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With the release of the Vanity
Fair cover story featuring Caitlyn Jenner, the blogosphere exploded with
reactions to the superstar athlete's transformation into a bombshell in a
bathing suit. No matter how one feels about the sexy reveal—and there's quite a
range from "Yay!" to "Really?"—the more important issue is that, in going
public with her new identity as a woman, Caitlyn has taken the transgender
conversation out of the closet and to the dinner table.
In the past weeks, I've
had rich talks with my two teenagers about transgender issues, starting with
understanding the word itself, an umbrella term for persons whose gender
identity, gender expression or behavior does not conform to that typically
associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth.
"What's the big deal?"
my 13-year-old daughter asked. She knows teenagers who identify as gender fluid
and doesn't see all the judgment. In fact, studies show that approximately 1
in 1000 people are transgender, which means most of us know someone who
identifies as such.
I might not have
understood the "big deal" either (we just need to be accepting, right?), if it weren't for my friend Tina, who has a transgender 15-year-old son,
Alex. As Tina explains it, she is scared.
This is not something glamorous that kids try on to be trendy or fashionable. It is a life-and-death matter.
She is not scared about
her ability to love her child, who was born a girl but announced at the age of 2.5, "I should've been born a boy." For years, Alex continued to
assert his boyness through clothing, interests and insistent, persistent,
consistent, unyielding language and behavior until Tina and her husband
realized that this was not a phase that was going to go away.
Tina is also not scared about her
ability to support her adolescent son through the fight of a lifetime to become
who he is. She has been active in the Boston area advocating for transgender
children. Specifically, her recent work has focused on An Act Relative to
Transgender Anti-Discrimination at the Massachusetts State House; currently, transgender and gender nonconforming people
can be denied service at any space open to the public, including hospitals,
hotels, malls and libraries.
It's not even the
devastating statistics that terrify Tina, who told me that 50 percent of transgender
children attempt self-mutilation or suicide at the onset of unwanted puberty.
Alex was able to start taking a puberty-blocking drug and will be among a
growing group of transgender people who will only experience one puberty.
Those are not the things
that keep Tina awake at night. But here are a few of the things that do:
She is afraid to travel
by airplane with her son because his passport now says he is a male while the
scanner reveals that he is female. People do not tend to handle such issues
with knowledge, tact or discretion.
She is afraid when her
son uses a public restroom. As a result of being bullied or called out,
transgender people learn to avoid bathrooms as much as possible and train
themselves to "hold it."
She is afraid of being at the mercy of a possible transphobic emergency room worker who may not treat
Alex fairly. Living in Boston, she has the privilege to choose accepting
doctors, but not in an emergency situation.
She is afraid for the
transgender children and their families who do not have access to understanding
and well-informed mental health care. She wishes that every mental health
provider would promote opportunities for transgender patients and their parents
to join a support group as she was able to do. By connecting with parents
of other transgender children, Tina and her husband could move through denial
to understanding and finally acceptance of who her son really was.
She is scared of how
slowly the system is changing and how misunderstood the transgender identity
has become. She wants people to know that this is not something glamorous that
kids try on to be trendy or fashionable. It is a life-and-death matter as the
suicide rates for transgender individuals is 19 times higher than for
other individuals. "It's like Alex was allergic to his gender," Tina explains.
As parents to cisgender
children, we can do our part. That means staying informed on the topic, supporting our
transgender friends in their fight for rights, and communicating about the issue with our own children so the bullying stops and the
stigma gets dropped.