The little girl in the audience had a hard time sitting still. She lay across her grandmother’s lap and kicked her little purple-tight-covered legs in the air, amused by the way her lavender tutu skirt crunched as she moved. In front of the crowd a panel of parents, and one grandparent – her own grandfather, spoke about what it’s like to have a transgender child.
Dr. Antonia Caretto, a well-known psychologist, hosted the panel as part of Transgender Day of Empowerment. The issue of children transitioning can be a controversial one, but studies show that transgender people known from the time they are toddlers that they have a strong disposition towards a gender expression that is different from the one that is expected of them based on their body parts.
Brian, the six-year-old’s grandfather, shared his experience and advice so that other parents who might have transgender children could learn from the things his family experienced.
“The best advice we can share is to be supportive,” he said. “The worst advice we got, from a psychologist, was to remove the (female) clothes from the home.” The psychologist said that “reparative therapy” was needed, and eventually Brian and his wife decided that the child is much happier being herself. Now she goes to a private school where she fits in with the other girls, who do not know she is transgender.
Eleven-year-old Jackie and 17-year-old Sagan were there with their parents too. When Jackie came out as transgender a little over a year ago, her family was supportive. Big sister Sagan even took on the daunting task of letting Jackie’s classmates know what to expect when Jackie returned following a break from school.
“I went down to Jackie’s classrooms and I told them that Jackie’s going to be a girl, and I told them it would be really nice of them if they could be nice to her and call her ‘she’ and not make fun of her. I wasn’t expecting the reaction I got from the fourth graders. The girls cried and the boys were really nice,” Sagan said.
Jackie’s parents remembered the struggles when she was younger. “We used to have what was like our secret code,” Jackie’s father said. “Jackie would be in the store looking at dolls, and parents and other kids would say things about it. So we had to make a story so it would sound like she was looking for a toy for some cousin. She’d show me what toys she liked and I’d say ‘oh wouldn’t Sara like that for her birthday,’ just so other people wouldn’t say things. It’s a lot easier now not having to hide or explain things.”
He recalled Jackie coming out to his wife first. “A little over a year ago when she came out … she said ‘There’s something I have to tell you, I can’t keep it in anymore, I’m a girl.’”
Jackie’s mom explained that when it happened they felt like they were the only family in the world, but that they were determined to help their child be happy.
Pause button on puberty
A very happy 16 year old transgender boy also sat on the panel with his parents. Testosterone has given Spenser obvious signs of a masculine puberty, with a deepening voice, more solid body mass, and even some teenage acne.
“I don’t think he wants to be ‘that transgender kid,’ he just wants to be Spencer,” said the teen’s dad.
Spencer came out as transgender two years ago, and his mother’s immediate response was, “Let’s find some resources and see how we can support you.” She said, “finding Dr. Caretto was a live saver for us, and the book ‘Your Transgender Child’ was really helpful.”
Spencer said he always felt like he was a male. “In seventh grade I learned the term transgender and I identified. Some people don’t like labels, but to me it felt good to have a label and not to be on my own.”
He explained that he’d been raised in the Universal Unitarian church that was already very accepting of people in the LGBT community, and that he didn’t experience any of the social stigma that he realizes other people have had. “My parents got me on hormones and I’m getting surgery soon. I just wish the word ‘transgender’ had been more known when I was younger.”
Dr. Caretto explained that when young people come out as transgender, parents have the option of asking a doctor to proscribe hormone blockers to “put the pause button on puberty.” Hormone blockers can also be given to youngsters who are maturing years before they should.
The controversy in hormone therapy for youth comes from some people who worry the youth will regret their decision later in life. Others argue that transitioning early can help with socialization, leaving less of a past-identity footprint on one’s life, and it can keep the body from changing. Female-born youth can be spared from menstruation and breasts, and in male-born youth it can slow the deepening of the voice, thickening of the Adam’s apple, and the growth of facial hair. These are features that people who transition later in life often struggle to change or minimize.
Spencer doesn’t hide the fact that he is transgender, but he doesn’t exactly advertise it either. “I’ve already socially transitioned and I don’t feel the need to come out to everyone. I’m not ashamed to be transgender, but it’s not a huge part of my life,” he said.
His parents both said they are proud of him, many times during the presentation. “The first thing I noticed was that within a week he was more confident. We knew we were on the right track when he could just get it out.”
Spencer, who handled questions from the audience with only a little bit of shyness said, “My personality hasn’t changed, except that I’ve become more outgoing because I don’t have to hide who I am.”
To find out more about Transgender Detroit, which organized the event, check out http://www.transgenderdetroit.org. Learn more about Dr. Caretto and her services at http://www.betreatedwell.com.
Crystal A. Proxmire