When I first knew my teenager was genderqueer and possibly transgender, I was desperate for information. As a parent, I had no idea how to support my transgender kid, other than just love them. I knew I would make some significant mistakes if I didn’t learn more. My kid was checking out before-and-after surgery videos on YouTube, but me, I was looking for library books!
Fortunately, I found books by “real people” authors who made the experience more concrete for me. I read books like My Gender Workbook by Kate Bornstein, The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You by S. Bear Bergman, and Nina Here Nor There by Nick Krieger. They were helpful and hopeful. Yet, all of these authors made their gender transitions as adults. So I could only guess at the support they wished they had from their parents. The one parent/child co-written book, What Becomes You, was rather vague on the whole parent/child relationship.
So I was taken aback when I checked the library catalogue recently and found three books for parents like me! A couple of years too late,since my kid now lives independently, but hey, I can always recommend them to others.
Here are some of the things I wondered about in the early days of learning about trans issues:
- How do I know if this is real or just a phase?
- Who can I tell? Who can I talk to?
- Do they need professional help? Do I?
- Will my child be safe? Happy?
- What are the things you do (or could do) to live as another gender?
- What is the medical process like? What are the non-medical options?
- How might my child act and feel as they go through these steps?
- What do you do about legal names and IDs?
Book 1: Raising My Rainbow: Adventures in Raising a Fabulous, Gender Creative Son – by Lori Duron (2013)
Based on the blog raisingmyrainbow.com
I had to set aside all my questions when I read this book. It is simply the chronicle of one gender-bending child and his family, no more and no less. Other than saying, “Stick up for your child,” it isn’t full of advice. The author/blogger simply talks about their days and their decisions. Her child CJ showed a marked preference for girls’ fashion and toys starting at age 2. Now, at age 7, he continues to identify as a boy who likes girly things. He has long hair and a pink backpack. He has a gender-typical older brother. His birthday parties and holidays have included Barbies and Disney Princesses and American Girls. CJ’s mom has a brother who is gay. She initially hoped CJ would turn out to be gay and not transgender, but she seems to have moved past that. There is some solid information in the book on legal rights and responding to bullying in the California school system, and some touching stories about how a sibling is affected by all the ruckus. There were a couple of mentions in the book that it is easier for girls to be gender-transgressors, which I believe is only superficially true.
This book didn’t speak to me personally, but it would be a confidence-builder for parents with a gender-nonconforming boy. We are a long, long way from a world in which kids can traverse gender fluidly. It is a rigid world out there. It makes me happy to know that supportive families like this one are out there.
Book 2: Gender Born, Gender Made: Raising Healthy Gender-Nonconforming Children – by Diane Ehrensaft (2011)
I wanted so much to like this book. It is meant to answer the key questions that a parent would have. The author is a clinical psychologist who wrote the book for “families and professionals.” It talks a lot about how harmful therapists can be if they have outdated training or anti-trans views. It gives some tips for therapists. There is a very good section on reasons that a parent should consider counselling, and reasons why a trans young person might benefit from counselling.
The book gives lots of examples of family experiences, but they are all snippets from clinical practice, and most of them comment on the therapists’ responses. It really isn’t the same as how family life plays out – we spend only a few hours a year in medical settings, and thousands of hours at home in each other’s company. Nevertheless, the author talks about when your child is being their true self and when they are putting up a false front. She also talks about adults’ “angels and ghosts,” or good and bad personal experiences about gender that influence how we treat our kids. It includes fairly up-to-date info on puberty blockers and hormones, but very little about the surgeries that might follow.
My conclusion is that the author should not have tried to write a book for parents and for therapists at the same time. They are audiences with distinct needs. Sure, they both support trans kids, but one is in the office and the other is in day-to-day life. There was even half a page thrown in that was written directly for youth! The book had awkward language:
“…the new role of the parents is to oversee the delicate dance and evolving transactions between constitution and environment as they help their children find an authentic gender identity and expression that will in the best of all possible worlds be a good fit for their sons or daughters.” (p.37)
Sheesh! I am going to chalk this up as a well-intentioned book.
Book 3: The Transgender Child – by Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper (2008)
At last! If only I’d had this book when it was published in 2008, I could have been brilliant at this trans-parenting thing! This is a guide to being an advocate for your gender-nonconforming child. It guides you through all the things you will be thinking about as a parent: What is “normal” gender development like? What does a 2, 4, 6, or 8 year old usually know or understand about gender? How do you know if your kid might be gay or transgender? What are the best and worst parenting practices for such a child? How do you know when it’s safe to tell people, and how do you deal with the consequences? How do you navigate the day-to-day things like toys, clothes and public bathrooms? This book pulls no punches about the heightened risks for trans kids, and one parent poignantly says, “Do whatever you need to do to keep your child alive.”
There are a couple of missteps. A section on advice for schools, and another on choosing a college, interrupt the flow of the book and would have served better as appendices. Since it is 6 years old, I worried that the medical information in this book would be out of date. In 2008, the use of puberty blockers was in its infancy in the US. The medical chapter has a strange focus on fertility. Otherwise, the book feels completely current.
I am so glad that parenting books like this are around now, and I hope more will follow.
There is still a lot to be said about the experience of living it. I hope someday there will be more parent stories which include their child’s process of gender discovery, and how that particular family supported it – the triumphs, the mistakes, and the humour. How does it feel when you are at the mall with your new son and he is called “Sir” for the first time? How does it feel the first time you see your new daughter getting ready for a date with someone who knows she is hot? Those are the kinds of things we look forward to. In books and in real life.
Next week, the first autobiography of a female-to-male trans teenager will be published, and I look forward to his story. Meanwhile, I have Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out on hold at the library!