I get it. You’re stunned because you never saw any “signs.” Welcome to the club. Or maybe it was the opposite — you saw signs, but you held onto the hope that your kid would grow out of it. That’s not how it works.
Are you the type of parent who says you’re an LGBTQ ally, yet constantly challenges your kid to justify what they know to be true about who they are? Or are you blatantly disapproving? I used to be the former.
If you’re the latter, I would start by reminding you that roughly 40% of transgender people attempt suicide. The risk increases when there is a lack of family and community support. In my local support group of 2,000 families with trans kids, when we split into our group of just the parents of those who are transitioning from male to female, we have a favorite question for new parent members, “would you rather have a dead son or an alive daughter?”
When my now 22 year-old daughter came out to me at 19, I fell apart. I never saw it coming. This was a kid who had always loved baseball and cars and now had a beard and a girlfriend of 3 years. I didn’t understand. Now I know that’s incredibly common. Hypermasculinity seems a smart way to hide that you’re really a woman when you’ve been born into a male body, doesn’t it?
I thought transgender people were supposed to know this about themselves from a very young age. Isn’t that the way it happens? I had never heard a story like ours, despite thinking I was an avid LGBTQ ally all of my life. I had many friends who fit into the LGB part of the acronym, but I came to realize I was clueless about the T and the Q. Not anymore. I have been immersed in quite the education… one I never expected.
After many hours spent in transgender support groups and advocacy programs, I have discovered that no two transgender people are alike. They didn’t choose to be transgender. It just happens to be one aspect of their multifaceted, complex identities. There’s only one common factor that I’ve discovered. They are crazy smart, all of them. There is something about the transgender brain that’s different. I’m not a scientist, but I’ve seen it too many times not to believe there’s something there.
It may have to do with living in a different reality, one without the binaries and rigid categories and limited understanding of the rich and glorious complexity of humanity that most of us accept without question. Perhaps that’s why some cultures revere transgender people as wise shamans.
I had many friends who fit into the LGB part of the acronym, but I came to realize I was clueless about the T and the Q. Not anymore. I have been immersed in quite the education… one I never expected.
I don’t know what it’s like to be transgender. What I do know is that my life took a sharp turn two and a half years ago when I found out that I have a transgender child.
It seems serendipitous that this coincided with my decision to retire from 28 years of teaching communication studies courses as a university lecturer to put more energy into growing my speaking, training, and coaching business, which I’ve had for over 25 years. Now I can’t help but wonder if all my years of teaching communication skills in classrooms and corporate training rooms was actually preparing me for something I never could have imagined.
When my daughter came out, I did and said all the things that I now counsel parents not to do when their kids come out as transgender. I’ve since apologized profusely and done all I can to repair the damage. I hope you don’t have to do that.
Thankfully, my daughter is a forgiving, loving, incredible person. But if I could go back, I would change so many things. Since I can’t do that, I want to encourage you not to make the mistakes I made.
For those of you feeling lost, confused, and likely upset, here are three things I recommend NOT to say. I’ll also explain my reasoning and share my advice.
“But you can’t be transgender. We would have had signs earlier. You’re already a teen (or adult).”
While I appreciate the acceptance and understanding that many documentaries about transgender children and the TV show I am Jazz create, they can also perpetuate a myth. This myth is that most transgender kids realize that they are trapped in the wrong body at an early age.
The vast majority of the people in our support group, people that I’ve now counseled about their kids’ coming out, and stories I’ve read online and in books, involve mostly teens or young adults coming out as transgender.
Gender dysphoria can surface at any time, but it’s most likely to happen at puberty when developing secondary sex characteristics feels very, very wrong to the transgender teen. Many transgender teens grapple with these feelings alone for years.
The lack of acceptance in society and feared lack of acceptance in one’s family lead many transgender people to live lives of isolation and to keep their secret for years, which must be incredibly painful. Also, as I described above, a common coping mechanism and way to feel safe is to act out the behaviors and perform the appearance of one’s assumed gender.
Many transgender teens grapple with these feelings alone for years.
Advice: When your child comes out to you, please try to put yourself in their shoes. Please respond with love and acceptance. Please hug your child and say nothing except any combination of the following: “I love you.” “I’m here for you.” “It’s going to be okay.” “I’ll help any way I can.”
“We’ll support you with anything you need.” “Thank you for trusting me enough to share this.” You get the idea. It’s that simple. Anything other than some version of these sentiments could be deadly. It’s that serious.
“Couldn’t this just be a phase?”
I’ve learned from therapists who work with transgender youth and adults that there is typically a long coming-in period before transgender people come out to anyone else. When a person comes out to a loved one, whether it’s to a parent or a spouse of thirty years, a lot of thought has typically gone into it. It’s incredibly difficult. Incredibly stressful.
There may be years of reading online, possibly connecting with online groups, maybe even telling a few trusted friends first. When a transgender person comes out to his/her/their parents, there has usually been a long and torturous journey to get to the point of being able to speak the truth. They must be the hardest words to say.
I asked my daughter if it could be a phase. I gave her my laundry list of reasons she had to be male. Now I just ask myself what on earth I thought that would accomplish. It’s not helpful in any way. Why couldn’t I just allow myself to admit that I had been wrong? Why couldn’t I just listen to what my daughter was telling me with an open heart and open mind?
I’ve learned from therapists who work with transgender youth and adults that there is typically a long coming-in period before transgender people come out to anyone else.
If only I could see a couple of years down the road, the way it is now — how proud I am of my daughter and how I totally see her as a woman. But I couldn’t. You may not be able to yet either, but please learn from my missteps and be open to the possibilities.
Advice: Don’t challenge or question your child’s reality. Don’t misgender your child, no matter how difficult it is for you to accept their new pronouns. No good can come of it. Just listen and accept what they say as real, even if it’s just for this moment.
Things may change. They may not. There are very few cases where someone comes out as transgender and then later says they were mistaken. From what I’ve experienced and seen, the odds of that seem less likely than a plane crash or lightning strike. Truly.
Also, don’t push your child into an unnecessary binary. Let them know that it’s okay if they identify as non-binary, genderqueer, genderfluid, or whatever description best fits their understanding of themselves. Be mindful not to impose your understanding of gender onto your child, and be open to expanding your perspective.
I know you love your child. Just shower them with love, acceptance, support. Seek counseling for everyone. Seek support groups, if you have the privilege to do so. My daughter has found it incredibly helpful and affirming to be in a support group with other transgender young women who she could relate to. The bottom line is this: support, don’t challenge. Make it easier, not harder. It’s already really, really hard. Trust me on this, parents.
“Okay, so when do we start getting mani-pedis and buying you girl clothes?” or “Great, let’s go get all your hair cut off and order you some chest binders online.”
This one may sound strange, but I can’t believe how often I’ve heard it. Parents who want to seem accepting, even when they’re clearly not okay with it all, may actually push their kids to move into physical and social transition too quickly.
Just because your kid came out to you, it doesn’t mean they are ready to transition. Once the words have been spoken to someone close, there may be a huge sigh of relief and ability to feel better for some time without actually doing anything outwardly or telling more people.
Transgender people need the time and space to figure out if/how/when they want to transition. It’s their choice alone and pushing them is not helpful. You may struggle with the limbo period where not many people know the truth and your kid is still living the life of the wrong gender.
Keep in mind that they’ve likely been navigating this for some time already, without you. If there is no urgency on the transgender person’s part, why should there be on anyone else’s? My daughter took quite some time to think through and plan how she would come out to the world and transition.
It took my daughter two months after she came out to us to begin taking hormones, and another three months after that before she was comfortable coming out to the world. I’ve heard many stories where kids choose to do nothing about it for several years. It’s their journey, not ours.
Transgender people need the time and space to figure out if/how/when they want to transition.
The one exception to the slow pace of transition that I’ve seen often, is the transgender person’s desire to begin Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) as soon as possible. If you one day woke up in the body of the wrong gender and felt totally out of whack and I told you I could give you a pill or injection to help you feel like you’re back in the right body, wouldn’t you want that right away?
My daughter and almost all the other thousands of transgender people I’ve met and read about wanted to begin hormone treatment as soon as possible. From what they read about and see in others, they know that it can help soothe the tumult of gender dysphoria like nothing else. And again, I must repeat, that readiness for social transition may not necessarily follow anytime soon, even well-into HRT.
Many parents resist allowing their kids to take this crucial step. I regret to say that I resisted at first. My daughter worked hard to convince me to approve of her decision. She was 19 so I had no legal rights, but emotional manipulation is an entirely different story, as you know.
One argument finally got to me. My daughter reminded me that men run on testosterone. What she was proposing was to infuse her male body with estrogen and suppress her testosterone.
She pointed out that a cisgender male, with such a dramatic reduction in testosterone would likely become depressed, lethargic, and miserable. Transgender women, on the other hand, when given estrogen and suppressing their testosterone finally start to feel good, to feel better, to feel like their true selves.
This helped me cross over to the “okay, I can accept giving it a try” side. Of course, when my daughter went on HRT, though it’s no magic bullet and doesn’t help with all the problems of living in a world that is largely transphobic, she was so much happier and more at peace. It was something anyone could feel and see, but especially me.
Here’s another important reminder. Gender identity and gender expression are two different things. Do all the women you know like makeup and polished nails? Of course not. Do all the men you know have short hair and big muscles? Nope.
My daughter has shined a light on the ways we are trapped in ridiculous gender stereotypes in a way that I never saw before. Just because she knows that she’s a woman, that doesn’t mean she wants to wear flowery dresses or high heels. More importantly, it does not mean that she will suddenly be self-deprecating, or put up with being disrespected by men.
My daughter has shined a light on the ways we are trapped in ridiculous gender stereotypes in a way that I never saw before.
My advice: Provide nothing but support, encouragement, and an ear to listen to whatever your child is feeling and planning to do or not do. Provide resources in the form of doctors, therapists, support groups. Educate yourself. Expose yourself to transgender communities to be an active ally and to see that there are so many ways of being transgender.
You were lucky enough to have a brain and body gender match. Still, you got to choose how you would express that gender through your clothing, communication style, adornments, hobbies, and much more.
Your child didn’t have that luxury so they must be given as much time and space as necessary to figure out what, “just be yourself” means. It may take a lifetime. I would hope that you would love your child through it with everything you’ve got, and remove your own biases from the situation as much as possible.
Additional reporting by Jackie Thornhill