Cris BeamFirst it was parents who accepted their gay children who were shunned by society. Now parents trying to keep life as normal as possible for their transgender children are being called "crazy" ... and worse. But America, the fact is transgender kids are here. Their parents don't need criticism. They need support.
Although exact statistics on how many are slim (in 2002, it was estimated male-to-female transsexualism in the United States was in the range of 1 in 500 to 1 in 2,500; female-to-male stats are even less specific), for every child questioning their gender, there's a parent or two trying to be the best parent they can be.
So The Stir turned to Cris Beam, a mom to a (now adult) gender-variant daughter who she began fostering when the teen had nowhere else to go. Beam spent years working with transgender teens in New York City and is now author of a new young adult novel, I Am J, about a female-to-male transitioning teen. We asked her to share what she's learned being a mom to a trans teen and living in a home with a partner who has transitioned too.
What started as a talk about being a mom and why she wrote I Am J as a book for kids (she thought trans teens needed more books written for them rather than about them) morphed into a discussion of the one poignant reality of parenting -- you have to set aside your pre-conceived notions and just parent YOUR kid. So with Beam's help, here's a look at the pre-conceived mythologies of transgender kids:
Little kids don't know enough to be trans -- Transgender kids begin to show signs of their discomfort with their own gender as early as 2, 3, or 4. "It's not like homosexuality where you have a crush on a girl in your Spanish class in seventh grade and begin to realize you're gay," Beam explained. Young kids begin to see society's take on gender early on -- when a girl has a doll shoved in her face or a boy is told he can't wear a tutu, and they have their own natural feelings about that.
You can "fix" transgender kids -- What trans kids need isn't someone trying to pretend they aren't trans but someone supporting who they are. "The way we have the best relationships with people is when we want them to self-actualize," Beam says. "It's not BAD that a child is gender variant ... the goal is to allow kids to express whatever it is they feel., to give them an environment, especially at home, that is safe." Their decisions coming out of that will be their own. Which leads us to ...
Boys who play with dolls or girls who play with trucks are transgender -- Maybe. Maybe not. Kids can begin to know who they are very early, but it doesn't mean they aren't simply enjoying one or the other. "A lot of kids do all kinds of gender play and then shift into their biological gender or 'assigned gender,'" Beam says.
Having a trans kid means you did something wrong -- This is a hard one, especially for biological parents of a trans child who know their genes physically made their child the way he or she is. And it's a natural reaction, Beam says. "They feel rejected because 'I had picture A for my child and now my has picture B.'"
To ease the hurt, Beam suggests recalling your own relationship with your own parents, and what it was like to become your own person, to make your own decisions, to become "you." Transgender isn't a child's "choice." But it's part of them, not their parents. It's yet another piece of the separation between a parent's identity and their child's.
Your trans kid is a lost cause -- "So many people forget about the GIFTS of having a trans child," Beam says. "Your child can teach you things. Yes, you had one expectation, and your child does not deliver on that point, but you're also going to be pleased and overjoyed by the things they do as your child."
In the end, Beam says, parenting a transgender kid isn't that different from parenting a kid who is content in their biologically assigned gender. There is no big secret. You support your kid. You try to teach them that the way they feel is alright. "Kids who do the best are the ones whose home life shows equanimity ... when they sense your anxiety, that's what causes the psychic damage down the road."
So how about giving those parents a break?
Do you know any trans kids? How are their parents faring?
Images via Little, Brown Books