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.
In true Melissa fashion, I’m writing this post late into the evening when I should be headed to bed. But, I know that sleep won’t come until I untangle the knots of emotions that are holding my eyelids open.
We’ve hit the next stage in our journey raising a transgender child. Up until now, our choices and decisions did not require a medical intervention. Deciding if we would allow our child to wear clothing normally worn by females, using female pronouns, allowing our child to socially transition to a female, introducing our child to others as a female. None of those decisions required a prescription.
Puberty always felt a long way off. I swear these children just came out of me yesterday, but this year they have lockers, a school dance, need deodorant, and drink an impossible amount of milk each week. Where did the time go? How have we gone from baby bottles and diapers to a first dance dress and a discussion about personal hygiene?
I was suspicious that we might be getting close to puberty when I saw that some of the kids who were boys last May were suddenly young men in September. And recent lab work confirmed that it is time to start puberty blockers.
Conner was so relieved that she started crying. It is exhausting to constantly be worrying that your body will betray you and that the doctors might miss it until it is too late. Since the labs had been drawn, she’d spent more than one day in bed, overcome by nausea as her anxiety climbed. When we told her that the prescription for blockers was being sent in, her relief was evident by the school bus wide smile she wore for the rest of the day.
What she didn’t see, was her mom break down in tears upon seeing the message from the doctor. Why all the tears from mom? Good question.
That’s maybe a little bit why I’m here tonight typing instead of playing Township on my phone as I wait for sleep to come.
I’ve had to sort out my mix of emotions and that involved reaching out to a few trusted moms who also have transgender kids.
“I’m a mess and I’m feeling too many things,” I cried.
“Yes, we did the same thing too,” they reassured me.
It has helped to list my emotions and I’m hoping this will help another parent in a similar hot mess of emotions.
First and foremost, I’m crazy happy for my child. She feels so validated that her parents and her medical providers recognize that she needs blockers. It confirms to her that we believe her and that she won’t have to go through a male puberty. Her happiness is infectious.
I’m beyond relieved that we can stop wondering when puberty will start. I keep watching her friends show the tell-tale signs of puberty and then I look at both my children to see if I can recognize any of these signals in them. I’ve pestered my husband and his mother about when puberty started for him (to no avail, it’s like he’s blocked it out of his mind). It has caused me so much stress that it only compounds my anxiety about what this has been like for her.
I’m sad. I’m sad that she has to have a medical intervention to be who she is. I’m sad that she carries so many burdens. I’m sad that she had to wonder if she would get the medical intervention she needed to block male puberty.
I’m also angry. Why couldn’t she have been born with a female body? Why does she have to go through this? Why does it have to be so hard for her?
I feel guilty. Did I do something wrong in my pregnancy that put her in the wrong body? Could I have somehow prevented the pain that she feels? Should I be more worried about the long-term effects of puberty blockers than I am?
I’m confused. Is it wrong to feel this way? Does it lessen her identity as a transgender female to wonder if I could have prevented this? Does it make me a bad ally to wish that she has been born into the body she identifies as? Is it normal and okay to feel guilty and confused?
My children are identical twins. Even though one has long hair and a mole on her cheek they are otherwise identical. What will happen when her brother continues with male puberty and she doesn’t? How will they begin to look different? Will it be hard to watch one become what the other feared she would be? How will my identity change as feeling like a mother of identical twins even if it has been years since I told anyone they are identical? Will it be hard to watch one develop while the other waits? Will my relationship with them change as they begin to look different?
Will their relationship change? Will it hurt her relationship with him when she watches him become what she feared?
I don’t have the answers. But I do have the knowledge that we’ll take each day as it comes together as a family. I do know that we are strong and we love each other and we will get through whatever comes ahead.
And I do have the absolute conviction that we are making the best decision for her.
On Saturday, our family was honored to walk with TransOhio in the 35th Annual Stonewall Columbus Pride Parade. My kids are not quite 11-year old identical twins and my daughter socially transitioned just before the age of 5. It has been her wish to walk in the Pride parade to celebrate her identity and stand with her community. Saturday was truly a dream come true for her, and as her mom, I couldn’t have been more thrilled.
What I didn’t expect, was the impact it would have on her twin brother, Murphy.
People ask me how Conner’s transition has been for her brother on a regular basis. At the ripe age of 4.5, he would tell us that Conner was really a girl. When she initially transitioned, he seemed to easily make the switch to using female pronouns. But, as the weeks went by, he began to struggle a bit as the quiet, shy brother became an opinionated, thriving sister who no longer would stand by and play with a truck when she would rather play princess fairies. She no longer looked like him, no longer called herself his brother, and would no longer sit quietly by content to allow him to take the lead.
The first year after Conner’s transition was hard on Murphy. I would occasionally overhear him trying to barter with her. He’d give her his most prized Transformer, if she would be his brother again. Conner would tell him that she would pretend to be his brother, as long as he still referred to her as “she” and as long as he didn’t expect her to put boys clothes on again. Those negotiations never got very far.
Of all of us, Murphy was the one who actually needed to grieve the loss of his twin brother. My husband and I didn’t feel grief. We were worried for the future and concerned about all the changes, sure. We had been working with healthcare professionals that we trusted, and we knew that we were making the right choices because Conner was blossoming into a happy, confident, well-adjusted little girl when just a few weeks prior she has been quiet, depressed, and anxious.
But Murphy struggled. He would cry in my lap and tell me that he loved his sister, but he missed having a brother. One day, while getting ready for kindergarten, he decided to wear one of her dresses to school. I think he was trying so hard to have that connection of being the same gender as his identical twin that he thought a dress would help. Thankfully, the other kids at school were supportive and many kids (both boys and girls) told him how much they liked his dress. But, wearing a dress didn’t make him feel any closer to his sibling.
Over that first year, we encouraged Murphy to grieve as he needed to. At times, he would be angry, at other times, sad. He talked to a therapist a few times and that seemed to help. We also had very grown-up conversations with both of our children about the need to support one another, yet allowing each other the space to be sad and happy about the changes.
But as time went by, and Murphy came to terms with the fact that his sister was going to stay a sister, he slowly became her biggest supporter. Murphy is the one who does a lot of the behind-the-scenes hard work. He’s there with her in the playground when kids say mean things. He was the one who went head-to-head with a bully who said that God didn’t make mistakes and his sister was going to hell. I found him holding her this year while she lay sobbing in her bed after a bad day at school. When Conner was afraid to change classrooms because she didn’t want to hurt her teacher’s feelings, it was Murphy’s opinion that finally got through to her that it was okay to move into a class with all her allies.
He is often the quiet solid wall of support for her while Mom and Dad go in to meet with the teachers and school administrators. While he might only be 14 minutes older than her, she treats him like a big brother and he acts like one.
We giggled while we created his poster for the Pride parade. I read to them about the history of the Stonewall Inn and the police raid in 1969. We talked about how the parade is a combination of a celebration, a protest, and a time to come together as a community. We talked about how, as cis participants in the parade, we were there to show support for Conner and a community we love. The parade was not about us, it was about the LGBTQ community. We talked about the recent events in Orlando and how terrible the world can be for a group of people that includes many loved ones, including his sister.
But, today, with tears streaming down my face as I write this, I want to thank the people of Columbus who came to the parade on Saturday. There’s this special section of the parade route as it comes into the Short North district, where the streets get narrow and the crowd is close. So many of you pressed your bodies into those tight spaces. You pointed to my son’s sign, you gave him a thumb’s up, you shouted thank you’s for his support, you ran up and hugged him, and you loved on him. You made him feel so special. So loved. We were prepared for the support to his sister-which she got in spades and basked in. But, we were shocked at the number of those who came up to my son to thank him, take a picture, and basically drown him in love and support. We came to support you and to support Conner, but were overwhelmed by the support you gave us.
I looked down at his face during the height of the parade, and noticed his lip beginning to tremble. I squeezed him close and gave him a smile. Later, he told me how close he was to crying, but he didn’t want to cry during such a happy event.
Thank you. Thank you for loving both of my children. Thank you for loving our family. I went prepared to pour out my heart for all of you, and I’m completely humbled by how much you poured into me.
In the world of social media, it seems I can’t go more than a few weeks (sometimes a few days) without hearing that another transgender person has committed suicide. As a healthcare professional, and the very concerned mom of a 10-year old, I want to discuss why and how you should be talking to your transgender child, loved one, patient, or student about suicide.
There tends to be a misconception that talking about suicide with someone who has suicidal thoughts may encourage the behavior. However, research suggests that talking about suicide may actually decrease suicidal behavior and improve the likelihood that someone will seek help (Dazzi, Gribble, Wessely, and Fear, 2014). [link]
Within the general population, the attempted suicide rate is 1.6%, but in the transgender and gender non-conforming population, the rate of attempted suicide is 41%. While the reasons behind suicidal ideation are many, Trans Lifeline, a crisis and suicide hotline run by transgender volunteers, has reported that calls have doubled since the passing of North Carolina’s bill, HB2.
In my own Facebook feed, I’ve increasingly seen transgender and gender-nonconforming friends comment about how hard it is to ignore the comments that go along with the news stories about bathroom bills. I am reading comments of friends feeling sad, feeling alone, and feeling hopeless. As the mother of a transgender child, I’ve done my best to shield her from the ugly comments of others, but I can’t make the news comments stop. I’ve been posting frequently about how to contact suicide hotlines and we’ve had conversations in our house about how to remain safe. Don’t be afraid to talk to your loved one, student, or patient about suicide even if they aren’t displaying any of these signs. It’s never a bad idea to check in, and let them know that you care for them and that they matter to you.
Signs of suicidal thoughts include: (Adapted from National Suicide Prevention Lifeline)
Talking about wanting to die
Talking about feeling hopeless
Talking about how the world would be better without them
Talking about how they are a burden to others
Looking for a way to complete suicide
Increasing use of alcohol, drugs, or reckless behaviors
Withdrawing from others
Displaying extreme changes in mood
If you are the parent or partner of a transgender loved one:
Talk to your loved one about suicide. Be direct, open, and non-judgmental. Be prepared to listen. Don’t make false assurances that everything will be okay.
Make sure you have the phone number for The Trevor Project (1-866-488-7386) and Trans Lifeline (1-877-565-8860 in the US, 1-877-330-6366 in Canada) in a visible place in your home. Make sure your teen or loved one has the number in their phone.
Ask your loved one if they have thoughts of harming themselves.
Ask your loved one if they have a plan in place in case they develop thoughts of harming themselves.
Help your loved one create a safety plan. The plan should include how to know the warning signs of when a crisis may be developing. Identify the thoughts and feelings that might come up when a crisis is developing. Identify potentially harmful situations (persons or places that may trigger suicidal thoughts) and the behaviors that may accompany them. The plan should include coping strategies to help if suicidal thoughts develop, and what to do if the coping strategies don’t work such as who they should call and where could they go for help. Make sure that phone numbers are written on the safety plan.
If you are a medical professional:
Have your transgender/gender non-conforming patient complete a depression and suicide screening at every visit
At every visit, ask if they have had suicidal thoughts or thoughts of self-harm since their last visit.
Ask if they have attempted to harm themselves since their last visit.
Ask if they have a safety plan in place in case they develop suicidal thoughts.
Provide a safety plan template in the discharge instructions and make sure to include the phone numbers for the Trevor Project, Trans Lifeline, or a local resource for crisis intervention.
If they are depressed, talk about coping mechanisms, review options for medication if appropriate, and refer them to a mental health specialist that is familiar with the transgender/gender non-conforming population. Do not assume that it can wait until the next visit.
If you are a school counselor or teacher:
Have the phone number for the Trevor Project and Trans Lifeline easily available to give to your student. Make sure the student puts the number in their phone.
If a student talks about having suicidal ideation, then walk the student to the school mental health professional. Don’t assume they will walk there on their own. If there isn’t one available, then follow your school policy on getting the student in contact with the proper person.
Make sure the student is supervised until they are in a safe place.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the Trevor Project or Trans Lifeline. Please know that you matter and there are friends and allies fighting for you. We care about you and want to see you safe. I know that the visibility has been a double-edged sword and that many of you are feeling the negative effects of the sudden prominence in the news and media. Please know that people care for you and the world is a better place because you are in it. You are worthy and you matter.
I know I’m not YOUR mom, but your life still matters to me. If you are unsafe, please call and talk to someone who can help you.
Dazzi, T., Gribble, R., Wessely, S., & Fear, N.T. (2014). Does asking about suicide and related behaviours induce suicidal ideation? What is the evidence? Psychological Medicine 44, 3361-3363doi:10.1017/S0033291714001299 [link]
On Wednesday, March 23, the North Carolina Republican lawmakers held a special off-session meeting (at the tune of $42,000) to introduce a piece of anti-LGBT legislature under the guise of protection for women and girls. The bill was rushed through the House and the Senate (with the Democratic Senators walking out in protest) while Governor McCrory sat in his office, pen poised, to sign the bill into law late on Wednesday night. The whole process took less than 12 hours.
In a “Meet the Press” interview on Friday, I watched in disgust as Republican Representative Dan Bishop sat with his smug grin and called the bill a “return to common sense” because Charlotte had put the protection and safety of women at risk by their new LGBT-friendly ordinance.
Once again, we hear from Republican lawmakers that a sexual predator has been waiting for the moment when putting on a dress and some lipstick will give him the access he needs to assault women and girls in bathrooms. Yes, because that’s all that’s been stopping him.
Let’s be honest. This bill has nothing to do with the protection of women and girls in bathrooms and everything to do with how transgender individuals make the members of the North Carolina General Assembly uncomfortable. If this were really about the protection of women and girls then we should be hearing about tougher crackdowns on catcalling and men grabbing at women on subways, buses, and bars. We’d be hearing a lot more about victim shaming, the misogynistic treatment of women from the Republican front runner for President, and sexual assault in universities.
But we don’t hear any of that. No, the North Carolina Republicans are only worried about women and girls in the bathrooms. They’re on their own once they leave the safety of four walls and some porcelain.
It has already been demonstrated that laws that allow transgender individuals to use the bathroom of their affirmed gender have not resulted in an increase in sexual assault of women and girls. There are already laws in place that make assault (in any location) illegal. So why these bills?
Because transgender individuals make the North Carolina Republicans uncomfortable. And like any schoolyard bully, they will target who they perceive to be weaker. Governor McCrory and Dan Bishop, you are bullies and bigots.
In a misguided attempt to protect women and girls, they have likely contributed to the assault and bullying of numerous LGBT youth in the North Carolina school system. By not allowing transgender kids the protection of using the bathroom of their affirmed gender, they are outing countless children who will now be forced into bathrooms that don’t fit their gender identity and likely don’t fit their outward appearance. Many of these kids have been using their affirmed bathroom for years, and this law will identify them as being transgender when schools are forced to deny them access to the bathroom they’ve been using.
Clearly, protection of women and girls only extends as far as those with the proper anatomy. If you’re intersex or transgender, like my child, then the North Carolina Republicans don’t care what happens to you. They don’t care. It has been demonstrated that discrimination contributes to the high levels of depression and suicide in transgender youth and this bill just encouraged it. And if you read this article, that’s probably what these people want.
By not allowing Charlotte to add the LGBT community to the class of individuals who are protected from discrimination they have openly declared that it is okay to discriminate against them. Their law now puts every public school in the state at risk of losing federal funds because they’ve made it illegal for public schools to adhere to the Title IX protection for transgender students. So now, instead of protecting women and girls, they are at risk of losing $4.5 billion dollars of federal funds meant to ensure girls and boys an education.
Every LGBT child who is bullied, every transgender individual who is assaulted, every business that loses money because of the backlash of this bill is their responsibility. Not because they are trying to protect women and girls. Because of their open discomfort with the LGBT community.
When you are more focused on the genitals of my child and children just like her, YOU are the pervert, Governor McCrory and Senator Dan Bishop. So, let’s be clear and get this out in the open. You are not worried about the safety of the women and girls in your state. You are worried about sharing a bathroom with someone who is transgender. You are disgusted by the LGBT community. You have no desire to protect their rights and their safety. You will use women and girls to move your bigoted ideas forward showing once again that females are objects to be used when convenient but not important enough to protect with real policies.
Sometimes (okay, oftentimes) other people say things WAY better than I do. This is one of those times.
There are times that I get trapped by my own fears, by my concerns that my daughter is going to be pissed at me for saying too much, that something I say will lead someone to our front door, or that in my desire to do good, I’ll actually make a situation worse. I struggle to find the balance between being a strong voice, a loud advocate, and the mom of a real kid who has to deal with the consequences of mommy’s work showing up on the Huffington Post.
This mom is dealing with the exact same concerns and issued a freaking amazing post that had me alternately weeping in commiseration and standing on my couch yelling in agreement.
I’m not sure how other families steer their kids through social norms and conversational appropriateness, but in our house we talk pretty openly, though we try hard to keep things age-appropriate. The word “transgender” floats through our house frequently, and Mike and I often find ourselves having discussions with the kids that I suspect aren’t the norm in other households. Our children are mature for their age, but they’re also ten-year olds. While the topic list is open, we take great pains to remember their age and maturity level.
Our kids have always been precocious, and we learned very early to only answer the question asked. Here’s an example:
Kids (as kindergartners): Where do babies come from?
Me: Babies come from a special area in a woman’s body close to her tummy where they grow until they are ready to come out. (Kids are satisfied; mommy is relieved and thanking her friend Christina for the great advice about only answering exactly what was asked)
Kids (as first or second graders): How are babies made?
Me: Babies are made when a seed and an egg come together. (Again, shockingly, kids are satisfied and mommy is once again relieved and silently thanking her friend Christina).
It took until last year for them to finally put the pieces together enough to ask for the details. I’d like to point out that Mike has never been around for these conversations.
Kids (because they are always together when these questions come up): But how does the sperm GET to the egg?
Me (inwardly cringing and cursing my husband for, once again, missing this important life event): Well (sigh), for most couples, that means the man puts his penis in the woman’s vagina and then the sperm comes out. That’s called sex.
(Dead silence for a solid ten seconds as they process this unexpected information)
Kids: WHAT?? EEWWWW! YOU DID THAT?? DAD DID THAT? OH GROSS! (barf noises and peals of laughter for several minutes from them, uncomfortable silence from me)
Then followed a conversation about how some couples (same sex couples, couples with fertility concerns, single parents) don’t make babies this way and have to have help from doctors. Of course we also covered how these conversations are for home only and how it’s inappropriate to talk about these things with friends, etc, etc, etc.
And then I called Mike and railed against the injustice that these conversations always fell to me and how he owed me big time. I think I got flowers and chocolate that night. I was only slightly mollified.
That’s an example of how we’ve handled typically difficult conversations as they’ve grown up. I say difficult topics not because I think we shouldn’t talk about them (because I feel strongly that we SHOULD have these conversations), but because many adults have strong opinions on when, how, and what these conversations will look like.
All of that said, we have had to navigate through some pretty adult conversations in this house. Conner had her first endocrinology appointment a few months ago. This was to establish some ground work, meet the physician, talk about the process of going on hormone blockers and possibly cross-gender hormones (when and if appropriate, down the line, at the appropriate age), and for the physician to meet us, meet our child, and determine all of our wishes for hormone treatment. It was a really tough appointment for all of us for very different reasons and it’s taken me a few months to be ready to talk about it.
I talk to lots of parents of transgender and gender non-conforming kids. We’re all in different places of acceptance and readiness for the next steps. Mike and I had begun to feel like pros in navigating these waters because we’ve done it for so long. Conner has presented as a female for longer than she presented as a male. She doesn’t say that she feels like a girl, she says that she is a girl. That’s an important distinction when we start talking about hormone blockers and cross-gender hormones.
There was a recent article in Slate magazine from researchers who are leading a long-term study to observe the development and mental health of children who describe themselves as gender non-conforming and transgender. It’s a great article that describes some of the nuances between gender non-conforming children (children who don’t fit expected gender norms but don’t necessarily say that they ARE a different gender) and transgender children (who usually state or feel that they ARE a different gender).
Even medical professionals struggle to put the appropriate amount of emphasis on these definitions while still trying to maintain consistency with a diagnosis. The bottom line in all things stems from a child’s level of gender dysphoria, or their discomfort between the differences between their gender identity and their physical anatomy. It is really important to understand that everyone’s identity is individual and personal. One person’s definition of their transgender or gender non-conforming identity is likely to be different from another. Just as my self-identify as a woman is different from my sister’s. This is why blanket statements are pointless and harmful.
When we first put the pieces together when our daughter was 4 and had been asking us for months when her penis would go away, the distinctions between gender non-conforming and transgender were very important to us. We were desperate to try and figure out what we should do, foresee the future, and not make a wrong decision. We were asked by other parents if our child was transgender or gender non-conforming and it felt like we had to have a diagnosis to know what the next steps were. I’ve since realized that at the age of four, when no decisions are permanent, this was unnecessary stress.
Once the decision had been made to support her, trying to figure out if she was transgender or gender non-conforming didn’t weigh as heavily. We had access to few resources, contradictory studies, and no firm guidelines. What we did have was a gut feeling that told us that supporting our depressed and anxious child could not possibly be a wrong decision. The rest of the details would make themselves clear as we moved forward. And they did. Conner blossomed, we continued to educate ourselves, and life moved forward.
Conner has always been steadfast that she is a girl. In the very beginning of social transition, there were a few comments about being both a boy and a girl. I don’t want to hide that because I hear it from other parents and it tends to cause stress as mom and dad start second-guessing the decision to allow their child to transition. We took the stance that our daughter could be whomever she needed to be to experience happiness. Did she say a few times in those first few weeks that she was both boy and girl? Yes. Did she ever dress like a boy again or ask to go back to male pronouns? No. She was adamantly opposed to wearing boys clothes or having male pronouns and would visibly suffer when forced to comply with those gender norms. We encouraged her to do what made her happy, provided clothes and toys of both genders, and allowed her to lead us.
I give this backstory because we are coming up on the age when the differences between transgender or gender non-conforming, and the level of gender dysphoria gets more important. If you stopped to read the Slate article, it was pointed out that there is a statistic that states that 80% of of gender non-conforming children do not grow up to identify as transgender. There are many layers to this very general statement and it annoys me that it gets tossed around by people who don’t understand research, don’t understand where that number comes from, and use it as the definitive answer for why children shouldn’t socially transition. Please read the article to understand why you shouldn’t just stop educating yourself at the 80% statistic.
If your child is experiencing gender dysphoria, there is a medically acceptable path. As pointed out by our endocrinologist, puberty blockers do just that: block puberty. They have been used in children who experience early onset of puberty and can be safely used in transgender children. There are medical risks such as bone density concerns that must be considered. There are also risks in denying puberty blockers to a transgender child whose body starts to go into the puberty of the wrong gender. Even for a medication that has been used safely in other children, there are things to consider in both giving and withholding this medication.
If a child persists in their statement that they are a gender different with their anatomy, and they are of a medically acceptable age, then the next step is to start cross-gender hormones.There is some debate on what this age is as standards of care are being established, but fourteen and sixteen are the two ages I see most frequently cited. Fourteen is the age when endocrinologists step in to give medications for delayed puberty which is why many parents of transgender children advocate for it.
There’s a lot more to consider once you start talking about cross-gender hormones. Up until this point, everything has been reversible. Hair can be cut (or grown out), clothes can be switched, pronouns and names can change, puberty blocking medication can be stopped and the puberty that aligns with the anatomy can begin.
Once cross-gender hormones are started, the ability to procreate stops. For a child who wants to align their body with their identity, this might not seem like a big consequence. But, as a parent, the impact is clearer. There is the possibility of allowing puberty to progress to the point where sperm or eggs could be harvested. But there is also concern about denying cross-gender hormones and seeing your child suffer. And, I’m not just talking about a few sad days. I’m talking about the extremely high risk of depression and suicide that is disproportionately experienced by these kids. There’s rarely an easy answer.
So how did our appointment with the endocrinologist go? Well, frankly, it was kind of a shit show. I was tense and babbled inappropriately or sat rigidly in my chair and tried to sound like the medical professional that my degree proclaims me to be. Conner was stressed and slept poorly the night before which triggered her cyclic vomiting syndrome. She spent most of the appointment nauseous and moaning until, of course, the actual physical exam, when she began to violently throw up in the sink (she missed puking on the endocrinologist, thankfully). And poor Mike just sat there trying to take in all the information while supporting his mess of a wife (we were both shocked when I burst into tears) and his (literal) mess of a daughter.
It could have gone better.
That’s why I was surprised when I got a phone call from the clinic asking if I would speak on a parent panel for an endocrinology conference that was being held a month later. I’m not sure how that happened. Maybe it was my quick thinking when my daughter was about to hurl on the doctor. I suspect it’s because it was clear that I understood the complexities of these issues and would be unlikely to downplay the very real concerns that parents face when raising a transgender or gender non-conforming child.
Post appointment, there has been a sense of relief that Conner is still months, likely even a year or two away, from needing puberty blockers. I forgot to ask if we have to make the decision to allow puberty to progress to the point of being able to harvest sperm once puberty begins in a year or two, or if we start blockers right away and make that decision later. I guess we should also consider it a positive that we have time to navigate yet still more adult conversations with our ten-year old. She would love to have her own children someday and would be open to having a conversation about allowing enough puberty to make that happen. But, we don’t know what kind of changes her body will go through to get her to that point and that’s a big scary unknown. Right now, she is happy and healthy and my first priority is to keep her that way. I don’t want to take away her ability to have her own children, but I don’t want to see her anxious and suicidal as her body changes irreversibly due to the wrong puberty.
I find myself both relieved and frustrated that it’s not my decision alone that will dictate this course for her life. In fact, I suspect that my role will be to help her navigate possible consequences and help her tease out the complexities of her own thoughts on this. I’m sure that I’ll voice my opinion, but in the end defer to her decisions once I see that she has considered her options.
I chose to share this part of our lives because too often people assume that parents, kids, and medical professionals are blithely making decisions that have sweeping consequences without considering the the long term effects. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our lives are constantly weighing decisions.
I don’t know any accepting parent of a gender awesome kid who doesn’t find themselves struggling to balance support for their child with naked fear of the future. The authors of the study mentioned in the Slate article called us pioneers. They would know. We sat with them just a few months ago as we took part in their study. I’m so appreciative that researchers see the need to conduct well-designed studies like this. If you are the parent of a child like mine, then I encourage you to get in contact with the TransYouth Project. It was a few hours of our time, to be repeated if we are willing, so that the development and mental health of our kids can be studied long term.
As someone who teaches evidence-based practice, I see the need for studies like this to help future children. While many adults rigidly conform to expected gender norms, our children do not. Adults raise a ruckus when Jaden Smith wears a skirt for Louis Vitton or when Miley Cyrus refuses to conform to a specific gender. But do you know what our kids do? Nothing. Because they don’t care unless you tell them to care. We need strong evidence to help us determine which kids will need continuous love and support to express themselves authentically and which kids need that AND hormone therapy.
If you are looking for a great resource to help you understand the complexities of transgender and gender-nonconforming identity, I encourage you to start with the book Trans Bodies, Trans Selves. It will help you understand the rich layers of identity and why you can’t assume that one person’s transgender expression is the same for someone else.
The longer I advocate for my daughter, the more my understanding grows, and the more I realize how ignorant I am about this subject. I will never be able to step into her shoes, I will never be as eloquent as others in illustrating the needs of this community, but I will always try to be open to having my assumptions and beliefs challenged.
My friend Leslie over at Transparenthood recently helped develop a tool to help schools review the strengths and needs pertaining to the inclusion of and support to transgender and gender-awesome kids. I looked at it and I think it’s fantastic. I’m going to include it in the Purple Transgender Binder of Awesomeness but I wanted you to be aware of it. Take a look for yourself and then go hand it to your principal, superintendent, and all your school board members.
If you haven’t had a chance to check out Transparenthood, please go take a look. Leslie talks about her family’s experience when her child, assigned female at birth, transitioned to male during the adolescent years. I met Leslie and her son, Sam, at a conference for teachers where we were all sharing our stories. Her son talked with such openness and honesty about his struggles that I was a sobbing wreck. Like, the ugly crying that should only be done in the privacy of your bedroom closet. Under a blanket. When nobody else is home.
Leslie is a beautiful person who I probably never would have had the opportunity to meet without our shared experience as the moms of our transgender children. She has spoken at numerous conferences and over 35 schools. Her blog is regularly found in Huffington Post and she has also shown up in Bon Bon Break. She had no idea I was going to brag all over her today so let that be a lesson to all of you of the potential consequences of a friendship with me. Ha! I love you, Leslie and this School Assessment Tool is awesome.
It started with a frustrated question as I watched my daughter throw up (again).
“Do transgender kids miss more school than their cisgender peers?”
I posted it on my personal Facebook page and a friend immediately responded that kids who are bullied tend to miss more school.
I started to type this statement: “To the best of my knowledge, Conner isn’t being bullied. I mean, she IS being discriminated against by the school system . . .,” and that’s when I stopped typing and started crying.
She IS being bullied. She’s being bullied by the school system that tells her to stand up against bullies. I never made that connection before.
“Maybe,” I thought to myself, “Maybe, I am mistaking what the word “bullying” really means.”
So, I did what anyone else would do and I googled it. This is the first definition that popped up:
“Use superior strength or influence to intimidate someone, typically to force him or her to do what one wants. ”
That’s exactly what’s happening here.
The school system:
Is not allowing her to use the girl’s bathroom
Asked her not to disclose her own personal information because they weren’t educated on how to respond to questions from parents and students.
Due to the former, put her in a situation where she felt like she had to lie about why she wasn’t using the girl’s bathroom so as not to get in trouble for disclosing that she was transgender.
Is not creating a culture where she feels safe to openly be who she is
Is not creating a culture of safety for other LGBT kids
Is creating a stressful environment where she has to be the one doing the educating instead of the other way around.
I should stop and let you know that I appreciate many people in the school system who are hoping to make things better. I understood why they needed time to get educated. The school system as a whole was completely unprepared for us.
I am frustrated because they’ve known about transgender and gender non-conforming kids in the school system before we arrived and didn’t start working on changes at that point. They recognize now that they need to make changes and we are actually meeting this week to discuss where things stand and how to move forward. That’s great. I acknowledge the work being done. But, why did it take my kid (and my mouth??) to prompt these changes?
I really wish they could hear some of the conversations my daughter has had with her healthcare team. I wish they could see how stressed she gets and how it leads to throwing up. I wish they could understand the toll it takes on her to be in an environment where she is constantly wondering if she is safe. Or if she’s going to get in trouble for talking about who she is. Of being in an environment where she is doing the educating; where she is leading a culture change.
There are transgender kids in every school system across our nation. Too many times, schools are not updating their policies towards transgender kids until faced with parents who won’t go away. Too often, a child is discriminated against, which prompts the school system to realize that their policies need changed.
Why are we okay with that? Why aren’t educators leading the change here? Why are we forcing children to create their own path because one doesn’t exist for them in their school? Why are we asking children to carry the burden of educating their teachers and their peers?
Why aren’t schools creating a culture where kids feel safe to ask the tough questions? Why are the schools participating in a form of bullying because of outdated policies and lack of education?
I want to close by saying that my daughter did come out to her friends a few weeks ago. She started by asking them if they knew what transgender meant. Their response?
“Everybody knows what transgender is unless they are a baby or an old person.”
Think about that response for a second. Your child probably knows more about transgender issues than you do.
The end to that coming out story? After some typical grade school drama, her best friend said, “You can stop trying to explain because it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that you are my friend.” High five to that kid. That was over a month ago and there’s been no more discussion about it because it’s not a big deal to our kids. It’s a big deal to the school.
Our children are teaching the educators if they will only stop to listen.
Kids get it. It’s the adults who make it more complicated than it needs to be.