Ten ways parents can be supportive of their transgender child in a transphobic world
Coming out as a transgender person is a stressful and anxiety-ridden process. This is especially the case for children who live in a household hostile to queerness. Despite the increasingly popular myth that young people have no sense of their gender or sexuality, for many of us childhood and adolescence is where we begin to articulate our gender dysphoria and queer identities. This is a fraught process as gender and sexuality have no how-to-guides or straight-forward feelings and thus may take years to figure out.
Children who are considering coming out of the closet face massive barriers due to societal prejudice, discrimination, and stigmatization. There may be realistic fears of school yard bullying or overbearing administrative hostility. And to top this off, transgender youth are often mired by the thought of rejection from friend circles and peer groups.
Oftentimes, the first step of coming out of the closet is breaking the news to family members and close friends. In cases where family members might be hostile about the subject, queer youth may be forced to be stealth in their expressions of LGBTQ+ identity and practices. And even when family members may be accepting, it takes a lot of emotional labor to prepare to go public with a transition in a virulently anti-queer society.
With all the recent sensationalized hype about the tribulations of young trans children who transition only to de-transition, well-meaning parents may also experience fear of their child’s transition. There has been a lot of effort on behalf of journalists, transgender “experts”, and public figures to manufacture a moral panic that questions the very legitimacy of a trans child’s identity. Even though the percentage of transgender people who de-transition is ridiculously small, the media is affirming dangerous practices among parents that could cause real damage to a child’s mental health and sense of self.
This moral panic boiled over when behavioural scientist Lisa Littman published a pseudo-scientific article claiming to have empirical evidence for the existence of a new form of gender dysphoria that explicitly impacts youth, through so-called “social contagion,” that allegedly results in an inauthentic trans experience. Borrowing the term “rapid onset gender dysphoria” (ROGD), which allegedly was coined within anti-trans online communities, Littman provided “scientific” justification for transphobic parents to justify their bigotry.
And as reported by Science Magazine, the article’s publisher PLOS ONE began a “post publication investigation” into Littman’s methods, methodologies, and analysis. As editor-in-chief said to Science Magazine, “This is not about suppressing academic freedom or scientific research. This is about the scientific content itself — whether there is anything that needs to be looked into or corrected”.
Nonetheless, Littman’s conclusions have inspired a slurry of transphobic articles encouraging parents to not take their children’s gender troubles seriously. And furthermore, setting up a trans boogieman by suggesting that children who associate with other trans children or read about the topic on social media might falsely think they are trans themselves.
Meanwhile, transgender children are at high risk for developing serious mental health issues if they are left to deal with their trans identity in isolation. As a recent study has shown, transgender folks are at a much higher risk for suicide due to social stigmatization and isolation. An important factor in curbing these depressing statistics is a strong family and peer support. As the Human Rights Campaign illuminates, “In other words, for some transgender youth, family support can be the difference between life and death”.
In the post-ROGD mediascape, it is increasingly difficult to come across advice on how parents might be supportive of their transgender children. So, in the meantime, here are ten ways that you can be an awesome parent to your trans children:
1: Accept your child’s identity, suspend your skepticism
Healthy families are built on trust and this is especially true of trusting your child’s decisions around foundational elements of their identity. When your child comes out of the closet as transgender, it may seem new and surprising to you, but your child has likely been reflecting and agonizing about their gender for some time. This is further aggravated by a lack of education around trans issues in primary and secondary schools, your child might not have had the words to describe the bodily dysphoria they are experiencing. In other words, oftentimes trans folk don’t have any way of knowing that they are trans. It takes time to digest messy questions about gender and sexuality, and they might need time to explore different gender roles and expressions. Showing skepticism around a child’s decision to come out as transgender can aggravate feelings of gender dysphoria and ultimately alienate them from their family. As a good rule of thumb, your child is an expert in their identity. Let them explore their gender, as there is literally no harm in practicing gender non-conformity.
2: Do your research and avoid anti-trans blogs
There are several online communities that cater to the parents of transgender children. These include websites like 4thwavenow and Transgendertrend which spin anti-trans propaganda through the use of misinformation and fear tactics. These websites exist to fuel parent hostility against their children’s decisions to come out of the closet and to justify transphobic feelings they might harbor. Delving down this rabbit hole will likely only lead you to making decisions that will make life infinitely more difficult for your child. Look for websites that are made to actually help you and your child navigate the confusing terrain of gender identity. Some good places to start looking for gender affirmative resources are Genderspectrum and Sherbourne Health Centre. Also, it’s a good idea to try to seek out professionals trained in LGBTQ+ issues, as not every doctor will be read up on the literature or official standards of care for providing health services to transgender patients. And some doctor’s may even be transphobic. Look up your local gender clinic and get some professional medical and counselling advice, and be weary of where you get your info on the Internet.
3: Avoid misgendering or deadnaming your child
The process of choosing a new name and pronouns can be a wonderful and exciting adventure. It’s a rare chance to carve out an identity that your child might feel more at home with. Though you may be able to lend some assistance, it is very important to let your child choose their new name and pronouns. And it is your job as a supportive parent to learn how to properly identify your child. Deadnaming refers to the act of calling a trans person by their old name. Though it might seem innocent enough for you, it’s actually a pretty hurtful thing for most trans people. Refusing to use your child’s actual name will only serve to delegitimize their newfound identity. The same goes for the use of correct pronouns. Failing to properly identify your trans children can cause undo mental stress and gender dysphoria. It also demonstrates that you don’t trust your child or their decisions to live a more authentic self. This can be difficult to digest for a lot of parents, after all you’ve been calling them by something else for years. You might make mistakes, and if you do just apologize and make sure to do better in the future. Affirm your child’s new identity and call them by their actual name and gender, trust me, they will love you for it.
4: Being trans is not a mental illness, but it does often require medical intervention
It is crucial that you don’t frame transgender identity as a mental illness as it justifies treating it as a problem that needs to be cured. In 2012, by a general scientific consensus, the American Psychiatric Association removed the category “Gender Identity Disorder” from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). They replaced it with a new diagnosis called Gender Dysphoria which is often diagnosed in order to prescribe hormone replacement therapy (HRT) or authorize other forms of medical intervention. None of these medical interventions are used on children who haven’t begun puberty, however a doctor might prescribe a hormone blocker to slow down the changes brought on by puberty.
So say it with me, being 👏 trans 👏 is 👏 not 👏 a 👏 mental 👏 illness! And even though there are forms of medical interventions, not all trans people experience gender dysphoria or undergo any medical procedures to transition. But for children who do want to undergo medical transition in the future, it is important to talk it out with a doctor who is informed about LGTBQ+ issues and the standards of care for treating trans patients.
5: Being trans isn’t contagious, but trans children may seek others like them
One of the main findings in Littman’s research is that ROGD spreads through “social or peer contagion,” she came to these claims because cisgender parents claimed that their children were exploring transgender issues on social media sites like Tumblr and YouTube before they claimed to be trans. Being transgender is not contagious. It is entirely normal for queer youth to seek out communities of people who are like them. Being in the closet as a transgender person is agonizing and isolating, and I’ve never met a trans person who didn’t obsessively browse through social media sites to talk to others experiencing the same things. We all need to belong to a community, so let your child explore the online trans community. Of course, there is no shortage of misinformation around the issues your child might experience, so be sure to help your child also explore educational resources from the sites mentioned above. Above all, try to empathize with your child’s need to belong to a community of likeminded people.
6: The transgender trend is a myth
Transphobes often try to de-legitimize a trans person’s identity by saying that a person’s decision to transition is entirely based on trying to consolidate attention and popularity. The word thrown around to describe this is transtrender, and it’s most assuredly a myth. When a trans person comes out of the closet and are finally called by their proper name and gender, it can be an ecstatic experience. The feeling of wonder and excitement around being correctly gendered is often called gender euphoria in the trans community. But there are also many challenges that your child will face on the school yard and beyond. First, trans children have to face significant levels of bullying for merely existing. And worse, sometimes because of the dramatic nature of coming out of the closet in a cissexist society, the spotlight will be on your trans child. This newfound spotlight is not helpful when your child is very likely just trying to blend in and live a normal life. Second, your child might experience discrimination or friction from the school administrators and teachers. One of the common issues is that trans children are often forbidden to use their proper washroom. So instead of accusing your child of trying to be trendy, support your child by having conversations with the school administration, the teachers, and the school board to make sure that your child is treated fairly and not marginalized in the classroom.
7: Learn about gender identity and expression, and refrain from stereotypes
Gender identity is your sense of self in the world, while gender expression is how you represent your sense of self to others. Everyone participates in gender identity and expression, even if it isn’t something that you consciously think about. For instance, think of how you dress and get ready in the morning and imagine how that might be connected to feminine or masculine norms. Gender expression can be understood on a wide and diverse spectrum of practices and identities. However, we often use stereotypes to understand what it means to be a man, a woman, or non-binary. For instance, you might assume that a trans girl must express her femininity through playing with dolls and having an obsession with the color pink. While a trans boy will play with trucks and be into sports. These are stereotypes. Some girls love trucks and playing sports, while some boys love dolls and the color pink. Don’t pigeon hole your child into a stereotype and let them explore how they want to present or express their gender. No person expresses gender in the same way, after all we’re all different.
8: Don’t out your child without their permission
It’s a dangerous world for transgender folks, and oftentimes a trans person might go stealth to avoid scrutiny from other cisgender people. Even in safe situations, oftentimes the disclosure of a transgender identity entails uncomfortable and embarrassing questions. Sometimes, your child might just want to blend in and be treated like a normal person. It is important to leave disclosing your child’s gender identity to them. They will talk about it if they are willing and comfortable. Keeping quiet can be difficult sometimes, especially if you want to advocate for your child or protect them from bigots. If you’re going to talk to your friends or other family members about your child’s trans identity, make sure you get permission first.
9: Don’t treat being trans as a tragedy
Transgender identity isn’t a tragedy, though it can often seem like one in a society that has been historically (and is currently) hostile towards expressions of queerness. Though coming out of the closet as transgender is often very difficult, it is also beautiful and empowering. You may be worried and anxious about how your child will be treated in the wider world, but try your best to take and optimistic and affirmative approach to their transition. Your child is very much aware of the challenges they may face, what they are likely looking for is loving support. Reassure your child that you will always love them and support them and ask them how you can help. If you’re upset, don’t take it out on your child. Consider seeking out a trusted family member or a professional to speak to about how you feel. Never treat your child as if they are participating in something wrong and tragic.
10: Advocate for your child
If your child is okay with it, be their best and most enthusiastic advocate. Young folks are rarely taken seriously, and they can probably use the help of an adult to help them navigate social hostility and stigmatization. This is especially the case for your child’s educational institution, you should work to be sure that school administration and teachers are well prepared to accommodate your child’s needs. For instance, you child may choose to go to the washroom that aligns with their gender and might run into issues with the school’s administrational staff. It is also a great idea to challenge the casual transphobia you might witness with your friends and family — every little bit of advocacy is helpful for making a safer world for trans folks.