Transparenthood: Raising a Transgender Child

Raising a transgender child isn't something anyone is prepared for. Meet parents who learned, more than they ever imagined possible, about loving and accepting kids for who they are.

Girl on the inside Aaron Tilley

After having a girl first, Ellen, a mom in Southern California, was excited to learn her second child would be a boy. She went on a shopping spree for baby-boy clothes and painted his whole nursery blue, including the ceiling, which she dotted with puffy white clouds. When her son arrived, Ellen and her husband, John, named him Ryan.

But from the time he was a toddler, Ryan gravitated to "girl" things. He played with his sister's dolls, pretended to host tea parties, and insisted family members call him Sarah or Ashley. Each day at his small Christian preschool, Ryan headed directly to the dramatic-play area and put on a dress. At home, he tied his red superhero cape around his head to imitate flowing locks of hair. When Ryan asked for a doll of his own, Ellen gave him a G.I. Joe action figure. Disappointed, Ryan broke off its head.

One day when Ryan was 3, he said something that struck Ellen as particularly confusing. "He said to me, 'I'm a girl. Don't you know I'm a girl?' " says Ellen. "He asked me why he was a boy on the outside. He said, 'I'm a girl inside. My blood is pink.' "

When Ryan began to pray to God at night that he would wake up in the morning as a girl, Ellen consulted a therapist, who said Ryan was going through a phase. Another therapist Ellen and John saw suggested Ryan might have an anxiety disorder or be bipolar. (Ellen, John, and their child's names have been changed at the family's request.)

One afternoon while Ellen was driving, Ryan, then in kindergarten, gazed out the window from the backseat and said sadly, "I wish I could be hit by lightning." Shaken, Ellen made an appointment with yet another therapist, who said she couldn't help but suggested seeking a gender therapist, who would be more experienced in addressing gender-identity issues. It was then, after an evaluation, that Ellen and John finally learned that Ryan was transgender, meaning his internal sense of gender didn't match the one he was assigned at birth. They consulted a second gender therapist, who confirmed what the first one had told them and also suggested they help Ryan make a "social transition" to his preferred gender. No medical interventions would need to take place yet, but Ryan could start using a girl's name, dress in the feminine clothes he wanted, instead of hiding his sister's dresses under his bed as he had begun to do, and be called by the pronouns "she" and "her."

John was ready to put the gender therapists' recommendations into action to help Ryan. Ellen, however, was grieving. "My husband was so much more on board with this as something real, and more gung-ho that we had to do what was right for Ryan," says Ellen. "For me, it was really, really hard. I was holding on to my son for a little longer." Ellen says she accepted that her child was transgender but took a year to make Ryan's transition public. Because they worried about the reaction from their local community, Ellen and John decided that after Ryan completed first grade, he would change schools and enroll as a girl.

Today, Ryan, now known as Rylie, is a happy fourth-grader. "My husband and I wanted to stay with something similar to the name we had, and I felt like, 'I'm the mom -- I get to name my daughter,' " explains Ellen, laughing. She compromised with her daughter on the middle name since Rylie wanted to be named after her favorite singer, Nicki Minaj. Her name is now Rylie Nicole. The family also moved around that time, and Rylie's new neighbors and classmates are unaware she's transgender. At the school Rylie attends now, only the principal, teacher, and nurse know.

For Ellen and John, there has been no downside to Rylie's transition. There was no more pretending or leading a double life: Ellen no longer had to remind Rylie to replace the frilly girl underwear she preferred with boy underwear before she went to school. And Rylie, whose sadness and anxiety disappeared, was elated. "She said over and over, 'Thank you so much! It's my wish finally come true!' " says Ellen.

While they can reverse course at any time, Ellen feels that's unlikely to happen. "Since the transition, Rylie looks back at those years as Ryan as depressing. She now feels happy and free. She doesn't want to look at old photos of herself as Ryan," says Ellen, who keeps the upsetting pictures out of sight in a box under her bed. At the suggestion of the gender therapist the family continues to work with, Ellen asks Rylie every once in a while if she's ever wanted to return to dressing as a boy. "But Rylie gets so mad at me. She says, 'What? Do you miss your son?' " says Ellen.

So far, Ellen's only regret is not having transitioned Rylie sooner and having let her spend most of first grade living as Ryan. "I don't know why I dragged my feet so much, but I was totally uneducated. I worried about what other people would think. I've lost that -- if Rylie's given me anything as a mom or a person, she's made me brave," says Ellen. "We're just your average next-door-neighbor family. We chose to make life better for our child. Inside she is 100 percent girl -- in my mind, and my husband's, if we hadn't done this, she would have become a suicidal teenager."

    Small steps

    Gender spectrum Aaron Tilley

    In many ways, it's a watershed time for transgender people. In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association eliminated from its diagnostic manual the term "Gender Identity Disorder," and introduced the term "Gender Dysphoria," to clarify that people who feel discomfort that their gender identity doesn't match their physical anatomy do not, in fact, have a "disorder." No one knows for certain how many people in the U.S. are transgender, although one conservative estimate is nearly 700,000 Americans. Awareness of transgender issues continues to grow thanks in part to high-profile celebrities who've spoken out, like Caitlyn Jenner and Orange Is the New Black star Laverne Cox.

    In spite of these strides, though, there remains strong resistance to transgender children. "Things have definitely improved. Yet many people are still much less comfortable with transgender children than they are with adults," says Kim Pearson, mother of a grown transgender son and the training director and cofounder of TransYouth Family Allies, in Holland, Michigan, which has an active online support group. "They get sexuality confused with identity, and they feel that kids are too young to make these life-changing decisions." (Gender identity, which is about identifying as male or female -- or for some, possibly neither clearly -- has nothing to do with sexual orientation: the gender someone's attracted to.)

    However, early intervention is critical -- and potentially lifesaving. A staggering 45 percent of transgender people ages 18 to 24 have attempted suicide, according to the most recent National Transgender Discrimination Survey. The rate is even higher among those who are not recognized in society as their preferred gender. "It's important for parents to understand that with early intervention and family support, those statistics can plummet," says Darlene Tando, a gender therapist in private practice in San Diego. "These statistics are typically based on people who have transitioned later in life, after years of societal and family rejection."

    Now, there's more help available than ever for transgender kids, including the option to avoid once-inevitable physical changes. "Puberty is a precarious time for trans kids. It's the development of this adult body they don't identify with for many reasons," explains Johanna Olson, M.D., medical director of the Center for Transyouth Health and Development at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. Puberty blockers, or hormone-suppressing medications delivered via injections or implants, do just as their name implies: They may result in regression of early breast-bud tissue and prevent menstruation, and can prevent the onset of facial hair, a deep voice, and an Adam's apple. (Children continue to grow typically otherwise.) The effects are reversible: If children cease taking medication, puberty progresses as it regularly would. "Puberty blockers are incredibly helpful, as children may be able to avoid some surgeries down the road, and they give families time and space," says Dr. Olson. "Children who are distressed about their impending puberty and spending 95 percent of their time preoccupied with their gender can't concentrate at school or at home. Instead, with puberty put on hold, they can focus, and participate meaningfully in family life and activities."

    In their teen years, kids may consider taking cross-sex hormones to masculinize or feminize the body, and some of these effects, like a deepened voice, breasts, and impaired fertility, are permanent. The final step is sex-reassignment surgery. (However, not all transgender people seek medical interventions, and to pursue any, kids under age 18 need parental consent.) Last year, a small study by researchers from the Netherlands published in the journal Pediatrics found that young adults who'd received early interventions (including puberty blockers, followed by cross-sex hormones and gender-reassignment surgery) were as happy, or even happier, than their same-age non- transgender peers.

      Dealing with disapproval

      While transgender issues are gaining more attention now than ever, America has a long way to go. Ellen recalls the hurt she felt after she told a close, longtime friend that she would be transitioning Rylie. "She said, 'This is too much for me,' " says Ellen. The friend, with whom Ellen had once shared playdates and birthday parties and a family vacation, now avoids her completely.

      While Ellen's family started over in a new community, Shannon, a former ob-gyn and mom of a transgender boy, Sam (not his real name), now 9, had the experience of transitioning him between first and second grade in the same school. "I went in unannounced to meet the principal in August, and he was frazzled with class assignments. I said our child had the courage to tell us he was a boy in his heart and that we were calling him by his new boy name, Sam, now, and using male pronouns, and we wanted him to be called a boy in school as he is at home," says Shannon, who lives in the Midwest. "And the principal just paused and said, 'All right!' " ("Way to drop a bomb on him," Shannon's husband teased her later.) Shannon got great support from the school administration and staff, and the kids quickly accepted Sam on his first day back to school, where he simply told people, "My name is Sam now." But then his classmates went home and told their parents, some of whom started avoiding Sam and Shannon as they walked by.

      It was hurtful, Shannon says, though one day not long after Sam's social transition, she got an unexpected boost from a stranger. She was out with Sam and her two other sons, and a man said, "Three boys! You've got your hands full!" For Shannon, who'd spent nights awake worrying about the future, it was welcome reassurance that Sam, who now had the clothes and hair he'd wanted ("short, like Dad's"), would be okay.

      Three years ago, mom Debi Jackson, a self-described Southern Baptist conservative, helped her child Avery transition to her "true gender," female, at age 4. Debi was interviewed for a story by her local big-city newspaper and became the target of hateful comments online. "People said if our child wanted to be a dog, we'd probably allow that too," says Debi. "My husband and I were also accused of being homophobic -- that we have a feminine gay boy but must have wanted a daughter so badly we convinced him that he's a girl."

      Debi wishes people who are uninformed and scared would ask parents about their transgender kids. "It's okay to have questions and not understand this," she says. "That's where we were a few years ago too." Slowly, she's tiptoed into advocacy for transgender children and their parents, many of whom are afraid, having received threats of harm, and even death, to their family.

        Bathroom battles

        Many transgender kids find themselves in the position of being accidental pioneers at their school, which often doesn't have a policy in place. That leaves parents waging a fight for their kids' rights over the single most contested battleground: the bathroom. Lawmakers in at least three states have proposed "bathroom bills" that would restrict transgender students' access. "Unfortunately, the bathroom has been made into a much bigger issue than it needs to be," Kim Pearson says. Parents and schools "go nuts" over it, she notes, with unfounded fears of children being exposed to transgender kids' private parts, or Peeping-Tom trans children spying into stalls (meanwhile, no such instance has ever been documented). "These are the most private children in the world," says Pearson. "As worried as you are about people seeing their genitals, they're more worried. The last thing a transgender child wants someone to know is what's in their pants."

        While school administrators may feel it's reasonable to propose transgender kids use teacher bathrooms at school but not girls' or boys' rooms, Pearson explains why it isn't: "Schools often impress that children are to be treated equally. Yet when a transgender child is not able to use the bathroom of their preferred gender, you're discounting their identity several times a day. It wears down their self-esteem, and it just doesn't work." It's also been ruled discrimination: Two years ago in Colorado, a 6-year-old first-grader, Coy Mathis, a transgender girl, won a civil-rights case after her school had allowed her to use the boys' bathroom or a single-user staff restroom, but not the girls' room. A similar victory followed in Maine last year, with monetary damages awarded.

          How siblings adjust

          Transitioning is a big event for the entire family, including the siblings. "For the most part, the younger siblings are, the easier it is for them to adapt to the idea that they now have a brother instead of a sister, or vice versa," says Tando. "The older they are, the longer it may take to adjust. Still, it's a pretty short period of time, and they typically become their sibling's biggest advocates and the pronoun correctors."

          Most of the work gender therapists do with families of transgender youth, says Tando, is in support of parents. She helps them understand that grieving is normal and not uncommon, as parents adjust to changes, including letting go of some of the gender-specific expectations they'd had for their child. "I don't want to minimize it, but the anticipatory grieving is often worse than the grieving that actually happens," says Tando. "Parents come to realize their child is still here and they are very much enjoying their child, just differently." A gender therapist can also help parents navigate communication with school administrators and extended family, and make a referral to endocrinologists who are knowledgeable about transgender kids. A gender therapist also works with the child, of course, but in Tando's experience it's the parents who need more guidance. She says, "One child wrote me a note that I thought was so poignant: 'Thank you for helping my mom and dad!' "

          Ellen, Rylie's mom, still has the G.I. Joe action figure that Rylie broke apart in anger. "It's symbolic to me, and it reminds me: Do not try to make your child conform. She knew what she wanted and knew who she was, and we don't try to change it," says Ellen. When Ellen and Rylie went through Rylie's bedroom together at the end of first grade and packed away all of her boy clothes for good, Ellen came upon their very first family photo together, when Rylie was a baby, before any of them knew what lay ahead. "The words around the frame say, 'Love bears all things, love endures all things, and love helps all things," says Ellen now. "And I reread them, knowing they were true, and I just started to cry."

            To learn more about what it means to be transgender, visit these sites:

            Originally published in the September 2015 issue of Parents magazine.

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