If you thought it might be hard for a parent to hear that a child is gay or lesbian, imagine what it must be like to hear that your son feels he was born into the wrong body and is really a woman or that your daughter is certain she was meant to be a man. Parents, like most people in our society, are uncomfortable with cross-gendered behavior, especially in their children. So it must be especially difficult for a parent to adjust to the news that their children feel as if their psychological gender is at odds with the bodies they were born into. The few experts there are in this area describe how deeply distressing such a disclosure can be for parents and how children coming out as transgender can be wounded by parental reactions and are at great risk for being thrown out of their homes.
In the study described in the book: Coming Out, Coming Home: Helping Families Adjust to a Gay or Lesbian Child (www.comingoutcominghome.com) a very small number of youth identified themselves as transgender during their interviews, and one additional young woman who originally identified as lesbian came out later as trans once the study was over. Of course, no real conclusions can be drawn from the families of two or three respondents. However, when Eula found out her 18 year-old African American son was impersonating a woman, her strong reactions suggest the magnitude of panic and resistance a parent might feel at the thought that a son or daughter might be transgender.
Andrew . . . he wasn't sure what he was, and he was telling people he was a girl. And I got terrified one night . . . I had this man call here, a young man, who was straight . . . and met Andrew, and Andrew told him his name was Alexis. This man called here and he was giving me all this, "I don't play that . . . " And it scared me to death and . . . I was trying to talk to [my son], "Andrew! No! You are not a girl, you are a gay man! You are not a girl!" And I said, "Andrew, you've watched Jerry Springer. You've
seen when these men come on here and tell these men (their boyfriends) that they are really men although they have been thinking for months that they are women. They beat the hell out of them! And that is the fear I have. You are not a woman! You are a gay man!" And that was the first time that we actually had a long, quite civil discussion. I also had . . . a couple of my friends talk to him . . . gay male friends. And I don't know what they talked about. I didn't ask them how the conversation went. I wasn't there. But I know that after they talked to him we didn't have anymore of the Alexis issue. It was Andrew the gay man.
She described her attempts to get her son some help:
He would never admit to me that he was telling people he was a girl. He
was always denying it to me, and I'd start throwing out names of men who
had called here and asked for Alexis-and it was just like a total denial on
his part. I even at one point made an appointment with a black psychologist who specializes in transgender youth. And I ended up really telling him off . . . We never even got into his office . . . When I first made the appointment, and I had a phone interview with this man, I explained the whole situation to him, which is why he (Andrew) was going to see him. When we met him in person, the attitude he approached us with, it just put Andrew on the defensive right away. His arrogance . . . first he is calling him a girl. Then his secretary or nurse, she is just like, "Well tell her..." And I said, "No. He is a boy. His name is Andrew." She said, "Well he's got long hair." Andrew's hair is long under those braids. So I told her, "Help me understand . . . if he were white and had a guitar in his hands it would be OK for him to have long hair? Kenny G's got long hair. Jesus had long hair. But because he is black and has long hair and has a very attractive face . . . Why are you here if your mental attitude is that way?" It just ticked me off.
Was Andrew really transgender? I am not sure. He certainly wasn't identifying as trans when I interviewed him, but if he was, I worry about the impacts of his mother's reaction.
Another mother became extremely anxious when she began to talk about her daughter's cross-gendered behaviors. She seemed to enter a dissociative state, becoming highly agitated, disoriented, and unable to speak once she started to think aloud that her daughter might be transgender. (Her daughter freely admitted she was transgender, but she reported that she did not mention this to her mother, instead telling her she was a lesbian.) Her mother's reaction, along with that of Andrew's mother, shows how very distressing it can be to think that one's child might be transgender.
Nevertheless, the experience of a third family suggests that these families may be similar to those of gay and lesbian youth, whereby parents might employ the same methods to help themselves adjust. This mother, a teacher living in the suburbs, recalled how her twenty-two year-old daughter seemed to show signs of being transgender from an early age:
Since she was born it seemed like she was allergic to her skin. Then when she stated she was a boy and she had a penis and everybody should come and see her penis—I mean that's pretty out there . . . She may not have known it, I may not have acknowledged it, but she was out from four years old, five years old. She was identifying herself as a boy, and at school that would cause problems for her, because she was rather vocal about it. But yet, on the other hand, she was very self-conscious. So she was kind of a strange mix, you know? Extreme self-consciousness and yet announcing things to the world that were causing her problems.
Like many of the parents of the gay male and lesbian respondents, this mother was initially very depressed when her daughter told her three years ago that she was transgender. Like parents of gay and lesbian children, what helped her adjust was the passage of time along with the information she sought out. She came to the conclusion that gender was innate, even if it didn't match up with one's biological sex, and this helped her feel better. Her daughter came out as gay first and then later as transgender. Her daughter thinks her mother is now comfortable with her dressing and acting very masculine, which, by the way, she isn't. However, both agree that the daughter's mental health along with their relationship has improved since the daughter came out.
The findings from this mother and daughter suggest that some issues for transgender families might be similar to those of lesbian and gay youth. For example, like the gay and lesbian youth, trans youth want and need their parents' love and approval. Parents of trans kids might have early suspicions, and parents and children might have distinctly different ideas about what helps parents adjust. In a study of eighteen mothers of female-to-male transgender children, respondents spoke of feelings of loss, the need for support outside the family, and how seeing their children happy helped them adjust and this is very similar to what I found with parents of gay and lesbian youth.
In her must-read book, Transgender Emergence: Therapeutic Guidelines for Working with Gender-Variant People and their Families, Arlene Istar Lev describes a stage model of how families might adjust to the discovery that a member is transgender, and her model shares some similarity with the stages described in my book. Undoubtedly, however, there are unique issues faced by families of transgender children, and more research in this area (especially by trans people themselves!), is needed.