The Road Less Travelledby Amanda Jetté Knox
On a cold February night last winter, our 11-year-old sent us a heartfelt email:
“I am a girl trapped inside a boy’s body,” it said. “More than anything, I want to be a girl. Please help me.”
Our daughter Alexis is transgender, meaning that her gender identity doesn’t match her body. She was born a boy (with a different given name), but feels like a girl. Similar to many transgender people, the dysphoria—or unhappiness—she felt for many years had trickled into the rest of her life, affecting her mental health and well-being. Depressed and anxious, she began to isolate herself from family and friends.
When she felt she could no longer keep her secret, Alexis sent that email. It took her life, and by extension our parenting journey, in a completely unexpected direction.
We were completely taken off guard by the news. What did it mean? What should we do? How could we help? Was this just a phase?
Within a few days, I had scoured the internet, reached out to local and international experts and poured over books and medical texts. I quickly realized how little I knew about gender identity and expression, so I’ve made it a priority to learn as much as I can.
To that end, I’ve connected with other families whose children are traveling along a similar path, in the hopes that their stories can also help shed some light on an often misunderstood and marginalized group of children.
Sixteen-year-old Riley*, who lives in Ottawa’s east end, is a few months into transition; it’s a multi-step and often multi-year process in which a transgender person begins to live outwardly as the gender lived inwardly. In Riley’s case, he is transitioning from female to male.
His mother Sharon* is not new to receiving unexpected news about her child. Riley was diagnosed with autism at the age of nine. “I went through a very emotional few days after that diagnosis,” recalls Sharon. “I wondered how our relationship would grow, and how he would make it in the world with that burden. I learned early on that it hadn’t changed a thing. All the parts that I loved about him stayed the same, and all the parts that drove me crazy were still there too. When he told me he was trans, I went through a similar emotional upheaval. But this time I knew that it would work itself out.”
Like Alexis, Riley is being supported medically through the Gender Diversity Clinic at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario. Medical treatment for trans youth can begin at the onset of puberty with the administration of hormone blockers. These blockers hit a biological “pause” button, helping the recipient avoid many of the unwanted and often traumatic bodily changes that come with puberty.
With female puberty now suppressed, Riley will soon begin taking testosterone, or “T” as it is often referred to, to give him some male characteristics.
Sharon couldn’t be happier for her son. “It made me tremendously sad to know that he’d been suffering this discomfort for so long,” she says. “How can your heart not hurt to know that someone is in the wrong body?”
Gender as a Spectrum
Not all children feel as firmly opposite to their biological gender as Alexis or Riley do. While society tends to view gender as strictly male or female, experts in the study of gender identity point out that it is less one or the other and more of a spectrum or scale.
Enter “gender creative,” an umbrella term that encompasses much of what is in between cisgender (someone who comfortably identifies as the gender assigned at birth) and transgender. For example, a child might identify as a boy but dress as a girl. Another child might feel both female and male, or that neither term truly fits.
There are other terms that embrace the concept of a spectrum, such as “gender fluid,” “gender queer” and “gender non-conforming.” Essentially, they all point to the same thing: the perception we have of our gender can be as unique as we are.
Gender Identity vs. Sexual Orientation
It is also important to note that gender identity and sexual orientation are not related. Just as there are gay, straight and bisexual cisgender people, there are gay, straight and bisexual transgender and gender creative people.
One of the most common ways I have heard the difference explained is as such: Gender is who you go to bed as, while sexual orientation is who you go to bed with. There is a difference.
Is this just a phase?
The vast majority of trans teens go on to identify as trans adults, so the likelihood of Alexis or Riley changing paths is very small. But what about children who express gender non-conformity at a younger age?
Ottawa parents Anne and Chris are raising Charlie, a happy and precocious gender-creative child who was born biologically male but identifies as female. In a perfect example of non-conformity, she sometimes carries an embroidered purse filled with her favourite toy cars slung nonchalantly over a sundress. She is unapologetically unique.
Charlie has consistently voiced her need to be accepted for who she is: a girl in a boy’s body. But what if things change? Could this be a phase for Charlie? Anne is trying to take things a day at a time.
“If it truly is a phase, then we are doing the right thing in supporting her through whatever she is experiencing,” explains Anne. “[She will mature] to an age when she is better informed by experience and education, and can make more permanent decisions for herself. In the meantime, I respect and value her enough to support her just as she is.”
The Importance of Family Support
Transgender people are the most at-risk of any marginalized group. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 77 per cent of trans people surveyed in Ontario had seriously contemplated suicide, while 45 per cent had attempted it. They are at greater risk of physical and sexual assault, and some research suggests they are more likely to become alcohol or drug dependent.
As a parent to a transgender child, those are frightening statistics.
But there is good news: Studies and surveys have shown that the rate of depression, suicide and homelessness drop significantly when trans youth have the support of their parents. By creating a safe space at home, seeking out the help of knowledgeable professionals and community organizations, and connecting with other families in similar situations, parents can play a crucial role in fostering some much-needed confidence and self-esteem.
Even though it was a shock, Sharon was relieved Riley felt he could trust her with such big news. Her advice to other family members dealing with a similar upheaval is simple: ” I would tell parents to breathe. Breathe, hug your kids, and tell them you love them.”
Alexis’ transition is in now full swing. With her puberty suppressed and an incredible amount of support from family and friends, she is no longer depressed and hiding away from the world. This is a long and challenging journey to undertake, but if the smile on my daughter’s face is any indication, it is also one that is incredibly worthwhile.
Lots of Support
Ottawa offers lots of support for families of transgender and gender creative children:
CHEO’s Gender Diversity Clinic can be accessed without a referral. Call: 613 737-7600, ext. 3664 for details.
Family Services Ottawa (FSO), in partnership with CHEO, offers a support group for parents of transgender and gender creative children. It takes place the first Tuesday of every month at 6:30 p.m. at 312 Parkdale Avenue. Contact Beck Hood at 613 725-3601 ext. 105 or firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
Ottawa’s PFLAG chapter offers a support group for family members of LGBTQ youth on the first Wednesday of every month at 7:30 p.m. in St. John’s Anglican Church, 154 Somerset Street West. Contact PFLAG at 613 860-7138 for details.
PFLAG Ottawa Chapter: www.pflagottawa.ca/meetings.html
Canadian Mental Health Association: ontario.cmha.ca/mental-health/lesbian-gay-bisexual-trans-people-and-mental-health/
Boston Children’s Hospital: www.youngmenshealthsite.org/gender_identity.html
Gender Creative Kids Canada: gendercreativekids.ca