I am at the 10th annual Gender Spectrum Conference in Moraga, CA. There is a flurry of activity as parents, children, grandparents, siblings, and allies all gather for this special conference that focuses on transgender and gender expansive children and their families. A mix of excitement, confusion, and anxiety is in the air. For some it is a reunion with folks they have met over the years. For others, the scene is unfamiliar and a bit overwhelming.
According to their website, Gender Spectrum "helps to create gender sensitive and inclusive environments for all children and teens." Most of the participants are parents of children who are either transgender or define their gender in some other way, such as non-binary, gender fluid, or gender expansive. (Click here for a list of terms used to describe gender identity.) There are some transgender adults in attendance as well. Others are here as allies in support of someone they know.
The Gender Spectrum Conference is a place where people can find support, ask questions, and get answers. "We are here above all for connection," says Lisa Kenney, Executive Director of Gender Spectrum. "We acknowledge there is much struggle and uncertainty in our nation right now as we figure out who we are as a country." Still, Kenney says, "I remain hopeful. Wonderful things are happening."
The focus shifts to the children. They are sitting together with their group leaders. As each age group is called we applaud and send them off to their morning activities. For some this is the first time they have ever met another transgender child. Some are expressing themselves fully for the first time. As with their parents, there are reunions, and also worries. One mom tells me that last year her child had a stomachache on the first morning, but by lunchtime she didn't want to leave her new friends. Wonderful things are happening.
As we settle back in, Kenny continues to address the adults. "We all want to stand beside our children. This is a place one can find the support and tools that empower a parent to do this for their child." Kenny reports that there is good research that shows that children who feel supported by their families demonstrate a 93% reduction in suicidality. She reminds us parents that all the anxieties we feel are OK, and she tells us that we are doing the best we can. Kenny assures us that just our being here is communicating a powerful message. "Please be patient and kind to yourself and others this weekend."
Here are more wonderful things:
Joy: Children are playing and laughing and expressing their true selves.
Empathy: Parents are crying together, and laughing too.
Longing: An 81 year old grandmother says she prays she lives long enough to witness her transgender granddaughter living as her true self.
Processing: A teen struggles to express what it feels like to be non-binary in a binary world while sitting next to their mother, whose struggle is written all over her face and body language. An opening between them comes as the group provides support to both.
Progress: 350 professionals attended the one-day Gender Spectrum Professionals' Symposium, more than ever before.
Science: There is new evidence emerging that supports the notion that biology, along with environment and culture, plays a role in one's gender identity, according to Dr. Stephen Rosenthal, director of UCSF's Child and Adolescent Gender Center.
Facts: A new study by the National Center for Transgender Equality will be released by the end of this summer. It is the largest study of its kind to date and will provide much needed information that can help improve the lives of transgender people. Preliminary findings can be read here: http://www.ustranssurvey.org/
Perspective: Quite a few trans adults spoke out and expressed their gratitude toward the parents and other caregivers who came to the conference. Many of these adults work in the field supporting trans kids and their families. Most say that things would have been so much better for them if only their parents had a place like Gender Spectrum to turn to. One says directly to the parents, "Thank you so much for being here. I can't tell you how much it means to me, and how much it will mean for your child." Another says he wants to adopt some of the parents present as his own.
Towards the end of the conference we all gather together to process what we have experienced. Gender Spectrum's Director of Education Joel Baum welcomes us back together. He asks how everyone is doing and it is clear that things have shifted since we first got together. There is applause and smiles. Faces look tired but also less anxious. A few people get up to say thank you to all those who made the conference possible. There are tears of relief flowing as one woman says it is so comforting to know there are people who understand what she and her child are going through. Another is simply thankful to be able to talk about her child, as she does not have support around her to do so. Joel again reminds us that each person is entitled to their feelings. He says "You are enough."
I am left with the words from one young adult who sat on a panel about non-binary gender identity. They asked, " Which parent do you want to be? The one that is cut off from their child or the one that is thanked and embraced for their support and unconditional love?" Without hesitation my answer is clear. I choose love.