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.
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.
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.
But not all cases are as clear-cut. Even for professionals, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between a child who has interests typical of the other gender, and a child who thinks she was born into the wrong body. In either case, experts agree, the most important thing for a parent to do is to continue to nurture and love the child.
Renee Jennings, mother of a 6-year-old transgender daughter, offered this advice to parents wondering whether their child is transgender or just masculine, feminine or gay: "You have to look at your child, and look into their heart, and support them. And just follow their lead."
She added: "I feel bad for parents who can't give that to their children. Some of them just can't put aside their own bigotry enough to say, 'It doesn't matter. I love you if you're gay, lesbian, transgender. Why should it matter? This is your child."