Back in April, actress Charlize Theron revealed that her child is transgender. “Yes, I thought she was a boy, too,” Theron said, “Until she looked at me when she was three years old and said, ‘I am not a boy!’”
Unlike TV host Mario Lopez — who freely admitted, and then went on to sadly demonstrate, that he was “…trying to understand it [him]self,” — I understood exactly what Ms. Theron was talking about.
In 1993, my husband, a former Marine, and I brought into this world a child we did not understand and did not know how to parent. Gender identity (which is defined by PFLAG National as one’s deeply held core sense of being a woman, a man, some of both, or neither) is an inherent part of who we are. We are all born with it — yes, even non-transgender (cisgender) people have a gender identity — and it cannot be changed. Very few people understand that, including, it would seem, Mr. Lopez. But ignorance is not benign.
Early on, I noticed that my then-son displayed habits that would typically be described as “feminine.” By the age of three, once my child had words, they told me that “…something went wrong in your belly; I was supposed to be a girl.” As supportive, concerned, and loving parents, my husband and I went to see a child psychologist who told us to “discourage girl play and encourage boy play, only allow boy toys and boy clothing.” Trusting the child expert, we did that — and by the age of six, my child was threatening suicide.
Suicidal ideation in transgender people is sadly common. In fact, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality’s 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey — the largest survey examining the experiences of transgender people in the United States — 40 percent of respondents attempted suicide, nearly nine times the attempted suicide rate in the U.S. population (4.6 percent). So back to the therapist we went, who diagnosed depression and anxiety. Understandable, of course, since we had been essentially shaming our child for years. But again there was no mention of gender. We did not get educated, and we did not stop the shaming. Ignorance is harmful.
At 15, after years in the darkest place imaginable, my child finally told me their truth: They were male on the outside and female on the inside. I exploded. “You can be as gay as you want, but if you go trans on me, it’s on your own dime and it’s out of my house!” When I think about that now…well, truthfully, it’s still hard to think about that now.
Then, I heard an episode of NPR’s This American Life about transgender children and what happens when they are supported versus when they are not supported by their families. The statistics are staggering. According to the Family Acceptance Project, “LGBTQ+ teens who were highly rejected by their parents and caregivers were at very high risk for health and mental health problems when they become young adults (ages 21-25). Highly rejected young people were more than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide, six times as likely to report high levels of depression, three times as likely to use illegal drugs, and three times as likely to be at high risk for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases.”
By the end of that NPR episode, I knew without a doubt that my child was transgender. I also knew without a doubt that, despite our fierce love for our child and our belief that we had been supportive, our lack of education and understanding had caused her to suffer, for years. After all, how could we have been really supporting her without the education to understand exactly who she was and what she needed from us? Thankfully, ignorance is repairable.
We learned about gender identity, and how it differs from gender expression (the manner in which a person communicates their gender to others through external means, and which may or may not reflect their gender identity or sexual orientation), and sexual orientation (one’s emotional, romantic, or sexual feelings toward other people). We learned about how gender identity manifests, even in very young children. We read books, we joined support groups, we found people to answer our questions; we did everything we could to better understand our child.
And once we better understood her, we were able to support her the way she needed to be supported, including her transition starting in 10th grade (recognizing that “transition” is different for each transgender person). Her depression and anxiety steadily lifted, and today she is happy, healthy, and thriving. And what parent doesn’t want to be able to say that about their kids? Isn’t that the lifelong goal?
From the beginning, my daughter was insistently, persistently, and consistently stating that she was a girl. We just didn’t see it or hear it. Or didn’t want to. I wish I’d had earlier access to the information I needed to support her through her journey of self-exploration, willing to accept whatever outcome lay at the end of that road, transgender or not.
It’s because of my early lack of education and understanding that my heart is open to those who are now where I was then. I understand when people like Mr. Lopez and others conflate gender and sexual orientation; after all, lots of people now have a better understanding of what it means to be gay or lesbian (less so, perhaps, to be bisexual or queer), but no understanding at all — yet (I say, hopefully) — of what it means to be transgender. I get how they hear the word “transition” and think of medical interventions instead of haircuts, name changes, and clothing exchanges, which are the types of things children exploring their gender at young ages are focused on. It’s because of my journey to understanding that I’m willing to meet people right where they are, whatever their level of understanding, to have the challenging conversations, over and over…and over…again. Because ignorance is not benign. Ignorance is harmful. But, through investigation, exploration, and education, ignorance is most definitely repairable.
I encourage them, and you, to find that education. It is out there. Great organizations (full disclosure: I now work with PFLAG, which is one of them) with important resources, glossaries, support groups. And there are thousands of people like me who are willing to talk, listen without judgement, and answer questions. Because in my view there really are no dumb questions: I know, because in the last 20 years I’ve probably asked all of those questions myself. Thankfully, I found the resources I needed, including generous people, to answer them; my daughter’s very life depended on these people, and I don’t know where my family would be now, if not for them.
Ms. Theron said of her children, “My job as a parent is to celebrate them and to love them and to make sure that they have everything they need in order to be what they want to be…” and to that I say, YES, Ms. Theron. That’s my job. That is the job of everyone who parents or cares for a child. We owe it to them to get the education, ask the questions, and support them the way they need to be supported. Because their lives depend on it.
Catherine Hyde is senior director of Online Services for the national nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners, which works to end housing insecurity. She currently serves on the PFLAG National Board of Directors, having previously served as their Mid-Atlantic Regional Director. Catherine has also served on the Howard County Human Rights Commission. In 2012, Catherine was named a Hometown Hero by the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore.