy of Gabriela Lopez)

In hindsight, O’Bannon realizes, “My son was dealing with so many pressures, like the pressure of not understanding who he was or why he was so different. He didn’t have the support of his parents because we didn’t know and would not understand what was going on with our son. There were all of these external pressures such as the ones from school and church. At school the fights were unrelenting, and at church there seemed to be a sermon every other week about homosexuality and how horrible ‘those people’ were, and that they were going to hell and that God hated them.”

Aaron came to identify himself as an abomination, she says, and didn’t understand why God had made him like this. He felt that since he was an abomination, he needed to destroy himself. That’s what he tried to do when he was 14.

After his suicide attempt, doctors informed O’Bannon that her son was not gay but transgender. Her sisters blamed her. “My sisters asked me, ‘What’s wrong with you that you would have that kind of child?’” O’Bannon said. “Everyone, with the exception of my parents, who remained silent, blamed me for having that kind of child.”

After leaving the hospital, Aaron went to a psychiatric facility where his only visitors were his family and the ministers from their church. It was there that O’Bannon learned that ministers were partly to blame for his despair. One day while visiting with her son at the facility, she said, an extremely angry doctor told her, “I don’t want the ministers from the church to ever come visit again. The ministers are coming here telling your child that he is worthless, that he needs to change his hair”—which was in braids at the time—“because he looks like a girl.

“If you want your son dead, then you continue this. I’m trying to save the life of your child who wants to kill himself for who he is, and your ministers and pastors are visiting and destroying all the work that we’re doing. Their comments are killing your son.”

Nevertheless, O’Bannon said, she still could not accept the idea that her son was gay or transgender. “I don’t care what you believe,” she recalls the doctor telling her.

She says she continued in her denial until the doctors told her she had to get her son to accept himself for who he was, and if she couldn’t do that they would have him removed from her home. The doctors knew that while Aaron was under his mother’s roof, living in an unsupportive atmosphere, he would continue to try to kill himself until he succeeded.

Her oldest son confronted the ministers visiting Aaron with the harm they were causing his brother. Aaron’s issues had now become a huge scandal in the church, O’Bannon said. She was the minister of music and part of a prominent family. While the church didn’t ask O’Bannon’s family to leave, the pastor found her a position as minister of music in another church and suggested she take the job. After leaving, O’Bannon eventually found a position as minister of music at Peace Presbyterian Church.

At her wits’ end, O’Bannon says, she turned to God for an answer to her family’s dilemma. Subsequently, she says, God began to lead her on a journey into the underground of the LGBTQ community. “I went into the LGBTQ clubs—some very nice and others really seedy.” She says she felt antagonistic toward LGBTQ people as a group when she began her journey but slowly began to reconcile with LGBTQ individuals. Many of the young people told her that they saw their parents in her, and that they saw her going through the same things their parents had gone through when they learned their child was different.

“As I got to know more of these people, I came to realize that a great number of them were raised in the church all their lives and there was a common thread throughout the LGBTQ community. They all thought God hated them.” Through continued prayer, O’Bannon says, God spoke to her, saying, “I don’t need you to judge these people. All I want you to do is tell them that I love them and point them in my direction.”

‘God loves you’

O’Bannon began her mission by apologizing to her son. She asked him, “Do you know that God loves you?”

“How do you know that?” he replied. She responded: Because God told me. “Contrary to what I have told you and what others have told you,” she told him, “God loves you.” Once she made amends with her son, O’Bannon said, she learned that her own parents, who had remained quiet throughout the entire ordeal, fully supported and loved her son.

The Prodigal cast

Sheila O’Bannon (center) and the cast of The Prodigal, a play written by O’Bannon telling the story of her child Aaron’s journey to becoming Shemiyia. (Courtesy of S.O. Theatrical Productions)

It was at this point, O’Bannon says, that God led her to write a play titled The Prodigal. Over the next three years O’Bannon, a performing-arts teacher, wrote the story of her family’s journey with her son. O’Bannon says God revealed to her that she should write the story in simple language that anyone could understand.

While writing the play, she became extremely ill, at times barely able to stand. Still, she persevered. After completing the play, O’Bannon began to dream about the number 27. When she went to the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts in Louisville to inquire about available dates for her production, the only weekend available was the weekend of June 27.

“With nothing in my purse, I said, ‘OK, we’ll take it.’” An agent told O’Bannon she would need a $35,000 down payment for the facility. O’Bannon ultimately ended up with over $100,000 in donations to produce the play with an all-volunteer cast.

The Prodigal premiered the weekend of June 27, 2010, to a sold-out house at the Kentucky Center. “The audience was filled with families and many LGBTQ community members,” O’Bannon said. “After the performance they wouldn’t leave. The room was filled with emotion, and people wanted to stay and talk about this subject.”

After the premiere, O’Bannon was rushed to the hospital and later diagnosed with follicular lymphoma. She is now in remission.

In many ways O’Bannon found peace at Peace.

“Reverend (Wayne) Steele and the entire congregation of Peace Presbyterian Church have been so loving and open to my family. When The Prodigal premiered, the Peace congregation was right there in the audience. My family has been blown away by their kindness and the love shown by this church,” O’Bannon said. She believes it was that love that saved the life of her child.

As for Aaron, the journey was long, and he faced some difficult decisions. In 2014, he and his mother traveled to Bangkok, Thailand, where Aaron had decided to undergo gender reassignment surgery. He chose Bangkok because of the expertise of doctors there in performing that kind of surgery.

“I met people there from all over the world,” O’Bannon said. “I met people of different ethnicities and cultures. Parents just like me—parents with the same questions. I met people of all religions and beliefs. We stood in solidarity around one common goal: ‘I don’t want my child to hurt anymore!’”

O’Bannon recalled that a tear fell down her cheek as a doctor smiled and said her child would finally see on the outside what she feels on the inside. And with that, Aaron became Shemiyia.

Shemiyia is now a beautiful young woman living a full and happy life with her husband in New York. For the past 12 years she has worked in the nursing administration/health-care industry. Shemiyia now gets to work with transgender patients—many of whom don’t have a voice or someone to care for them. “It’s a pleasure to work with these individuals—individuals like me who tried to end their lives,” she said.

Today O’Bannon and Shemiyia are speaking to organizations and counseling with families around the country who don’t know how to handle the situation of a transgender child. “We’re trying to help these families understand that you have to handle this difficult situation with love,” Shemiyia said. “You have to love people for who they are. And, most importantly, we need to let people know, no matter what, God loves you.”

O’Bannon and Shemiyia are also in conversations with national theaters and TV networks to share their story of love and reconciliation. Shemiyia is passionate about getting their story told.

“I want people to know that you are in charge of how your story ends, no matter how it began.”

Gail Strange is the director of church and mid council communications for the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

Learn more

More Light Presbyterians, an organization working toward the full participation of LGBTQ people in the life, ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and in society:

Transitioning to Inclusion: A Guide to Welcoming Transgender Children and Their Families in Your Community of Faith from the Center for  LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion at the Pacific School of Religion:

transACTION — A Transgender Curriculum for Churches and Religious Institutions from the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Institute for Welcoming Resources:

World Professional Association for Transgender Health, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, interdisciplinary professional and educational organization:

National Center for Transgender Equality, a project of Lyon-Martin Health Services of San Francisco that expands access to health care for transgender individuals:

National LGBT Health Education Center, which provides educational programs, resources and consultations to health-care organizations with the goal of optimizing high-quality, cost-effective health care for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people:

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