April 25, 2007 -- Stephanie Grant compiled the following frequently asked questions and recommended reading for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
1. How do kids know they're transgender?
Trans children know who they are the same way we know who we are. Imagine you go into the hospital for a minor operation; you wake up to find that by some horrible error you've mistakenly been given a full sex-change operation. Do you think that just because your body now looks like the opposite sex you will ever be comfortable living as a man or a woman? This is the only way those of us who "match" (our brain development and our biological body are congruent) can relate. At no point, regardless of how happy the child looks, is the child truly comfortable in his or her body or with his or her expected social roles. The only recourse for these children is to dress as they identify and hope that no one remembers what is really under their clothes.
2. Isn't it easier to teach your child how to be a boy (or a girl)?
Not for the child. Trying to teach a trans child how to be the opposite of how he or she feels is like trying to teach a nontrans child the same. All you are really doing is teaching them how society expects them to behave based on their genitalia, which also comes with a number of ramifications. First and foremost, this track further emphasizes trans gender children's hatred of their bodies. Telling a child "You are a boy -- you have a penis" (or the opposite for a female-to-male child) just reinforces the feelings of discomfort. This "hatred of their body" often leads to eating disorders, self-mutilation and suicide.
And even if you could successfully teach "proper expected behaviors," you end up sending mixed messages when you attempt to teach your child right from wrong when dealing with peer pressures. How do you successfully teach your child how to be who others expect and also try to teach your child not to be pressured into acting like "all the other kids" when the behavior is wrong? Teaching your child to "be what others expect" is contrary to developing a good sense of conscience and self-esteem.
3. How do I tell my family?
Keep your family informed and involved from the beginning. By supporting your child and allowing him or her to express in front of others, you avoid the "bombshell." Your family will become the most important part of your child's team.
If you have already hidden these behaviors and feelings, then bring family members up to speed with as much history as you can. Then give them time to adjust and absorb. Remember, you didn't "get it" at first either. Do not expect people to accept this within one or two conversations; time and patience will play a huge part in the transition.
Finally, get educated. Help family members understand that your child is not alone nor are you the only family faced with openly raising a trans child. There is wonderful documentation out there to help family, schools, pediatricians and others understand. A great place to start is www.trans family.org.
4. Aren't there problems in school?
Yes. But the most serious problems are those associated with not allowing your child to "be who they are." Most children born gender dysphoric suffer from high levels of social anxiety and attention deficit disorder. When a child needs to spend so much time focusing on "acting in a way that pleases others," the child finds little energy left to relax and be attentive in school.
Keep the school informed from the beginning. Make the faculty and administration another part of your child's team. Ask them for their help as opposed to demanding it; ask them to protect your child from bullying and to inform you at all times of any problems. Most problems are based on society's lack of understanding. Therefore, be prepared to be the teacher. Again, equip yourself with information and educational packets to help school personnel understand and help your child. There is protection through education.
5. What about dating?
Dating is an issue for all parents, regardless of their child's identified and biological gender. As parents, we all hope that we have equipped our children with enough pride and self-esteem that they will be able to choose "nice" people to date. We also hope that we have taught them when and where sexual activity is appropriate.
The most important part about allowing your child to date is teaching him or her to be comfortable about "who" they are and how they differ. As they build relationships, they need to know how and when to inform friends and the importance of doing so. The danger arises when a "surprise" is discovered in a place where your child may not be safe. Making sure that your child has the "right tools" to build strong relationships is the best weapon against a dangerous situation. Parenting with common sense really gets pushed to the limit in this arena.
6. Will you allow your child to have surgery?
This is entirely up to the family. Finding a doctor to perform sex reassignment surgery on a child under the age of 18 is extremely hard if not impossible. There are a few doctors in Thailand who have reportedly been performing this surgery on children as young as 14 with great success. This author has no opinion either way; there are consequences to performing surgery as well as not.
Take one day at a time. Hormone blockers and hormone therapy are now being prescribed to children reaching puberty to alter and control the secondary sex characteristics in trans people. It is highly advisable that you do your homework about these treatments before contacting a physician or making the decision to not do anything at all. Any decision you make about your child's adulthood should come only after you have a thorough understanding of all the consequences.
The best advice: Never say never. Do not plan too far ahead and never make a decision that cannot be changed. Surgical changes are forever and should be left up to the individual whenever possible.
7. Aren't you scared that something bad will happen to your child?
Yes. I am scared something bad may happen to either of my children. Because trans people are at high risk of being victims of hate crimes, it is important to instill a strong sense of values, including good self-esteem and positive decision-making skills in your trans child.
More important, it is the belief of this author that the best way to protect our children is by educating the public. With increased awareness, society will soon begin to understand that transness is not about a person's genitalia; it is a condition of the brain. Because science is many years away from affecting brain development, our only choice as parents of trans children is to help them accommodate their bodies to live as normal a life as possible.
8. Do you tell the parents of your child's friends?
Whether or not you reveal that your child is trans depends on the route you took during and after transition. Parents most commonly choose one of two options after allowing their child full-identity expression; they either remain in the same location with the same friends and schoolmates, or they move the family to a place where they are unknown and can start fresh.
If you choose to do this publicly, then it is important to continue to inform the families of new playmates that your child is transgendered. In this way, you will avoid them learning about your child improperly. Most people cannot explain the path that led you to allow open expression. They tend to spew out something like "that kid's really a boy in a skirt" or "that's really a girl under those clothes." Again, you may spend a lot of time discussing what should be a very private issue, but the purpose is to educate and thus, protect. New parents in your child's life can become important members of your child's team if the situation is handled properly.
On the other hand, if your family transitioned privately, then you must attempt to keep it that way. Your child and your family may become unprepared to explain this condition if "the word gets out." Private transition avoids the ridicule and taunting that both you and your child may face; but it is the belief of this author that secrets have a way of coming out, usually when least expected. It is highly advisable to build a team for your child even in a private transition, in the event that one day it will be needed.
9. Whom do they marry?
It's hoped that your child will marry the person with whom he or she wants to spend the rest of his or her life. If your child is comfortable with "who" they are, your child will be able to build long-lasting, honest relationships; any relationship is only as strong as the people involved. If they chose to have children, they will seek out options available to other infertile couples. With your support and your child's team, the answer to this question will be in the hands of your child.
10. Where do I go for more information?
There are many great resources for information and support, but the best place to start as a parent is with other parents. The feeling of loneliness can be overwhelming.