Transgender Children Face Unique Challenges

"The worst thing you can do to your kid is say, 'I don't love you because of who you are,'" said Dr. Jo Olson of Children's Hospital Los Angeles, who treats dozens of transgender children. "That's a horrible, horrible message for your kid, and it's going lead them down a road of catastrophe really."

Caitlin Ryan, the director of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University, has studied the reactions of families to children who come out as lesbian, gay or transgender.

Ryan and her colleagues found that "transgender adolescents are more likely than lesbian, gay and bisexual youth to be rejected by their parents and caregivers, which increases their risk for negative health and mental health outcomes."

Ryan said families reject their transgender children because of deeply held religious beliefs, cultural norms or pressure from other family members. Some forms of rejection, like physical violence, verbal humiliation or throwing your child out on the street, are obvious.

'All Parents Love Their Children'

But subtle forms of rejection can be just as potent to a transgender child, like excluding the child from family activities, keeping distance from them while walking down the street, taking their portraits down, isolating them from friends or sitting in separate pews at church. Ryan said parental support for a child's gender expression is one of the most important factors in promoting a transgender child's well-being.

Transgender children who were rejected by their families, according to her research, are four times as likely to attempt suicide and use illegal drugs. They are five times more likely to be depressed, and more than two times as likely to be at risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

By contrast, children who were accepted or even celebrated by their families face dramatically better futures. Ryan believes that parents can protect their children from risky behaviors with love. But she also noted that even families who reject their transgender children do so out of the misguided belief that they are doing what is in their child's best interest.

"All parents love their children," Ryan said. "They want the best for their children. What they don't realize is that by trying to change their child's basic sense of who they are, they're teaching their children that there's something wrong with them, and they're hurting their children rather than protecting them."

The desire to change transgender children is something that all the families interviewed by Barbara Walters can understand. All of them at one point or another hoped that their child was only going through a phase and would eventually revert back to the gender they were born into.

'Look Into Their Heart'

After all, many children fall into a sort of gender gray zone -- effeminate boys or masculine girls. Statistically, most of these children will grow out of their gender nonconforming behavior. Those who are truly transgender, like the children profiled by Barbara Walters, are the exception.

"I thought possibly that he was a feminine boy. But there's a big difference I think between a child saying that I want to be a girl and a child saying that I am a girl," Stephanie Grant said of her transgender daughter, Riley.

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