I understand what it means for someone to be gay, but I just can’t wrap my head around my child being transgender. I just don’t understand what this entails, so how do I talk about something I don’t understand?”

Question Submitted Anonymously
Answered by Karen Thompson

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Karen Says:
First of all, wow. Congratulations on choosing to seek more information instead of shutting down and plugging your ears. Transgender can be a hard concept to wrap one’s head around. My first thought when my daughter (at the time, biologically my son) came out to me as transgender was that being transgender was just an extension of young gay men doing drag and dressing up as the opposite gender. I thought it was a part of being gay, like being super gay. When Lucie came out to me, I chose the shutting-down option. I had a huge amount of trouble accepting the fact that she wanted to change her entire being. I cried a lot. We argued a lot. All I could envision was a long, hard life ahead for her, filled with lots of pain. Thank God she did not accept that pronouncement on her life. 
I suppose I also thought it was just a phase that would go away if I didn’t encourage it. But that’s a myth. It doesn’t just go away. This is generally something that the person who is transgender has been dealing with most of their lives. They’ve agonized, soul-searched, and tried to talk themselves out of it. When my child and I first started having this conversation, there was not a lot of information out there. Most of what I found were sad stories of pain and struggle. I asked her really thoughtless questions like “Can’t you just be gay and wear really girly clothes?” Great was the extent of my cluelessness. The more I read, however, the more I found stories of transgender people who were happy, even through the struggle. I found biological studies on the differences of the brains of transgender people. I found theories on the mix of hormones transgender children are exposed to in the womb. Being transgender was no more in Lucie’s control than her being blond. 
There are so many stops along the spectrum of gender identity. Some people feel the need to go all the way from one end (male/female) to the other. Some people choose to go part of the way. Some people choose to express themselves in ways that are not considered “normal” in our society. Some people are born with ambiguous genitals and have their gender chosen for them by well-meaning doctors. All of these people are covered under the term “transgender.” I’m beginning to think we’ve always had more than two genders of people, but we’ve just never recognized them. It makes sorting people into categories harder. The thing is, though: why do we care how someone expresses themself? Why are we threatened by that? If we’re a nation of individuals, why can you only be “individual” in certain ways? Gender expressions that go against the norm challenge everything we’ve been taught about how to “be” in our world. But that doesn’t make the challengers wrong. It makes them courageous, like the first woman who decided we should be able to vote or the first African-American who decided all people should be equal. These are some of the most well-known examples of changing history. I wouldn’t have said this when my child first came out to me as transgender, but I’m so thankful that my son changed all the norms of our family, church, and community to be my daughter. 
So that brings us to the basics: how do we help our children, our family, and ourselves through this? I think we as parents have the responsibility to learn as much as we can. There are a ton of resources on the internet through websites like the National Center for Transgender Equality, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, the Human Rights Campaign and TransYouth Family Allies to name just a few. If you Google “transgender resources,” you will find endless websites. 
If you’d like to talk to someone local, my suggestion would be to go to your local chapter of PFLAG. Look them up and go to a meeting, or call and ask if you can speak to someone informally. I work with my chapter in Little Rock. We always get new parents with children who have just come out. At the meeting, they can find support from people who are going through the same thing, and sometimes speak with people who are transgender, to get an idea of what to expect for your child. 
You didn’t say if you were affiliated with a particular religion, but try to read information from several different sources. The number of religions who are open and accepting are growing every day, but there are still some who are not. You will find many notions of what it means to be transgender, so just go toward the ones that resonate with your own experience. 
Also, ask for resources from the person who trusted you enough to tell you what they were going through. Chances are good that they will have some suggestions for books for you to read. In addition to the internet, there are several movies and documentaries and TV series about this subject that can give you an idea of what other people have gone through. Some will be sad, some will not. All will be extremely personal. 
The most important part of this is to give yourself some time. Writer Ann Lamott states that “you can only go as fast as the slowest part of you can go.” Be patient with yourself, with your kid, and with your kid’s impatience with waiting for you to catch up. Expect messiness, because that’s what life is. This process won’t be linear or logical—at least it wasn’t for us. Read some, learn some, talk to whoever will listen, take a lot of walks, and listen to your child. If they are anything like my daughter, they will challenge and guide you to expand every part of yourself. Once you get to their side, you will be their biggest ally.

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Karen Thompson currently serves on the board of Lucie’s Place, an organization dealing with LGBT youth homelessness in Arkansas, and as Vice President of the Little Rock, AR chapter of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). Karen is also a member of the Center of Artistic Revolution, an LGBT youth-centered organization in Arkansas. Karen works in loving memory of her daughter, a force of nature, Lucille Marie Hamilton–the one who taught her everything (1988-2009).

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