How To Support Parents of Transgender Kids in Your Community
Parents and allies of transgender youth have the duty to listen, learn, and be gender-affirming caregivers. It takes a village of support to thrive—here are ways you can be part of theirs.
There are a million stories I could share about my experience as the parent of a child who came out as transgender at what societal expectations deem a "young" age.
There are many stories I could share about my experience as the parent of a child, especially since he transitioned at an age too many think is too young. My son was 4 years old when he expressed to me one night that he had been feeling like a boy in his heart, not the girl I'd been assuming since birth. Most kids have a sense of their gender around age three, so this wasn't "too early," but it wasn't what I expected. It's not often that we can pinpoint a singular, exact moment that changed our lives in a pivotal way, but in this case, that was the moment.
After my son shared his true self with me, he was off and running and excited to make changes to reflect the way he'd been feeling inside; he wanted to express himself to the outside world in a way that matched the person he felt like on the inside. From wardrobe changes to haircuts and pronoun adjustments, he was consistent, insistent, and persistent-the three main indicators that your child is transgender when they tell you they are not the gender they were assigned at birth.
We corrected every person we encountered who used his birth name (also called deadnaming and is hurtful and disrespectful) or she/her pronouns (which were wrong and a sign of disrespect as well) when addressing him. Since then, he's grown less confident. He's slightly more timid and far less open with people who weren't there for the transitions he made just three short years ago. One of the main factors that has impacted his once-enthusiastic approach to sharing his trans identity with others stems from the handful of unfavorable responses he and I had received from a select group of family and friends in the months following his early days of transition.
I believe that each of our friends and family members, whether immediately supportive or not, had good intentions when reacting to the news of my son's transition, but many of the common themes we heard felt callous and painfully misinformed. The impact of their good intentions felt awful.
People said things like: "it's a phase," "they're doing it for attention," "maybe they're just gay;" "children this age are just too young for this," and "you shouldn't 'allow' this." My least favorite response was, "God doesn't make mistakes." To which my blanket response has been, "You're right. My child is perfect just the way he always has been, we just didn't know about it right away."
With a little bit of understanding, research, and some insight into our experience, people can take something important away from hearing our story and, hopefully, be equipped with at least a few tools to be better allies and support systems for transgender kids and their parents and guardians.
I want to be clear-I don't come from a place of judgment or criticism. Just the opposite, honestly. In the days and weeks after my son shared what felt like seismic news with me, I, too, had reservations. I'd be lying if I didn't admit that many of the collective arguments I heard from others hadn't crossed my mind, too. I weighed every possibility for how and why this was "happening" to us. But the reality is nothing happened, it always was I just didn't know until he told me.
My objective is not to condemn anyone who truly wants to learn. My goal is simple: to show people why it's important to be an affirming ally and how you can do so in a supportive way.
Before you take something you heard from Sally-whose husband's, cousin's, daughter's boyfriend said one day-as factual, come directly to me and ask your question. As parents, we want nothing more than for our kids to be understood and accepted, and if I can help then give me the chance. I don't mind being a medium for others to express their concerns or share misconceptions they've heard regarding trans youth. I'd much prefer if people came to me to have an adult conversation about their misgivings than hold on to assumptions that may or may not be valid or truthful. I also recognize that other parents are not as open. If a parent isn't comfortable being your educator, that's absolutely valid and their right to create that boundary.
Another great option is to fact-check what you heard by using reputable sources that explain what it means to be transgender. Ask Google!
Don't Ask Trans Kids To Explain Themselves
Never attempt to deliberate your reservations with my son or any other transgender child. To him, he just is. And he doesn't feel the need to justify himself or his journey beyond that. Nor should he be expected to. He is, after all, still a child. So while I've said some of the initial messages we received from loved ones were painful, I'm grateful I was the buffer for these particular ones. No child should ever feel invalidated or have their existence questioned.
Keep Learning On Your Own
There are so many great resources available for anyone who wants to learn or understand more about the trans community and trans youth in particular. Some of the most informative, youth-based resources include: the Human Rights Campaign, GLSEN, The Trevor Project, Gender Diversity, and PFLAG, which is not only for members of the LGBTQ+ community but is also known as an exemplary organization for their added inclusion and support groups. Other wonderful LGBTQ+ organizations include GLADD, National Center for Transgender Equality-which has a determined and direct focus on activism and policy change-and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Accept Your Allyship Role
Parents of transgender kids need to feel seen, heard, and respected for their affirming choices, not belittled or questioned for them. A parent's decision to support their child shouldn't be met with resistance; we are already experiencing an immense amount of adversity on a multitude of levels and we need someone in our corner while we face criticism from others.
Your role as an ally is to listen. If I would have been granted one wish throughout our experience, it would have been for every person we approached to be open to hearing our story. I wanted people to actually listen to me and my son with ears unsullied by deceptive and misinformed "news" they found on their Facebook feeds.
Your Role Is To Be a Lifesaver
During my own research to find what's best for my child, one unimaginable statistic stood out at me: More than half of transgender teenage males attempt suicide in their lifetime. The numbers are high for transgender females and nonbinary youth too. I was relieved to find that one of the most important life-saving measures is support.
A 2016 study published by LGBT Health reflected upon additional research conducted during a 2010 study by Caitlin Ryan, Ph.D., ACSW for the Family Acceptance Project, collectively found that family acceptance-or lack of it-has a direct and devastating impact on a child's self-esteem, confidence, social relationships, and overall health.
Kristina Long, LCP, RBT, confirms, "Adults who choose to adopt a gender-affirming approach today are making a conscious effort to support a child's identity, self-esteem, and overall mental health. When an adult in a caregiving or educational role provides gender-affirming support early in the stages of coming out, a child will experience reduced mental health stressors such as depression and anxiety." Long stresses the pivotal role of support in reducing the risk of a substance use disorder, homelessness, depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.
Supporting my child was an easy, non-negotiable choice.
Be Our Village
I'm a single parent to three kids who each have their own individual and strong personalities. I am in constant awe of each of my kids, but I can say with certainty that I am nothing but humbled and grateful to have the incredible honor of parenting one of the most remarkable, unique, and inspiring kids in this world. My trans child has enlightened me in so many different and outstanding ways. In his short life, he has taught me so much more than I had ever known about patience, understanding, love, and being true to yourself, no matter how hard it can be.
He's thoughtful, artistic, affectionate, and deeply emotional at times. He's the most sensitive kid I've ever met and I couldn't imagine how differently his life could have been now if I hadn't quickly opened my eyes to the important risk factors that could have caused a detrimental and dangerous impact on his mental and emotional well-being. I'm thankful every single day for that. I want and need others to see what I see. I want to share my beautiful son with you.
I understand learning is an experience and that many times, in order to do better, we have to first make mistakes. Some of which are hard and painful to remember. I'm not here to pass judgment on those who have made the mistakes I could have so easily made myself if I hadn't been fortunate enough to learn the importance of being an affirming ally for our trans kids. I'm not here to punish anyone as flawed as I am as a human. I'm only here to share our experiences with the hope that doing so can help people be better to each other. I want people to have empathy and appreciation for others who they may not fully understand.
I'm telling our story so you can see how a little patience and a whole lot of love can have an immeasurable impact on someone else. We need a village of support to thrive. We need you.