Friday, 2 July 2021

Advice I Wish I'd Had When I Found Out My Child Was Transgender

When my young child first started to articulate that their gender didn't match the one they were assigned at birth, it's fair to say that my head went into something of a spin.

I'm a very open-minded person and, having always been a supporter of LGBTQIA+ rights, I have always been conscious of the fact that my children may not be straight. 

I've made sure to normalise this in the language I've used when discussing things with them - being careful never to assume the gender of any future life partners, never to consciously promote outdated societal "norms", choosing diverse reading material and providing positive diverse role models in the media they're exposed to.
It even became a running joke in my family that my children would need to "come out" to me as straight!

But even though I fully supported transgender rights and had a very open mind about what my children's futures may look like - I can honestly say that I had never imagined myself to be parenting a child who identified as transgender at such a young age. For whatever reason, it was never something I'd even thought about.

It wasn't that I minded this, of course - but it threw me as I'd been so focused on ensuring that they were empowered and accepted in their life choices regarding their sexuality, that I hadn't really thought all that much about their gender identities.

We had always been a household that tried not to enforce gender stereotypes - I was always the breadwinner while my partner was the stay at home Dad who did the majority of the housework and cooking, we always encouraged the children to be themselves and wear whatever made them comfortable, and we allowed total freedom of choice when it came to toys and dress up outfits.

My two youngest sons spent most of their days wearing princess outfits and playing with dolls, but still I never gave a second thought to their gender. 

So when my middle child informed us 2 years ago, in no uncertain terms, that they were infact a girl - I was thrown into a bit of a tailspin.

My head was suddenly filled with worry - how could I empower them? what was the right way to raise them so that they'd grow up to feel supported and strong in their identity?  how could I help them to be ready for the potential struggles they might face down the line without worrying them or bursting their current loving bubble of acceptance?

I feel as though I went straight in to defense mode - like a lioness protecting her cub from predators, my senses were suddenly on high alert and I found myself feeling so consumed with anger at the hatred that exists in the world. I was ready to attack constantly. I wanted to take on every transphobe who dared cross my path.

What I ended up doing though, was exhausting and overwhelming myself completely.

It's only really in the last 6 months or so that I've started to relax into things more and find my strengths and weaknesses in this area of my life.

I regularly see concerned posts on Facebook support groups from parents of young Trans children who've just come out, and I recognize the panic and fear in their words.

For that reason, I want to share some of the things I wish I'd known 2 years ago about where this journey has taken us so far . It's important to note that I can't and won't speak on behalf of transgender people because I'm not transgender myself and that wouldn't be right. To understand the life of trans people, you MUST listen to their voices.

Instead I want to speak directly to the parents of transgender kids. Because that is something I do understand.

* You don't need to know it all right away

Most of my immediate overwhelm came from the fact that the transgender experience is something I had almost no awareness of. I wasn't up to date with the current rights of transgender people in the UK or around the world, I wasn't familiar with all of the correct language and I wasn't sure what the process of growing up as a transgender person involved. As somebody who likes to feel armed with information, this terrified me. I felt that I needed to know it all right away.

But I didn't. The most important thing to focus on when your child tells you that they're trans is letting them know that they're accepted, supported and loved. That you are hearing them, that you respect their experience and that you are there with them - ready to listen, to support, to affirm them.

The rest can come in time. Don't overwhelm yourself with it all at once.

Transgender people are much like any other living human being in that their experiences are not uniform - every individual journey is different, and you can't anticipate what it might involve. So there's no sense in overloading your mind with information right now when nobody knows what the future holds.

Just focus your attention on being there, listening and helping when and how you're asked to.

* Listen To Trans Voices...When You Feel Ready

I knew immediately that I wanted to understand the spectrum of the transgender experience more, and so I tried to throw myself in at the deep end immediately. I found some other parents of trans children online and tried to soak up as much knowledge from them as I could - I remember finding one particular podcast from a mother whose experience was very similar to mine, with a child of a very similar age. 

I sat down one evening to listen to it, excited to hear from someone who had experienced what I was living. I managed to get around 10 minutes in before I broke down sobbing. It was just too soon.  Hearing her describe her grief at letting go of the identity of the child she'd known for 5 years - letting go of the name she'd chosen, letting go of the imagined future in her mind - it was all too overwhelming for me at that point when things were so new and I hadn't even begun to process it all yet. 

So I waited a while - and after a few months, when I felt ready, I started to follow more transgender people online, to listen to their experiences in their own voices. To understand the issues that face them on a daily basis, to understand how I can become a better ally to the transgender community. 

Doing this not only brought me more knowledge and understanding, but it also opened my eyes to the fact that transgender people can and do live happy and fulfilled lives - seeing these people just existing and doing all the normal every day things that people do made me realise that my own child is not going to be an outcast, that the world is a much more accepting place in general and that - although there are of course still many struggles that trans people face and many fights to be won - its not nearly as scary as it first seems to be.

*Finding The Right Support For You

This is something that will look different for every person. At first my focus was firmly on finding support and peers for my child, but I soon started to realise that I needed a place to talk about my worries and concerns too. 

I joined some Facebook groups for parents but these didn't really offer the kind of support I wanted. I wanted something with more one-on-one support, something that felt more personal.

I joined a parent support message board, but this was in the week after I had found out that my child was transgender and I was not brushed up on the correct language at that point - we hadn't changed pronouns yet and when I posted my first message I was rounded on for not using the correct ones, this scared me off immediately and I've never used those forums since. It was just too overwhelming.

Eventually I was put in touch with the mother of another trans child by a mutual friend, and this was a godsend. Through being able to talk to this lady directly, I was able to freely discuss my worries with someone who understood - without fear of saying the wrong thing, or admitting to something that people didn't want to hear -  her support has been invaluable to me throughout the last 2 years.

So don't just try one way of finding support - try a few, and see which one works for you.

*Preparing For The Future

This is quite a personal one, and may not work for everybody - but I'm a person who likes to plan ahead and feel a sense of control.

The way I do this with regards to my trans child is to prepare for the future in a way that reassures me that we'll be able to offer the support she needs, when she needs it.

One thing I've learned over the last 2 years is that difficult questions will crop up at the most surprising of times - we can go months without any mention of her gender identity at all, she'll be perfectly happy and content but then all of a sudden - she'll become upset about what will happen in the future with puberty, or she'll have questions about what things will and won't be possible for her when it comes to having children. 

Right now these are usually questions I can answer and concerns I can deal with, but I'm aware that as she gets older she is going to need role models that she identifies with who can offer insight in to experiences she has that I will probably not have had - so I've started to buy books from transgender women about their experiences, and put them aside for her when she's older. Books like Charlie Craggs "To My Trans Sisters", "Transitional" by Munroe Bergdorf and the Trans Self Care Book. 

Maybe she'll never need or want them and that's fine, I can donate them to someone who does - but I feel better knowing that I have them there if she does need them.

I've also started a savings fund for her future which she can use to access gender affirming surgery if she chooses to - it's not something I'm going to shove down her throat, but if she feels its something she wants to have when she's older then there will be funds available to help her. I started this after hearing some of the wonderful trans people I follow online speak about how expensive even seemingly simple procedures like hairline restoration can be - it can cost tens of thousands of pounds to have gender-affirming surgery and I want her to have the option of it if she chooses to.

If not, then there's a new car fund for the kids to enjoy! But I feel better being prepared. The way I see it, if she had some medical issue that meant she may need expensive surgery or treatment in the future - I would be saving for it. This feels no different to me.

The most important thing is to be open minded about the journey you're on, and to be vocal with your support and acceptance of your child.

If you are not currently the parent of a transgender child, then please know that you still play an important role in the collective futures of all marginalized people by educating your children and yourself to accept and support transgender folks both now and in the future.

Check out this post with some recommendations for childrens books to help teach your kids about gender identity and diversity in general, and be sure to sign up to my new e-zine for parents and allies of Trans children.

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