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.
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.
Would you look at this beautiful cover design for Beyond Pronouns? I absolutely love it and can’t wait to hold a copy in my hands. (Just in case the photoshopping fooled you, this image is a mock-up.)
Full disclosure, I was very nervous about what my cover would look like in the end. I have heard horror stories of authors having little to no control over what the marketing department at traditional publishers chooses. After all, they know what sells books, and despite what our moms told us, people do judge a book by its cover. But the team at Jessica Kingsley Publishers did a fabulous job. When they asked if I had something in mind for the cover, I said I would love a typographic cover, and I offered them a mood board with some colours and styles. And voila!
About the Title
Another interesting note would be on the title of the book. I had my heart set on Beyond Pronouns for a very long time. I initially started writing a memoir and used that title for it as well. When I changed narrative directions, I kept the title. To me, using a different pronoun for my son was the least I could do. It wasn’t always easy. I slipped up a whole bunch. But in the end, when I look back on this entire journey, addressing Mitchell as he instead of she was only the start.
The subtitle was suggested by the publisher’s marketing department and editorial director. Thank goodness! My first attempt was very long and wordy, “what to do in the first 100 days after your child comes out as transgender.”
Right now, the pre-order links are starting to show up all over the internet and will continue to do so over the next few weeks. I currently only see Beyond Pronouns on Barns and Noble, but it will be available anywhere books are sold. Note that the release date isn’t until June 21, 2022, but pre-orders are crucial to attract the attention of bookstores, the media, and marketing. So don’t wait! If you see the pre-order link go ahead and purchase a copy for yourself and all your friends.
Don’t forget to sign-up for my newsletter here to stay up-to-date on all my announcements about Beyond Pronouns including my speaking and book tour details and free webinars.
As the mom of a transgender child, this is the question I get the most from parents of LGBTQ children and youth. How can they trust that their child is right about their gender? How can they tell if it’s just a phase? How can they trust that it’s not just the latest cool thing to do?
My children have all shown preferences for colors and flavors and types of music and styles of clothes and sports and activities at different stages of their lives. Yet, we question whether we can trust that our child knows they are attracted to a particular type of person. Further, I have known my whole life that I am a woman, I knew I was a girl when I was 5 and again when I was 12 and every year since then. But at what age can we determine is the right age to know someone’s gender? Let’s face it, we question our children knowing who they are because the social implications of our child coming out as transgender or bisexual are far bigger than if my son chooses to play the guitar instead of the cello.
What happens if you trust them?
1. Being a former nurse, my first fear was the medical implications. Changing genders meant hormone therapy and surgery, which sounded barbaric when I felt I had a healthy child. And the first thing that comes to mind with a gay child is HIV/Aids and other sexually transmitted infections. The good news is that we should all be having well-informed sexual education talks with all our children, no matter where they fall on the LGBTQ spectrum. The other good news for parents of gender-creative children is that nothing has to be permanent in the beginning.
Your child can dress as the gender they identify with because it’s only clothes, and a wardrobe can be switched back at any time and any age. If your child is older and flirting with puberty or just entered puberty and it is causing them distress, you can talk to your doctor about puberty blockers. They are reversible, and delaying puberty gives you more time to explore their gender identity. You can ride it out if this is a phase or something cool to do. By the way, the science is very clear that this is rarely a phase, 97.5% of the time, gender-diverse children stay with their social transition.
2. And then we have the social implications. Let’s face it, not everyone in our society is super accepting and enthusiastic about people who are “different.” Trusting that my son was indeed a boy and allowing him to dress like a boy and change his name and pronouns was difficult for him at school and difficult for me with my friends and family. Even if this wasn’t permanent, even if we were riding out a phase, doing so in public is a big commitment to bravery, courage, and authenticity. Sometimes scary experiences are worth it. Ultimately, my son’s mental health far outweighed what other people thought of me.
What happens if you don’t trust them?
3. The mental health implications are undeniable. After my child settled down from a relatively short episode of suicidal thoughts, I asked the therapist in the emergency room how I could tell if my son was truly suicidal or just trying to get out of school and away from the relentless bullying he was facing there. Her advice to me was to always believe there is a suicide risk because if we don’t, and he was truly suicidal, we can’t take back our decision to ignore his plea for help.
If you don’t trust that your child knows in their heart that they are a different gender than what they were assigned at birth or that they know who they love, you risk damaging their self-esteem. How would you like to live the rest of your life being told something that is fundamentally true about yourself, that you know to your core has to be hidden and denied? Would you feel depressed, anxious, and live in fear of having that secret show up unexpectedly as you go about your everyday life? Is that the future you want for your child “in case it’s a phase”?
Trust me, trust them.
Of course, I am completely biased. I see the difference in my child since we embraced transition. His school grades are back to excellent, he thrives in his music lessons, he has true friendships, and there is a spark in his eyes that had been dimmed for years. Even though everything we did for his transition for the first two-and-a-half years was reversible, I know in my soul that he was right and that I have a son. His happiness and contentment have been worth the social implications, and I would do it all again. In fact, I am doing it all again.
I put my second child, my daughter Victoria, on a plane yesterday. Today, I grapple with waves of sadness and grief. Why? Because I like her. Because we had a beautiful, loving, close, grounded, and fun time together during her visit for reading week. A veritable retreat from everyday life, and an oasis from the hustle of both our worlds.
Having four children has taught me more about life and the people in it than anything I could have learned in the psychology degree I have always regretted not finishing. This week’s lesson is one of being the observer instead of the fixer.
It’s not easy to go from the mom making sure your kid eats their vegetables to the mom of an adult who buys their own groceries and orders their own Uber and chooses whether to drop a class they are struggling with in University. It was my plan all along to raise a self-sufficient adult, and Victoria was the most reluctant of all my children to stand up to my suggestions and make her own decisions which made her independence that much more pride-inducing.
She’s grown up. She’s smart and funny and caring. She’s the type of person I’d actually want to be friends with if I were 20 years old too. How amazing is it as a parent to say, “I like my child!” because, let’s be honest, there are times when we are raising our children that despite a deep-seated innate love we don’t really like them all that much.
And now the grief.
I have decided that I am going to start writing about the grief of motherhood on a regular basis. There is no way that for the amount of love a mother has for her children that she doesn’t grieve to an equal extent the losses that inevitably show up in our lives. From the last time they ask you to read them a bedtime story, to the heartache of not being able to take away the pain of unrequited love, to the empty nest and all the challenges in between, motherhood is one long exploration of the grieving process.
My tears yesterday were about Victoria leaving for University after a great visit as much as they were for the loss of her childhood. I miss having her easy nature around in my everyday life. I miss her relationship with her younger brothers. I miss being the one she told all her sorrows and celebrations to every day before she left for school.
I often wondered why so many people were resistant to change in their life and now I see that change and growth are very closely related with loss. It doesn’t mean that something great doesn’t come in its place. I look forward to watching Victoria become a professional who has an impact in the world of mental health. I look forward to witnessing her having her own family one day. And, having lived through these lessons with her and her sister and brothers, I can be there for her own day as she grieves the losses that motherhood will bestow upon her life.