Dear Patrick: I am the mother of a transsexual child. (He is in his late twenties, but it's hard to think of him as anything but one of my children.) He recently informed me that he needs to change his sex. When I asked what the time table was for this major life-changing event, I was told “right now”! Don't you think there should be a longer period of time for reflection? Shouldn't he be consulting someone to see if there are any other treatments that might help him to feel better? I feel as if I am losing my only son, and yet I am not allowed to grieve or protest. I am being railroaded. My child has threatened to cut off contact with me if I cannot support “her” new life. But I dare not express any anger about these blackmail tactics. I have a hundred questions and no one to talk to. When I try to bring up some of these issues, all I get is a roll of the eyes and an abrupt end of the conversation. We haven't had this many slamming doors in my house since my children were teenagers.
So far I have refused to give in to the demand that I tell everyone else in the family about this. He doesn't want to talk to his (estranged) father or his sisters or grandparents. But I refuse to explain something I myself do not understand or accept. This is tearing my life apart. I feel sick. I can't eat or sleep, and my employer has noticed that I am not focused. This can't go on and yet I am being told this will happen immediately, without my consent, my only option is to agree or lose somebody I love very much. I thought I had given my kids a decent childhood. Because I was a single mother for the last few years they were at home, there were some things they had to do without, but they were always loved and secure. Now I feel as if I must have made some terrible mistake. Worst of all is the knowledge that something was going on with him, and I was oblivious. I feel deceived and stupid, which is not fair, but still. I doubt anyone would know how to deal with this situation gracefully. How do I get back in control of my life?
Take a deep breath. You are hurting a lot, but this is actually the worst part of learning that your child is transsexual. Things can only get better after this. That may not seem like a lot, but I have counseled many families through this process, so I'm not making any false promises. I empathize with your shock, self-criticism, anger, and feelings of loss. But let me propose another way to think about this. When a transgendered person changes their public identity, it is not like a death. It is more like a birth. When you gave birth to each of your children, you moved from one state to another. Your own identity changed as well as theirs. Instead of being a pregnant woman whose baby was a part of her own body, you became two separate people. You were a mother and they were a baby. That was a huge change. It may seem idiotic to you, but there are women who cannot accept that change. They enjoy being pregnant so much that they resent the child for being born. Instead of raising the child, they focus on getting pregnant again. But it is natural for these changes to take place. It has to happen in order for both parties to fulfill their destinies. The only healthy choice for the mother is to let go of her pregnant identity and allow her child to become separate from her, although still quite dependent. You had to make similar choices at each phase of your children's development. A good mother chooses to support toe child's growth even though it means they become more independent and may seem further away. Eventually, if you can survive adolescence, you wind up with a child who can have an adult relationship to you because you have created the opportunity for them to be an adult.
Transgendered people are frequently told that they are going too fast. Loved ones ask them to slow down, to hold off, to try anything else. But is this really in their interests? And is it even true? We have accumulated enough research on the development of transgendered or transsexual people to know that their feelings of being identified incorrectly go back to early childhood. Most people who change their gender will tell you that they had these feelings as far back as they can remember. The only explanation I have for this is that the gender of a transsexual person must come from the same sources as other peoples' gender. I mean that it is based on genetics, brain chemistry, and other physiological realities.
This means that you did not do anything to make your child have gender issues. You sound like a concerned mom, someone who genuinely cares. Even when you were single, you didn't abandon your kids. You provided for them at a certain cost to yourself. But you were glad to do that because all parents have to set those priorities. One of the most helpful things you can do is to stop blaming yourself for this reality. While researchers are unable to pinpoint the exact causes of gender issues, they are clear that the way the child is raised has little or no effect. I've had parents tell me that they should not have allowed a son to play with dolls or wear dressup skirts, that doing this created “his” transsexuality. I've also had parents tell me that they tried too hard, that their child would not be transsexual if they had not made “him” play football or join the Boy Scouts. Neither is true.
This situation is nobody's fault. It is a difficult reality that both of you need to understand and accept. You didn't know it was going on because there is almost no information out there about transgendered children. This is slowly changing, but for most parents, such a development is beyond the realm of imagination. It doesn't happen to them or anyone they know. It is far away, a bizarre story that might make an entertaining hour of television. But this is only an illusion. Some children do turn out to be gay, transgendered, or they might marry somebody who is absolutely unacceptable to their parents, or change their religious beliefs. That is their right as a separate person. Children exist to become themselves. Parents choose to raise them, but this doesn't give the parent any right to control the child's future. I know there are traditional cultures who feel quite differently, but people who are different suffer enormously in these cultures. Some of us cannot fulfill traditional expectations. If we are forced to do so, we will make ourselves and others unhappy, or we will destroy ourselves.
I imagine you are very attached to being a woman. You identify greatly with your role as a woman. How would you feel if you were told you could not be a woman? What if you had to wake up tomorrow and dress completely as a man, and pass as one? You would have to wear facial hair and walk like a man. Your voice would need to change. You would be expected to know or do things that are not comfortable for you. You would be forced to take a different role in relationships and during sex. How does that make you feel? Do you start to feel as if it's a bad dream? Does it seem unreal, unfair, or untenable? Do you think you could live under those circumstances?
The facts that are being so hard for you to assimilate are things your child has known for years and years and years. The changes that seem sudden and drastic to you are things she has waited for a long time to accomplish. She can't wait any more because she needs to have a real life. Until she can be authentic, be herself, how can she work or go to school or fall in love? We live in a world where the first question people ask of a new acquaintance or a stranger passing by is, “Are they a man or a woman?” If people can't answer that question or if they feel you are not being the right kind of man or woman, they feel entitled to insult you and sometimes even become violent toward you.
If you have thought this through at all, you are afraid of this treatment. You don't want your child to be mistreated. Well, she doesn't want to be verbally abused or discriminated against or assaulted. The most dangerous time in her life is now, when she is not able to be a woman. It is going to take a couple of years for her to make a change. During that time, it will be very hard for her to find housing or support herself. If she is willing to suffer that much, surely you can see that this is a crisis for her, too. She is also operating on emergency terms. If she seems rude, rigid, or distant, it's because she is overwhelmed. Why didn't you know before? Why was this kept from you? Well, look at your reaction. She knows you as well as you know your child. She knew this is how you would react. And she thought she could not bear it. She could not live if she was a disappointment to you, she could not stand to see shame in your eyes or be disowned by you. So she waited, probably waited far too long, and hoped it would go away. But these feelings do not go away. So now she has decided that she will be herself even if it means she will lose you. In fact, she probably believes she will lose you. Consider how afraid you are of losing your child. Well, she feels the same pain and the same crushing terror.
But that doesn't have to happen. If you don't understand her situation, that can be remedied. It's possible to get the information that you need. But nobody can force you to care about your child or experience a bond with her. If you love each other, you don't have to stop being a family. But you will need to affirm the bond despite any misunderstanding or conflict. Your child really needs to hear right now that despite your emotional upheaval, you want to be in her life. You want to understand.
That does not mean that you have to agree to do things you don't want to do. The demand that you be the one to tell other family members is not tenable. She is understandably afraid to tell her family. She wants someone to help her. It's awful to have to do this on your own, to risk losing connections that are supposed to be stronger than any other tie we might develop as adults. Yet this is something many transsexual people experience. Many differently gendered people are disowned by their families. This contributes to a very high rate of drug use, homelessness, and self-harm. People who are isolated, people who have no safety net, have nothing to lose and feel that they are not worth very much. If you withdraw from your child's life, you will also take away her ability to fully love herself. You may take away her ability to defend herself and have healthy relationships with others.
Remind her that you have had a lot of shocking news dumped in your lap. You have barely had time to figure out your own reaction. You are in no shape to tell anybody else about this. But you are willing to get new information and learn.
There are several excellent books written for family members of transgender people. I don't want to overwhelm you with a long list, so I'll just mention a few. One is Rachel Pepper's Transitions of the Heart: Stories of Love, Struggle and Acceptance by Mothers of Transgender and Gender Variant Children, Berkeley, CA: Cleis Press, 2012. I can also recommend Transforming Families: Real Stories About Transgendered Loved Ones, 2nd edition, by Jessica Xavier, Mary Boenke, and Arlene Istar Lev, Hardy, VA: Oak Knoll Books, 2003.
If a book seems like too big a commitment, check out the website for Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, a group that has worked for decades to keep families together, at www.pflag.com. They have an excellent pamphlet, Our Transgender Children, which you can download for free. They also have many local chapters where you can meet other parents with children who are gay or differently gendered, and you can find out more about TNET, a pflag affiliate that focuses specifically on the trans issue.
None of these resources contain information about how to change your daughter's feelings about her identity for the simple reason that this is not possible. She has probably already tried to talk herself out of being transgendered. She has searched for alternatives or remedies with an intensity that might frighten you. I doubt very much that she wants to upset her family, risk being alienated from them, and create a situation in which she is a target. It's kind of shocking that in this day and age you can still run into so-called therapists (most of them religiously-based) who will promise to “cure” people of homosexuality or transsexuality. None of this work has been validated by independent research. My own experience is that you can certainly browbeat some people back into the closet, but their feelings don't go away. Does it really help somebody to delay the day of reckoning and honesty?
The final resource I suggest is family counseling. When we feel overwhelmed, one of the first things we lose is the ability to empathize with somebody else. The most primitive parts of our brains are in charge when we feel that we are in crisis. This part of the brain can only identify threats and then fight or flee. We run or we fight. All of our energy is commandeered for these purposes. Nothing is left over to see nuances or consider how someone else is doing, even if they are in the same circumstances.
A good counselor can create a safe place where things can slow down. A lot. Simple statements can be considered for all of their subtle shadings. A reply can be crafted, corrected, and offered again. People can track their changes. They can see the other person's body language and be moved by a gesture of their hand or the dropping of their gaze. The counselor won't try to change your daughter's mind—or yours, for that matter. Someone who is skilled and qualified will let each of you speak your truth and yet keep the channels of communication open so nobody cuts and runs. Both you and your daughter need to understand that gender transitions do not happen overnight. Families have years to adjust to the changes. Different family members will understand (or not) in their own way and have various responses, which is their right. But nothing is written in stone. Unless someone has strong conservative religious or political beliefs, there is the possibility of seeing a transgendered person's struggles and understanding that they are, in the last analysis, only human struggles.
All of us are trying to answer certain key questions about our lives. We wonder, Who am I? Why am I here? Will anybody love me? Will I ever get to give someone else all this love that I feel? What should I be doing with my limited time on this earth? What are my values? How can I live according to those values? What would make me happy? Can I find a way to have the things that will make me happy? What do others need or expect from me? Can I or should I fulfill those expectations? All of us experience tension between the polar opposites of worth versus dross, meaning versus incoherence, love versus isolation, etc. Being transgendered doesn't get you off the hook for any of this process. But it is sometimes easy for us to believe that we suffer more than others, or have the right to feel sorry for ourselves. When we do this, we do the equivalent of a person who allows their understanding of God or their political theories to wipe away the value of other human beings. To the transsexual, it may look as if more conventional men and women have it easy. But I don't know any men or women (except for pathological narcissists) who do not struggle with existential questions abut their gender, how to live it appropriately, what it requires. Every man is afraid that he is not enough of a man or is the wrong kind of man, and every woman has issues with what it means to be female and how she should express or fulfill the possibilities her gender offers. In a way, we all have gender issues.