When our 15-year-old child came out as transgender almost three years ago, I didn’t know that transgender individuals experience higher rates of verbal harassment, physical assault, poverty, and unemployment. 1 I didn’t know that transgender youth experience higher rates of depression and anxiety. 2 I didn’t know that 40% of transgender adults had attempted suicide. I didn’t know that 74% of those first suicide attempts were at age 17 or younger. 1 I didn’t know that 40% of homeless youth in our country identify as LGBTQ. 3 I didn’t know any of this. And I was petrified.
I had never knowingly met a transgender person. I believed our child might be the only transgender teen in Charlotte (she’s not), or maybe even in North Carolina. I was scared. I was scared for her life. I was scared for her future. And I was scared for our family of four. I worried how our friends would react. I worried whether her school would be supportive. I worried that our family would be judged. I worried about whether I’d be comfortable going back to our church. I worried about how grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins would react. I worried about finding the right health care providers to support both our child and our family. But mostly, I longed for the day when our child would grow to truly accept herself and the beautiful person she is—inside and out.
Five months into our journey, we found PFLAG. At our first meeting, my husband and I learned we were not alone. Parents, friends and allies of the LGBTQ community surrounded us. We discovered a judgment free safe space filled with open minds, open hearts, and rainbows. Yes, there were (and are) tears shed, but there were also lots of smiles shared and laughs exchanged. PFLAG is a community that continues to support us, educate us, and share resources with us, and we have embraced all that PFLAG Charlotte has to offer.
A year ago, I was invited to be a part of PFLAG’s Healthcare Outreach Initiative. What began two years ago as a project to develop a gender information brochure for healthcare providers and parents of transgender and gender nonconforming children ultimately resulted in a partnership with the Mecklenburg County Medical Society (MCMS). Through this collaboration, our PFLAG Healthcare Outreach Team of seven parent volunteers has worked with MCMS and two of North Carolina’s largest hospital systems to present to hundreds of pediatric, family medical, OB/GYN, behavioral health providers, medical residents, nurses and office staff.
During our one-hour workshops, we share our family stories, we provide information and data, and we strive to heighten awareness on how to be an affirming and inclusive provider. We conclude with a conversation about a wide range of resources available to healthcare providers and LGBTQ patients and families, including the Charlotte Transgender Healthcare Group (www.cthcg.org), Time Out Youth (www.timeoutyouth.org), Transcend Charlotte (www.transcendcharlotte.org) and, of course, PFLAG (www.pflagcharlotte.org).
When I share our family story in a workshop, I often reflect back on the worries I had early on. How did our friends react? For the most part, they were overwhelmingly supportive. They had (and probably still have) lots of questions. That’s okay; we’re happy to answer them. Were we judged? Perhaps. Did we lose any friends? A few. Have we gone back to our church? No. We’re still struggling with that. How did our extended family react? They were, and are, awesome. What about school? We’re thankful for an Upper School Director and a guidance counselor who are travelling the journey with us every step of the way, and for faculty who value and support each individual student for who they are.
How is our child? She’s 18 now, and like most 18 year olds (and 55 year olds), she struggles with finding her place in the world. Her writing blows me away; I admire her depth of appreciation for music and poetry and knowledge in all its forms; and she has slowly begun to share her story in hopes of making the path a bit smoother for those gender nonconforming and transgender youth who will follow. She’s looking forward to heading to college in August. Most importantly, she is living her life as the person she has always known herself to be. What more can a parent hope for?
Yes, I still worry; don’t we all? Yet the worries have evolved and our family of four feels whole again. The fears have been replaced with hope, love, awe and gratitude for our children’s strength and for our family’s transition. We’ve learned gender is a spectrum. We’ve learned that being transgender or gender nonconforming is not a choice. And we’ve learned how much we don’t know—and that has been the best gift of all.
Research demonstrates that supporting transgender youth in their gender identity can “virtually eliminate higher rates of depression and low self-worth”. 4 This life-saving support for transgender youth needs to come from home, from school, and from the community. That is how we change the scary statistics. And that is why I believe tomorrow can, and will, be better. Our world can always do more when it comes to understanding, acceptance, and inclusion.
Like many of you, I’ve learned when your life goes off-script, it’s not always easy, but it’s those twists and turns that often make our time here that much more meaningful. If you’re interested in learning more about PFLAG or in working with us to create a workshop for your organization, your faith community, your school administrators and faculty, your PTA, or your book group, please email us at email@example.com. We welcome the opportunity to meet you where you are and, together, we can build a bridge to a better tomorrow for all our youth.
1 James, S. E., Herman, J. L., Rankin, S., Keisling, M., Mottet, L., & Anafi, M. (2016). The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality.
2 Reisner, Sari L. et al. Mental Health of Transgender Youth in Care at an Adolescent Urban Community Health Center: A Matched Retrospective Cohort Study. J Adolesc Health. 2015;56:274 – 279.
3 Durso, L.E., & Gates, G.J. (2012). Serving Our Youth: Findings from a National Survey of Service Providers Working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth who are Homeless or At Risk of Becoming Homeless. Los Angeles: The Williams Institute with True Colors Fund and The Palette Fund.
4 Transgender Youth: The Building Evidence Base for Early Social Transition. Turban, Jack L. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry , Volume 56 , Issue 2 , 101 – 102