You’ve probably seen us lately. We’re the moms holding pink, white, and blue signs that talk about peeing in bathrooms. We show up to Town Hall meetings and spend our days calling our representatives. We flood our Facebook pages with political posts, op-eds about bathroom bills, and the need to stand up for human rights.
Many of us probably had dreams of living a simple life. A family, a career, Friday night pizza night, PTO meetings, and after school activities. But, life took a decided turn when we discovered that our child was transgender because that changed everything.
We suddenly found ourselves as unexpected advocates in a war that we didn’t know was waging. You’d think we’d get used to the ugly comments, the thinly-veiled innuendos, the intrusive questions about our child’s anatomy, or their surgical status.
And, to some extent we do. We pick our battles, educate, share our stories, and try to determine if someone is asking out of a genuine desire to learn, or to arm themselves for a future battle. We do it willingly because we are Mama Bears and we will always protect our children.
We have been called a lot of terrible things by people who don’t agree with the choices our families have made. We’ve been accused of child abuse, of displaying weak parenting skills and creating no boundaries for our children. We’ve dealt with innuendos that inappropriate things were done to our children to “make them that way.”
But, I actually laughed tonight when someone accused Mama Bears like me of using our children as political pawns. Advocating for our children’s rights by talking to our representatives is our job as parents. But, we’ve been given no choice because the federal government has decided to take away the only road map schools had for navigating a civil rights issue that directly impacts our children. We didn’t make our children political pawns. We found ourselves unwilling subjects in a political storm that was already raging before we showed up.
Transgender children face incredible challenges. The attempted suicide rate for the transgender community is greater than 40%. The risk is over 50% for those who face discrimination and bullying in school. The risk is also higher for transgender youth of color who face significantly more violence than their white counterparts.
This is a time when being a white transgender person is extremely hard. Try to imagine how much more difficult it is to be brown, Muslim, or an immigrant in addition to being transgender. Too frequently, I get word about another child who fell victim to the challenges of their existence and another parent whose heart was ripped to pieces, their life forever changed.
I cannot understand why anyone would want to make life harder for this group of children. It baffles me that the federal government is taking the position to let states decide if it is okay to discriminate against transgender youth. Why are they adding themselves to the list of bullies instead of becoming their biggest protector?
How can a child learn to become a functioning member of society if they aren’t even allowed to do the most basic of human functions without discrimination? How can they focus on reading and math when their bathroom options are to get yelled at or to get beat up? Or just as bad, to “out” them to the rest of the school by forcing them into a unisex bathroom. Unisex bathrooms are not the answer when it tells a child that their existence poses a danger to the rest of their friends.
You will continue to see Mama Bears showing up at your Town Halls. We will flood your Twitter feeds, your Facebook pages, your op-eds, and your phone lines. We will continue to invite you to meet with us, meet our amazing children, and learn about the challenges we face as a family. You’ve given us no choice by attacking our children. We are your constituents and we will keep shouting louder and louder until you hear the cries of our dying offspring.
We will keep fighting because we are Mama Bears. And we are angry.
Editor’s note: This article is written by a dear friend who was our North Star when we initially came to understand our child’s needs. I’m so happy that she was able to provide her personal and professional perspective. -Melissa
First do no harm
All persons should have the opportunity to live naturally
Intervene only as much as necessary to reduce the distress to manageable levels
Jesse is a 14 year-old smart, funny, precocious girl who would rather be with friends than do homework (or do anything actually). She won’t eat anything green, is a night owl, spends too much time on her phone, and loves, absolutely adores, Taylor Swift and Lorde. She cries copious tears when she is hurt; cares very deeply about people, animals, and the earth; and is fiercely protective of her self, her friends, her family, and her puppy. She is mostly vegan, and all the way vegetarian. Oh, and she is transgender.
By the time Jesse was two years old, two profoundly meaningful events occurred that would eventually become catalysts for a long journey into a great unknown. One was her first haircut in which she told me that she wanted me to do it like “Cinder-lella.” Shortly afterwards, Jesse got into a large bag full of hand me downs intended for her newborn sister. As one might imagine, the bag was full of things pink, pretty, and sparkly. Jesse beamed in what she thought was her new wardrobe. Our approach was to gently try to help her ‘organize’ and manage her preferences, interests, needs, and identity.
Over the next several years, and despite our very exceptional ‘organizing’ skills, Jesse’s female identity continued to strengthen. Every shooting star and every birthday candle held the same wish, “Please, please…let me wake up a girl.” One night when we came into her room to say goodnight, we caught her praying. Her hands were held in prayer and she was repeating the same old wish, “Please, please, let me wake up a girl.” So, finally, we stopped managing and organizing, and right smack in the middle of second grade, we helped her make a social transition to all things feminine. We came to understand that, for her, in order to not hurt her, we would simply have to let her be who she was. So we did. We said a few prayers of our own and allowed her to be her.
Then the phone calls started. As a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, I had been providing therapy for a number of years. Of course, I researched treatment options for transgender children and found that at the time, the ‘best’ advise out there was to remove all things girly from the ‘boys’ life and help him be comfortable with his body. I knew, not thought or suspected, but knew for sure that this was not always going to be possible, and was rarely going to be ideal. I also knew for sure that it was going to be harmful. Especially for our Jesse and likely others like her. So I developed a treatment approach with three main tenets: First, do no harm. Second, all persons should have the opportunity to act naturally. Third, intervene as minimally as possible to get the distress down to manageable levels.
Through word of mouth, anxious parents began calling me after hearing of this unique approach to working with transgender children. Families came to me from all over the Midwest for treatment, for consultation, for advise.
While my treatment strategy was not typical for the times, it really was not ground breaking. I was simply applying sound evidence based therapy to what we thought was a new population of children. There is no approach in psychotherapy that states that it is better to “hurt them a little now to protect a better outcome later” (these words were actually said to me by a psychologist and educator in justifying the corrective approach to counseling transgender children). This statement stimulated several questions for me. First, by “hurt” how much would be OK? How much hurt in early childhood would be commensurate with the better outcome that one might envision? Does this ‘better outcome’ include trauma? Or are we specifically measuring for transgender identity? What exactly is this better outcome? All of these questions led me to develop the first tenet of my approach: First, do no harm. This is the first law of medicine and provides the basic scaffolding surrounding healing and competent care. And this applies to all persons, young and old, regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, or religion. First do no harm. As I said, not ground breaking. This has been the Hippocratic Oath for many decades. I simply applied it to a very vulnerable and marginalized group: gender diverse children.
The second tenet of my treatment approach is that all persons should have the opportunity to act naturally. Lets be clear, I am not talking about people who think they are cats or people who identify as a toaster. I am talking about a typically functioning individual whose gender identity is something other than what we, in binary America, think that it should be. There is much we do not know about the brain, about gender, and identity. Cross cultural research, as well as observational studies done in the animal kingdom, suggests that a binary code, while fine for computers, is overly simplistic for gender, and, in fact, humans. Social, personality, and sexual development are complex processes and 0’s and 1’s do not really explain us very well.
In this state of not knowing, it becomes critical to approach diversity issues with regard. Especially for children. I remember a time early in my process when I had a boy bodied child dressed as a princess and another boy bodied child dressed as batman. It is horrifying to me now to recall how one had to change into more appropriate attire to go to grandmas house and the other one didn’t. I can’t help but consider the impact of traumatic experiencing that this type of situation is likely to facilitate. At the very least, a child learns to develop a false self in the face of an unaccepting, critical, and dangerous world. This is one of the fundamental goals of psychotherapy for a great many number of clients: to help in the development of a true self with the goal of living an authentic and personally meaningful life. Therefore, I felt that all persons should be able to act naturally. All of our clients should be met with positive regard. It is just not up to us to tell them who they are. Who we think they are. Or aren’t. It is not up to us as therapists. For my family, it isn’t up to parents either. It is up to parents to teach values, to get the children to bed at a reasonable, to try to get them to eat something green. It is up to us to help the child develop and learn routines and structure. It is up to us to be a cook, chauffeur, tutor, manager, housekeeper, cheerleader…. It is not going to be our decision whether the child is going to have intrinsic interest in dolls, trucks, or games. Whether they will excel in gymnastics or debate team. Whether they will pursue a career in medicine or education. We can protect and guide. But for the vast majority of children, it is just not up to us to decide about orientation or identity.
Research has shown that a large percentage of gender dysphoric children may desist in their transgender identities. In a nutshell, this research concluded that many will grow out of it. These ‘outcomes’ caused significant anxiety in parents of gender diverse and transgender children. With medical technology exploding, and cross sex interventions becoming a viable option, parent’s questions and concerns regarding best practice were well founded. How do I know if my child will grow out of it? How do I support without encouraging? How do I help but not hurt? How much do I intervene? These are all valid concerns. To really capture parental and clinical panic regarding these outcomes and corresponding questions, research has also shown that suicidality for transgender youth was disproportionately high. In other words, gender diverse and transgender children, as a group, was not doing well.
However, the terms ‘gender diverse’ and ‘transgender’ are not necessarily the same and research had not yet empirically operationalized them. This research, while informative, had its limitations. So far, people weren’t yet talking about distress level as a diagnostic feature at that time. As a therapist, of course, this factor is critical in assessment and diagnosis for any mental health issue. Symptoms that do not cause marked impairment or distress isn’t diagnosed. And so this third tenet was to help parents navigate these very difficult questions and concerns. In a world where we simply don’t know, let your child’s overall wellness be your guide. Is their anxiety manageable? Are they learning to read? Or are they so distracted with gender incongruity that they can’t learn? Are they aggressive with others? How are they developing socially? This enable parents to map unchartered waters in a uniquely idiosyncratic way. Broad brush strokes simply aren’t going to be effective with this community. Nurture does have an impact. Community does have an impact. There are just too many variables. At the end of the day, we want healthy children who are well and whole. And the least harm approach to get there is to assist in the development of a true, natural, psychologically fit, and physically well self.
Back in 2010, when Jesse was right smack in the middle of second grade, we made some crucial decisions. First, we just weren’t going to knowingly hurt her. No way were we going to hurt any of our three children on purpose. Second, we were going to treat her, and of course all of our children, with positive regard, and allow them to be natural. Finally we were going to look at her overall distress/wellness as the primary guide for intervention. When we computed this fairly basic and humanistic algorithm, all of our anxiety decreased.
Today, we have three healthy children who are otherwise preoccupied with the natural emergencies of teenage life. Jesse is a remarkable, insightful, and charming 14 year-old transgirl. Our next problem? How do we get her to turn off her phone and get to bed on time. Maybe even eat something green. All things considered, these are good problems to have.
We are so excited to be going to the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference this year. I’ve heard about it year after year from other parents and trans friends. I admit that I’ve been a little jealous in the past to hear about how amazing the conference was and how wonderful it was for parents, kids, and adults to come together and learn from each other. Which really only adds to my excitement and expectations for next week.
I’m also bursting with some serious mom-pride because Conner will be speaking with a few other youth on a panel discussion at the conference on Saturday. She had her first experience doing a public speaking event a few weeks ago at the Transohio Symposium and LOVED it. Seriously, if she hadn’t been belted into her seat, she would have floated out of the car on the way home.
It was led by a fantastic teen young adult, Andrew Wooldridge. He will be leading the youth panel at the Philly conference and is looking for a few more youth to join the panel. If you are going to the Philly conference, and your child (10-20 years old) is interested in speaking on the panel, then please reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Speaking at the Transohio Symposium was a great experience for a girl who’s been begging me for her own YouTube channel. I’ve hesitated on the YouTube channel because once it’s out there, there’s no coming back. She’s very open about being transgender, but we’ve found that it’s actually easier to be open in a very public setting (such as a blog or the Huffington Post) but much more stressful when it’s closer to home (like our local newspaper). My concern is always about exposure and bullying. I don’t care when I get threats, but I’d like to shield those from her.
Much to Conner’s delight, here’s a clip from the conference that I finally uploaded to my YouTube channel (a compromise) after conversations about bullying and public exposure. I suspect that this will be the first of many video clips that she or I will do about transgender and gender diverse issues.
The question was: When did you know you were transgender:
If you are coming to the Philly conference, then we’d love to meet you. I’ll be there on Friday and Saturday and will absolutely be bringing along my blue-haired YouTube star. Come introduce yourself!
Editor’s note: I know, I know. You’ve been waiting with breathless anticipation to hear my thoughts on Caitlyn Jenner’s transition. I know this because there’s been so little media coverage, so few blog posts, so few television commentaries, so little demands to stop calling her a hero, to take away her medal, that her Vanity Fair debut is a win for the transgender community, or that she’s the worst possible person to represent the trans community. I’m not as eloquent as many of the writers whose blogs I have read this week, but here are my thoughts. Also, the photo credit clearly goes to Annie Leibovitz.
My initial reactions to Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover was jaw-dropping awe. I clearly wasn’t alone in that. My Facebook and Twitter feeds were blowing up about how beautiful she looked and how brave she was for putting herself out there. We had no warning that the cover was coming and it happened so quickly after her interview with Diane Sawyer that it seemed as though her transition happened in a matter of weeks.
In the first few hours of the magazine cover debut, most of what I read was positive. Overwhelmingly positive. I was very pleasantly surprised to see so much support given to her. In a matter of weeks, it seemed that Caitlyn had put the word “transgender” into most American households.
It didn’t take long for the dissenters to raise their voice. I read many comments disagreeing that she was brave, saying that this was yet another Kardashian publicity stunt (seems extreme, even for them), continuing to use the name “Bruce” and the pronoun “he.” I choose not to post links to that vitriol because we’ve all seen them and why spread their words of hate?
But, I do want to touch on a few points.
First, I am so happy for Caitlyn. I can’t imagine how amazing it was to have a team of stylists come and do your makeup, style your hair, give you a manicure, and then have your photo taken by Annie Leibovitz. Caitlyn had a whole team (not to mention years of experience with the Kardashian girls) helping her look and pose her best. How fun, feminine, and empowering that experience probably was for her. I get excited when I get my hair cut and colored so I can’t even imagine the joy of those days of dress up and photography. And you know what, those photos are beautiful. They should be celebrated. She should have her moment to shine. She is finally FREE. She must have been so proud to see those photos. I know I was. I was beaming that someone so well-known was now representing the community that I hold dear.
But, Caitlyn Jenner’s transition is hers alone. It doesn’t look like transition for most other people. I don’t know of others who waited until a national magazine debut to start using affirmed pronouns. We were using female pronouns well before our Vanity Fair cover (also known as that letter I mailed to all our friends and family). I also know that many trans folks may not get breast enhancement or sexual reassignment surgery (though I don’t believe Caitlyn Jenner has received SRS). But, that doesn’t make them less their affirmed gender. The trans community, allies, and medical profession have all been trying to get across that gender is not defined by sexual anatomy.
For trans folks everywhere, Caitlyn’s media exposure is a huge step in the right direction. Caitlyn Jenner is able to take trans awareness into so many households. The little old lady across the street knew who Bruce Jenner was, she now knows who Caitlyn Jenner is. She has no clue who Laverne Cox is. Or Janet Mock. Or Jazz Jennings. Or countless others who are significant to me and my household because we are so very trans aware. Thank you, Caitlyn Jenner for throwing that door wide open.
But, I also think it is vitally important that we begin to bring more transgender individuals to media attention because Caitlyn’s story is very unique and the public needs to hear the spectrum of experiences. Many teens will never get hormone blockers or cross gender hormones to stop a puberty that’s for the wrong body. Most trans folks lack access to basic primary care much less an endocrinologist, a plastic surgeon, a stylist, a host of fashion forward daughters, a world renowned photographer, and a cover in a fashion magazine. They struggle to get a job, to rent an apartment, to get to a healthcare provider when they are sick.
Caitlyn Jenner made a comment about not wanting to “look like a man in a dress” and I cringed. Hard. Because one’s ability to “pass” should not be the yardstick by which we measure how feminine one is. The trans community’s most notable female examples are glamorous, beautiful, and look way (WAY) better in a dress than I do. But, that’s not the whole of the transgender community. And it’s a dangerous message to send to our transgender youth that the way to be accepted by society is to be glamorous and grace the covers of magazines.
We’ve sheltered the kids quite a bit this week from media. My daughter knew who Caitlyn Jenner was and we looked at her photos together. Conner and I had a big conversation about whether or not she felt the need to grow up and be such a glamorous woman. I realize that the not-quite ten year-old girl who still has to be reminded to brush her hair or take a shower may have a different answer as she grows up, but for now, she does not feel the need to be the next girl in heels and a corset. She would like to be the next YouTube star thanks to her favorite role model, Jazz Jennings. We’ll have to talk about the YouTube part, but a fairly typical teenage girl? Yes, please.
I also want to talk about Caitlyn Jenner’s bravery.
Yes, she is really fucking brave.
She hid herself for over 60 years. She tried to transition several years ago and stopped. I only have an inkling of what it is for my daughter to face the world everyday. She feels different than her peers. She is constantly asking herself if she is in a safe and supportive place, if she can tell her friends who she really is, if they will continue to accept her if she does. She’s lost friends. She’s been bullied, told that she’s wrong because God doesn’t make mistakes, shunned by peers who were afraid to touch her in case they caught her “weirdness.” I get physically ill when I read the hatred spewed out on the internet about trans folks and realize that someday my child will leave the protection of my home and live in that world. She’s not even ten and we live in a much more supportive world than Caitlyn lived in. Don’t tell me that Caitlyn Jenner isn’t brave. Because I see my daughter and she’s the bravest person I know.
Please, celebrate Caitlyn Jenner. We do. We’re thrilled for the positive reception she’s received from so many. Continue to talk about trans folks to your kids. Be aware that you’ve passed transgender individuals on the street and never realized it. There is a beautiful spectrum in the transgender community and it would be a shame to expect every person to be a glamorous woman in heels and lipstick. I don’t want that expectation placed on my daughter, nor do I want it placed on me. In the words of Jon Stewart, “It’s really heartening to see that everyone is willing to not only accept Caitlyn Jenner as a woman, but to waste no time in treating her like a woman.”
Say what you will about Miley Cyrus but the girl has the ability to accumulate press. And, what I’ve always loved about her, even when her actions made me cringe, is that she didn’t seem to care what other people said or thought. That kind of self-confidence, especially in a girl that age, always blew me away.
But, now she just because my freaking hero.
Have you heard of The Happy Hippie Foundation yet? If not, I want you to finish reading this sentence and take the link to read about it. I’ll be right here when you get back.
Did you read about it? Can you understand why I am moved to tears by her work? She outlines how 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT and how 1 in 3 transgender youth have been turned away from shelters. She has started an organization to directly help homeless youth, LGBT youth, and other vulnerable populations achieve positive outcomes in their lives.
And Miley isn’t just talk. She raised over $200,000 in 24 hours for My Friend’s Place, an organization dedicated to helping homeless youth. I can’t even read their description of homeless youth statistics without getting choked up.
Her marketing is smart. She’ll be having backyard jam sessions with huge names like Joan Jett and posting them on Facebook to help raise awareness. Um, can you get any cooler than Joan Jett??
Somewhere along the way, little Hannah Montana has grown up to be a young woman who has the world’s attention with a voice on very adult issues. Her recent interview in Out magazine painted the picture of a young woman coming into her own with a desire to use her influence to change the world for youth.
I was also excited to share with my kids that Miley is very aware of gender issues and embraces a life free from the boxes we traditionally put people into. From the Out Magazine article:
“Miley says she already spent a lot of time struggling with traditional gender expectations—and being resentful that she was a girl. “I didn’t want to be a boy,” she clarifies. “I kind of wanted to be nothing. I don’t relate to what people would say defines a girl or a boy, and I think that’s what I had to understand: Being a girl isn’t what I hate, it’s the box that I get put into.”
My daughter didn’t know who Hannah Montana was (we missed that by a few years) but she was very aware of who Miley Cyrus was and I wish I could have captured the grin that spread across her face when I shared the news with her. Though my daughter identifies strongly as a female, I have a heart for gender-fluid individuals and feel that they are desperately underrepresented and face even more barriers. I’m so happy that Miley has been open and rather candid about her wish not to be put into a binary box.
Thank you, Miley. I am truly impressed with your work and I’m thrilled that my daughter can call you a role model.