Coming out to a parent can be a challenge at any age, but with increasing social freedom, more parents are trusted with their children's view of their true selves. Alice, a Springfield-area mom, was one of these parents. She asked to be identified by a pseudonym to protect her child's privacy.
"I don't feel like a boy. I feel like a girl," Alice's child told her at age 7. Asked to further explain, her child said they felt like they had a girl brain, but were trapped in a boy body. A transition to using female pronouns and a new name followed.
Alice says her initial reaction was, "I knew I wanted her to be heard. I wanted her to know I would always listen to her about herself."
After making an appointment with a pediatrician to talk about Emma's future (a pseudonym used to protect privacy), Alice arranged for therapy "so she could really talk to someone about all her feelings, and make sure she was comfortable with her feelings."
For young people who come out prior to puberty, a social transition is the norm. This involves transitioning from the outward appearance of one gender to the outward appearance of another, choosing and using correct pronouns, and often going by a new name that reflects a gender transition, a process Emma followed. "She's so much happier," says Alice of her daughter, who is now 10. For teenagers or adults, hormone therapy is another consideration.
Jonna Cooley, executive director at the Phoenix Center, says that questions from both parents and children are common at the beginning of a transition. Her staff fields calls from those requesting more information, including getting referrals for doctors and therapists and information on support groups. Out on Adams, 213 E. Adams St., sells pride merchandise as well as helpful books, with staff available to answer questions.
Currently the Phoenix Center offers support for parents through its TransParent group. There is also LGTBQA yOUTh group, for ages 12-17, as well as a support group for trans adults called TranSupport. All groups are currently meeting remotely.
Those facilitating the support groups "are doing what they are doing because it's personal to them," says Cooley. "They have experience, and when new people come on, the experienced people can share. Until recently, we didn't have a lot of resources for trans people at all. That's changed a lot in the last couple of years."
Alice says one of the hardest things to deal with in her daughter's transition was telling their very conservative grandparents. "They are accepting. It took time and patience, but at the end of the day, they want a relationship with their grandchild. They are working hard on using correct pronouns. I'm proud of their progress." Alice reports it was much easier sharing the information with her daughter's friends and their parents.
Alice's biggest concern with Emma's future is not Emma herself. "She has always had such a strong sense of self. She's always been very comfortable as who she is, and I think she will be fine. I think she is strong enough to handle the outside world, but I think it's going to be difficult. I'm worried about what she will face. Trans people are murdered at a higher rate than any other populace. That is petrifying to me." Trans people are also four times more likely to be victims of violent crimes, she noted.
According to the Trevor Project's most recent survey on LGTBQ youth and mental health, more than half of transgender youth seriously considered suicide in 2020. Cooley addresses the need for LGTBQ+ kids to feel safe and supported at home. "It's pretty miserable to be hated in your own home. The teen trans suicide rate is astronomical, and a lot of that is a lack of parent support." According to this survey, simply using the correct pronouns at home reduces suicidal ideation by a whopping 50%. Use of a chosen name that reflects gender identity further decreases the prevalence.
For parents who may not feel accepting toward their trans children, Cooley encourages them to "understand as much as they can. While they may not be accepting, at least be supportive by not being derogatory or engaging in arguments about it. The biggest problem is there is a misconception of what it means to be trans – that it's a choice, and their child is doing it just to upset them."
Cooley says, "If your child tells you [they are transgender], it's not uncommon to take it personally, to think that you've done something wrong. But the reality is, if your child is telling you, you've done something right. It's an indication that the child trusts them."
Alice echoes this sentiment: "I feel lucky that I have a daughter that was able to talk to me. I felt really honored, and I patted myself on my back. I made an environment where she felt safe. Sometimes I wondered how I was doing as a parent, and in that moment, I thought I must have done something right."
Carey Smith was raised in a homophobic environment but is thankful to have transitioned into an ally.