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Mom of Transgender Teen: All That I'm Afraid Of

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.

RELATED: 5 Ways Caitlyn Jenner Is a Better Mother Than Me

"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.

RELATED: Your Transgender Child Is Not a Phase

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.

Image via Getty Images

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