My Book: The Conscious Parent’s Guide to Gender Identity

Many of you have probably been wondering why my blog has been so inactive lately. Well, I wrote a book! F + W Media, Inc. has a series called “The Conscious Parent’s Guide To…” about a number of different topics. They wanted to publish one on gender identity, found me through this blog, and asked me to write it! I was happy to have the opportunity to write about how to best support gender expansive kids to a more wide-reaching audience. I truly hope it helps a lot of families.

The book is ideal for parents/guardians of gender expansive kids, but could also be useful for extended family members, therapists, teachers; anyone involved in a gender expansive child’s life. Click here to order your copy: The Conscious Parent’s Guide to Gender Identity: A Mindful Approach to Embracing Your Child’s Authentic Self.

I do want to add that I did not write Chapter 1. Chapter 1 is the standard chapter for all of the Conscious Parent’s Guides. I only added in the parts related to gender. So, if you don’t love Chapter 1- keep going. 🙂 If you liked Chapter 1 best, sorry. 😉

In addition to the overview in Chapter 1 about conscious parenting, there are ways to incorporate being a mindful, conscious parent throughout the book. This is so much more than just being “present”, it’s about recognizing your little human as a separate being, with their own unique will and spirit. I write about how to best connect with your child in order to be most receptive to what they are trying to tell you.

I write about the differences between gender and sex, gender identity and sexual orientation, gender expression vs. gender identity, and what gender “expansiveness” really is. This not only helps those involved in a gender expansive child’s life understand these concepts, but helps explain them to others.

I discuss the concept of getting to know one’s child for who they are from the beginning, rather than making assumptions that later need to be shifted or undone. I write about parenting gender expansive children, and the difference between being transgender and “just” gender expansive. In the book you will find practical tips for interacting with and advocating for your gender expansive and/or transgender child, while learning how to trust yourself and appreciate life at the same time.

Later in the book there is more specific information for families who have a child in need of social or medical transition: how/when to navigate interventions, coping with outside influences/reactions, siblings, extended family, schools, etc. There is a specific chapter dedicated to “helping your gender expansive child with teasing”, based on the concepts I present at gender conferences. There is also a specific chapter dedicated to dysphoria, which is important for everyone involved in a transgender child’s life to understand.

The appendixes include some resources I hope you will find helpful, including ways of looking at natal sex/gender identity/gender expression/sexual orientation on spectrums, or on more of a fluid shape. There is a list of “Classroom Rules” to help classrooms promote diversity. There is also a worksheet for children who may need some help in understanding when a friend or loved one is going through transition. Last but not least, there is a sample letter from parents informing their loved ones about their child’s social transition.

Let me know how you like the book, and leave an honest review on Amazon! Thank you so much for your ongoing support of this blog, I promise to get back to writing regular posts soon.

One’s “True” Gender

What defines someone’s “true” gender? Some people would say “true” gender is defined by the genitalia one had at birth. Those of us who know better know that one’s “true” gender is the one that exists in the brain.

This concept may be different for children and adults. Children are concrete thinkers, while adults are capable of much more abstract thinking. Genitalia is concrete; the gender identity in one’s brain is more of an abstract concept.

In addition to this, as a part of a child’s moral development, the importance in “telling the truth” is given much significance. “Lying” or deceiving someone is frowned upon, and children are often punished for it. As a child gets older, there is a development of the understanding of truth, honesty, and conscience. Where does “truth” come from when we are children? For things that are simple, the truth comes from ourselves. For things that are less simple, or more unknown to us, the truth tends to come from the adults who are in charge of us.

When I was at my good friend’s daughter’s second birthday party, a bee buzzed around the child’s head while she was eating her cupcake. She exclaimed “A bee!” right as it flew away. Her mother, who had not seen it, said in a playful way, “Nooooo, that was not a bee, it was a fly!”. The child looked at her mom’s face, paused and thought a second, then got a big smile on her face and said, “Yah! A fly!”. She had been right (and her mother wrong), but she didn’t care. The smile she shared with her mom and the contentment that came from their agreed-upon reality was all she needed. How many children are told their reality from a very young age? How many children are told, “you can’t wear a dress, you’re a boy!” or “of course you don’t have a penis, you’re a girl!”. Often, those “you’re a boy” and “you’re a girl” statements are absorbed by the young children as TRUTH. Anything other than what their trusted guardians are telling them must be a lie, or something to be kept to themselves. Only the minority of transgender children will be insistent and assert their truth over the protests of their parent(s).

This moral development and ability to grasp abstract concepts can influence a child’s ability to understand their own gender identity, assert their true gender, desire to transition, and/or their desire to be read in larger society as their desired gender.

Have I lost you? Let me be clear. An enlightened, insightful transgender adult may begin the process of transitioning and being seen for the gender identity that matches what is in their brain. For example, a Female-to-Male transgender individual starts the transition process and is very pleased when a stranger in the grocery store addresses him as “Sir”. Does he feel deceitful and as though he is not telling the truth? Not likely. For him, he understands his “true” gender identity is male and it is ok to be seen as male and assert himself as male.

This is a bit trickier for a child, particularly a latency-age child who is learning the concepts of “right and wrong”, honesty, and the concept of guilt. I have heard many parents say “she gets MAD when people think she’s a boy! You’d think she’d be happy”. (On the other hand, there are kids who are thrilled when they are perceived as their preferred gender and would never tell the stranger otherwise! As I always say, everyone is different. :)) Often times, if the child gets mad, parents look to this as a possible clue that their child may not be transgender. I tend to think it has to do more with concrete thinking and the desire to be “honest”. One way to help children understand it’s ok to be true to themselves is to explain the difference between anatomical sex and brain gender identity, as well as the fact that their brain gender identity is who they “truly” are. This gives them the green light to relax and know that when they assert their preferred gender, they are in fact, telling the truth.

Some of my transgender kids, after they transition, are told by peers, “but you’re really a girl” or “you’re really a boy”. These peers aren’t necessarily being mean; they are simply asserting what they know concretely (body) and enforcing what they think is the TRUTH. Part of my work with my young clients is then to help them understand that who they “really” are is who they are in their “brain” and their “heart”, and give them language to help their peers understand as well. Of course to help everyone (kids and adults alike!), the focus has to be on a societal shift of understanding what someone’s gender really is. If gender continues to be defined by bodies, then confusion, misunderstandings and stigma will continue.

How comfortable are you in your own “truth”? Did it take you a while to fully understand who you are on the inside is who you “really” are? Was there anything that helped you come around to this understanding?

Stop Trans Pathologization*: Some People Are Transgender, and Some People Are Not

Just like any variation of the human condition, some people are left-handed, and some people are not. Some people have two different colored eyes, and some people don’t. Some people are allergic to dairy, and some people are not.

Some people are transgender, and some people are not.

In some of the trainings I do, I ask the question: when is gender pathological? It’s basically a trick question, because gender isn’t pathological. Gender just is. It has neither good nor bad qualities. Yes, distress can come from feeling like your exterior presentation does not match your brain gender identity, and distress can come from society not understanding your gender, but gender in and of itself isn’t distressing. It just is, and we all have a gender identity even if that gender identity means not having a gender at all.

Some people are transgender, and some people are not.

Parents come to me with various theories for why their child may be transgender, or at least “presenting” as transgender. I’ve heard many different theories over the course of my years in working with transgender children, and many similar ones. I think space needs to be held for these parents wondering “why?”, and their theories should be listened to and considered. However, sooner rather than later there needs to be a time to take the “why?” and replace that with “OK, now what?”. In the end, the “why” doesn’t really matter. What matters is the child’s happiness.

My theory?

Some people are transgender, and some people are not.

Some people wrongly believe that being transgender is some form or sign of mental illness. In fact, even some professionals will use the term “co-occurring” when they speak of someone being transgender along with having a mental illness. Being transgender is not a mental illness. There is not a certain “type” of person with a certain set of presenting problems who is transgender.

Say it with me:

Some people are transgender, and some people are not.

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*This blog post is going live on October, 24, 2015, the International Day of Action for Trans Depathologization, an annual day created by Campaign Stop Trans Pathologization. Let’s stop pathologizing gender… because simply some people are transgender, and some people are not. 🙂

The Catalyst: When Being Transgender is Brought Into Conscious Awareness

Say you’re visiting a foreign city and you’ve been sightseeing all day. So many things to do and see, you’ve been going nonstop. Suddenly you see a menu hanging outside the door of a restaurant with a picture of the most delicious looking pasta you’ve ever seen. Suddenly aware of how hungry you are, you exclaim to your companion, “I’m STARVING!!” The two of you quickly agree to go inside the restaurant for a meal and begin pouring over the menu to see what other options are available.

Despite the common phrase, “Stop talking about that! You’re making me hungry!”, nothing but time and lack of food can actually make someone hungry. Did the picture on the menu actually create the existence of hunger? No, of course not. You were hungry because you had been active and had not eaten in a while. The menu simply made you aware of your hunger; it was the catalyst.

Such is the same with anything that sparks a transgender person’s “AHA” moment. Unless the person is someone who was insistent about their gender identity from early childhood, many individuals can name what it was that brought their being transgender into conscious awareness. For some, this is a person; either the person understands about gender identity and could explain it to them in a way that made sense, or the person had experience themselves with gender nonconformity. Often times this person will be significant to the transgender individual’s journey because of the help they provided in coming to understand themselves. Sadly, for some loved ones the person who was the catalyst becomes the person who is blamed for influencing the transgender individual. However, no one becomes transgender just because their friend is or because someone explains the notion of being transgender. One is either transgender or not; nothing another person can say or do can change it.

I will say that another person can influence the journey, or the transition, of the transgender individual. Influences by other people can either speed up or slow down the transition process. However, the transition is more an intervention to the state of being transgender and is not necessarily a good thing to be avoided. Read more about the separation of these two concepts in my blog post “What Are You Going to Do About it?

Other means by which someone may be triggered into understanding themselves and their true gender identity are often mainstream media, books, and of course, the internet. I’ve heard some parents lament the existence of the internet, feeling certain if it did not exist their child would never have learned about this and would therefore not be transgender. I have to gently remind them that their child would still be transgender, but they may not be consciously aware of it or know what options are available for it until much later. (Again, this is not necessarily a good thing. For those who feel the need to transition, early medical intervention can be very beneficial. For those who identify as nonbinary or under the trans* umbrella, they may come to understand their gender identity and how to ask others to respect it much earlier than they might otherwise have.) A catalyst is not causal; it does not cause the existence of something. It simply allows for awareness that something exists. In many ways, the catalyst has an extremely important job and is an essential part of the process. Just as that menu was the catalyst to help you recognize (and do something about) your hunger before you were collapsing from low blood sugar in the middle of a foreign town square, such is the case with something triggering awareness of being transgender. Transgender people may be grateful to the person or thing that brought this into their conscious awareness; maybe someday their loved ones will be too.

Do you think a catalyst can be causal?

If you are transgender, do you remember your catalyst? What was it?

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Trans*Forming the Dialogue

Trans*forming the Dialogue Logo

I am participating in Trans*forming the Dialogue, Simmons College’s Online MSW Program’s campaign to promote an educational conversation about the transgender community. This campaign was designed to shift the conversation away from the problematic questions that are often asked of the members transgender community and foster a more progressive dialogue. I was asked to be a “featured voice” in this campaign and provide my prospective about what TO ask and what NOT to ask trans* people. Of course, I am but one voice in the sea of many, please check out the other responses here!

The prompt: What are the do’s and dont’s when asking a trans* person about their experiences?

  • What are 2 – 3 questions that one should NOT be asking a transgender person?
  • What are 2 – 3 questions that one SHOULD be asking a transgender person?

I decided to go about this a little differently. Instead of listing specific questions one should or should not ask transgender people, I came up with guidelines for deciding which questions are appropriate and which ones are not.

Know the Basics

Before you begin asking too many questions of the transgender individual, do some research on the basics. Many times when someone is revealing their “true” gender, or their brain gender identity, others go straight for the anatomy of the individual. Anatomy is about natal sex, not gender. The transgender individual likely wants you to understand more about how they feel on the inside, not about what their body looks like. Read my blog post here for more information about Gender Vs. Sex. Additionally, it will be helpful for you to understand the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation. If you don’t, you might accidentally start focusing on the individual’s romantic life or sexual behaviors when they are trying to tell you about who they are. 🙂 Read more about this distinction here.

Use Empathy

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. It’s important to remember the transgender person is not there simply to educate you or satisfy your curiosity. They are a person, just like you, living their life. Try to figure out what kinds of questions you would like to be asked, and go from there. Would you want to be asked details about your potentially painful past? Probably not. Would you want to be asked details about your genitalia? Most likely not. See my blog post “What’s In YOUR Pants?? (They’re called “privates” for a reason) for more on this. What would you want someone to ask you about? You would probably want people to ask how you are, how your loved ones are, and what you’ve been staying busy with. Ask!

Stay in the Now

The transgender person in front of you is not living in the past or the future, they are living in the present. Stay in it with them. What name they were given at birth, the process of their transition, their plans for medical intervention in the future, etc. do not give you a sense for what that person is about, today. Ask them about their here and now, in general terms. If the transgender individual’s gender identity or transition comes up in this conversation, that means it is relevant for them in the present.

Think in Terms of Solidarity

If you think of yourself in a different category than transgender people, a separation is created that does not need to exist. We all have gender identity, and that makes us capable of understanding it. You don’t have to have gone through something exactly as someone else has to relate to that person. Many of the problems transgender individuals face is in regards to stigma, discrimination, and lack of understanding from society at large. Since we are all a part of society, we are all capable of creating change. Make sure you are using the correct name and pronouns for the individual. Speak up if you hear someone who is not. Speak up if you hear transphobic language, practices, policies, or potentially unwelcoming spaces for transgender individuals.

Think Beyond the Binary

Society tends to operate as though there are two genders, male and female. In reality, gender is on a spectrum and male and female are but two genders on it. Every person is the expert on their own gender identity. Trust what they say to be true for them, even if you can’t relate to it or haven’t heard of it before. Some people feel male or female. Some people feel both, and some people feel neither. Some people feel more one gender than another, and some fluctuate from day to day. Operate from the standpoint that you are there to honor and respect their gender, not decide what it is or what you are comfortable with. The only way to have a relationship with someone is to honor them for who they truly are.

Happy Conversing! 🙂

Don’t Poke the Dysphoria Monster

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There may be a monster in your child’s closet. All of the reassuring you may have done when your child was little that there was “no such thing as monsters”, checking under beds and in closets to alleviate anxiety, may not have been exactly true. For transgender kids and adolescents, and even adults, a Dysphoria Monster may be lurking nearby.

When I worked in a residential treatment facility for children, I used the “Addiction Monster” metaphor to explain addiction to children. Many children who resided there had parents who were addicted to substances, and this resulted in inconsistent visits, broken promises, and time away in jail. I would explain that when someone is struggling with addiction, they have an addiction monster that is sometimes small and manageable, sometimes huge and overpowering, but never nonexistent. When it’s huge, it has them in their grip, throwing them around, banging them up, holding them hostage. When the addiction becomes more under control, the individual may have more power over the monster, like walking it on a leash. After some time of sobriety when urges have decreased dramatically and the individual is in recovery, the monster may get small enough to tuck away in their pocket. But remember: it’s always there, and they would need to take care to keep it small.

Now that I work with transgender individuals, I have met the Dysphoria Monster. For those of you who don’t know, dysphoria is the discomfort and depression that can come with having a body that does not line up with one’s gender identity, or come from not being read as/treated as the gender one is in their brain. Dysphoria can range from unpleasant to life-threatening; it’s a force to be reckoned with.

Most transgender people experience and relate to dysphoria differently. Some have very little (tiny dysphoria monster tucked in their pocket), some have debilitating dysphoria (picture the gender dysphoria equivalent of Godzilla). Dysphoria can fluctuate on an hourly, daily, weekly basis. How much dysphoria is present on a day-to-day basis can be dependent on temperament, life experience, support, stage of transition, relationship status, triggers, and much more.

Here is an example of how the Dysphoria Monster can work: picture a female-to-male individual walking down the street with a female friend. He’s feeling good; confident, content, enjoying the day. His monster is quiet; he doesn’t really notice it. Suddenly he and his friend enter a restaurant and they are greeted with, “Hello, Ladies!”. His monster is awakened! Growling, breathing down his neck. The monster sits with them at the table for the rest of the meal as he agonizes over being misgendered.

Ever heard of the expression “don’t poke the bear”? It’s important as the loved one of a transgender person that you don’t “poke the Dysphoria Monster”. Be aware of the fact that this monster is lurking nearby and that it is in your loved one’s best interest that the monster stays docile. Unfortunately, parents and partners (and other loved ones) can fairly easily poke the monster because they are usually the ones who are around the individual the most. This can happen in any number of ways: misgendering (using wrong pronouns), using birth name, commenting on body parts, commenting on appearance, giving tips on how to be masculine/feminine, the list goes on.

Do you want to know how big and unruly your loved one’s Dysphoria Monster currently is, and how to avoid inadvertently awakening it? Here are some tips:

  • Educate yourself on dysphoria. Don’t expect your loved one to do it all for you. Understand what can be the most distressing parts of being transgender. Use compassion to fill in the blanks you don’t understand.
  • Check in. Don’t be afraid to ask, “How’s your dysphoria?” (or whatever word they would like you to use). Usually they will know exactly what you mean, and you will get the most direct answer that way.
  • Ask them what triggers their dysphoria the most. This will help you not only learn to avoid causing these triggers yourself, but will be alerted to check in after you witness one of these triggers happening.
  • Ask what helps lower their dysphoria. Ask when they feel the least dysphoric, and then try to increase or replicate these experiences/situations.

How big is your or your loved one’s Dysphoria Monster? Would you describe it differently?

Transition is an INTERVENTION, Not a Decision

In my post “What are you going to do about it?”, I discuss two very separate concepts: one’s gender identity and one’s “decision” about what to do about it. However, I made it clear that “deciding” not to transition is not usually a positive choice for a transgender individual. Today let’s break it down one step further and clarify what this “decision” means. Deciding to transition often means acting upon something that already is. That is, someone can be transgender in that they feel the brain gender identity they have is different than their assigned gender based on their natal sex. Is being transgender a decision? Absolutely not. You cannot decide to be transgender, just as much as anyone cannot “decide” on their gender before birth. I think talking too much about the “decision” to transition undermines what just simply exists; one’s brain gender identity. I want to acknowledge that there are some people who are transgender and who choose not to transition. This is a valid choice and one that is completely within their right. Let’s just say, for argument’s sake and the sake of this blog post, that transitioning is the natural response to one being transgender. If that is true, let’s stop thinking about transition as a decision and more as an intervention. I suppose this distinction has become more and more clear in my work with transgender youth and how different their process can be. Adults have the tendency to overthink everything, and so sometimes my work involves sitting with a client while they agonize over the “decision” to transition. Some of this includes not just IF they are going to transition but when, how, etc. It is somewhat different with transgender children. Because of their luxury of not yet having a brain trained to overthink things, they typically know just what they want to do about it. It is their parents/guardians, those in charge of their care, who typically stall the transition. They want their child to be SURE. They want their child to know all aspects of transition prior to “deciding to do so”. I have heard this statement so many times: “I just want him to be sure he knows what he’s getting into if he decides to transition” or “I just want to be sure she is mature enough to make a decision like this”, and “I told her if you’re going to make this decision I just want you to know what the consequences could be”. (If you have made a statement like this in my office, please know it is not about you specifically. I have heard these things too many times to count or to connect to one person or family. 🙂 ) Because children don’t overthink things, being transgender and transitioning* are fluidly, easily connected. Let’s try not to infringe our overthinking brains upon them. Let’s start looking at transitioning as an intervention, not a decision. If your child had a medical condition, and a doctor recommended an intervention that could make their lives a whole lot better, or potentially save your child’s life, would you put the decision on the child? Would you present the options to your child but then warn them to consider the financial implications, social implications, family implications on said intervention? Of course not. (For a similar concept covered in a different blog post, see “Oxygen”.) We are so used to warning our children of possible outcomes that we forget some are natural consequences to a circumstance, not something to avoid at all costs. Will there possibly be difficult times ahead for the transgender child who opts to transition? Yes. Will you be there to help them through it? Yes. Given how debilitating and dangerous dysphoria can be, I can assure you any stumbling blocks post-transition will likely be easier to overcome by the distress of not transitioning at all. Adults reading this who identify as transgender, what if you were to think of transitioning as an intervention instead of a decision? Would you give yourself more permission to act on how you feel and what you know you need? Would you be more willing to assert what you need from others, knowing this is something that is necessary for you?

*I want to clarify that for the sake of this blog post I am speaking of transition in fairly binary terms, that is someone transitioning from male to female, or female to male. However, plenty of people do not identify within this binary; some are gender fluid, some are genderqueer, some are bi-gender, some are agender, some are gender nonconforming. For these individuals, the “transition” and “intervention” may be somewhat different. It could just include having those around them understand them better, possibly change pronouns, and advocate for the use of proper treatment and pronouns. Those in charge of their care/their loved ones should also look at their stated preferences as interventions to how they feel, not “decisions” they are making to be a certain way gender-wise.

CONSISTENT! PERSISTENT. INSISTENT?

One of the cornerstone phrases for recognizing a transgender child is whether or not they have been “persistent and consistent” in their cross-gender identification. This means the child has shown a consistent (“of a person, behavior, or process unchanging in achievement or effect over a period of time”) identification with the brain gender of that of the “opposite” gender than which they were assigned at birth, and that this has persisted “continued to exist or endure over a prolonged period”. This is in regards to not just gender expression and interests, but in how they relate to themselves or identify in terms of gender. More recently, I have heard “insistent” added on to further qualify how a transgender child will likely present. I have to say, I don’t agree with this one being one of the characteristics a parent or professional might look for in terms of clarification. I think if one is looking for all three of these characteristics, they might miss something. I think the level of insistence displayed by the child is largely dependent upon the child’s temperament. Not all transgender children will be insistent about their “true” gender identities. Really, if taking all different temperaments into consideration, we may want to also reconsider our thinking about the use of the word “persistent” when it comes to transgender children as well. Another definition for persistent is “continuing firmly or obstinately in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition”. Will all transgender children be persistent in this way or insistent in the face of opposition or re-direction from parents or other significant figures in their lives? Likely not. Just like everything, one’s personality and desire to please guardians are on a spectrum. MANY children are not insistent about anything, so they sure as heck aren’t going to be about their gender identity or desire to be recognized as a different gender than their assigned gender at birth. Some children eat their vegetables simply because they are told to. Others refuse to take even a bite despite any tactics used by those in charge of feeding them. Such is the same with gender identity: if a child is consciously aware of identifying with a gender other than that assigned to them at birth (i.e. a natal female feels like a boy or a natal male feels like a girl), how much they express this will depend upon the level of distress it brings to them as well as their temperament. Some children will scream, “I am a _______!” and insist upon wearing what they want, being referred to as they want, etc. until everyone around them is quite clear of who they really are. Others, if told the way they feel or how they perform gender is wrong or unexpected, will quickly make modifications to please those around them. When considering persistency and consistency, this is typically in regards to cross-gender identification and gender expression. This may include way of dress, interests, how the child seems to categorize themselves (in play, roles, or how they relate to others), gender of friends, bathroom behavior, etc. If these things seem to be an expression of “cross-gender” identification, that may be a sign of having a gender identity that does not match one’s birth sex. However, the individual (a child, teen, or adult) may not be consciously aware of being transgender until much later. Transgender people become consciously aware of being so at various ages and stages; some seem to know since birth, others as children, others as soon as puberty hits, still others only in late teens or adulthood. I think this largely depends on how much the individual has been exposed to knowledge of variations of gender, family environment, how freely one is allowed to express self in regards to gender, defenses, suppression, the list goes on and on. Only once the individual is consciously aware of being transgender does transition become a factor.   From the child who insists on his or her true gender since the time they could speak to the adult who does not become consciously aware until much later, both are equally transgender; the age of conscious awareness was simply different. If the child is yet to be consciously aware that they have the brain gender identity of something other than their assigned birth sex, there is nothing to be insistent about. The point of my post? Don’t wait for your child to insist that he or she is transgender or needs to transition in order to open up the lines of communication. Ask a lot of questions about how your child is feeling. If you sense gender is a source of internal conflict or stress, make it known it is a topic that is welcomed in your home. Ask creative questions to find out how your child experiences his or her gender. Be honest about options that are available in regards to transitioning. (Doing so will not make your child transgender or “plant” ideas in their head. Transition is not an appealing option for non-transgender child.) If you still sense distress but they are not being open about their feelings, seek a consultation with a gender therapist trained in interviewing children. The benefits of early intervention (and transition if right for the child), are many. If you are transgender, looking back to yourself as a child: How consistently did you express a cross-gender identification? How long did this persist before you transitioned? Were you insistent about it?

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. ❤

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.