“I’d rather have a transgender son than a dead daughter.”
Those words resonated with Roz Keith of Farmington as she discussed her teen son’s transition – which began at age 14 – with a friend who also has a transgender son. And it’s a reality most families of transgender people have to face.
Some 50 percent of transgender people try to commit suicide, says Lilianna Angel Reyes, a 32-year-old Latina transgender woman and program services director at Affirmations, an LGBT community center in Ferndale. And that number increases when speaking only of transgender youth.
When a transgender person is allowed a social or hormonal transition, however, rates of suicide, depression and self-harm diminish, says Dr. Daniel Shumer, assistant professor of pediatrics in the division of pediatric endocrinology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, while self-esteem and confidence flourish. “I see an allowance of a hormonal transition (as) truly lifesaving for transgender people,” he says.
But as protections for transgender people are being rolled back at a federal level and everything from what they do for a living to where they go to the bathroom is scrutinized – coupled with the nerve-wracking idea of children altering their bodies – the decision whether or not to allow a child to transition becomes difficult to say the least.
The medical standpoint
Contrary to popular belief, being transgender doesn’t mean that there is anything medically or mentally wrong with you, Shumer says.
“Everybody has a biological sex which involves the genes, the chromosomes and the hormones that determine whether someone is male or female, and then everyone has a sense of their gender identity,” he says. “When gender identity and biological sex don’t match, we call that being transgender.”
As Shumer explains, medical professionals think of gender identity, or one’s personal concept of their gender, as a spectrum, and normal human variations in gender identity have existed for centuries and across different cultures.
“Having differences in gender identity is part of the normal human fabric, (and) we’re starting to understand that (being transgender) does seem more common than previously recognized,” he says, adding that around 0.5 percent of people identify as transgender.
But while variations in the gender spectrum are normal and people identifying as transgender is becoming more common, there is no “standard” timeframe when people come out.
“There’s a lot of variability when people may recognize a difference in their gender identity,” Shumer says. “Parents describe their kids mentioning their gender identity very early on, as early as 3 or 4 years old, (but) we are (also) seeing adults coming out as trans – perhaps it was something that was always in the back of their mind, but now there’s more social support and they are finding in themselves to talk about how they feel.”
Because of this, Shumer stresses that when a person does come out, it should be taken seriously. “What I would also say is regardless of the timing of the emergence, the timing doesn’t validate or disprove someone’s gender identity,” he says.
The human element
Despite the normalcy of it all, when kids in particular speak about their gender identity, it’s often met with skepticism.
“People always think there’s this day that you decide (to be trans), when in reality we’re all groomed for gender,” says Reyes, who lives in Detroit. “I always ask people, ‘When did you decide?’ And they can’t answer because you didn’t. Your parents decided for you in the womb and you were just OK with it.”
For those that do shy away from the gender given to them at birth, the road can be tough, especially for those without support from their families and friends.
“I believe our society is becoming more open and tolerant of gender identity differences,” Shumer says, but “it remains true that trans people face higher rates of violence, discrimination and homelessness, and when someone is deciding to live an authentic trans life, they may face some hardships as an adult.”
But if families have their kid’s back, the road gets a bit easier.
“When you support your child as their authentic self, the more confident they feel – and when they’re more confident, they’re less likely to be a target,” says Farmington mom Keith, who founded youth-support nonprofit Stand with Trans in 2015.
But even with support, transgender people, like her son Hunter, 18, do have to be careful who they tell and how they tell them.
“When I get close to someone, I feel the need to tell them because being transgender is a big part of my life and who I am. I feel like I’m keeping something from my friends,” Hunter says. “I’ve found the happy medium of waiting and seeing how they’re going to react and getting to know them first before I tell them.”
And getting to know your surroundings like that is key.
“You have to listen to yourself and understand your own circumstances,” Reyes explains. “It’s easy for someone to say ‘be authentically you,’ and I’m all about people living as themselves. But I’m also all about people being safe so it’s about understanding what your environment is and if it supports it.”
Coming to terms
Supporting your child doesn’t mean that you have to like or agree with the transition either, according to Reyes.
“Realistically, parenting meant that you were working with your youth to be productive members of society, whatever that looks like, and being trans does not mean that they won’t be productive members of society,” she says. “You created a whole nother being, and it’s about them. I think the sooner parents get over themselves in the transition and worry about their youth, it becomes easier to help your child.”
Still, there may be some mourning in the process as you watch who you perceived your child to be become someone else – and that’s something parents need to be allowed to work through.
“It’s difficult,” Reyes says. “You raised little Randy, and you had dreams for little Randy, and now little Randy is someone else.”
And those feelings can crop up at the most unlikely times, even when the child who is transitioning simply walks into the room.
“There was one moment for me when he came into the family room wearing jeans and a plaid shirt … (and) I remember looking at him and being taken aback,” Keith recalls. “And it wasn’t so much that he was transitioning, but it was that Olivia wasn’t going to be this young woman – and it’s such a fine line, but that’s what was hard for me.” Remember, too: There’s help.
“Seek out a support group for the parents and for the youth,” Roz’s husband and Hunter’s father, Richard, says. “Having that support and being and seeing other kids going through the same experience as them is helpful. I would recommend that.”
Of course, more than emotions go into a transition. Some kids go through gender dysphoria and may want hormones or even surgery to align their bodies with their gender identity.
“The difference between being trans and gender dysphoria is that there’s nothing pathologic about being transgender. Gender dysphoria is describing the stress felt from incongruence between your gender identity and your sex, and transitioning is the cure for it,” Shumer says. “If the parent is concerned that their child may have gender dysphoria, they should consider meeting with a mental health professional well-versed in gender identity, especially if they feel it’s causing anxiety or depression.”
For those who want to transition and have worked with their doctors, there are options to make it happen in a safe way.
“The process of transitioning is outlined by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health and the Endocrine Society. These standards outline how adolescents can make a medical transition,” Shumer explains. “(Before puberty), we use medications to put puberty on pause. These provide a reversible way to stop the development of sex characteristics so that the child is spared the dysphoric feelings of going down the wrong route and having to cover up those characteristics later in life.”
If a person transitions after puberty, estrogen or testosterone is used to procure the desired effects. “Testosterone promotes a deeper voice, hairier body and more masculine face, while estrogen promotes feminine features,” he says.
However, some people, like Reyne Lesnau, a 19-year-old non-binary transgender person from Troy, don’t want to transition fully and opt to present somewhere else on the spectrum. “I wasn’t really given any options,” Lesnau says. “I had to find out everything myself. Being non-binary, you really have to experiment and figure out for yourself what you want so that you feel comfortable with yourself and the treatment you’re receiving.”
And others only transition socially, dressing and presenting more masculine, feminine or neutral, with little or no medical intervention.
“No two transitions are alike, and the journeys for the family are going to be different for each family. Follow your child’s lead,” Roz says. “A lot of parents will come to me and say, ‘Well, what if we do this and they change their minds?’ Well, what if? In the short term you’ve gained your child’s confidence and respect.”
Adds Lesnau, “When you had a child, you signed up for the job to support them no matter what. So you better damn support your child.”
Gender identity, or a person’s held sense of their gender, goes beyond the typical male and female, or “binary.” In fact, there are a wide variety of terms that can describe it. Here are a few of the most common terms that fall outside the gender binary, and what they mean, according to the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD and other trans-positive sources.
- Agender: A person who identifies as having no gender.
- Cisgender: A person whose gender identity aligns with the sex assigned to them at birth.
- Gender-Fluid: A person who doesn’t identify with a fixed gender. They are flexible about their gender identity.
- Gender Non-Conforming: A blanket term for a person who doesn’t conform to traditional gender expectations or to those that don’t fit into a category.
- Non-Binary: A blanket term for a person whose gender identity falls somewhere in between the gender binaries (male/female) or totally separate from the binaries.
- Transgender: A blanket term for a person whose gender identity and/or expression is different from cultural expectations based on the sex they were assigned at birth.
Tomboy ≠ Trans
Just because your child behaves like the opposite sex doesn’t mean that they are necessarily struggling with their gender identity. Some kids just like things associated with the opposite gender and that’s A-OK, too. Maintain open and honest communication with your kids and talk to them if you see them struggling.
The following organizations can provide additional context and support for families who have a child who may be trans.
- Affirmations. From its state-of-the-art community center in Ferndale to programs, counseling and other events and services, this local nonprofit provides support for people of all gender identities.
- Human Rights Campaign. As the country’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization, founded in 1980, this political action committee offers a variety of resources for trans youth and their parents on its website.
- GLAAD. From a glossary of transgender terms to the latest research, news and stories, this national LGBTQ nonprofit has been a resource since 1985.
- Stand With Trans. Created by Farmington mom Roz Keith, this nonprofit offers aid for transitioning youth, including an annual conference, events and supportive groups like Ally Moms.
- Transgender Michigan. This group has provides advocacy, support and education, from definitions and myth-busting to Michigan-based resources.
- University Of Michigan Comprehensive Gender Services Program. The Ann Arbor-based college provides high-quality “gender-affirming medical care” for transgender, non-binary and other gender-fluid adults.
Meet the Keith Family, Lilianna Angel Reyes and Reyne Lesnau, plus download our authenticity guide by clicking the images below: