7 Parents on What They Learned from Their Trans Kids
Advice from parents of transgender and gender non-conforming children about how to be good to the young trans person in your life.
Oct 26 2018, 8:56pm
Photo via Michael Anes.
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Since the Trump administration's reinterpretation of Title IX, transgender and gender nonconforming (TGNC) youth are at risk of facing increased harassment, at school and beyond. Title IX prohibits schools from discrimination on “the basis of sex," which, under the Obama administration, was determined to include gender identity, resulting in protections which the Trump administration has revoked.
I spoke with Becca Mui, the education manager for GLSEN, about what society can do to better protect TGNC kids. Mui says that, according to GLSEN’s 2015 National School Climate Survey, about 75 percent of transgender students felt unsafe at school because of their gender expression that year.
“It’s important that cis allies, both within and outside of the LGBTQ community, are making efforts to center and support trans youth. GLSEN recommends four supports for an LGBTQ-inclusive schools: Enumerated anti-bullying policies, which explicitly list gender identity/expression, Supportive Educators, GSA or LGBTQ-themed clubs, and Inclusive Curriculum. These supports can be recommended by administrators, implemented by faculty members, and benefit everyone in the school community,” Mui tells me.
The report also reveals that LGBTQ students who experience high levels of harassment and assault and/or discriminatory practices reported high levels of depression and lower self-esteem.
At a time when the government is trying to erase the definition of "transgender" out of existence and enforce discrimination against transgender youth, Broadly asked seven parents of TGNC children how they came to understand and accept their kids for who they are—at school, at home, and in the emotional wake of last week’s memo. Here is the advice they had for others working on behalf of the beloved young transgender people in their lives.
Michael, 8, He/Him/His
When Michael was three, our friends wanted him to be a flower girl, and I will go to my grave regretting that because he was so miserable. I had to carry him down the aisle as he just threw flowers at people. Another day, I remember Michael wearing a Batman shirt, and a man passing him on a bicycle said, “Hey, Batgirl!” Michael almost went running after him, yelling, “IT’S BATMAN!”
When we adopted Michael, I was working in the field of psychotherapy, where I specialized in working with LGBTQ individuals. We never influenced gender in our home. The first time Michael opened up about his gender identity, he wanted Santa to give him a penis. It was at that time we began having conversations about him identifying as a boy. He woke up one morning and told us that he was a boy, and we said, “OK—you can be a boy all the time, and I can call you 'he' and 'him,' and we can cut your hair, if you’d like.”
Coming out as a transgender boy has been a relief for Michael. He’s more carefree and much happier. He dealt with bullying, mostly in the school bathrooms, and it was really hard for him, so we decided it was best to change schools.
I remind Michael that he is valid every day. I intentionally call him "my son," and when I see him getting off the school bus, I say, “You look like a really happy boy” and he says, “That's because I am a really happy boy.” I really go out of my way to tell him that I see him.
My advice for parents whose kids have just come out is to get help. I focus on the various online communities where parents of trans kids can get the help they need with the process. I was shocked at how surprised I was that I had feelings about Michael’s transition. I think a lot of parents who are very affirmative forget that there are emotions attached—when we packed up all the pictures he asked us to get rid of that showed him as feminine; when we cut his long hair.
I would want parents of trans kids to know it’s OK and important to acknowledge those feelings, but it should not intersect with their child’s journey.
This week has been pretty rough [after Trump’s recent scheme]. We try to keep things super normal for our son. I am definitely seeing a therapist who is knowledgeable about what’s going on in the world and also she is helping me to manage the emotional fallout. More than ever, my husband and I are focusing on staying very tight and being right with each other. It’s easy to displace emotions [and direct them at] safe people when you’re scared. Right now, we need to not do that to each other, because we have to be creating love for Michael and ourselves.
I want elected officials to know that our children are in danger. I don’t know how to make it happen. I don’t know how to describe to elected officials what it feels like to put my child on the bus in the morning, the way that my heart beats out of my chest, the way I smile and love radically, because that’s my job. I want them do their job so that I don’t have to work 10 times harder than the average parent to do mine.
Zara, 11, She/Her/Hers
A year ago, Zara stopped doing her schoolwork, and we could tell something was wrong. That’s when she came out to us as transgender. At first, we thought, Maybe we have a queer child, or, Maybe she’s just gay and/or effeminate. She kept saying, “I’m not gay, I’m transgender. I’m a girl, I like boys—but that doesn’t make me gay.”
The area that we live in is not the most queer-friendly place. We got a lot of backlash [when Zara came out] because me and my wife are queer—so we were “teaching Zara how to be transgender” and “brainwashing” her.
We were driven out of the community and my family completely disowned us, so we moved to a bigger area in our state that we consider safer. We have a close-knit community in our new area who supports our family unconditionally, but we still receive backlash for being a queer couple with a transgender child.
Since coming out as trans and starting hormone blockers, Zara has been doing really well. She’s resumed her school work and is thriving. Zara’s school is supportive of her transition. They let her use whichever bathroom she would like to use, and all of her teachers use her correct name and pronouns.
Although her school affirms her gender, she still struggles sometimes. She’s afraid she’s not going to pass, and she feels like people don’t think she’s a real girl and that’s why people don’t want to play with her. We’ve been trying to help her with self-doubt. It’s a really difficult time being a middle-schooler already—then trying to navigate being a transgender girl on top of that. But Zara has been able to find friends who love her, and she attended a trans camp this summer where she spent time with other trans people, including kids her age. It was really great for her to have that community, because we don’t really have that here.
I’m sometimes fearful for her safety. There’s still a worry that her life will be more difficult. She’s a Black trans girl, so we knew it was going to be really hard. We ask her how we can best support her, and have just been letting her lead it. We try to give her role models in the media who are trans. We talk a lot about Janet Mock, and we plan to watch [the trans inclusive show] Pose together.
My advice for other parents whose child may have come out as TGNC is to remember it’s not about them. The amount of courage and bravery it takes for your child to come out to you is something you’ll never understand.
Leo, 7, He/Him/His
The spring of Leo’s pre-K year of school, Leo came home and said nobody wanted to be his friend. Even after school, when I saw kids playing on the playground, I could see he felt isolated, and I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I wasn’t connecting the dots between his gender journey and his feelings of isolation.
By June, as he was finishing he pre-K year, I had a discussion with him about his feelings regarding his gender. I was sitting on the bed with him one day and asked him if anyone else at school knew that he’s a boy. With an expression of fear and terror, he told me no, because he has to keep it a secret at school.
I said to myself, I’m doing this thing wrong, I’m doing parenting wrong. I realized how completely messed up his experience was. I said, “No—you don’t have to hide; you don’t have to keep a secret.”
I explained to him what being transgender meant, and it was like pouring a glass of water on a wilted planet. He literally just became animated in a way I’ve never seen him become animated before, and he said, “That’s who I am.” That was huge.
By the fall, when school was opening back up, we had successfully helped affirm and help him with his transition, but he had to change schools, as his old one was not as affirming.
November 3 will mark two years since Leo socially transitioned. We got out of the old school very quickly, and with the help of Jared Fox, the LGBTQ Liason of NYC Schools, we did a crisis transfer to a new school. Leo is two years into his new school now, and so far, his experience has been great. He used to have extraordinary anxiety, and he still deals with it at times, but it’s vastly reduced—he’s not solemn anymore. He's doing phenomenally well. When Leo started in his new school, it was like a debut, because we had worked with him over the summer affirming him and helping him socially transition. The photograph I have of him on his first day at the new school is a completely different child than I parented earlier. He’s doing radically better.
My advice for parents is to chant to yourself, I don’t know, but my child might know, so if I just shut up and let my child lead, I might learn something. And not only might I learn something, but my heart may grow and I may become a deeper person, a more generous person, a more loving person. Educate yourself, and have the courage to reject cultural norms.
In response to the current situation with Trump’s teams' latest effort to delegitimize trans folks, I’ve been inundated with friend requests. It’s like a huge tidal wave of trans folks and allies have banded together, which is heartening. I know this is trite, but the sayings “Love wins” and “We’re stronger together” are fundamentally true in my heart.
I don’t let my son listen to the news. I’m grateful that no one at school has said anything to him about this latest BS. He’s seven, and has already told me he knows there are folks who don’t understand what being trans means. I see zero reasons to compound that by telling him that a substantial minority of this country is downright violent towards trans folks.
The best things our allies can do to support trans children and their parents are vote, give to trans candidates , give to legal organizations that support trans folks, and search crowdfunding sites to send money to a trans person that is in need. Speak up and call out bad behavior when you are witness to it. Being an ally means nothing if an ally's voice isn't lifted in service to combating ignorance.
I would like to see my elected officials get behind legislation that protects trans and gender non-conforming folks from discrimination. For example, for all Cuomo's blather and hot air about supporting LGBTQ folks, the New York State Senate bill known as GENDA: Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, is still languishing. As a voter, that is unforgivable to me.
Willow, 19, She/Her/Hers
We’re Native American people, and there have always been transgender people in my family. My great-grandmother had a sister who was transgender, so it wasn’t shocking [to learn that a member of our family was trans], but it was a big surprise that it was Willow. I don’t attach a lot to gender myself, so I hadn’t thought about it. We just saw Willow as our kid.
Willow came out to us around this time last year. She’s married to her husband, who is a transgender man, and they have a little baby—they all live across the street from me. They had been best friends throughout junior high school, when I had known that her husband was a trans man—he had been out since then.
Willow came out when she joined the conservation corp after high school. She did fire prevention and was a lumberjack, cutting down trees to prevent massive wildfires in the rocky mountains. She called me up from the woods and said, “In doing all of this work, I’ve had a lot of time to think about why I’ve never quite been comfortable, and no matter what happens, I’ve never been quite happy with myself.”
I said “Really?”
Willow said, “Yeah, I think I’m a girl”.
I said, “OK, if you are then you are. You’re the one who would know.”
We still have some worries about it. One night my husband and I were talking, and he said, “I don’t know anything about this, but if she thinks she’s a girl, then she is.” And then he cried and said, “I hate the idea that someone would hurt her just because she’s transgender.” Our only concern is violence against her and other transgender people.
My advice for other parents is to support them, and realize that their life and happiness has to be the most important thing. They are the expert on their identities, and you just have to love them and trust them.
Sky, 17, Them/Them/Theirs
I’m a cognitive psychologist at Wittenberg University, where I teach on the psychology of gender. I’m 54 years old, and I believe the older generation has to change.
Sky was 17 at the time [they came out]. They had gone by she/her pronouns until a couple of months ago, and now goes by they/them. Sky is only just beginning to develop themselves—this is all still very new for Sky.
Sky is very happy now that they’ve come out. They’ve just moved to a big city with friends. Sky’s coming out has increased their confidence in themselves. I think that being able to talk to us about it really helped them.
Sky’s biological mother isn’t sure she can support Sky being non-binary and respecting their pronouns. It’s a little easier for me to support Sky in the way that I do. I have transgender students and I’m always supportive, so it would be hypocritical to support my students but not my kid.
I would like for parents of other TGNC kids to take a deep breath. As parents, we’re schooled on being there for our kids, and that the way to be there for your kid is to jump in there and try to fix it. But kids just need to be listened to. So the number-one thing is to be quiet and be a good listener. Just learn to listen.
With the news regarding Trump’s latest attack against the transgender and gender non-conforming community, I’m extremely upset for my kid, and for my students. This is resulting in a significant amount of stress for me personally, given I know several trans students. I’m worried for them.
I’d like to see our public officials get their shit together and support people for being people. The whole thing is ridiculous—it’s about supporting people with basic human decency and treating people with the dignity they deserve. It’s not supposed to be rocket science.
As far the news about the Justice department advocating that businesses can discriminate against TGNC people—screw every last one of those people, seriously.
This is just not going to stand with young people, which is one of the things I’m most sure about and most happy about. Screw my generation for letting this happen.
Cassandra, 17, She/Her/Hers
Cassandra came out as transgender when she was 15 years old and in high school. She was going through severe depression before she came out, and I was trying to figure out why. I wasn’t exactly sure what it meant to be transgender and wondered, How could you possibly know at this age, or, How could you possibly make that decision at that age?
I went online and researched everything I could. One thing I remember reading is what statistics show about transgender people commiting suicide. I came to the conclusion that it’s either support my child or she might not be here with me anymore, and that was not going to be an option.
High school was hard for Cassandra after coming out. Her teachers refused to use her pronouns and would completely ignore bullying in class. We decided to take her out of school. We got her name and birth certificate changed and all that stuff. The past year, she’s been a different person, she’s actually happy.
Parents should seek out other people that have been through the experience. It’s overwhelming at first—you think about your child’s safety and you think about people who might want to harm them.
I honestly don't know if I've dealt with the recent attack on the trans community by the Trump administration. I get anxiety when I stop to really think what that could mean. I have to put on a brave face for my daughter, because if I panic...
I told her she cannot get depressed because of what some old white men are trying to tell her about herself. Just because someone says the grass is blue doesn't mean it's true. I went to vote the first day of early elections, I have donated what I can to organizations such as HRC, and I try to find volunteer opportunities or events that support the LGBTQ community and share them with my friends and family. I would like to do more, but being a single working mom, there's only so much time I have to give right now. I am encouraging Cassandra to volunteer for causes she is passionate about.
I want parents who are allies of transgender and nonbinary people to stand up for them. Stand up against hate. If someone says something, you need to be brave enough to say that's not OK. It's hard sometimes, but trans kids and trans people are your neighbors, your public servants, your average, everyday humans who are imperfectly perfect and has every right to exist and be recognized as such.
I would like to see my elected officials and community on a larger scale call out transphobia and bring attention to the implications that this would have for trans people. I honestly think a lot of people are just not informed, and if they are not directly affected by it, they just don't bother to learn about it.
Kayla, 23, She/Her/Hers
I live in London. My daughter Kayla is 23 years old and loves reading. Recently Kayla has started doing stand-up comedy, and won an award at a small fringe festival for best comedy act.
In March 2015, Kayla came out as transgender. She phoned beforehand to say she wanted to speak to us, so we knew it was something important. It wasn’t a surprise for us because of her change to feminine expression months earlier.
I wasn’t going to abandon my child. I read everything I could. I followed transgender people on Twitter. I tried to educate myself, I joined the LGBTQ network at work and looked for parent support.
I often feel as if I missed something, I wondered if she suffered in silence because I didn’t notice and couldn’t offer support. My biggest fear was how she’d cope in the world. I was scared for her, and still am. It’s a parent’s instinct to protect their child. I was worried how the rest of the family and friends would react, I didn’t want anyone to be horrible to her or alienate her.
I still have worries for Kayla. Since leaving college, she has struggled to find employment. Employers are meant to be inclusive and non-discriminatory, but are they really? I worry how she will cope financially long-term and how the rejection will affect her.
It’s changed our family dynamics, there’s no doubt about that. Kayla’s youngest brother is two years younger than her and has not spoken to her since she came out as transgender. I think he just doesn’t know what to say, and it’s gone on too long now. Kayla’s older brother also finds it difficult to forget when they were three boys wrestling on the trampoline. My cis daughter is accepting.
Kayla now has a good network of friends in London, mainly from the LGBTQ community. Since coming out as transgender, Kayla is happy and confident—much more so than before her transition.
My advice for other parents is to remember it’s not all about you. Yes, you’re in shock, it’s life changing but your child needs you! That child—the one you gave birth to, the one you raised and loved—is the same person inside. The other stuff, you’ll get used to! I want parents to educate themselves with an open mind. Doing so with Kayla has changed my life and made me a better person.