Because I am a parent myself, I have spent much of my time over the past six years advocating for parents and caregivers of transgender and gender-diverse youth. However, as I continue meeting people and doing training for different groups, I have heard a similar refrain from educators: Teachers and school staff also have to learn about gender diversity and how to affirm their students.
So, I reached out to an experienced and compassionate former schoolteacher and principal to get her perspective on what it’s like to have a child transitioning at school.
Learning What’s Involved in Transition
I sat down with Elizabeth Bennett, a recently retired educator with 35 years of experience and author of the book Courageous Conversations: a guide for parents to understand and connect with their teen. She shared the story with me of her first experience with a gender-diverse student. It was several years ago, and at the time, the family had to guide the school on how to affirm the child and what changes were needed in the classroom.
This was also my experience when Mitchell first came out as transgender in 2016. I wrote about the harrowing experience in an article for LGBTQ Nation, but essentially the school had pathologized and othered Mitchell because they didn’t understand what gender diversity meant. So today, when I do training for school boards and other businesses and organizations, I start with a clear explanation of how gender develops in children and that it is very different from sexual and romantic attraction.
Seeing the Person Instead of the Policy
Elizabeth shared with me that she made a concerted effort while leading her staff to focus on making their school a safer place and to be welcoming and inclusive. Understandably, any organization with a governing body must live and operate within a policy structure. But it is so important to be sensitive to the vulnerable children affected by those policies.
Another school principal once shared with me that it was more often closed-minded parents who took exception to the affirming actions the school had taken for transgender and gender-diverse students. But, for the most part, fellow students had no issues. When making decisions in schools, we need administrators to think first about the child and not the rigid or uninformed opinions of adults.
Gender Inclusive Language
Learning to say “everyone” or “friends” instead of “boys and girls” was a tricky one at first for Elizabeth. Schools are often set up for gender segregation, from pink and blue cubbies to gym classes. Further, teachers in middle and high school can attest to the difficulties of using chosen names and different pronouns with the students in class but then having to switch to the old name and pronouns when talking with parents as requested by the child if they haven’t come out to their parents yet.
While it can be challenging to learn new ways to address students, again, these kids are on an often difficult journey, and we adults with our fully developed pre-frontal lobes get to do the heavy emotional labour.
Being a Proactive School
Elizabeth’s final advice was that it is so important for schools to learn about gender diversity and how to accommodate transgender students early on. You don’t want to be constantly in a reactive, knee-jerk state. It’s imperative to be purposeful in our actions and conversations.
If you feel that your school, school board, or organization that interacts with children and their families could use more training on what transgender means and how you can accommodate and affirm gender-diverse youth, please reach out to find out how I can help.
Almost two years ago, my youngest child asked to have the robot wallpaper in their bedroom removed, and the walls painted pink. That request was followed up quickly with the reassurance, “I’m just a boy who likes pink.” My child then proceeded to grow long hair and wear nail polish to school for another year. Finally, my youngest child asked for skirts and tights as a birthday present this past April. We sat in that tastefully decorated pink room a month later and had the most honest and authentic conversation in 15 years.
“Mom, I’m transgender.”
I wasn’t surprised, but I was still shocked. A cold tingle pricked at my cheeks while I took a split second to give myself a pep talk mentally. Okay, Tammy, you wrote the book on this. So what’s the first thing you’re supposed to do and say here?
“I love you. I support you. What do you need from me?”
My fourth and youngest child is a transgender 15-year-old girl who was assigned male at birth. Her chosen name is Rose. To know her and her love of flowers is to know that it is the most fitting name a person has ever worn.
I may have written the essential guide for parents of trans children, but I still needed support upon learning that I was about to embark on the road I had just travelled with my trans son. So, my first call was to my dear friend Kiersten, the co-leader of Parenting with Pride and a trans woman. She reminded me of all the things we both say to parents when they come to our support group—most importantly, to let Rose drive the bus. Allowing Mitchell to take the lead terrified me because I didn’t know the road we were travelling on. It wasn’t any easier this time because I knew where the road led. I still had to wait and allow Rose to make all the right choices for her.
The question I saw behind everyone’s eyes
Could Rose be saying she’s transgender because of all the attention Mitchell received for being trans? For most people, that question hung in the silence between our telling them our youngest child now uses a new name and their range of replies from “okay” to “great!” But some friends were close enough and comfortable enough to come out and ask the question point blank.
For those who really know Rose, the last thing you would assume of her is to want any form of attention. But knowing her can be a difficult feat in and of itself because she is so reserved. Rose is also not swayed by anyone’s suggestions or current trends. She marches to the beat of her own drum and is quite happy to be the only one in the band.
The Pain and Pleasure Theory
I’ve studied humans a lot in my careers as a registered nurse, as a life coach, and in university psych courses. We are all hardwired for survival, and that includes avoiding pain—physical pain and the social pain of not belonging. If avoiding pain is such a deep-seated survival instinct for humans, why on earth would anyone pretend to be a trans woman for attention?
By Rose standing in her truth, she is completely aware that she is giving up the privilege of a white man to be targeted by misogyny. She’s already received cat calls. She’s very aware of transphobia because while we choose to show the positives of Mitchell’s transition, there have been negatives over the years. Rose’s requests for affirming her gender identity were for hormones and surgery, which include a plethora of pain from blood tests and injections to later undergoing elective surgical procedures. What person moves towards that sort of pain only to get their family’s attention?
I readily believe that my child is transgender because I have seen the beauty on the faces of affirmed gender-diverse people for six years now. While I am not trans and will never experience gender dysphoria, I have witnessed it enough not to wish it on anyone for a second longer than it needs to exist. I believe we all have bodily autonomy and would all benefit from a prolonged internal exploration of who we truly are. When someone tells me they’ve done that exploration, I will always celebrate them.
Welcome to the world, Rose!
While the Staples commercials like to tote this as “The Most Wonderful Time of The Year,” and I know many parents who look forward to the return of routines for their forever bored and hungry summer kids, there are some caregivers and transgender kids for whom back-to-school means back to anxiety of being judged, outed, or bullied for using a new pronoun.
When my children were little, there was a phrase I repeated almost every summer, “The bumble bee is much more afraid of you than you are of it.” That thought comes back to me now as I consider the many conversations I’ve had with teachers recently. School staff try so hard to learn the new pronouns of their students and then worry about messing things up in front of a parent who might not know.
I say this because, in 2022, schools are much more open about using new pronouns for students than they were five years ago. Of course, this isn’t a given for every school in Canada (certainly not every school in the United States), but it is a turning tide. If your gender-diverse child is returning to school this year with a new name and pronoun as a result of a social transition, here are some of the solutions that worked for us.
Be an Advocate
It took a while for this lesson to sink in for me because I never wanted to be “that” mom who was forever in the office demanding things for my child. Alas, if this journey of gender identity has taught me anything, it’s that things are not always black and white, boy and girl. You can be an advocate for your child without being mean and disrespectful. You can be clear and affirmative. You can also be diplomatic and patient, all while holding your child’s safety and mental wellness as your goal. If you are looking for resources on your child’s rights in school as a gender-diverse person, here are some helpful links for Canada and the United States.
Come Out on Your Terms
Your child may be perfectly comfortable telling strangers, teachers, and classmates, “My name was Emily and now it’s Connor,” and some children desperately want to hide any evidence of their previous gender label. Obviously, some school staff will need to know your child is transgender for emergency health reasons and for administrative purposes. But from there, you get to choose how much the other parents or students need to know. My son chose to be known only as a boy at his new school for a few months, and then when he was ready to come out, the school arranged for some training for everyone to understand what being transgender meant so that a 12-year-old boy didn’t have to answer a bunch of questions. It all went extremely smoothly.
This was also a very difficult decision for our family. We did not want to teach our children to run away from their problems, and we had already moved across the country, which also caused a change in schools. But environmental factors have a huge impact on humans thriving, and I just did not want to risk my child’s mental health with the time it was going to take to change a school’s culture and tolerance. While most schools say they have a zero tolerance for bullying, I can’t tell you how many stories I have heard of children being told to ignore abuse or to toughen up. If that is the school’s response, I don’t feel that my child’s welfare is taken seriously. This is clearly not needed in every situation, and I understand this is not an easy decision when there are siblings and transportation to consider as well. But I have to say that changing schools was the best thing we could have done for my son, and he would be the first one to tell you so.
This is a long journey with many bumps in the road, and I would not have survived these stressful decisions without the support of other caregivers who have walked this path and the support of the counsellors who have worked extensively in this field. I continue to co-lead a peer support group over Zoom once a month called Parenting with Pride which is a great place to not feel alone on this journey. There is also a fantastic support community for parents raising trans youth led by Dr. Shawn Giammattei called the TransFamily Alliance.
Wishing you the best back-to-school season possible and may you be empowered and supported in your decisions for your child, and may they feel safe and supported as well. If you haven’t already, I invite you to join my email list for parents of trans children here.
While I’ve been on a few local news segments in the past, mainly for my advocacy work, I had no idea what appearing on an American syndicated talk show sharing our family’s story would look like—especially during a pandemic. Here’s my behind-the-scenes perspective and some of what I learned.
First, the invitation
It came in an email with the subject line: The Doctors TV CBS – Appearance Inquiry. I was being approached as an “expert on how LGBT children identify.” My first reaction was to google the person’s name to make sure they were a legitimate person who indeed worked as an associate producer for the show. Once that was established, I proceeded to freak out! I let my hubby and kids know about the invitation and wanted to clear with everyone—again—that my being a public figure on this topic was okay. In Mitchell’s wise words, “Mom, the book is already written. We’re public. Go for it.” I will never not check in with my family as this is as much their journey as it is mine—I just happen to be a writer and comfortable with public speaking.
My Own Segment
One of my first questions to the producer was to ask where they’d heard of me. This is so important because it was before I had started any real promotion for my book besides my social media accounts. They found me through the article I wrote for Today’s Parent in 2019. I might sound like a broken record to my clients, but mainstream articles are a great way to build clout as a writer. Once I had some back and forth with the producer and a date and time were selected, I asked about the possibility of mentioning my book Beyond Pronouns. Of course, the associate producer had to take it forward to the higher-ups. When he called to say yes, and they’d decided to give me my very own segment, I was over the moon.
Taping a television show during the pandemic looks like testing your internet speed, setting up ring lights, a trip to the hairdressers, doing your own makeup, kicking everyone out of the house, kenneling the dog, and turning off phone ringers. And a whole lot of waiting. The taping got pushed off by an hour or so, and then I was in a Zoom breakout room for a bit as I met with some of the crew. Then finally, I was in the big Zoom room with several producers and camera angles, the doctor hosts and the doctor guests. My solo segment was to come at the end, but I was able to watch the first few segments while they happened.
I seriously thought of walking away
In an effort to show both sides of the argument, the show had Dr. Marci Bowers debating a neuroscientist turned political commentator and a psychologist. I will not share their names as I don’t feel their misinformed opinions from cherry-picked studies need any more oxygen. If you watch the episode, you will see the rude and insulting crosstalk in the first few segments. I was so grateful to be off-camera because my gaping mouth could not have been very flattering. I started to question if I was on Jerry Springer! I then wondered if this was the place to share our family’s story. But I remembered why I do this in the first place—to show the humanity behind a letter on an acronym. I might only get these 15 minutes to change the heart of a parent of a transgender child. It was time to shine and make the best of the opportunity. 3-2-1 clap!
We recorded the show on February 17, 2022, and the producer said the show would run in about a month. After a few weeks, I set my PVR and checked their website for the next week’s episodes daily. A second month went by, and still nothing. I started to worry that the excessive arguing turned them off of the episode and they chose not to run it. I’d heard enough about cutting room floors and screenplays purchased and never produced not to assume the episode was guaranteed to air. Then, finally, the email came to say the show would air on Monday, May 9! Is May Sweeps still a thing?
With pandemic precautions still at the forefront of many people’s minds, having my family living across the country and not all my friends subscribing to cable television, I decided to host a viewing party over Zoom so that I wouldn’t have to watch the episode alone. I think I was just as nervous watching it as I was taping it. I had no idea how the editing affected my message or how the first half would be received. Everyone on the Zoom call was so supportive, and I was so grateful to have my community with me. The best part was hearing the Power Prescription segment. They recorded that segment after I left the taping, and I didn’t know that my story had so impacted The Doctors. It brought tears to my eyes.
In the end, it was all worth it. If only one family somewhere in a mid-western town can hear our story and relate and find the help they need to affirm their trans child, it is always worth it. Obviously, as an author and writing coach, I also see the enormous value of getting the word out to build my platform and sell more books. So I am keeping good notes on all these lessons to share them with my clients!
Let me let you in on a little secret. Writing Beyond Pronouns wasn’t nearly as hard as deciding to write it, deciding to sign a publishing contract, and deciding to promote it. Ask any close friend, my coaches (yes, more than one) and my therapists (also more than one) how much I waffled in my decision and feared a public backlash. Ironically, I never feared transphobic haters, but more the transgender community and other fellow parents of trans kids. So, I wasn’t at all surprised when I was called out this week. The more I learn about society and diversity, the more obvious it becomes that I am not coming out of this experience without a few emotional bruises.
How it happened
At the beginning of March, my wonderful publicist nominated me to be highlighted on an Instagram account that celebrates a different local woman every day and then gives them a shoutout on the radio. A few weeks later, the page owner reached out to me asking if I accept the nomination and to please send some pictures and a write-up, which I did. The message went unread for several days, only to have her let me know on March 31st that even though they’d already posted a woman that morning, she’d like to highlight me that afternoon in recognition of Transgender Day of Visibility. I immediately had a sick feeling in my gut. And not because I was an add-on or I wasn’t going to be spoken about on the radio. I immediately texted a friend and said, “watch me eat shit for not being a transgender person getting attention on TDOV.” And sure enough, someone wrote a vaguebook post within two days: “Saw a lot of Cis folx get celebrated and speak on the Trans Day of Visibility…”
My response was pretty direct. “I know I was celebrated as an ally, and not by my own design for it to happen on that day either. I would never willingly take the place of a transgender person. But as an ally 24/7/365, I will take every opportunity to highlight the need to support parents so that trans children get supported because it saves lives. In the end, we all want the same thing, equity, human rights, safety and happiness for the trans community.” It was clear from the response that followed that this person knew exactly what I was referring to and that their initial comment was partly about me.
Being an Ally
There have been questions that have plagued me since I chose to be an ally and use my voice for my son and the wider transgender community. How do people want me to show up as an ally? And the subtext to that question has always been: How do any of us make a statement or take a stand without being railroaded by people on the same side of the issue? In the end, it is me, my name and image getting called out with the potential of being “cancelled.” And for what? Some ally purity test for myself and the person who highlighted me? All this to create a standard of perfection to which no ally can ever measure up.
Perfectionism is a misogynistic, colonial, white supremacy expectation. There is nothing perfect when it comes to diversity; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Diversity is a beautiful mess of unexpectedness and variety. It’s not about getting everything right, right away. I hear from so many potential allies that they avoid topics of diversity for fear of being wrong. “If I can’t say something right then I won’t say anything at all.” But when we create a world where people can’t mess up and learn from their mistakes how will anyone learn anything about diversity. Case in point, I once shared a post using the language “our indigenous people,” and a wonderful friend privately corrected my possessive language. There are always ways to improve our vocabulary and learn how to be more accommodating, accepting, and empowering to diverse populations in our ever-changing world. I suggest that we do this by calling people in with gentle lessons instead of calling them out and shaming them publicly.
Instead of calling out my cis privilege, maybe the trans community can use it for good? I have tremendous privilege as a middle-class, able-bodied, educated, cisgender, hetero-presenting, white woman. I aim to use my privilege to elevate the voices of others every day. Helpers, advocates, and allies who have privilege can use it to lessen the exhausting emotional load that transgender people carry when having to educate others while advocating for their personal power and rights. Just this past month, one of the calls to action at a workshop on overcoming anti-trans discourse in Canada was for parents of trans children to do some of the heavy lifting of advocating for transgender people. Despite the cost of vulnerability to public attacks and comments about my fitness as a parent and threats to having my children removed for supporting my son’s transition, I am answering that call.
In the end, I know my place. I am not a trans person, and I never speak from the transgender perspective. I speak from the parent’s perspective and share my child’s experience with my child’s permission. I know that the work I do and the words I share are helping many families, which is what is most important.
If you haven’t already, please sign-up for my newsletter here to stay up to date on all my announcements about my upcoming book Beyond Pronouns: The Essential Guide for Parents of Trans Children.