A Parent’s Post: Anti-Loss

Many parents of transgender children (youth and adults) express sadness about feeling like they’re going to lose their child in some way when their child transitions. I’ve heard several parents say this impending loss feels like a death, and they prepare to grieve accordingly. It’s never really that they are feeling that way; usually they are scared they are going to feel that way when their child transitions.

I tell them most parents end up not feeling that way, as their child will still be here, but they won’t know this until they go through it themselves. Really, the parent is not losing their child. The child (again, I’m talking about “adult children”, too) is going to be the same person they always were. The parent is only now beginning to understand what pronouns and gender identity go along with who their child really is. The main loss is that of pronouns and a mental image of who the parent thought they were.

Recently, a father made it clear he had not experienced loss as a result of his child’s transition. I wanted desperately to bottle up his words and give them to each parent I see who is struggling with a sense of impending loss in regards to their transgender child. So, I did the next best thing; I asked him to write a blog post about it! Without further ado, please read these words from a father who has gained so much.

“Anti-Loss – By Peter T.

Emma was our second child, born from the love her mother and I shared and wanted to manifest in the world.  In the days after we learned she was pregnant, my wife and I had no idea if she would give birth to a boy or a girl – and to both of us, it made no difference, whatsoever. Whether our baby, our child, our young adult was a boy or a girl was pretty much irrelevant, as long as they grew up happy, strong, knowing they were deeply loved and accepted for their unique and beautiful self.

Our baby was born in the body of a girl… but in this baby, nature decided to do an interesting thing. Somehow, the heart and mind and spirit of a son was inserted into the body of a girl.  We as parents, being such literal and visual creatures, took the visual presentation of our baby to be all we needed to know about gender.  The doctor said “It’s a girl!” and we believed.  We went about dressing our baby and our child as a girl… giving “her” girl activities… and investing in our expectations about what “she” would grow up to be.

As our child grew up and was able to begin to make choices in clothing, friends and activities, it was gradually apparent that our ideas about “being a girl” weren’t really fitting this small person.  Still, we took our child to ballet lessons and set up tea parties with classmates, bought cute dresses and imagined the life-ahead for “her” – and our child seemed to participate in these things happily… up to a point, but beneath the seemingly-accepting exterior of this small person, inner turmoil was brewing.

We, as parents of transgender teens, all have our stories of how our child made their truth known to us and how we initially – and then eventually – reacted to their needs.  I won’t lengthen this writing by sharing mine in detail, but I will acknowledge that I definitely had to go through my own reprogramming… adjusting in some fundamental ways, how I perceived my child.  The child I had known for 13 years as Emma now was to be called Andrew… “she” was to be “he” and a whole new world of concerns for his welfare appeared – in addition to the ones that come standard with every teen.

I have been so very fortunate to be included in my son Andrew’s counseling sessions.  All sorts of truths rise to the surface there that “real life” often doesn’t allow time or space for.  A few weeks ago, I said something to Andrew in counseling that I’d said several times before – but this time, he finally made it clear that what I’d said was hurting him.  What I’d said was that he was at something of a disadvantage in passing as male, because, as a girl, he was quite pretty – and that gave him an obstacle to overcome in looking masculine.  Andrew shared with me that when I said things like that, he felt as though I was saying I had lost something – that I had lost my “pretty daughter”… and clearly, it hurt him to feel that who he truly was inside – and now, outside was something “less” to me.

I was very sad to know that my observation about “what he used to be” caused him to feel I had lost something along the way.  The truth is so entirely opposite – for me it has been “anti-loss” – ONLY gain – as I have seen my child stand up and speak his truth and claim his real life – against all odds, despite peer pressure, despite fear of ridicule, in the face of the certainty that his road ahead would be so very hard.  I told him then… and I will remind him often… that he is so very much *more* than I ever could have hoped for in a child, in a son, in a young man who I am so entirely proud to have in my life.

What was it again?  What did I wish for… back in those days before his mother and I knew his eye color or his name?  What was it that we had hoped for, above all?  I had wished for a child who would be able to grow up happy and strong… who would face difficult challenges with integrity and intelligence… who would know himself deeply  – and from that knowledge, live a life filled with love and joy and passions-abounding.  In my lovely son, I have found examples of all those things that I, myself, can only hope to aspire to.  His process of becoming himself is such an incredible honor to participate in and I hope, as he grows into the amazing man I know he will be, that he always knows that his parents accept him and love him deeply and completely.

There is nothing here but gain.”

Thank you, Peter, for your beautiful words and sharing your perspective. Thank you also to Andrew for letting me share part of your story. ❤

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Viral Video: Ryland’s Story

A very important video has gone viral with over 4.5 million hits in one week. It’s the story of young Ryland, a transgender boy who was allowed to socially transition at the age of 5. To see the video, click here. As a gender therapist, and a gender therapist who also works with transgender children, I’m thrilled to see this video in mainstream media: Huffington Post, People.com, Upworthy.com. It’s bringing awareness to an extremely important issue: not just that transgender children can transition, but it drives home the point that transgender people are born transgender. The age that one is consciously aware of being transgender or transitions can vary widely, but an individual does not become transgender over the course of their lifetime.

I had the honor of speaking about this issue on Good Morning America. To see the clip, click here. I said a lot more than what was aired, but there’s only so much they could fit into a 4-minute news segment. I’d like to take this opportunity to address some of those things now. These points are in direct response to the questions I was asked by Good Morning America about the video. Regular readers of this blog are probably well-versed in the answers below, but in case this post is read by someone seeking more education or to understand young transgender children, I wanted to be thorough.

Many people were surprised to read that 41% of transgender individuals have attempted suicide, while the rate of the general population is 4.6%. That staggering statistic, I believe, applies to transgender individuals who transition later in life and meet with familial/societal resistance, rejection, or shame. “New analysis of responses to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS) shows that transgender respondents who experienced rejection by family and friends, discrimination, victimization, or violence have a higher risk of attempting suicide.” I strongly believe that number will plummet in the coming years with increased awareness, education, and accepting, responsive families like Ryland’s. To read the full report from the Williams Institute, click here.

I was asked questions about what interventions are recommended for transgender children. For a transgender child as young as 5 or 6, the first step is social transition. This means changing pronouns, sometimes name, and some societal markers of gender such as haircut or dress. No medical interventions happen at this stage, contrary to some sensationalistic beliefs. The first medical interventions would be just before the onset of puberty, at which time hormone blockers would be introduced to prevent the body from going through the “wrong” puberty. As the teen ages, cross-sex hormones would be administered to initiate puberty of the preferred sex, which would produce some much-desired “gender markers”.

When a child has been clear about their gender identity and not transitioning causes distress, transitioning young can be incredibly beneficial to the individual. While not all transgender people are focused on “passing”, it is hugely important to many. “Passing” means being read in society as the gender with which you identify in your brain. Going to the grocery store and having the cashier address them with the correct gender pronouns… that is “passing”. Transitioning early and intervening before puberty takes over will allow that individual to pass as his or her “true” gender without question.

One thing I want to say is that I know many people worry that a very young child is too young to make such a big “decision”. I want to remind you that gender identity is not a decision. We all know very early on what gender we are. A transgender child of Ryland’s age is not making a “huge decision” to be a boy. He IS a boy. His parents were faced with a huge decision about allowing him to transition, and they made it based on Ryland’s asserted gender identity.

I thought Good Morning America did a good job of covering this video. I was pleased about the input from ABC’s Chief Health and Medical Editor, Dr. Richard Besser. “The more we’re learning about gender, the more we’re learning that this is really hard-wired. It’s hard-wired in the brain. And from very early, from the first couple years of life, children will recognize gender and then start to identify with gender.” My only feedback would be that he should have used male pronouns when referring to a transgender boy.

One thing that didn’t sit right with me was the way they worded the “teaser” for the upcoming segment on the video. “True Identity: The incredible story being shared coast to coast of one little girl who just wanted to be a boy. Why her parents encouraged her to change gender.”

This statement is misleading at best. First of all, this child is not a little girl. This child did not “want to be a boy”, this child has the brain gender identity of a boy. As the video said, this child did not say “I want to be a boy”, he said “I AM a boy”. Now, I understand those snippets are meant to be short and can’t cover it all, and they are geared to having people tune in to watch the segment. The part that got me the most was the last sentence: “Why her parents encouraged her to change gender.” If you are the parent of a transgender child, you probably understand why that sounds a little silly. Do these parents have some sort of ulterior motive to have a transgender child? Doubt it. Was this in their master plan? Likely not. Many of the parents of young transgender children I work with struggle extensively during the process of understanding their child’s true gender identity. It takes time to accept their child is transgender, and naturally, parents tend to agonize over allowing their child to transition. Supporting and responding appropriately to their child’s gender identity is not encouraging something that wasn’t there; you can’t make a child transgender. However, supporting and encouraging the child to live life as their true selves, that is selfless, unconditional love. For more reflections on how difficult and intense this journey can be for parents, see my blog post “Feelin’ The Love: Watching the Journey of Parents”.

In the video, the song fades from “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley to “Good Life” by One Republic as it shows Ryland transitioning. I think it was the perfect song choice. So many parents worry whether or not their transgender child can have a good life. The answer is: ABSOLUTELY. Thank you to Ryland and his family for being selfless and strong enough to share your story so that many more transgender children can have good lives, just like you.