Walk With Me(#26): My Kid is Trans And I am Lost

An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.

Dear Asha,

I am having the hardest time with my husband and one of his children from his last marriage. We have been married for eight years and together for ten. He had a son, let’s just call him Jay (*not his real name), who was 5 years old when we got together. At 15 years old Jay now has announced that he is a girl trapped in a boy’s body and wants our support to transition.

I am all for children expressing themselves and anyone being true to themselves, but it is confusing to our younger children who are young — 5, 6, and 8 years old. The two younger ones are both boys and don’t understand how you can be born a boy and just decide that you want to be a girl. It’s been hard to try to explain it to them. The 8-year-old is a girl and is not phased in any way by this news. As young as she is, she seems to be a bit wiser in her thinking than most children her age; maybe that’s why she’s not bothered by this.

Jay now lives with us and has since his mother died of cancer two years ago. My husband’s other children from the previous marriage are grown and living in other states. We’ve gotten Jay consistent and solid counseling for the grief, but his mother’s family thinks this desire to transition is all my fault and that I somehow have brainwashed this child into wanting to do this when I’ve been the most neutral person in this equation.

My husband is a bit angry about it. He feels that he failed Jay as his oldest son, by not being there as much after the divorce. I don’t even begin to know how to be supportive of something of this size that I just have no real understanding about, and how to keep my husband on an even keel so that our marriage doesn’t suffer. Help, please. I have no clue where to even start. My husband doesn’t like to talk to me about it, and I don’t know what else to do. I’m so lost.

Thanks,

EM

Dear EM,

What a complicated stew of emotions you are trying to navigate. Kudos to you for reaching out for support. I do believe you can help transform this situation. It will take time, patience, practice, and keeping love always at the forefront, but it can get better for everyone.

Full disclosure: my 17-year-old son is trans, so I have been in the midst of this sort of family transformation for several years now. I can tell you what’s worked for us, but there are many different ways to navigate the steps in Jay’s transition and the emotions various family members are experiencing. I would encourage you to start reading books and articles online, as well as seeking out a support group for caregivers of trans kids so you can regularly talk to other parents going through the same things.

For books, I found Transgender Teen: A Handbook for Parents and Professionals Supporting Transgender and Non-Binary Teens by Stephanie Brill super helpful. In terms of websites for basic learning, I would suggest The Trevor Project and genderspectrum.org to start. Genderspectrum.org hosts a variety of online support groups for trans youth and their caregivers, which may be helpful during COVID. You can also call Planned Parenthood; they will help you connect with a local caregiver support group once we can all gather together again.

You are navigating a completely new world of identity, definitions, and medical treatments. It can be very overwhelming, but there are good resources out there for information and support. You do not have to do this all alone.

In terms of your younger children, I know it’s hard to wrap your mind around, but Jay isn’t “just deciding he wants to be a girl”. Jay has always been a girl, but her internal experience of her gender and the outward expression of her secondary sex characteristics didn’t match up. It happens. No one “did this” to her. Gender and biological sex are vastly more complicated and grey than any of us were raised to understand. The important thing for your younger children to know is that Jay is still exactly the person she has always been. They loved Jay before and they will love Jay after because Jay has always been and will always be Jay.

We all want to be seen for who we really are, and many of us feel like our inside sense of ourselves and how other people perceive us don’t match up. Tell them that Jay simply needs to take steps to have her inside and her outside match each other so as she moves around in the world other people recognize who she is. Ultimately Jay is doing all of her siblings a tremendous service, because when, or if, they come up against some difference between who they know they are and who the world tells them they have to be they will have Jay to follow as an example of self-love.

My experience is that younger siblings are often remarkably good at accepting older trans siblings. My younger kids were completely unfazed about my son transitioning. But kids also take their clues from their parents. If you and Jay’s father can’t project a willingness to educate yourselves and love Jay through her transition then they will also struggle.

I understand that it is a lot for your husband to wrap his head around. He thought that he and Jay were on the same team. He had expectations about having an eldest son that were his, but that he attached to Jay — about what they would share together, and about what his role would be in supporting Jay to become a man. Losing all of that is a death; there’s no way around it. Underneath his anger is likely tremendous grief, but men aren’t allowed to be sad in our culture. Somehow he’s going to have to let himself grieve so that he can get past his sadness and back to his love.

Letting go of my dreams for my son about very gender-specific moments was incredibly painful. I anticipated the conversations we would have about sex and relationships. I expected someday we’d go wedding dress shopping together. I planned to hold his hand through pregnancy and childbirth. There will be other beautiful, unexpected experiences we will share together as he moves into adulthood, but giving up those dreams and expectations hurt. It is understandable if your husband is sad about losing the parenting experience he thought he would have with Jay.

He is also probably, perhaps completely unconsciously, coming up against his own internalized misogyny, which all of us carry. By admitting that she is not a man, Jay is moving to a lower status position. Your husband may feel like Jay is making herself “less”, and why would anyone want to do that? Jay transitioning may be exposing his feelings about women, and also queer people. At the end that may be good, but if he has a lot of bias to unravel then that may feel overwhelming. Easier to just be angry.

Finally, he may also be afraid for Jay, which is entirely fair. Transgender people, and trans women in particular, can be in danger every time they walk out their door. Many trans women have been murdered in recent years. But again, men in our culture aren’t allowed to be afraid. It may feel easier for him to be angry than to allow in any fear he has about Jay’s safety.

All of these feelings, or whatever his feelings are, will not just go away. He will have to process them somehow. If you get some books and leave them lying around the house where he can pick them up when no one else is looking that may be a beginning. If you find some good online resources and can share them with him that may also start him down the right path. And if you get support, either via a counselor or a support group, you will bring what you learn back to him. He may even eventually seek support himself, which is what he needs whether or not he can acknowledge it now.

As for the extended family, I think the best you can do is model for them the love and acceptance that you want them to offer Jay, and draw clear boundaries around how you expect them to treat her as she transitions. If she has requested she/her pronouns and to use a new name then support her in that, and let them know that you expect them to do the same. Most trans kids I know don’t need everyone to do everything perfectly. They know that it takes time for folks to adjust to new names and pronouns. As long as everyone is trying, that’s what matters. But they have to try or they will lose Jay.

My former in-laws have been horrible to my son. They have openly refused to use his new name or pronouns, which has been incredibly painful for him. Luckily, my mom has been pretty great, so he doesn’t feel like he is without grandparents. She easily uses his new name but still messes up his pronouns periodically. She doesn’t get fussed or defensive about it, though. She just apologizes, promises to keep trying, and moves on.

I hear that in their fear of what they don’t understand Jay’s extended family is choosing to blame you for something that has nothing to do with you and those relationships are suffering. That’s painful, but don’t make fixing them your job. Your job right now is loving and protecting Jay.

Why? Because the rates of trans youth suicide are terrifying. Suicide is the 2nd most frequent cause of death for all young people ages 10 to 24, but trans youth are three times more likely to attempt suicide than their cisgender peers. According to a Reuters report, 30 percent of trans girls (like Jay) have attempted suicide at least once.

These trans youth don’t attempt suicide because they are trans. They attempt suicide because their families and communities don’t accept and protect them, which leaves them isolated, frequently homeless, and drowning in self-hatred. I am not being histrionic here. If you want Jay to survive into adulthood then you and her dad have to step up and do whatever you have to do to educate yourselves and process your emotions so you can love and support her, otherwise, she may not make it. If you think it may break through your husband’s anger, tell him that. I’m sure that he loves Jay and wants her to survive and thrive. At this point, he is her best chance.

Jay is so close to being an adult. That she waited until now to tell you about her desire to transition means it is unlikely, statistically, that she is going to “change her mind”. This is who she is. That said, you do not have to jump into any sorts of irreparable medical decisions right away, no matter how much Jay may want that. Focus on pronouns, any new name that Jay has chosen, and supporting her in starting to change her wardrobe and appearance. Be prepared to go to bat for her if she gets pushback at school or in your religious community if you all have one.

I would advise you to talk to a pediatric endocrinologist about hormone replacement therapy and hormone blockers, even it’s initially only a fact-finding mission. Being able to talk to a medical professional about what Jay is experiencing may be helpful for you and her dad, and for Jay. Hormone blockers are completely reversible, but are particularly important for trans girls if they have not completely finished puberty. Hormone replacement therapy can be delayed while you all process all of this together, so maybe that will start before Jay turns eighteen and maybe not. There will not be any surgeries for Jay before she turns eighteen, so don’t worry about that.

Everything will feel rocky and hard for a while, but transformation is never easy, and all of you are transforming. I believe you can become something beautiful together. Just take it all one step at a time. Have some mercy for your imperfect, in-process selves. Focus on loving Jay and keeping her safe. She is so lucky to have you.

Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.

XO, Asha

Do you have a question about relationships, sex, parenting, politics, spirituality, community? Send them to me at ashasanaker@gmail.com with the subject line “Walk With Me”. Let’s walk each other home.

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