"Just Love Your Child"—Parents of Trans Kids on Empowering the Next Generation
It's impossible to count the joys of parenthood, but one thing that's truly rewarding is seeing our children being unapologetically true to themselves. Whether we empower them to eschew "traditional" gender norms or pursue every single one of their passions, part of what makes being a parent so exciting is experiencing the world through our kids' eyes as they discover their own identities and lead happy, fulfilling lives. But imagine having a child who knows their true gender identity with such a strong conviction, yet feels trapped by their body's biological sex. How do you help them find happiness when you're not even sure—or aware—of the resources to do so?
That's the challenge many parents of transgender kids have faced. "I would venture to say that all parents want their kids to grow up and be happy and healthy and well-adjusted contributing members of society, and they want them to find love," says Roz Keith, founder of Stand With Trans and a mother of two sons, one of whom is transgender. "The statistics have been very clear: When they have the support of their parents, their mental health and self-esteem improve significantly. The rate of depression is no more than any other peer; the attempted suicide rates dropped to almost nothing."
"It's really critical that parents support their children and find a [supportive] community because that is the key to this child's success," she tells MyDomaine. "It takes a really special human being to overcome all the other controversies and push back and just rise above it with only parent support. And because being transgender is not a choice, we need to learn how to understand it and accept it and embrace it. That's who this person is."
Father of two David Strah, a pre-licensed psychotherapist based in Los Angeles, explains that it's important to think about gender as being on a spectrum: "You have the binary on either end, but most people fall somewhere closer to one end or the other," he tells us. "Nowadays, people are being allowed to be much more genderfluid or neutral." But even open-minded parents can experience their own personal challenges during their children's journeys. When his son came out as transgender at 14, Strah tells MyDomaine that he had conflicting feelings. "On the one hand, as the therapist I was being trained to be, I wanted really to support him. And then as a parent, I want to support him too, but I also grieved for the daughter I had lost," he explains.
Judi (who prefers not to publish her last name for privacy reasons), a speech pathologist based in California, tells MyDomaine that everything changed when her transgender daughter attempted suicide. "We had gotten her a dog," Judi explains, with the idea that her daughter would think, Who would take care of my dog if I killed myself? After her child's suicide attempt, Judi decided it was time to address their gender dysphoria or face life-or-death consequences. Today, her daughter is a happy young woman who's finally enjoying the possibilities of life. "We're finally watching her become a whole person. We couldn't be happier or more proud," she says.
Below, read each family's inspiring story, the advice they have for parents of all children, and the steps we can all take to help empower the next generation to embrace their true identities.
On the Coming-Out Process
JUDI: Judi's daughter struggled with ongoing depression, but everything changed when she attempted suicide. "Growing up, my daughter was depressed all the time," she tells MyDomaine. "I fought that depression with everything I had—psychologists, psychiatrists, and counselors—and nobody was able to tell us she was experiencing gender dysphoria. Although she realised it age 9, she didn't really have the words."
Bullying, her voice changing, and worsening depression all came to a head during an incident no parent ever wishes to face. "There was my daughter in the kitchen holding a knife," she tearfully remembers. "It took her a long time to get to that point—the stage that she actually came out to us. Contrast that to the young woman now who has come out: She's dating, she has a lovely girlfriend, [she's on her way to a] four-year college," continues Judi. "She's so much happier and has so many possibilities in life that she now doesn't know what to choose."
ROZ KEITH: Now almost 19, Keith's son, Hunter, had researched about two years before he said anything to her. "He had been watching YouTube transition videos and reading and had already come out to a couple friends. I don't even think I'd ever heard the word [transgender]," she says. "I knew I would support him, and I knew at the time he was going through a lot on top of the normal teenage stuff.
I told him we would have to figure it out and that we would explore together, but he, like many trans youth, had already been doing the research." By the time Hunter was ready to make his physical transition, they had to catch up. "That was probably the hardest part—getting him to slow down," Keith says. "I was like, Whoa, testosterone, hormone therapy—what are you talking about? All I could think about was long-term; I wanted to put the brakes on."
There were a number of events that led to her son's coming out beyond close-knit family and friends, one of the most prominent being an eighth-grade school trip to Israel where a dress code was required for certain activities, says Keith. Hunter confided in some of the girls he was rooming with that he didn't feel comfortable wearing a dress because of his gender identity. "One of the girls was just upset because she didn't know what that meant," she recounts. The girl's mother ended up calling the school [asking], 'Is my child rooming with a boy?' "He didn't want to dress up as a girl.
Some kids can suck it up and can do that," but her son thought, Okay, I can finally start being who I am [on this trip], she says. "My child was paranoid that everyone was looking at him, and the teachers called me from Israel wanting to understand what was going on. I had to tell them through tears what was going on. His teachers were so kind; they said, 'We understand, just let him know that we're here if he needs anything.' It was so emotional and anxiety-ridden because he was in a foreign country, and we didn't really know how things would go."
DAVID STRAH: Strah says his son Spencer, now 16, explored "traditional" boys and girls clothes throughout his childhood. "He was a very 'girly-girl', and then kind of overnight just said, 'I'm really a boy' and then transitioned pretty quickly over a few weeks." He went through a period of wearing makeup and nail polish and straightening his hair, says Strah.
Looking back, however, the signs were all there: There was the one time Spencer refused to wear a dress for Rosh Hashanah and another time when he only wanted to wear boys' briefs as underwear. "We weren't shocked, but I would say we were surprised," he recalls. "It happened over a few weeks around Thanksgiving when we went shopping to Victoria's Secret for new bras. By the end of December, we were packing for our trip to the Caribbean, and Spencer needed new bikinis but only wanted the board shorts. We thought that was a little strange, and Spencer only wore his brother's clothes on the trip," says Strah.
When the family returned from their vacation, Strah noticed his son bought a binding bra online. "He also asked to cut his hair very short, and at the time he had really beautiful long curly golden hair. He'd never wanted to get a haircut before, so we had a talk, and he said, 'Yeah, I really think I'm a boy.' He went to school, told all of his friends to call him Spencer—which they did immediately—and then he asked to call the teachers and say 'this is my new name,' and we said okay. The school really embraced him, and we got him into therapy with a transgender therapist, and he got a haircut, bought a new wardrobe, was wearing the binding bra, and went on hormone blockers. That's kind of like a pause [on puberty]."
After living as a boy for over a year, Spencer got a double mastectomy. "It was all hard. It's one thing to cut your hair and change your name, but then when you start taking hormones, and medication that's going to affect you, and then surgery, you could argue that it's reversible, but it's not exactly irreversible." As a gay man, Strah sees his son's struggles "through the lens of my own experiences growing up and the homophobia. We want our child to have a 'better,' more accepting and embracing childhood than we had. We're just trying to do whatever we can do, big and small."
On Finding Support and Empowerment
JUDI: "My children were raised in a church that is welcoming and accepting," says Judi, and she found instant support from her religious community after her daughter came out as trans. As a result of the publicity that hateful, attention-seeking groups command in the media, many people may be unaware that there are many churches that defy "the conservative religious right." Pointing to a recent report that concluded that the top 100 megachurches are non-affirming, Judi notes that "in every denomination, there's someone who is accepting. For Methodists, there's the Reconciling Ministries; Protestants have the Open and Affirming Movement. Wherever you look, somewhere there's a denomination [making a] movement toward LGBTQ acceptance."
"[The U.S.] had 129 anti-LGBTQ bills put forward in the last year, including a bathroom bill legislating you not to be in public," she adds. "I'm interested in making the world a more accepting place for my daughter," she says, which is why she's actively doing her part to raise awareness and fight for the rights of transgender people now more than ever, including with organiscmsations like Faithful America and Ally Moms, she says.
RK: "The fact that he came out as transgender wasn't problematic," she says. "As parents, we wanted to support him, but just trying to get help was really the problem. It was frustrating. Even though we were supportive, there was really no support [for us] where we lived. Not only did we not have any knowledge or education, but there was really nothing in our area to educate me: no parent support groups, no therapists or mental health practitioners who really understood gender issues in adolescents."
DS: "I was connected through a mutual friend to a woman who lives in our neighborhood and also coincidentally goes to our synagogue. She had a daughter who had transitioned, and they really tried to delay the transition, particularly the top surgery. The daughter became depressed and tried to commit suicide, and ended up in the children's psychiatric ward for a week or so. When I heard that story, I just thought, I have the choice between doing something and feeling good about it even if it's a mistake later, or have a kid who’s going to try to commit suicide—I think I’m going with option A. That child eventually had a really great life, and there's even a wonderful article in The L.A. Times about him. I feel like I was very fortunate to hear that story and think about what story did I want to have. So that was a big impetus for us moving forward."
"I also connected with an organization called Transforming Family—it's a support group through the children's hospital. We found a doctor who has the largest clinic of trans kids in the country—I think [about] 800 patients, some as young as 2 or 3 years old. We just felt like the train had left the station, and we better get on board because it's not coming back."
Strah also explains it's important for his son to have "opportunities on a regular basis to shine and really build that self-esteem to make up for some insecurities in other areas." He and his husband support their son's interests in art, sports, and music. "He has a number of areas that he can excel in; he takes guitar lessons and he takes art lessons on the weekends. He'll go to a summer art program. We really try to be supportive of all of the sports he's interested in."
"Around the Florida nightclub shooting, I was so upset that I ordered two rainbow flags [to hang] on the side of our house for gay pride. When I ordered the flags, there was a trans flag that came up [as a suggestion], and I ordered it for my son, and he put it up in his room. That's the kind of little thing that I hope will go a long way," he says.
On Navigating the Conversation
J: Citing a recent survey that found one in 137 teens would identify as transgender if asked, Judi points out that while knowing a trans person may be more common than we think, it's not always evident unless you know him or her before they transitioned. Those who are curious may not know how to approach the conversation, and as they're exploring the questions to ask in their own minds, "they kind of don't have that filter to stop at medical questions. What you [really] need to know is this person is a woman—here's their name, and here's their pronoun."
RK: "We didn't tell people right away; I was [still] processing it and didn't have enough information to really tell anyone anything," she says. "It was hard initially to tell people; it was so new to us, but once I started to talk about it, it was such a big conversation that I felt like I had to [be] mentally prepared. We were definitely met by acceptance one by one [by family and friends], and that's really the good news out of all of this. Fortunately we don't have one of those stories where he was bullied or lost friends, or that we had to emancipate ourselves from family."
"We just explained it to people, and started it by saying, 'So we wanted to let you know that Olivia is going by a new name now,' and that was kind of how we opened the topic, and honestly people who knew us and him weren't surprised. He definitely wasn't 'girly,'" explains Keith. "We have a pretty liberal group of friends. I really never had an incident where someone was face-to-face negative about it. We're really lucky about that, and I know that doesn't always make for a good story because people are always looking for juicy gossip [or expect] the bad thing that happened."
DS: "We've encouraged both our kids to talk to us; I would say like most teenagers, they don't talk to us about a lot of things," says Strah. "Every once in a while, we have heard about some incident that was on the verge of bullying or some not-niceness. We encouraged him to talk to the school [and] guidance counselor; have his own therapist; talk to us, and have some good comeback lines. We're really lucky to live in a bubble in L.A., which includes progressive schools and private schools. Most of our friends are pretty progressive, and everyone was very accepting and positive," he says.
On Advice for Parents Raising Trans Kids
J: Although the concept of postponing puberty may seem controversial to some, "the idea of waiting to see is not the best. I'm fully an advocate for puberty blockers," Judi says, which delay the primary physical changes like the development of sexual organs and secondary changes like facial characteristics and body hair.
RK: "You're definitely not alone. Find a community, and love your child through it like you would any other bump in the road; they're not choosing to be transgender. That's really my big message. Support networks are growing, and there are resources all over the place, like Stand With Trans. Ally Moms is also a really great resource for youth and parents. It's really easy if you support your child. It can change their whole world. It can save lives. People really need to understand if their children are going to grow up and be confident, productive human beings, they need community and family support, and they need to not feel ashamed about who they are."
DS: "It's really important to be an advocate for your child no matter what and be mature enough to separate your own feelings from your child's feelings. Your feelings should not be part of the decision-making process—that's where I really tried to say, 'Okay, I'm not thrilled about this, and this isn't my decision, but I need to honor this because this is my son's decision, and that's who he is as a person."
"My advice would be to try and meet as many other families who are going through or have gone through the same thing. Get involved in a support group. Parents and loved ones need to know that transgender people aren't part of a fad or a phase going on; for example, it's been historically recorded that some cultures have a third sex or two-spirited people. What's new is the attention that it's getting."
On Empowering All Kids
J: "My biggest advice is to love your kid. And now that there's this new path you're going down, guess what? You still need to love your kid. Let's say you have a difficult relationship with this child, and they're somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum. They're still worthy of love and they need your support."
RK: "It's about instilling a certain level of confidence and helping them become who they are—living authentically. We used to read a book called It's Okay to Be Different. If you have more than one child, each child is going to be different, and each child needs a different style of parenting. It takes a long time to get past a lot of the anxiety and the depression and the side effects of living in a body that doesn't match your identity. From a parent's perspective, to me the choice is about what kind of parent you're going to be. If you hold your head up and you present your child to the world [and say] 'This is my child, this is who they are,' and you believe that they're okay the way they are, other people see that and believe it too.
"I had one dad say to me, 'Well, I'm just concerned that if he's out at school, he's going to be a target—he's going to get bullied and picked on.' Actually, quite the opposite is true: The more kids can just be who they are and be accepted, the less likely they are to be a target. It's when they walk around with that secret and are not able to hold their head up from a place of weakness, that's when they’re more likely to be targeted and bullied.
"We need to uplift our children and hold space for the times when they're struggling and help them through it and figure out what they need and let them take the lead too. We don't have all the answers as parents; they need to know that they're not alone. The parents aren't alone, the kids aren't alone. And finding community—even if it's a Facebook group—so you can open up with other parents and kids can find other kids like them, that is so empowering."
DS: "Being authentic, really trying to be yourself and understanding who you are and who you're meant to be—I think probably it's what happened when my son went through a period of a time where he really felt the pressure to conform and 'act like a girl.' He really tried to do that and then he just couldn't; it didn’t work. That was confusing for us and when it was explained to us that way, I thought, Okay, let’s honor the person for who he really is, and honor that he has that sense of discovery and self, and not confuse it more or ask him to be something he's not."
"I think parents should make an effort to spend time with their children and watch documentaries and movies that include lesbian and gay people, and trans people of all different kinds of backgrounds and really normalize it," he adds. Parents often underestimate how accepting their children can be. "I remember when my son started a new school in ninth grade, and we had 'carpool talk': Who do you like, who are the new students. He rattled off different names, and said, 'And so-and-so who was a girl last year and came back as a boy this year' [in a way that was] totally matter-of-fact."
"Kids have a much greater capacity for understanding, for having empathy, for seeing the true beauty and true loving essence of individuals. Adults become much more about labels: What neighbourhood do you live in? Where are you from? What kind of car do you drive? What school, and [so on]. Kids don't really care about that, especially when they're younger." And that's something that can inspire us all. ■
Below are a few books that parents of transgender kids suggest everyone adds to their home library. Then read all about how one mother is encouraging her daughter to be gender-free.