A friend recently asked me how parents of transgender children support them. She had recently had a conversation with someone else about parents who allow their children to transition at a young age. She said she struggled with whether parents should allow this. After sharing my thoughts with her, she realized these situations are a lot more involved than supportive parents simply making one decision. We both decided this should be the topic of a blog entry.
Let me state right off the bat, I am no expert on transgender children or being the parent of a transgender child. I can only give my perspective based on my own experiences and observations. I will also tell you that I’m not going to give you my opinion on whether a young child should receive hormone therapy or drugs to stop puberty. That said, here is my perspective, which may or may not be correct, accurate or right – whatever those loaded words mean in this set of circumstances.
When you think about it on the surface, it’s easy to imagine that a child one day tells their parent they’re the opposite gender, and the supportive parent immediately begins dressing them in opposite clothing and pumping their young bodies with hormones to change their gender. I don’t think it’s ever happened that way.
It’s nearly always confusing and traumatic for a parent, when their young child declares they are the gender that is opposite to that which they were assigned at birth. There are fears surrounding what to do, who to tell, what people will think about them and their child, and where to get help.
Some well-meaning parents battle it out with their kids, at least for a time, forcing them to present as the gender they were assigned at birth, often in hopes that it’s a phase. Some parents Google. Some talk to their pediatrician or religious leader. Nearly all try to find out information to help them understand and deal with their new struggle. I can only imagine it would be terrifying for a parent, to have their first exposure to the transgender world be their own child telling them they are a different gender.
The results of a study released late last year revealed only 16% of Americans say they know or work with a transgender person. Most parents could be forgiven for not knowing what the word means, much less how to deal with a transgender child. For you newbies, a person is transgender if they believe they are not the gender they were assigned at birth. I was assigned male at birth, but knew from a young age that I wasn’t.
Let me clarify. I knew from a young age that I wasn’t male. I also knew I wasn’t female, because I was told as much. I could plainly see that I wasn’t dressed like other girls, but I knew I wasn’t like other boys I saw. At 5-years-old, I didn’t have the language or understanding to communicate that I was transgender. I also knew that the people around me reinforced that I was a boy, so I fell into line. I was afraid to let anyone know I felt differently. As I grew older, the differences between male and female became increasingly evident and took on new meanings.
How I viewed gender was constantly changing because of my experiences and the people around me. I learned boys were supposedly stronger than girls and that boys weren’t supposed to cry. I learned that boys were supposed to play outside in the dirt with dump trucks and wanted to be police officers and firemen when they grew up. These were the answers I learned to give when asked. I learned that there was a clear line between masculine and feminine, and somehow I got the message that it wasn’t right to have any ambiguity. I resigned myself to live with a secret.
In talking with and learning about other transgender adults, it’s clear that most knew at a very young age they were different. Some knew without any doubt they were the opposite gender. Some were not as clear about who they were. As a child, I felt increasingly confused and afraid about why I felt differently. It’s common to hear from transgender people that they recognized they were different around 5-years-old. Some report knowing a little earlier or later. “Children as young as 2 can present with gender incongruence,” wrote Dr. Jack Dresser for the Washington Post. Jack Drescher is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, past president of the Group for Advancement of Psychiatry, a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, and a Past President of APA’s New York County Psychiatric Society.
So what’s a parent to do when their 3-year-old girl or boy declares they are the opposite gender? The advice from most psychologists and pediatricians is to support the child and not fight them. Most of the time, that simply means letting the child wear the clothes they want to wear and play with the toys they like. If the child is already in school, the choices become more difficult, but experts say the child should be supported and that parents should never tell a child they are wrong or try to correct opposite gender behavior.
Often, it’s not only the transgender child and their parents who have to navigate these waters for the first time. Sometimes it’s a first for the child’s school. More and more administrators are bringing in experts to help them decide how to proceed. Jay Maddock goes to schools to help administrators form plans of action for transgender students, other students and to train faculty. “You know, whenever you’re pushing for change, in an area of something that people don’t understand – sometimes the worst comes out in people when they’re afraid,” Maddock told Kate Wells of Michigan Radio.
Fear is a strong motivator. It drives people to do unspeakable things, or nothing at all. Fear drives our “fight or flight” instinct. We act and speak more quickly out of fear than from any other cause. Most often, we say and do things out of fear that we later regret. It’s certainly difficult to reserve judgement, hold back acting on something, or take the time to learn when we’re afraid.
But back to our original question – how should parents with young transgender children move forward? The answer is slowly. If the parent does seek out help from a medical or psychological professional, there is usually a lot of counseling in store for both parents and children. Parents often have time to learn before they form ideas on how to move forward in any permanent way with their transgender child. After the initial shock is over, the biggest worry is typically the public. People, both other children and adults, can be pretty mean when they are uneducated.
After my story published on CNN last week, one mother wrote to thank me for the piece. She told me her transgender child recently came out. “I’m amazed at the support especially from unlikely people and disappointed in the lack thereof from expected people,” she wrote.
Education is the biggest hurdle, for everyone involved. Education is also the biggest hurdle for everyone not involved. Lately, a lot of public policy has been put into action without education. Lawmakers have been acting on what they think they know. People have a way of seeking out information that agrees with what they already think they know, but sometimes people do take the time and effort to learn. A wise person once told me that people don’t change their minds. They make new decisions based on new information.
Hopefully more people like South Dakota’s Governor Dennis Daugaard will leave themselves open to new information. When first asked about then-pending legislation that would have forced transgender school children into bathrooms based on the gender they were assigned at birth, he said it sounded good to him. When the bill was passed, Daugaard initially declared he would not meet with any transgender individuals before making his decision on whether to sign the legislation into law. After a great public outcry and a whole lot of media attention, he agreed to meet with some transgender people. Afterwards, he vetoed the legislation. All it took was him leaving himself open to new information.
Again, I digress. I have a bad habit of that. Parents who eventually allow their transgender child to medically transition, do so after a lot of time and preparation. Puberty-blocking drugs are not typically introduced until age 10 for female-bodied children and 11 for male-bodied children. I do not know of a child who has undergone medical transition before this age. I’m not saying they doesn’t exist, but I don’t know of a case.
That means that nothing irreversible happens until age 10 or 11, except when parents choose so-called conversion or reparative therapy, which has led to long-lasting psychological damage and even suicide. Given the anecdotal evidence that transgender children who declare they are an opposite gender, do so at an early age, we can safely assume that many parents have time to learn and adapt before a child is given hormone-altering drugs. That hardly seems rash to me. God bless the parents who have these decisions to make. God bless the parents who face ridicule from others for allowing their children to medically transition. God bless the supportive parents of transgender children.