“My daughter is 16 and wants to have a sex change. It really surprised me, and I think she took my surprise as disapproval. I want to be supportive, but I’m not sure how. I don’t know how to talk about this. What can I do to show her I don’t love her any less?”
Question Submitted Anonymously
Answered by Bianca Palmisano
Congratulations on taking the first big step by acknowledging your child’s new gender identity. It takes a lot of courage to admit when you are out of your depth and to ask for help, so thank you for doing so, rather than turning away from your child in their time of need.
You may not be ready to start referring to the child you’ve raised for 16 years as a son, and that’s ok. Everyone goes through a process of coming to terms with their child’s new identity, and that process might include mourning the daughter you thought you had and coming to embrace the son you now get to nurture. For now, though, in order to respect your child’s identity but also to refrain from using language that might be painful for you, I’m going to use gender-neutral language to talk about your child and their identity.
Transgender identities are complex, and it might take many conversations for you and your child to figure out how exactly they want to proceed living in their new gender. My best advice is for you to invest in your own learning, so that you can guide your child through their coming out and transition processes. For instance, you said your child wants a sex change, but that can actually mean a lot of different things. Perhaps they simply want to start dressing and presenting themselves as their chosen gender in public. They might want to start hormone replacement therapy to counteract the effects of puberty and modify secondary sex characteristics like facial hair, musculature, and voice pitch. Maybe they are interested in getting top surgery, in which breast tissue is removed. They might even want bottom surgery, which is actually a series of operations to reconstruct the genitals. None of these options are mandatory for living as a transgender person, and your child may not know just yet which of these are right for them.
I highly suggest you start this journey by reading up on the transgender community and practicing how to talk about these issues, both with your child and with other people in your life. Ideally, you’ll want to get comfortable with the prospect of telling family members and friends about your child’s transition (only if and when your child is ready for others to know, though), rather than putting the burden of disclosure on your child (or denying their identity outright). Talking about transgender identity is a skill that you have to practice, so it’s ok if you feel uncomfortable at first.The most important thing is that you talk at all—that you acknowledge your child’s disclosure and offer opportunities to discuss and support them regularly.
A good place to start those conversations is with an apology for how you reacted to your child’s disclosure. You were surprised when your child came out as transgender, but your surprise may have come across as rejection to them. If you can, start by acknowledging how your reaction may have hurt your child, and state your objective to do better in the future. This is a great time to mention that you are reading and learning about transgender identities so that you can support your child. You can also use this opportunity to ask them if they’d like to be referred to by a different name or different pronouns (ex: he/his/him instead of she/her/hers) from now on.
As for education, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and GLAAD both have a number of resources on their websites for learning the basics about supporting transgender people. PFLAG (formerly Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) also has two great publications—“Our Trans Loved Ones” and “Guide to Being a Trans Ally”—that you can request for free from your local chapter. If you want more information about medical, legal, and social resources for navigating the world as a transgender person, the Philadelphia Transgender Health Conference is a free 3-day event held every year in June where you can find a TON of information. And of course My Kid Is Gay has tons of advice about gender written specifically for parents just like you! Check out their resources page for more excellent recommendations.
Perhaps most importantly, you and your child deserve access to a community where you can get support along your journey. PFLAG has chapters across the country where parents, cousins, friends, siblings, stepsiblings, and LGBT people themselves come together and talk about the difficulties and joys of supporting their LGBT loved ones. I’m on the board of the Metro DC PFLAG chapter, and I can vouch for what a wonderful community these groups provide.
A big helping of humility and compassion will go a long way towards strengthening the bond between you and your child at this critical moment. With a little help from those around you, I know that you will be able to support them and come out the other side your child’s transition a strong ally and an even better parent.
Bianca Palmisano is a sex educator and medical consultant serving the DC community since 2012. As the owner of Intimate Health Consulting, she specializes in training medical providers to improve their competence around patient sexual health concerns, and offers LGBT cultural competency trainings for hospitals, businesses, and non-profits. She also serves as a member of the Metro DC PFLAG board of directors.
Bianca recently concluded a two year term as the Director of Operations for The Garden DC, a sexuality education initiative based in Washington, DC. She has also served as a facilitator for the classroom education program The Rainbow Speakers Bureau, and as chair of the Transgender Advocacy Project for American University.
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