Transgender Children Face Unique Challenges
April 27, 2007— -- No one knows for sure exactly how many transgender children exist. What is known is that these children are rare. Rarer still are the parents who have embraced them.
These parents often feel isolated and lack the information to make the proper choices for their child. But the Internet has now made it possible for many of them to make virtual connections.
Stephanie Grant is the mother of a male-to-female 10-year-old, and she recalls the relief she felt when she stumbled across the Web site for TransFamily of Cleveland (http://www.transfamily.org).
"There was a small network of moms with little children," said Grant, who marveled at how similar her experience was to other mothers of transgender children. "[It was] almost like we were telling each other's story."
TransFamily runs several members-only e-mail discussion groups for transgender people and their parents. Hundreds of people from all across the country belong to its various groups, and Grant is now one of its moderators.
Some families have even moved beyond these virtual networks and have met face to face offline. Earlier this month, about a dozen children and their parents gathered at the Trans-Health Conference organized by the Mazzoni Center in Philadelphia.
There, transgender children felt safe to be themselves. In workshops, these transgender kids shared stories of pain and embarrassment from relentless teasing and bullying at school.
"If you tell a teacher, it doesn't always work, because the teacher doesn't always acknowledge the problem," said one female-to-male transgender. "And she'd be like, 'Aw, they're just being kids, don't worry about it.'"
Harassment, discrimination and even violence exist outside the classroom, as well. Steve Stanton, the longtime city manager of Largo, Fla., was fired this month after a newspaper revealed that he planned to undergo a sex change, and a report by the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition (GenderPAC) recently declared that if "federal law mandated the FBI to track gender-based hate crimes, they would outweigh every other category except race."
GenderPAC cited the well-publicized death of Gwen Araujo in 2002. The 17-year-old male-to-female California teen was hogtied, strangled and then buried in a shallow grave by a group of teens. Araujo was killed after her attackers learned that she had been born a boy.
Perhaps the most notorious anti-trans hate crime was the 1993 murder of Brandon Teena, which became the basis for the movie "Boys Don't Cry." A 21-year-old female-to-male transgender, Teena was raped by two men. Teena reported it to Nebraska authorities, but he was ignored. Five days later, his assailants tracked him down and bludgeoned, shot and stabbed him to death.
Like other parents of transgender children, the Grants worry every day that their daughter, Riley, might someday fall victim to a violent crime because she is transgender.
"You read it in the paper, and you see it in the media all the time," said Neil Grant.
"It's a mean world," added Stephanie.
But the negative responses don't just come from the outside world. For some transgender teens, rejection by their own families can be just as devastating.
"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.