“What are the challenges that I have raising a trans child? The outside world is my problem. Yeah. Living in 2023 is my problem.”
Lisa (pseudonym), a mother of an 11yo transfemme child, sums up a general feeling I have heard again and again from the parents of trans, nonbinary and gender expansive tweens and teens. The anxiety of parenting isn’t about their kid or even their family. Instead, the greatest source of anxiety resides in the acts of transphobia in the communities and society in which they live.
According to the The Williams Institute (Human Rights Campaign, September 2023), 45.4% of the country’s estimated 300,000 transgender youth (high-school aged) live in states in which they have either lost or are at-risk of losing access to gender-affirming care.
As described by Sandy Jorgenson in an April 2022 edition of The Washington Post, “We’ve seen a massive uptick in anti-trans rhetoric, as increasing numbers of Republican state legislators work with great aplomb to, in effect, erase the transgender community. In states across the country, parents of trans minors are being threatened with investigations, gender-affirming health-care providers are suspending their work, and both cisgender parents and trans people alike are being labeled as ‘groomers’ and ‘pedophiles.’ In no uncertain terms, what we are seeing take place is an active attempt at trans genocide.”
In response to the politicians voting against gender-affirming care, Cathy (pseudonym), a hetero-married mom of a 17yo transfemme states, “There wasn't really any fear [for my daughter]. There was just like anger, anger, just getting ready to fly.” Cathy is raising her biological child alongside her husband (the child’s stepfather and nonbiological dad) in the state of CO. A state surrounded by others with bans on gender-affirming care.
Over the past two months, I have been interviewing cis parents of trans, nonbinary, and gender expansive tweens and teens. “Cis,” is an adjective referring to an individual’s gender identity when it aligns with the gender assigned to them at birth. Like me, all of the participants in these interviews, to date, have been cis, white women, who are also moms of gender diverse kids.
My intentions in initiating this project are professional and personal. I specialize in supporting gender expansive youth and young adults, as well as their parents. I am also the cis parent of an enby teen myself. In the last decade, I have grown increasingly concerned about anti-trans rhetoric in the United States. As my own child nears high school graduation, I worry about the world which they will have to navigate independently. As a resident of MA, my child currently experiences near insignificant examples of misgendering and ignorance from teachers and peers. This stands in sharp contrast to the kids like them who live in 22 states where gender-affirming care has been successfully banned.
Sara (pseudonym), the mom of a 13yo transmasculine child in MA, expresses a feeling shared by most parents, “As a parent, I just, I want my kid to be safe and happy and healthy.” When asked what her hopes and dreams were for herself as a parent in 2-5 years, Lisa went so far as to say: “I hope that we all have any rights whatsoever in five years.”
For Cathy in CO, her hopes for her child are directly tied to accessing the care that will most benefit her child’s overall health. “I want her to be able to see herself the way she wants to be seen because she talks about looking in the mirror and just not even identifying at all with that person in the mirror. So I want her to start getting gender-affirming care.” Cathy’s 17yo has been on a waitlist for care for one year. She adds, “L’s had some pretty serious mental health issues. She's got depression and anxiety, and we've been going and going and going to doctors. I think the underlying issue is that she can't get gender-affirming care.” This mom explained the overwhelming toll on her child’s mental health included quitting a prestigious youth jazz club, quitting high school band, and leaving campus for online school.
Gender-affirming care, as defined by the World Health Organization, includes medical and non-medical interventions that support an individual’s gender identity when that identity conflicts with the gender they were assigned at birth. Three of the United States’ major medical associations and lobbying groups all publicly support gender-affirming care.
The American Medical Association (AMA) “believes that gender-affirming care is medically necessary and improves the physical and mental health of transgender and gender-diverse people.” In June 2023, the AMA passed a resolution to “‘oppose any and all criminal and other legal penalties’ for patients and their families attempting to access gender-affirming medical care; to protect doctors from physical and legal threats that arise from providing such care; and to ‘advocate against state and federal legislation that would prohibit or limit gender-affirming care.’”
In August 2023, The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reaffirmed its support for gender-affirming care for transgender youth including recommendations for the establishment of Federal protections of gender-affirming care, as well as advocating as an organization for gender-affirming care as a human right.
Finally, The American Psychiatric Association (APA) supports gender-affirming care for transgender and gender diverse individuals and their families. A 2022 study led by the APA found that individuals who received gender-affirming care had a lowered risk of depression and suicidality for a 12-month period following treatment.
In the face of anti-trans legislation that goes against the evidence-based treatment recommendations of these medical organizations, it would be easy to feel paralyzed, terrified, or furious. In order to address the explicit societal dangers posed to gender expansive kids, parents need support, as well as ways to actively engage in the longterm well-being of their children. Some ways of doing the latter include: engaging in opportunities to expand the dialogue, contributing to research, and advancing understanding.
When asked why she decided to participate in my interview project, Cathy said, “I feel like this kind of research is really important.” Sara elaborated, “As the parent of a trans teen, I want to do everything I can big and small to help. I wouldn't say raise awareness, but I guess raise awareness is one component. [I want to] further people's knowledge and understanding of [our] experience … and hopefully it will make its way up to the upper echelons of … lawmakers and folks who are in charge of decisions to be like, ‘Oh, trans people aren't demons.’” Lisa articulated the strength of her family, a common theme among the interviewees: "The burden ... [is] dealing with other people's expectations and dealing with other people's prejudice. We have the tools for everything else."
Parents like Lisa can’t fight the good fight without taking good care of themselves. Here are three things you can do to support yourself and support your family:
Believe and support your kid. Your main objective as a parent of a trans or gender expansive youth is less about understanding and more about trusting and respecting that they know themselves. The best predictor of physical and mental wellbeing for a trans youth is a supportive family-of-origin.
Utilize communities of support for yourself and your child. PFLAG groups and Facebook groups (such as the private Parents of Transgender and Nonbinary Kids or Support Network for Parents of Trans Kids) are available nationwide, as well as virtually. Local organizations providing services to LGBTQIA youth are also excellent resources for you and your family.
Talk to a gender-affirming and trans-knowledgeable mental health provider. Your journey as a parent of a gender-variant child isn’t identical to your kid’s. You need your own support and your own space to explore the highs and lows of parenting, in general, as well as the unique challenges your family may encounter.
If you are a parent in need of therapeutic support, please feel free to contact me through this website or request a free consult. If you are not in MA, MI or RI, here are some additional resources that can help you find a qualified and compassionate provider: WPATH Provider Search (WPATH stands for World Professional Association of Transgender Health), Mental Health Match, NQTTCN Provider List (NQTTCN stands for National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network), and The Psychotherapy Association for Gender and Sexual Diversity.