by Lance Hicks
I came out as trans when I was 15. Unlike most trans teens, I didn’t wait years, months, or even days to come out to my parents. Within an hour of learning the definition of the term “transgender,” I’d blurted to my mother that I knew I was a boy. Assuming that my gay-friendly, left-leaning parents wouldn’t think it was “a big deal,” I was crushed when I realized that, for my mother, it would take a bit of work to learn to see me as a son. The months that followed were hard for both of us, though for different reasons. While I struggled with feelings of isolation and powerlessness, as a teenager in need of support my parents weren’t ready to offer, both my mother and father struggled to unlearn their own assumptions about gender, in order to embrace the child they had instead of the one they’d imagined.
Because my parents loved me a lot, they both worked hard and rose to the challenge. If you’re reading this, my guess is that you love your child a lot, too. An awful lot. For most trans kids, that love you have for your child will make all the difference in the world. Trans youth are at increased risk of low self-esteem, homelessness, depression, suicide, addiction, bullying, dropping out, abuse, and violence. With loving parents by their side, that risk drops dramatically. If your child has recently come out to you as trans, you’re already ahead of the game: no matter how uncomfortable, confused, worried, or isolated you may be feeling, you have the ability to fight for your child, and make sure they have all the support they need. Since coming out to my parents as trans, I’ve gone on to advocate for trans youth in countless settings–from college classrooms to resource anthologies. I started doing the work because I know first-hand how important it is to support trans youth. Below is a list of eight steps that can help you do just that.
1. Thank your child, and congratulate yourself.
Your child just came out to you as trans? Congratulations! This display of trust is a big deal. No, really.
In 2012, when the Williams Institute released data suggesting that 40% of homeless youth were LGBT, there was no specific data provided about trans and gender non-conforming young folks. Still, trans youth don’t need statistics to tell them that coming out is a risk. For over a decade, I have surrounded myself with trans young folks, and not a single one has failed to recognize that coming out to a parent can be risky. In an era where Laverne Cox graces Time Magazine and Jazz Jennings travels the country on book tour, it’s easy for adults–trans and cis–to dismiss the real fear of coming out that is the reality for so many youth in 2016.
Amongst trans youth today, the choice to come out to parents must be weighed against a host of life-shattering potential outcomes. Getting kicked out, losing financial support, being non-consensually “outed” to other family members, or even physical violence are all within the realm of possibility. By coming out to you, your child has trusted you to accept them as they navigate challenges it’s likely neither of you anticipated. Congratulate yourself for earning your child’s trust–and thank them for showing it!
2. Be honest with yourself about your feelings, and recognize where they come from.
Whether this moment came as a shock or you always had an inkling this revelation was coming, most parents experience a flood of emotions when their child come out. Remember that feelings alone are not bad or wrong–but it’s important to understand the expectations, values, beliefs, and worldviews beneath them. Guilt, shame, anger, disbelief, sadness, shock, grief, and countless other emotions are all common.
We live in a culture fixated on gender, where expectations and stereotypes are applied from the moment someone tells us “it’s a boy/girl!” Most parents imagine their children’s futures in gendered ways, and learning to see that the images we constructed were inaccurate or incomplete portrayals is tough. If you find yourself feeling guilty, worrying that you did something to cause your child to be trans, grieving for the loss of the child you thought you had, or struggling to balance your love for your child with religious or values-based qualms, take a deep breath and recognize that that’s where you are.
If you’re struggling to come to terms with your own feelings after your child has come out, it’s important to be honest with them–chances are they can already tell. At the same time, recognize that the responsibility for working through your feelings rests on you–not your child. Try saying, “I’m having a hard time with this, but I love you very much, and I want to be there for you.” What you don’t want to do is lock your child into a long conversation about your many conflicting feelings. Coming out to parents is an incredibly brave thing, and it’s easy for youth to feel guilty for burdening their parents, or betrayed by a parent they felt sure would be supportive. The moment after your child comes out to you as trans is an incredibly vulnerable one. It’s likely your child has been waiting, planning, and preparing for this moment for weeks, months, or years. More than ever, they need you to take responsibility for your own feelings (no matter what those might be) so they know they can depend on you to stick by their side.
3. Remember that your child’s gender does not define them (but it’s still really important).
Our society emphasizes gender a lot more than most cis people realize. Whether we’re imagining our children participating in after-school activities, envisioning their first dates and proms, or even daydreaming about their adult lives, gender often sets the scene.
When your child comes out to you as trans, there’s a chance that some of your ideas about their life have been radically interrupted. Whether you imagined your child’s life would be filled with boy scouting trips, girls’ nights out, questions about makeup, or father/son bonding, the odds are that knowing your ideas may need to shift can bring up tough feelings. When this happens, it’s important to acknowledge our own assumptions. The fact that your child is trans doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll be ultra-masculine, or super feminine. Television portrayals of trans people often show extremes: trans boys that refuse to play with girls their own age, or trans girls who insist that every outfit must absolutely incorporate the color pink. While these portrayals feel accurate for some trans people, remember that there are as many ways to be transgender as there are to be cisgender. Just like some cis girls like to roll in the mud and catch bugs, so do some trans girls. And just as there are some cis boys who prefer poetry and art class to rough-and-tumble sports, there are trans boys who feel the same. On top of that, most media portrayals completely erase the existence of non-binary trans identities. The fact that your child’s gender identity is different from what you expected doesn’t necessarily mean they do identify as the “opposite” gender. For a long time, activists have talked about gender identity existing along a spectrum, with masculine identities on one end and feminine ones on the other. My favorite gender educators see it differently. Think of gender like a galaxy, or a universe. There are infinite possibilities for the way your child’s gender identity and expression might manifest–all of them slightly different. Your child is a star in a brilliant, twinkling gender galaxy. The best way to understand how they feel about their gender is to ask them.
No matter what, though, it’s important to remember that while your child’s gender identity is of great importance, it does not define them. Did you raise a true animal-lover? An artist? An athlete? Has drama club, or the science fair, or the basketball team been an important part of your child’s formative years? Chances are, those parts of their identity are still every bit as important to your child now as they were before they came out as trans. Recognize that changing the way you look at your child’s gender does not have to mean that you forget about the many other important parts of who your child is.
4. Avoid saying, “This doesn’t change how I see you.”
It’s important to remember that your child is the same person now as before coming out. At the same time, trans children who come out to their parents usually do want certain things about the way their families see them to change. Have you always told your child, “you’re such a beautiful little girl,” or predicted, “You’re going to be such a handsome young man”? Comments like these can cause unintentional hurt for trans children who hear the adults in their lives misgendering them, and predicting futures that are all wrong. When a trans child come out to their parents, they usually want you to start viewing them the way they view themself–which is often different than the way you’ve viewed them in the past. This might feel like a tough task, but think how hard it’s been for your child to be constantly misgendered up until now. As hard as it is to change the way you view your child’s gender, it’s never as difficult as living in a world where other people constantly perceive your gender inaccurately, which is what your child has dealt with up until now. Being willing to change the way you view your child’s gender is one of the best ways to show them how much you love them.
5. Take your child’s lead.
If your child is newly exploring their identity, chances are that they’re still working out some of the things they want to change about they way you view their gender. If they’ve known clearly how they identify for a long time, there’s a good chance they know exactly what they want to change about how you perceive them. Your child may want you to try on new names, to change pronouns, or to help them pick out new clothes. Be patient while your child explores what feels right. This might mean that your child tells you on Monday her name is Rainbow, but has changed it by Thursday to Tiana. Even if it’s hard, do your best to remember what your child wants to be called, and to honor their choices. Recognize that changes in presentation or identity may or may not be signs of confusion–but that if they are, this is okay.
It’s normal for trans children to frequently change how they see themselves, and how they want others to see them. After all, they have many fewer examples of adults like themselves than cis children do. It’s also possible that your child is not confused at all. Gender is a lot more fluid that most people recognize, and if your child’s outward expression changes frequently, that may just be what feels right for them. By allowing your child to freely explore their gender, and by agreeing to go along for the ride, working to think of your child through the lens they view themself, you show your child unconditional love, put faith in their ability to define themself, and demonstrate that you’re willing to support them regardless of how they identify.
6. Make healthcare decisions based on your child’s needs, not your own.
Making healthcare decisions is often one of the toughest parts of supporting your trans child. In a society where countless people are only just learning that transgender people exist, healthcare options are far too limited. When I was a teenager, I was lucky. Lucky enough to have health insurance, lucky enough to have a parent who supported my choice to start hormone therapy, and lucky enough to find a doctor willing to treat me. Those were three huge privileges, and even still, my doctor had a lot of learning to do when she met me. Most doctors aren’t required to learn how to adequately treat transgender patients in medical school. Because of that, the few that know enough about how to prescribe hormones or hormone blockers to trans children are often those who had a “special interest” in gender identity, and sought extra training of their own accord.
Suffice it to say, if your child asks for hormone blockers, wants to start hormone replacement therapy, or tells you they want to look at surgical options, there’s a lot to consider. Paying for treatment is a huge barrier for too many families, not to mention the fact that doctors willing and able to treat trans children are often few and far between. Depending on where you live and the treatment your child needs, travel can become a strain, or even prohibitive. On top of all this, parents often grapple with questions like, “How will I help keep my child safe, if others start to notice his body changing?” or “What can I do to keep grandma from saying something hurtful?” These type of questions put your child first, and are important to to consider.
At the same time, if you’re struggling to accept the idea that your child’s body might change because it makes you feel uncomfortable, or doesn’t align with the image you had for your child, you need to put on the brakes. These feelings are real, and important to deal with, but they don’t help your child. As a parent, your job is (to the best of your ability) to provide the medical care your child needs in order to be happy and healthy. That means putting your own discomfort aside and recognizing that if your child is depressed, suicidal, or suffering from low self-esteem because their body doesn’t look they way they know it should, medical transition may be what’s necessary.
If you believe your child is in need of medical care related to gender transition, resources like RAD Remedy, Gender Creative Kids, Trans Youth Family Allies, or those available at the annual Philadelphia Trans Health Conference are great places to start looking for competent, caring providers.
7. Access your own support system.
Raising a trans child is hard–not because of your child’s identity, but because our society makes it that way. If your child has recently come out to you as trans, there’s a good chance you’re feeling worried, confused, or simply isolated. In order to be the best possible ally to your child, you’ll need your own support system. Too many well-meaning parents end up venting their frustrations to their children when times feel hard. This can cause feelings of guilt, shame, and depression for your child–all of which are entirely too likely to build up for trans youth without any extra help. In order to steer clear of using your child as a sounding board, or of failing to support them as fully as possible, it’s vital that you seek out resources for yourself. Whether that means looking up your local PFLAG chapter, finding virtual community for parents of trans children, calling a hotline, or searching for a nearby LGBTQ community center with resources for parents of trans youth, it’s important you be proactive about meeting your own emotional needs, so that this responsibility doesn’t fall to your child.
8. Introduce your child to trans peers, positive trans mentors, and strong trans role models.
At the same time that you’re looking for resources of your own, be on the lookout for a safe community of trans people for your child. Most trans children are hungry for community, since feeling like “the only one” can be incredibly overwhelming, exhausting, and scary. I’m fully convinced that my ability to find a local space for transgender youth as a teen is the reason I lived to adulthood. The same community centers that often offer parent support groups frequently include groups for trans youth to congregate. In addition, sites like Gender Creative Kids, and organizations like Trans Youth Family Allies often provide referrals to similar programs. The community of trans children and youth at the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference has been recognized across the country as a healing space for trans families from all over. In addition, picking out books like 10,000 Dresses and My Princess Boy, watching the few TV portrayals of trans children that avoid stigma and stereotypes, identifying strong adult trans role models like Janet Mock, and learning about important trans people from history like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson can go a long way towards helping your child feel proud of their identity, and less alone in the world.
Growing up trans is never easy, even with a supportive family. Raising a trans child can be just as hard. I hope these tips will help you support your transgender child, even when it feels like the world is against you. If you’ve read the end of this article, you are already doing the work–and maybe that’s what’s most important. That no matter how hard things are, how isolated you feel, or how much the world may seem to be against you–that you never stop doing the work. Thank you.
Lance Hicks is a biracial community organizer and youth worker from Detroit, Michigan. He came out as trans in high school, and became involved with gender justice work shortly afterwards. Currently, Lance works to support LGBTQ youth organizers of color, works part-time at a transitional living shelter for teens and young adults, and studies social work.
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