Follow-Up: A Parent’s Perspective on Their Changing Children

by Dawn M. Sanders

Last June in Barriers to Bridges, we featured this article on the experiences of a trans woman and trans man and their respective journeys through gender transitioning. Furthering the conversation, this follow-up gives parents, particular of under-age children, the opportunity to explain their own experiences and the implications along the way.

It was like a rebirth – that’s how I would describe it. She had been reborn and wow, there was such a difference in her.” Pearl Wisdom.

Illustration showing two hands holding a blossoming lotus flower.
Illustration by Celeste Pearce

Parents know full well, the fads and phases, twists and turns one has to navigate in a kid’s development – taking influences from peers, societal expectations and nowadays the internet. However, for something as life-changing as your adorable little girl or strapping lad and all the assigned expectations that accompany gender itself, coming out as the opposite – what will it mean for the rest of the family? Suddenly someone’s sister is their new brother or vice versa. How will parents explain to extended family; what of the physiological impacts on a developing child?

The above piece offers somewhat dated statistics of an upward trend in children/young people. The Tavistock Clinic of Gender Identity Development Services (GIDS) the only gender clinic of the NHS goes marginally further in citing as of 2017, 70% of referrals were from girls transitioning to boys. Pop culture certainly has its place in asserting gender fluidity as a human attribute. Yet, there are plenty of children decisively ‘coming out’ with a female or male mind mismatched to the wrong body. 

Mama, I’m not a boy I’m a girl’ read the text from upstairs, as Pearl Wisdom’s daughter, now 17-and-a-half, was too nervous to say it to her face. Coming out just before her 11th birthday, Wisdom’s child had been temperamental, thrown tantrums when getting her hair cut, and too out of sorts for Wisdom and her partner to understand. So, when she was given the news of who her child was, she knew in her heart it was true. “It was like a rebirth – that’s how I would describe it. She had been reborn and wow, there was such a difference in her.” – describing the often aggressive child replaced with a calm, happy girl. 

There has been controversy and debate over children under 16 undergoing treatment, such as puberty blockers, as the Tavistock Clinic in London came under mounting scrutiny. Fortunately, Wisdom’s child had a positive experience, with rigorous questioning and assessing her daughter’s decision to transition.      

From a medical/scientific rationale, Dr J. Graham Theisen, of the Medical College of Georgia, Augusta University, USA,  points out the research in getting to the bottom of gender dysphoria – the disharmony between the brain of one gender and the body of the opposite. “Once someone has a male or female brain, they have it and you are not going to change it.” Theisen says. Just one of several investigative studies, Dr Lawrence C. Layman stresses, as the brain develops and hormones surge at the beginning of puberty, it’s the most common time for gender dysphoria to surface in adolescents; however, he points out the disharmony can manifest as early as age 5.

Lindsay Gray, mum of 2 of Lea on Sea, Essex, describes how her child gave her the news of who she was at 6. Her daughter, now approaching her 5th birthday of coming out, had been quiet, often tearful and unusually shy about her body – wearing a swimming costume in the bath. “She was always a precocious and extremely intelligent child, so it was like a missing puzzle piece when things didn’t quite fit together.” Gray says. There were highs and lows along the journey for both parents interviewed and their transitioning kids. There was bullying, lack of insight from Wisdom’s daughter’s secondary school and ignorance from other parents when Gray’s child came out, as she was accused of ‘doing it to her so young’ – not grasping it was the child’s will. Through it all, the kids remained steadfast about their identities, as their happiness shone through.

Siobhan Donegan reminds us trans genderism is nothing new and introduces the notion that nonconformity was suppressed by western colonialism. That said, it has a long history of being treated as a deplorable phenomenon which, still causes disdain, ridicule or even murder as in the case of Brianna Ghey.    

I love going on holiday, because we’re just another normal family, not ‘that family’.” Gray says of frequent reactions.  Intolerance is everywhere – both parents emphasised how things are getting worse for those who have transitioned. Pearl Wisdom and her partner no longer have biological family – only those who support them. Many young people leave home prematurely, because their families reject them. While it’s pointed out by organisations supporting parents, it’s perfectly okay to feel upset or mourn – both interviewees stressed, if a child isn’t excepted for who they are, parents will lose them. Organisations like Mermaids are crucial in supporting parents and families through the journey alongside their transitioning kids. Their phone line and online forum serve as safe and confidential spaces. Kerry Richards, a volunteer with Mermaids, wanted parents to know they could go to them using whatever language in frankly addressing such a sensitive issue. While it might be easier for one parent to accept their child’s transition – the other might struggle.

There is societal stigma, negative media coverage and sluggish legislation addressing trans genderism. Ultimately, a child knows their own internal conflict and plans their coming out. At 6 Gray’s daughter said: “Mummy if you don’t want me to do this, I won’t.” “Wouldn’t that make you sad“, Gray asked? “It would make me very sad and I’ll try not to let you know how sad I was.” – this blew her mind.

Editor’s note: pseudonyms were used in respect of anonymity.

Jude Guaitamacchi is an LGBTQAI activist, speaking of her childhood dysphoria and overcoming adversity. 

 “Dear Parents of Trans Youth” – a reassuring conversation between a mother and son. 

© 2023

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