I have four children. If I have learned anything from raising all of them, it’s that there is very little I can control in their lives. Of course, I try to instill my values–a sense of civic duty, service to others, being kind. But the reality is that they are their own human beings. They gravitate towards certain hobbies and music, they become friends with people they get along with, and fall in love with who they fall in love with. I would be deluding myself if I thought I could control any part of that.
But when my son came out as transgender, I wanted control. I wanted to prevent the pain of others judging him. I wanted to protect him from bullying. I wanted to avoid complications of a lifetime of medications and surgeries. It wasn’t because I didn’t love him. I absolutely love my child. But when faced with uncertainty, like many trauma survivors, I cling to control.
Is that something you can identify with? Wanting to control your environment and outcomes? Striving for the image of perfection?
Getting Curious with our Trans Kids
What my child needed from me was curiosity. He needed me to listen to his thoughts and feelings. I needed to ask open-ended questions and dance with all the options and possibilities. Instead of jumping down the rabbit hole of all the medical and psychological interventions and outcomes, all I needed to do was ask my child these questions:
- “What pronouns would you like me to use?”
- “What are the first few steps we need to take as a family?”
- “Who if anyone would you like us to tell?”
- Most importantly, “What can I do to support you in feeling completely yourself?”
The world is a much different and much more colorful place when we approach it from the space of curiosity instead of control. Because, in the end, what we can control is actually much less than we imagine, but we can control our response. I suggest you respond with curiosity.
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“It’s too late for the doctor to see you now. She has another meeting to go to. But we do feel bad that you came all this way.” The nurse said in her gentle tone carrying the slightest hint of accusation for being late. Or maybe I just imagined it. “We were going to discuss starting Testosterone for Mitchell. That is what you want isn’t it, Mitchell?”
“Yes!” He replied and lit up with the biggest smile possible.
“Your therapist made a very strong case for you and your level of maturity.” The nurse continued to explain that she scheduled a new date and time to meet with the doctor and immediately after she would go through the injection training with us. She gave us a pile of reading material with a consent form to study over the next three weeks.
Mitchell’s feet barely touched the ground in the parking garage on our way back to the car. I felt like I was trudging through molasses. I had a smile on my face, I said all the right encouraging words, but deep down inside I carried the weight of responsibility. I was about to consent to permanently altering my child’s body.
The Truth of our Children
Mitchell was assigned female at birth. The third of my four children. From the birth of all my children, I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility for their happiness and wellbeing. I’m sure all mothers do as well. After turning ten, my third child’s happiness was difficult to achieve. Anxiety, social awkwardness, isolation, and depression loomed large for years. I did everything you could imagine to alleviate my child’s pain. I consulted every specialist and sat through hours of psychological testing yet nothing emerged. No diagnosis. No magic pill. My child was just deeply unhappy. As a mother, I felt like I failed.
And then Mitchell finally came forward with his truth.
When he told us he was transgender, and that becoming a boy on the outside to match his identity on the inside would make him happy, I booked another therapist appointment. Ashamedly, I didn’t want that to be the answer. Society at large was not nice to transgender people. There had been states trying to pass laws around what restrooms a transgender person could use. This was not a magic pill solution. This was not something I can kiss and make better.
Because he was insistent, consistent, and persistent, our whole family chose to be affirming. We changed his name and pronouns, his wardrobe, and his room from pink to blue. But his body dysmorphia remained. It was time to involve the medical professionals who started him on hormone blockers. The blockers helped immensely and gave us a few years with our happy sunny child. But for the last six months before starting testosterone, the clouds of body dysmorphia gathered over Mitchell while he watched all the other boys in his class have their voices drop and bodies change. He started to need much more frequent therapy sessions to cope with feelings of hopelessness which precipitated the decision to start cross hormones.
Responsibility and Agency
A friend of mine once told me that when she discussed our family with her brother, he said that I should be in jail for child abuse for allowing my son to transition. I had read similar comments on social media, but it bore an extra sting to hear it from the mouth of someone I knew. Until the nurse made the appointment to start testosterone, Mitchell’s whole transition was reversible. Once you stop hormone blockers, puberty resumes. I could paint his room pink again. We could buy a new dress. That was my out card. I wasn’t responsible for a permanent change, only responsible for making my child happy.
The plan to start testosterone filled me with fear because I felt like I would soon be responsible for altering my child. As if my husband, the doctor, the psychiatrist, the therapist, and most importantly, my son didn’t have a part to play in this decision.
To alleviate the unbearable weight of responsibility on my chest, I sat alone on my couch and played the what-if game. I asked myself, “What if he was born with a congenital birth defect? Would I agree to lifelong medication and surgery?” You bet I would! In a heartbeat. So how was this any different? He was born with the wrong endocrine glands secreting the wrong hormone for his brain. The doctors are giving him the right hormone. Just like a diabetic is given insulin. It’s not that radical when I think of it that way.
In the beginning, my problem was that I thought to be transgender had an element of choice. Not necessarily that my son was choosing to be a boy instead of a girl, but that we had a choice in terms of how fast or slow he transitioned and a choice to “just dress like a boy” vs. medical intervention. It took me living with him through his body dysmorphia to realize that this was not a choice I got to make for my son. We must ask ourselves, at what point does a child have ownership of their own body or life.
The whole experience of parenting is the struggle to choose when to let our children be independent. At what age do we let them cross the street without holding our hand? When do we let them take the bus on their own? When do we let them drive alone? Add to that self-governing in medical decisions. At what age are you comfortable with your child seeing their doctor without you in the room? It may feel like never, but there are rules about when they can legally ask you to leave.
When it came to my son having autonomy in the medical decision to start testosterone, I had to remind myself that he was making those decisions with a medical doctor—a doctor who is using guidelines provided by scientific studies and supported by the World Health Organization definitions and UCSF protocols. My friend’s brother may call it child abuse, but that is an opinion based on his beliefs and feelings, it is not based on science.
I can’t say that I have completely given up my own belief that I am responsible for my children’s happiness and wellbeing, but I am getting better at handing that responsibility over to them. Mitchell is quite clear who he is and what he needs. How many adults can make those claims? By his example, I am spending more time focusing my responsibility on being a good mother by championing for Mitchell and other trans youth and living free from judgments.
It is no secret that we live in divided times. No matter what topic comes up, there is usually a very stark delineation between good and bad, right and wrong, us and them. You see it everywhere from Apple and Android to political parties. Sadly, you also see it within our own LGBTQ community. While you may think that you are standing up for the oppressed when you are shaming our allies—those who are truly trying to learn about our community and empower it—you are just creating a greater divide.
Why Allies matter
I am not one to ascribe to the idea that minority groups like the LGBTQ are victims and do not have the ability to stand up for what they want. You don’t need allies because you are poor, weak and helpless. That being said, we are still fighting for basic human rights in many places and there is strength in numbers when it comes to voting at the ballot box or with our dollars as consumers. We never want to be so ugly and mean about someone using the term “transgendered”* that we alienate someone who wanted to support us. We also need to return to the beginner’s mind every once in a while and realize that most of our terminology is “industry jargon” to a layperson. Every time you add another letter to the ever-expanding LGBT2SQQIAAP+ acronym you are putting up a barrier for the ally who wants to connect with you and understand you. Diversity and inclusion are wonderful. Let’s include well-meaning, humble cishet** friends. After all, they were just born that way.
I don’t know what to say, I don’t want to offend anyone.
I hear this comment regularly. Most often it’s from friends and acquaintances who know I have a transgender child and are struggling to use the right terminology so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings. They don’t know what pronouns to use, or to refer to him as my son. I can tell that these people are trying. I can tell they are genuine. I go out of my way to make it clear that before my son came out three years ago, I also didn’t know what to say. I am only a few steps ahead on the path and happy to share what I know without making it sound like they are idiots for not knowing what AFAB stands for (that’s assigned female at birth which is the most appropriate way to refer to my transgender son before he came out).
What Allies need to know
Pronouns are tricky and can be a new concept to our older generations, but this is where you can make a huge difference in being a Super Ally: don’t assume someone’s gender by what they wear and how they style their hair. Ask, “What are your preferred pronouns?” BAM! It’s that easy! And, don’t be shocked if someone who presents as a woman or a man asks to be referred to as they/them and identifies as non-binary.
It’s also important for allies to understand why some people are less generous than others when it comes to forgiving your ignorance and slip-up. It may be your only mistake that day, but the person you inadvertently offended may have had that same thing said to them 40 times before you uttered the words. Mistakes and micro-aggressions accumulate. Also, people are all in a different place in terms of their coming out journey. Jody might be a super cool trans woman who lets a misgendering roll off her back while Jack is facing discrimination with his parents at home and financial insecurity with his job and the last thing he has energy for is to explain to a stranger the difference between transgender and transvestite. It’s not easy for an ally to know who is in the best frame of mind to help educate them to be a better ally. This is something, like pronouns, that you need to ask about upfront and be forgiving if it’s not the best time to ask.
It’s hard to hate up close
This is a quote I heard Michelle Obama say and it has become my anthem as an advocate for the LGBTQ community. I share our journey with my heart on my sleeve to bring people closer, to create a connection, and to spread love. Those of us who are in positions of privilege and not in the throws of struggling with acceptance, if we can all drop the divisiveness and assume good intentions from the people reaching out across the divide, we all win. Dare to be nice.
*As an aside, transgender is not a verb. For example, someone is not gayed or latinoed. By saying someone is transgendered, you are implying that it is something happening to the trans person instead of acknowledging that it is who they are. This slip of the tongue can be quite innocent but reaches back to the old thoughts that LGBTQ is a lifestyle choice.
**Cishet is the short form for Cisgender-Heterosexual. Cisgender means you identify with the gender you were assigned at birth (usually by looking at the sex of your external genitals) and heterosexual means you are attracted to the opposite sex.
One thing I know for sure, from living and working alongside humans for the last 48 years, is that we all just want to belong and know that we matter. All of us. Every creed, race, religion, gender identity, social class, sexual orientation, ability, and age. Knowing this is the main drive for people, imagine what it’s like for someone to be told they’re being tolerated. It’s time to bridge the chasm between tolerance and support in the LGBTQ community.
We tolerate a rock in our shoe for a few steps until we can find a bench to sit down and take it out. We tolerate the horrible smell in the public washroom because we have nowhere else to go and really have to go! We tolerate, but turn our back to, the bitterly cold wind as we leave the bus shelter and wait for the bus to stop.
Admittedly, tolerance is better than hate. But we’re all hoping for more than to be tolerated, aren’t we? Tolerating someone is not a heroic act of generosity on your part. What you’re really saying is, “There is something wrong with you, but I will put up with it… I guess. You know, because I’m nice.” It feels about as warm and fuzzy as, “I have no problem with what you do in private, just don’t shove your existence in my face.” Ouch. We all just want to belong and know that we matter.
When my third child came out as transgender, and later when my oldest child said they identify more as non-binary than as the female presentation we all see most of the time, I had to check in with my own biases. I am not going to pretend that I was 100% supportive the second I was told either piece of news. Not even close. But I can tell you I did not merely tolerate the existence of children I gave birth to and raised with all the love in my heart.
I grew up in a very binary world. I had never heard the words transgender or non-binary until way into my adulthood. I had lived with my third child’s misery long enough to believe that he was much happier and healthier as the boy he knew he was, but it was more difficult for me to understand non-binary. Did it mean my oldest child was both a boy and a girl? Were they neither a boy nor a girl? It was difficult for my binary brain to grasp. But I asked. I had a conversation with them and strove to understand.
We can absolutely bridge the gap between tolerance and support. But it does require some effort. It requires seeing the humanity in others. It requires asking questions and listening with an open mind to the answers without the hidden agenda to retort. It requires getting to know people that are different from the people in your immediate circle. And the most difficult part, it requires that you drop some of the right and wrong thinking that our current political and media climate is cultivating.
Support was not a linear overnight event for me, and I am not judging anyone who still needs to bridge the gap between tolerance and support… as long as they are making the effort to bridge the gap and not looking for accolades for being tolerant.
Our children come out to us in various ways. Some of them declare their LGBTQ identity the same way they tell you what they ate for breakfast. It’s just a fact. This is how my oldest daughter announced she was bisexual. Some children, however, come out to us in more subtle and cautious ways. My transgender son came out to me in a note that he left on my pillow. He didn’t say he was transgender per se, he (she then) merely asked to start taking testosterone. That note launched my husband and me into a few months of denial before we finally sat down with our child to address the topic head-on.
There is no one path that our children take before they come out, and no one “right” thing to do after they come out. This list is what some parents of LGBTQ youth have found helpful.
The reality is that most of us parents grew up in a very binary, heterosexual culture, and most of us were handed a baby that was either wrapped in a pink or blue blanket and we automatically assumed they would one day marry someone of the opposite sex. It is a shock for many of us to have our children tell us something different from what we assumed from the day we first held them in our arms. The best thing you can do for yourself in that state of shock is to take a bit of time and create some space between what you’ve been told and your next step. When my son came out, I was full of fear for his future and doubt that I could trust an eleven-year-old to know who they truly were. Fear and doubt can cause decisions and reactions we might regret, it’s much safer to take some time to clear our heads. Which leads to the next step.
Google will soon become your best friend. Of course, be wary of the sources from which you gather your information. There are a lot of new terms and labels to familiarize yourself with like pansexual and gender-fluid in addition to the standard Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender terms. There are also questions about legal issues like name changes, and medical issues like sexually transmitted infections and hormone replacements. There are statistics you will want to know about such as the number of homeless youth who identify as LGBTQ and the staggering number of suicide attempts among transgender teens. I know these statistics can cause us more stress, but they are an important part of the whole picture to keep our kids safe. Which leads to the next step.
Be compassionate with your child and be compassionate with yourself. It took a monumental amount of bravery for your child to come out to you and be their authentic self. How many of us can say that about ourselves as adults? Even though it seemed easy for my bisexual daughter to tell us who she was, it is not easy for her to have people say she’s just confused or saying it for attention. Our kids have a world of judgment to face and being their safe place to land is a genuine gift for them. And, this is not easy on you as a parent! I know. I live it. There is a steep learning curve and there are so many opportunities to mess up. I’ve used the wrong pronouns. I’ve dismissed something that I thought was minor that turned out to be a big deal to my kid. I’ve had to go through a bonafide grieving process for the daughter I gave birth to, and that’s okay. I am compassionate with myself, but most importantly, I don’t dump my feelings on my child. Which leads to the next step.
Your kid needs you, and you need adult support. Some of your existing friends will be amazing and will listen and empathize, and some will be a source of more stress and non-stop almost voyeuristic questions—choose who you confide in wisely. There may come a time where you need to speak to a counselor just to help you past the most stressful parts and there are excellent psychologists who can help you and support you so that you can be an advocate for your child. I found major benefits in meeting other parents of LGBTQ children and there are many organizations that offer this support such as PFLAG, Calgary Sexual Health, Skipping Stone Foundation, and our very own Airdrie Pride Society.
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This blog was first published on the Airdrie Pride Blog.