When our son Amaya, now 17, was in the second grade his teacher brought something very interesting to our attention. Amaya was considered a tomboy by many of the other students and was often mistaken for a boy because of the way “she” dressed and behaved. (To be clear, I will always use male pronouns for Amaya even though our family and community used female pronouns for Amaya until he asked us to switch at age 14.)
When we met that year with Amaya’s teacher Ms. G for a routine parent-teacher conference, she told us that another child’s parents had raised Amaya as a topic during their conference. These parents told Ms. G they were very concerned about our child’s well being, and they asked the teacher, “Why do Amaya’s parents make her dress that way?”
Ms. G told us she was taken aback by this question, as she knew we were allowing not forcing. She said she’d tried to explain to these other parents that we, the parents, were following Amaya’s lead, and that we were not making Amaya do anything against his will. The parents, according to Ms. G, just couldn’t understand or accept this.
My husband Gabriel and I were shocked. We had no idea that other parents could or would ever think we were forcing Amaya to appear as a boy, nor could we imagine doing anything of the kind to our child. All this time, we had been listening to Amaya and doing our best to allow him to be who he was -- and then we heard that some other people thought we were forcing him to be that way! WOW!
This brought up so much for me about being a parent and the expectations we impose on our children. From the moment they are born, and even way before a child is conceived, we develop an image of who our children will be. We may even daydream about our future children right down to their names, their gender, the things they will do, the adventures they will have, even the hand-me-downs they will wear. But of course there are many variations of being human that challenge our notion of who our children will be. We are all asked as parents to adjust and adapt. Some of these adjustments are easier to make than others.
Certainly, parents of transgender children need to make many adjustments to our preconceived expectations. Does any parent imagine their child will say he or she was born in the wrong body? How many mothers and fathers predict that their child will want to remove a part of their body, or add another part on, or become so depressed they don’t want to live? Who presupposes a time when they will no longer be allowed to utter their child’s given name or have old photos of the child around the house in order to support their child’s health and well being? It can be heartbreaking when our children do not become who we think they will be – it’s a lot to take in and a lot to let go of. But we must adjust. We must love our children and support them. This is why:
LGBTQ youth have among the highest suicide rates in the nation. While more studies are needed, currently it is believed that at least 25% of transgender youth have attempted suicide, and rates as high as 41% have been cited. Compare that to the general population in which 4.6% attempt (or complete) suicide and one can see that there is an acute need for action.
In 2012 The Human Rights Campaign conducted a groundbreaking study in which 10,000 LGBTQ identified youth ages 13-17 were surveyed. 42% said that the community in which they live is not accepting of LGBT people. 26% say their biggest problems are not feeling accepted by their family/ trouble at school/bullying, and fear to be out/open. http://www.hrc.org/youth-report/supporting-and-caring-for-our-gender-expansive-youth#.VfuAnHs0dNY
It is only recently that the subject of being transgender has even been acknowledged beyond the occasional celebrity. The social climate of today is shifting, but there is a long way to go toward acceptance and equal rights. Violence against transgender people happens all too often.
Being transgender is not a “lifestyle choice”; rather, it is just one more beautiful, normal variation of being human. Having the support of family is the number one way to prevent depression and suicide among trangender youth. Every child deserves to be loved and supported unconditionally.
There is support for parents to get help when struggling with the possiblity or reality that their child is transgender. Our family found support through Gender Spectrum in the years before Amaya transitioned (around age 15). Attending the Gender Spectrum support group in nearby Oakland, CA, was invaluable; just knowing there were others in our area who were on the same journey was comforting and empowering. In addition to Gender Spectrum , there are many national support organizations with local contacts across the US for parents of gender expansive, transgender, and questioning children. Among these organizations are PFLAG (Parents, Families, Friends, and Allies of LGBTQ People) , Stand with Trans , Ally Moms, and TransKids Purple Rainbow Foundation .
Just recently I received a great gift from Amaya. He is 17 now, and for Mother’s Day this year he gave me a card he wrote that read, “I really don’t know where I would be without you.” So many feelings came to me at once when I read that card! His words rang heavy in my heart as I remembered earlier days when my child was often sad-eyed and always felt dysphoric. At the same time, I was overflowing with joy. I am so grateful that somehow I knew that I needed to love this child and let this child know that I was there no matter what.