“Blank Slate” Parenting

A big part of what I do is helping individuals explore their gender, assert their true gender identity, and help family members adjust to transitions that occur. In addition to this, I’m a big believer in changing our society’s understanding of gender so that we can pave an easier path for LGBT youth (and adults, for that matter!). In my presentations, I talk about Blank Slate Parenting as a way to point out parents really don’t know the gender and sexual orientation of their child until the child/teen is able to share it with them.  I also included this concept in my book, The Conscious Parent’s Guide to Gender IdentityHere is the excerpt:

“Blank slate” parenting is the ability for a parent to enter into parenthood without too many assumptions and expectations. This may sound difficult, but it is possible. Most parents enter into parenthood with some basic assumptions: their child is going to be cisgender (their gender identity “matches” their birth sex), gender conforming (their interests and expressions are in line with what most expect from their birth gender), and heterosexual. Considering that many children are not these things, these assumptions may be inaccurate and possibly detrimental for both the parent and the child. Unless a parent is having an intersex baby, the parent will likely find out they are having a natal male or a natal female, either during the pregnancy or when the baby is born. Once this is revealed, all sorts of associations are created! If the child is a natal male (born with male anatomy), the parents will likely assume the child will always identify as a boy and will engage in the “typical” interests and affinities of most boys. If the child is a natal female (born with female anatomy), the parents will assume that she will always identify as a girl and will engage in the “typical” interests and affinities of what society expects girls to be interested in. If the child is a natal female, parents often assume they will one day be interested in males. If the child is a natal male, parents often assume they will one day be interested in females.

Even if these assumptions are not explicitly stated, they will implicitly become the foundation of what your child understands is expected of them. Children have an inherent need to please their parents, so feeling “other than” what their parents expect can range from uncomfortable to downright scary. Anything other than what has been envisioned and assumed results in the parents needing to make a “shift” in what they had expected. The nature of the shift will depend on how tied the parents are to their expectations, and what this difference means to them personally, socially, and culturally.

What if, instead of adopting these basic assumptions, parents remained open to who or what their child is or will become? What if parents provided a blank canvas for their child to paint, rather than providing a paint-by-numbers template? What if society evolved to the extent that people understood the difference between sex and gender, and the knowledge that some people are simply born transgender? Imagine how much easier it would be if parents understood not to get too attached to the sex of their child at birth! What if parents learned to ask “Do you feel like a boy or a girl? Both? Or neither?” instead of telling the child who they are based on anatomy?

What if society at large acknowledged being gay/lesbian/bisexual as a natural way to be, a way of being that is just as valid and recognized as heterosexual? What if parents learned to say, “Do you like boys or girls? Both? Or neither?” instead of making assumptions of a heteronormative nature?

Parenting from a blank slate standpoint would essentially eliminate the “coming out” process. Children would be able to evolve and share as their identities developed. They would not have to hide parts of who they are for fear they might be disappointing their parents. They would not have to overcome the expectations/assumptions that were placed on them at birth. They would simply be their authentic selves, and parents would know these selves sooner rather than later.

Rather than making assumptions, ask questions, often and early, to help learn who your child is. The questions will serve two purposes: you will learn about your child, and your child will learn that there is a beautiful spectrum of human diversity, not just boxes in which one has to fit. In order to provide a blank slate for your child so that they can be free to display their authentic self, you must be mindful of your own projections and assumptions. Such things impede the ability of your child have an actual blank slate on which to create. Recognize your child is their own individual being, and that you are lucky to witness their true self unfold. Remain curious about how this little individual will turn out. Your message to your child, both implicitly and explicitly should always be: “Any way you are is OK.”

More tips for “blank slate” parenting:

  • Instead of assuming and then waiting for them to correct you, ask about who your child is.
  • Expose them to and talk about diversity: different family structures, identities, and communities.
  • Be aware of language. Avoid using the gender dichotomy like “boys and girls”. Try not to use strongly gendered language to refer to your child and others. Incorporate many gender-neutral phrases and expressions to allow more space for your child to decide how they relate to gender.

Excerpted from The Conscious Parent’s Guide to Gender Identity: A Mindful Approach to Embracing Your Child’s Authentic Self by Darlene Tando. Copyright © 2016 F+W Media, Inc.  Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved

This excerpt was also recently featured on the Mother.ly website here

Published in: on September 2, 2016 at 2:32 pm  Comments (10)  

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.

Shake It Off Video Montage

I had a lot of fun creating a music video montage to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” song. My goal of this video is to raise awareness and acceptance of transgender youth and adults. Being transgender is NOT a mental illness, it is just a variation of the human condition. We need more understanding and more allies!! Those who are transgender should not live in shame or in fear of coming out. And for those who face adversity every day, here is my reminder to try your best to “shake it off”. For any one person who is against you, there are more people who will stand for you.

A sincere thanks to everyone who contributed videos for this project, and to my sister Emily who sang the modified lyrics.

Enjoy the video below, and feel free to share! 🙂

CLICK HERE TO WATCH “SHAKE IT OFF” VIDEO
Published in: on April 12, 2015 at 1:42 pm  Comments (13)  

How This All Began

I regularly get asked how I got into the gender work I do. Here’s how it all went down:

In early 2006 I was establishing my private practice while I was still working at the Naval Medical Center San Diego. As a way of getting new clients, I advertised on Craigslist. I was a little leery of doing this, for fear it would attract people not exactly looking for therapy. True, I got a couple of off-color inquiries, but thankfully these were easy to screen as not legitimate. Since I had never before worked with gender nonconforming clients, my ad said nothing about that. Here is a snippet from that ad:

“Although I specialize in working with children, I also work with adult individuals and couples. I find that my warm and empathetic approach that works so well with children also helps to create a safe, therapeutic environment for adults which promotes progress in therapy.”

Perhaps it was the way the ad was phrased that made someone struggling with their true identity reach out to me?

“Hello, I was wondering if you offer any type of therapy that deals with gender reassignment[…] If you don’t, and happen to know of someone please send me their name. Thanks.”

Unfortunately, I don’t have the response I wrote back to him, but this is the return email:

“Darlene,

Thank you so much for responding to my message. You are right it was a hard step as it will be the first talking contact for me. I appreciate your honesty in telling me that you have not worked with any transgendered [sic] patients. Doesn’t bother me one bit. In all honesty, I feel like I know where I am at as far as how I feel about the situation. Where I am having my biggest doubts and fears are when it comes to telling my family and friends about my issue/feelings. The fear of their reactions is kind of holding me back. […] For some reason I feel like we can work together, and you can help me a lot. […] I have a few other questions regarding my letter for T, and top surgery, but I’m sure we can discuss these at a later time. Which name would you like? My birth name or what I plan (at this moment) to go by? Thank you.”

I don’t have my response but I do know it included this question: “What is T?”. This always makes me smile thinking back to it. “T”, referencing Testosterone, is now a standard (almost daily!) part of my vocabulary. I also know that even though I hadn’t been “trained” yet in gender therapy, I knew to of course ask for his preferred name. That is the name I have called him ever since, and have never once called him his birth name. There are SO many things I had to learn after I started working with him and soon thereafter many more transgender individuals. However, the concept of being transgender never confused or fascinated me. It just seemed so simple, pursuing alignment to match one’s gender identity. As I’ve said before, some people “get it and some people don’t. I got it.

Our first session focused on a psychosocial assessment and discussing his goals for gender transition. He needed to educate me about some things, but I also made it clear I would be doing research and pursuing my own education about this. I knew that just because he was my first transgender client it wasn’t his job to teach me everything I needed to know in order to give him the best care. He left me with his copy of “Testosterone Files” by Max Valerio which I promptly read. After all the books I’ve read on this topic, I’m always glad that was my first. I felt it was a very informative and well-written account of someone transitioning from female to male.

Here is part of the email I received after our first session:

“Hey Darlene,

I just wanted to say thank you for taking time out to talk with me today. I admit I was really nervous before we started, but I ended up more comfortable than I thought I was going to be. I also want you to know that you are very easy to talk to, and I believe you are going to be able to help me figure out what I need to do. I actually left your place with a feeling of relief for the first time. Somehow I feel as if things are going to be all right eventually for me. Thanks. Looking forward to our next session!”

This client was traveling quite a way to see me, which was my first clue there were not a plethora of other therapists working with this population. He connected me with his case manager from the former S.T.A.R. program, “Supporting Transgender Access to Resources”. The care manager reiterated the lack of therapists for this community and was soon sending me MANY more transgender clients. I did my best to get equipped for the details of my newfound duties; writing letters for hormone treatment and surgery, helping clients access resources, assisting them in the coming out and transitioning process. I read books, attended conferences, and attended monthly FTMI (Female to Male International) meetings at the LGBT Center here in San Diego. Soon I was leading a weekly support group for FTM individuals in addition to the clients I was seeing one-on-one. I am so grateful to all the people and clients I interacted with during that time; I learned so much from them and became more committed to and invested in my work than ever.

At first my gender therapy was only with adult clients. Soon, my name was “out there” and I began seeing gender nonconforming and transgender children. Since my specialty had always been working with children and my newfound specialty was gender therapy, this was a beautiful and serendipitous melding of the two.

When I first found out about the substantial lack of gender therapists in San Diego, I didn’t understand why. Why weren’t there more if the need was so high? Was there something I was missing? Was I looking at this too simply, that these people coming to me knew their true gender and just needed some help getting there? Over 8 years later, I can answer: no, I wasn’t missing anything. This work truly is that cut and dry; the clients are the experts on their own gender identity. I am just here to help and support them along the journey.

My first client has told me many times how I “changed his life”, but I can honestly say he changed mine in much the same way. He gave me a specialty that I am deeply passionate about; I am absolutely inspired and energized by my work. In an amazing “parallel universe” kind of way, entering into this particular niche has helped someone very significant to me discover their true gender identity and therefore transition. Because of this, gender transition is a part of both my professional and personal life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

To my “OG” client: THANK YOU. Thank you for giving me a chance. For trusting me with such a huge undertaking in your life even though I had no “experience”. Thank you for blessing me with this amazing work I get to do. And, thank you for letting me share part of your emails here.  🙂

Published in: on August 19, 2014 at 7:04 pm  Comments (2)  
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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.

Reactions of Others Part 4: F-f-f-fear

Although I’m sure I’ll blog plenty more about coming out and coping with responses, this is the final installment in my recent four-part series “Reactions of Others”. In this blog I’m addressing the F word: Fear. Fear is often a huge component in the reactions of others. In fact, I’d be as bold to guess that when a transgender individual reveals his or her true gender identity and/or plans to transition, there are suddenly three participants in that conversation: the transgender individual, the loved one, and Fear. Of course, how much fear is present depends upon the nature of the relationship between the two people, how long they have known each other, and the world view of the loved one.

Any type of change can trigger the fear reaction. Many people prefer things to remain just as they are; familiar, stable, predictable. Change that is unexpected and unwelcome can signal something that is out of one’s control. I know many family members and friends feel out of control and powerless regarding this issue. Powerless to change it, powerless to fix it, sometimes powerless to understand.  Ultimately, many loved ones realize it is the decision of the transgender person to act on the transition even if they themselves don’t understand or want it. Many loved ones fear they are “losing” someone they love very much, and may not recognize the person they become. Many fear the one they care about will regret such a significant, life-altering decision. Most, at some point, worry about the safety of their transgender loved one.

In addition to these specific fears, having a close friend or family member come out as transgender questions the gender binary. Those who could previously organize gender into two neat little boxes can be thrown by the concept that gender can be fluid and dynamic. It can cause people to question core beliefs; something they always thought they understood. As you probably know, challenging core beliefs makes people uncomfortable. The less the person understands, the more fear will be present to take the place of knowledge and comprehension. Fear of the unknown is often NOT simply fear of the unknown, it’s a fear of the “what if”, or the “fill in the blank”. The ideas and worst-case scenarios people create cause more fear than simply not knowing.

Fear can whisper; fear can shout. Fear may be ever-present in the journey your loved ones take to acceptance, or it just may rear its ugly head every now and again. My hope is that when it does, recognize it for what it is. See the fear which may be disguised as anger, and masked in a lashing out you don’t deserve. Understand and expect the fear, as fear was likely a part of YOUR journey, too. Let your loved one know you’re in this together, the two of you. Eventually fear can be on its way.

Published in: on January 25, 2012 at 7:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Pride Parade 2011: Marching with the “T”

 

 

I had the honor of marching with the transgender contingent in the San Diego Pride Parade on Saturday. This was my second time marching, the last time being 3 years ago. In 2008, some clients of mine were marching, and I knew others from the FTMI meetings I attended. This year, I didn’t know anyone marching ahead of time and I wasn’t sure what reception I would get when I introduced myself.  Trying to find the group, I walked past the bold, bright floats of the other contingents; loud music, dancers, bubbles, and of course, a lot of rainbows. When I got to spot #119, I almost walked past it. There were about 6 people; 3 sitting on a curb, 3 standing up. I couldn’t believe it. I thought, “This is it?” I shouldn’t have worried about the reception I was going to get; when I introduced myself as an ally and said I was there to march, those in the group were welcoming. Most of them commented on and liked my sign: “Celebrating Trans Bravery”.

 

As the time to march grew closer, more people gathered. One trans man who was slated to march with Canvass For a Cause (a very trans-friendly employer, I hear!) opted to march with the transgender contingent. When his co-worker walked by and asked why he wasn’t marching with them, he said “the numbers were kind of low in this one so I’m going to march here instead.” I was impressed.

 

I felt honored to march with these people; heroes in my book. To march and be recognized as transgender is a brave thing to do, especially considering (at best) the lack of knowledge about this group and at worst, the stigma.  Those who march are doing important work. As one sign said, they are sending the message: We Walk Among You. Without those daring to walk, the transgender community would be even more invisible than it already is.

 

One of my former clients jumped in near the beginning of the march and I felt a surge of pride walking beside him. It’s quite amazing to know his journey from pre- to post- transition and to see the man he has become.

 

At its highest, the number of people in our group numbered around 17. No music blaring, no bubbles blowing, no beads being thrown. Just 17 people with a banner, some signs, and some flags. Pretty amazing considering this parade is for the LGBT community; THOUSANDS of people marching to represent the letters LGB and 17 to represent the T?!

 

I’m sure there were plenty of transgender people marching with other contingents, for other causes.  I just couldn’t help but think of how important it would be to have a large, vibrant group to represent this under-acknowledged part of the LGBT community.

 

Of course, I would love to do a “call to march”; enlist my clients to walk with the group next year, explain the importance, coerce if necessary! But I wouldn’t do that.  I understand why most people opt not to march. It’s a private issue, and one that most people don’t care to broadcast. I understand when those who transition would rather move on than stay to be the poster children of the trans community. There is no judgment on this issue from me, and I respect each and every decision made about whether or not to march, or to be stealth. Those who have transitioned and are now stealth are also heroes to me; they have undergone a more challenging process that most will ever know.

 

Somehow we need to figure out how to get the numbers up; to make the transgender contingent better represented. Perhaps more friends, family members, and allies need to be stepping up to celebrate and normalize this group of heroes.

 

My client remarked to me that when he first started marching with the group several years ago, the group would get “crickets”.  Why is that? Is it because even in their own community, they are misunderstood? Does the crowd not know where this group fits in? Or are they picking up on the energy of the group? The mood of the group when marching can admittedly be hesitant at times.  This year, when those of us in the group marching would cheer, or wave, the reception was positive.  Gone are the crickets! Later my client said he noticed an improvement in the response of the crowd each year he’s marched.

 

A big reason why I march is because I want to say to everyone who will listen: “It’s ok to be transgender.” In fact, not only is it ok, but transgender people deserve a lot of admiration and respect for the process they have to go through to be true to themselves. So, because I can’t sit down with each person in San Diego and explain this, I cheered, I held my sign as high as I could get it, I waved, I smiled, and I looked at as many people in the crowd as I could.  I hope they heard my message.

Published in: on July 18, 2011 at 9:29 pm  Comments (1)  
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