Monthly Archives: September 2013

Straight talk from the mom of a transgender child

This is a guest post by ‘Laura,’ mom of ‘Suzie’ and 2 other children.  Suzie is currently completing high school and doing well.  Laura has chosen to use a pseudonym to protect her family’s privacy.

Shadow girl‘Long time no see, Laura!  How have you been?  How is little Steve doing?’  I squirm a little and look at my watch when I bump into someone I have not seen in a couple of years. I’m squirming because I am anticipating the explanation that Steve is no longer Steve, which will take several minutes (at very least).  Steve is now Suzie, my ‘transgender’ child, living in a different gender than the one she was assigned at birth.  Some people stare when they hear my explanation.  Some people ask questions. Some clearly disagree.  Most listen attentively and wish us luck.

It remains nonetheless confusing for many.

This is because ‘Suzie’ was born ‘Steve’.  From the time he was crawling, he gravitated toward, selected, played with and preferred items, clothing, toys and colours which we have been accustomed to associating with girls.  As an open, informed parent (so I thought), I let my child experiment with these items.  Isn’t that what early childhood is all about?  Sometimes people would laugh, noticing that he knew the names of all the princesses in movies when no one else did.

But then this persisted into childhood. What is a parent to do?  He wanted only a mermaid outfit for his 6th birthday.  He had no interest in sports or playing with other boys, but he did enjoy having tea parties with girls.  What happens when your child tells you repeatedly he wishes he was a girl or simply tells you that he IS a girl?

What would you do?

I tried distracting him more and actively guiding (forcing) him towards many other interests.  As I look back I guiltily realize I was actually encouraging him to suppress his ‘female’ interests.  I tried and tried to involve him in a variety of sports, activities and pastimes that were more traditional to his birth sex.  Steve disliked participating; he cried and was miserable.  I’m ashamed to admit I once told him that he was ‘a big boy’ and that ‘8-year-old boys don’t wear nail polish, skirts, ball gowns and heels everyday.’

Gulp.  Nothing changed—this child clearly spoke, dressed, behaved and above all FELT like the opposite gender.

Desperate, I consulted Steve’s pediatrician.  I was referred to a pediatric doctor who specializes in gender issues right here in Montreal.  Finally, the situation became clearer…..and also more complex over the course of the next few years.  I learned I had not done anything wrong, my child was not ill, this was not a phase (unless a phase lasts over a decade) and yes, I was to listen to his requests and let him be, act, dress, talk and play as he feels: a girl.  If need be, I was to use the pronoun that he wanted, the name he felt he should have had all along and, (gulp) let him live socially as the opposite gender.

Hormone blockers enabled us to ‘buy time’ and prevent male puberty. Hormone blockers are a sort of gift, in that they stop prepubescent children with gender identity questions from actually experiencing puberty.  It is a gift because they absolutely do not want to grow facial hair (or breasts, depending on their physiological gender) and thus we can avoid the trauma, buy ourselves more time and then consider injecting hormones of the other gender so that they do grow breasts or facial hair a few years later. Though this is a reversible and safe process, it still required a lot of thought, questions and research.  It was a lot to digest.

It took many months to explain this to those who surrounded us.  It took a team to explain everything to the school — they had never experienced a case like this.  I had to be on alert at all times.  It took patience, courage and a lot of support from other parents I had met who were living the same thing.  There were many worries, questions, comments and concerns for us to deal with — on an almost daily basis.

For one thing, this changed our family dynamics.  Siblings have had to refer to Steve as Suzie and it changed their status at home.  ‘I am no longer the only girl’, said my oldest. ‘I lost my big brother’ said my youngest.  True, but we have the same person right here with us — we are getting the opportunity to discover the other side of her!

Yes, the future is uncertain and scary at time but we learn to live in the present and to accept, listen to and love her for who she is — a happier and healthier person who is true to herself!  Today, Suzie attends a school outside of our community.  Few people in the school are aware that she is a transgender child, because after all, she is just a child like everyone else.

Despite the successes, we faced a lot of the same questions and comments over and over. Here are some of them, with my responses:

Why can’t you just tell Steve to wait until he is an adult to this live this way? That’s what I have been doing.  It didn’t work.  He was miserable; he had tantrums for the smallest things. He would dress as a girl at home and be himself and then he was obliged to switch and act as someone else when the doorbell rang, when at school, during his extra-curricular activities, in front of relatives, friends and neighbours.  This was negatively impacting not only his self-esteem but his academics and social interactions with peers and within his own family.  I asked my own 40-year-old brother to reflect on how productive he thought he would be at work if he was obliged to wear a dress on a daily basis.  No comment.

Why aren’t you seeking therapy to make him accept his own gender?  What, you mean restorative therapy to change how he was born, how he feels, what his brain and heart see as his true identity?  Isn’t that even more dangerous than accepting who she is?

Who is the parent here? Don’t you think a minor child is unable to make such a big decision?  Yes, I am the parent and I have been questioning and reflecting for years, researching constantly and actively listening and observing my child.  It comes down to a team decision between parents, doctors and the child.  Believe me, any parent reflects and researches when it comes to injecting their child with hormone blockers.  And then I ask people, how old were you when you knew you were a girl/boy?  “I just always knew,” is what most people answer.  This is what Suzie says but what she knows and feels does not match her genitalia!

Suzie now lives according to how she feels in her heart and in her brain.  Yes, there have been struggles and questions.  There has also been an informed and supportive group of professionals guiding us.  Families living the same situation are an ongoing form of support.  Supportive relatives, neighbours and decent human beings have shown kindness and respect.  We even held a ‘Welcome Suzie’ event and invited all those who care.

Unfortunately, some people have distanced themselves.  It hurts — very much.  They lack information, compassion or they simply need more time to reflect on the whole situation — this is what I tell myself.  It’s their loss. Suzie is a great kid and we have discovered a new side of who she is!

In the meantime if ever you cross paths with a child, adolescent or adult who is transgendered or who is questioning him/herself, please consider the following:

  • Do not judge. Remind yourself that when a person goes to the extent of living in a different gender than the one with which they were born — a significant amount of reflection has occurred.  It is a courageous, difficult; necessary ‘change’ the person must make in order to live a true, happy fulfilling life.  The suicide rate for trans persons is very high.  That in itself is enough to make anyone reconsider their thoughts on the matter.
  • Do not ask about their genitalia — has anyone ever asked about yours? Be discreet and respectful; what is between someone’s legs does not make them a male or a female and it is no one’s business.  Think about this:  if you had been involved in an accident that destroyed your pelvis and your genitalia was damaged, would this impact your identification as a man or woman?
  • Treat a trans person as you would any other person and remember there is a lot more to that person beyond just being trans — that person has interests, abilities, knowledge, skills and a life, just like you!
  • Inform your self — there are up-to-date websites and associations that offer excellent resources: gendercreativekids.caTransKidsPurpleRainbow.org, Rainbow Health Ontario, l’association des transexuel(le)s du Québec, LGBTQYouthCentre in Beaconsfield).

 

 

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What to do if you suspect your child is being bullied

Stop BullyingWhat if your child, an enthusiastic student, suddenly doesn’t want to go to school? Or maybe she or he stops eating lunch or complains that they are the last picked when kids pair up for work in class? For parents, these events can cause worry and concern that a child is being bullied. While not always the case, parents who notice that something doesn’t seem “right” with their child will want to take action. The key is to do it in a way that won’t stigmatize your child or make the situation worse.

Parents aren’t powerless. There are many things you can do. Check out these 10 guidelines to help you be the best possible advocate if you suspect your child is being bullied, published in this month’s edition of Montreal Families Magazine.

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How to teach tolerance in the classroom – the case of Meeting Matthew

Don't let ignorance be your disabilityIn an op-ed in the Montreal Gazette this past week, I argued that effective bullying prevention requires, among other things, the teaching of tolerance and acceptance of diversity.

It sounds like one of those obvious statements that should just be a given. Of course we need to be accepting of those who are not like us! Who would argue with teaching our kids about civility and respect?

Well, lots of people actually. Like those in the current Quebec government trying to enact a law preventing public workers from wearing a turban, hijab or yarmulke or any other religious symbol (except possible a cross). Or those who believe homosexuality equals sin. Or those who believe the colour of one’s skin and choice of clothing makes them inherently more dangerous.

But I digress. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that we can all agree we want to teach our children to be respectful of differences (and hope this will some day be true). We’d like to think that parents will do this at home, of course, but whether they do or not, we’d like to see it reflected in their schooling.

So what does teaching tolerance actually look like? What does it mean on the ground for the teacher with 32 grade schoolers sitting in rows in front of her (or his) desk? What can she say? What does he do?

One of the best lessons I’ve read about what teaching tolerance actually looks like comes from a magazine with that exact name. The Southern Poverty Law Center‘s fabulous biannual magazine, Teaching Tolerance, featured an award-winning feature by Paul Roud called “Meeting Matthew.”

The situation? A new 7th grader coping with Asperger’s Syndrome. The otherwise bright and friendly boy picked his nose constantly, yelled out remarks in class and said things to other students that came across as mean and aggressive. The other students perceived him as “strange,” because he’d walk down the hallways with books piled on his head.

Let’s be honest: students like this can test the patience of teachers as well. These kids aren’t always so sympathetic, and the classroom disruptions and socially inappropriate comments can start to feel personal. Teachers are human too. As the writer points out, any student who stirs negative emotional reactions in their teachers is likely to do the same in the other students. In this case, the principal noticed that the boy was starting to be socially isolated by his peers.

Because Asperger’s is a hidden disability, it can be harder to engage the understanding and tolerance of others. Individuals appear perfectly normal and typically have average or above average intelligence. However, their communication skills are not typical. They can have great difficulty making sense of the social cues most of us take for granted, such as facial expressions, common social protocols and body language. It can be harder for them to understand or show empathy to others. Kids with Asperger’s are therefore at very high risk for bullying by their peers.

The solution? A “disclosure meeting.” With the support of Matthew and his parents, the principal decided to explain his situation in a meeting with classmates. He explains his reasoning:

The disclosure meeting was based on the belief that we could nurture the middle schoolers’ innate compassion if we could help them to connect with Mathew’s emotional pain. As a psychologist, I have long been intrigued by a phenomenon that psychotherapists experience all the time but rarely talk about: Therapists don’t necessarily care about new patients who first walk into their office. Yet in nearly every situation, after the patient begins to talk about his or her deep suffering, something magical happens. The therapist quickly comes to care, and often times care a great deal, for this person. […]

But adolescents are famous for their self-centeredness. Were we hoping for too much from his classmates? Martha Snell, a professor of education at the University of Virginia, suggests that due to their stage of development, middle schoolers can barely help themselves from making fun of anyone who is different. She believes that those with disabilities are especially vulnerable.

However, my own experience with adolescents (and younger children as well) has shown that they tend to demonstrate great compassion to a child who is blind, in a wheelchair or has cancer. Their reactions are most likely to be insensitive and even brutal when the disability (such as depression or anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar, Tourette’s or Asperger’s) is hidden and misunderstood.

In bringing the hidden aspect of Asperger’s into the light and explaining how Matthew’s communication patterns worked differently, this principal hoped to teach his students an important lesson. The details of this “disclosure meeting” are beautifully written, carefully conceived and powerful, and I urge you to read them here.

The takeaways are just as critical. The principal describes important changes which continued to persist a whole after the meeting. The students were able to appreciate Matthew as a peer. They were instructed how to intervene in a sensitive manner when he inadvertently disrupted discussions in class, picked his nose or took up too much air time in a conversation. But now,  according to Rood, “the students’ intention was to help rather than harass him. This enabled Mathew to stay open and consider whether he wanted to change his behavior.”

Just as importantly, the other classmates’ behaviour changed as well. Matthew no longer ate alone in the cafeteria. The students took satisfaction in helping him find his way, rather than outing him for being different. Rood writes, “They had strengthened their connection to one another by establishing a new social norm: Acts of compassion were viewed as a sign of strength and character.”

Rood urges teachers not to attempt disclosure meetings such as this one on their own. They should be done only with the informed consent of the student and the his/her parents, as well as the active intervention of a school psychologist, guidance counsellor or social worker. Without proper handling, it is conceivable that a disclosure meeting could result in further isolation of the student in question. For more information, I would suggest the excellent accompanying toolkit for planning disclosure meetings.

Want to know more about disclosure for young people with disabilities and those who work with them? You can also download this comprehensive expanded resource The 411 on Disability Disclosure: A Workbook for Youth with Disabilities.

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