CW: Depression, suicide mention
This is a guest post by my mother. It documents her journey from fear and denial to acceptance and celebration of my transgender identity. I’ve included a resource guide for parents of trans people at the bottom.
I wish I could say that my initial reaction was better. I don’t remember what my actual first words were when Arielle told me she was trans. I do remember saying things like, “Can’t you just be gay like everyone else?” I was so afraid that others would label her a “freak” and that she would have a difficult life. What I did not know then was how much better her life would be after transitioning, and I probably would not have believed it at the time.
Arielle was assigned male at birth. She is now a happy, gorgeous, incredible young woman. She inspires and offers other people who are transitioning with guidance and hope.
Arielle’s childhood was extremely difficult and at times traumatic due to the fact that she felt trapped in a body that didn’t feel her own. However, she did not have words to express what was bothering her, and I certainly did not have the knowledge at the time to recognize it.
At eight years old, I found her hanging from a second story window in our home. I pulled her in just in time, only to have her writhe in despair on the floor, crying, “Mommy, I don’t want to live anymore.” I felt an overwhelming feeling of helplessness and fear. In a search for answers, I took her to many different practitioners. I received a number of different diagnoses, such as bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, Asperger’s, personality disorders, and a host of others. None of them really felt right. In response, we tried many forms of treatment, from conventional to alternative, ranging between biofeedback, yoga, hypnosis, meditation, handfuls of supplements, behavioral and talk therapy, and psych meds. Nothing really seemed to help appreciably. She continued to struggle.
When she started seventh grade, she entered into a relatively peaceful period. She had lots of friends, was involved in theatre and band, did well in school, and seemed happy. All this came to an abrupt end when she was in eleventh grade — I can trace her decline to a particular event. One night, Arielle and her sister, Sara, were in the family room on the bottom level of our home. My now ex-husband and I were on the top floor. They called up to us and said, “We have something to talk to you about.” I knew it was showtime. I turned to my ex-husband, since he had become increasingly agitated over the suspicion that he had a gay son, and I warned, “You have only one chance at a first reaction — don’t blow it. There are no do-overs.”
Sara said, “[Arielle] thinks [she] is either gay or bi.”* Sara told us because Arielle was too nervous and emotional to speak. Thankfully, her dad reacted reasonably, and we all hugged and told her it was okay. It was quite an emotional moment. After this, much to my dismay, she started to decompensate. At the time, I did not understand why — now I understand that it was because she expected to feel better after coming out as gay, but it did not alleviate her feelings of distress. She began spiraling — she couldn’t get out of bed to go to school, engaged in self-injurious behavior (which was really frightening), started drinking, and was otherwise not really functioning. At this time, we moved her to a therapeutic day school, where things progressively got worse.
*Note: My mom changed my name and pronouns in direct quotes from my teenage years because using my deadname and he/him pronouns felt invalidating.
I was so desperate to help her that we paid to fly in an expert all the way from Utah to conduct a psychological evaluation. After the testing, he told us that she had multiple diagnoses and that if we did not intercede immediately and send her to a therapeutic boarding school, her life would be unbearable. I felt we had no choice but to comply. I despaired for her future and her ability to have a rewarding, successful, and happy life. Although the boarding school would not deal directly with her transness, they taught her an important tool that eventually helped her to claim her identity — they taught her the importance of authenticity.
One day while she was at Carlbrook, Arielle’s father and I called her school therapist for our weekly phone call. He told us that Arielle had announced in a group setting that she was transgender and that she would begin hormone treatments when she got home. I felt blindsided, since she had not said anything to us by this time. I later found out that she did not know her therapist was going to tell us, and she had planned to tell us when she saw us the following week. Her therapist assured us that it was not true, and she was just saying all this to get attention. At the time, I wanted to believe that he was right, because I did not want to believe that she was transgender. My experience with trans people was then quite limited — I had only been minimally exposed to trans people, and all I remembered from those times were a lot of awkward looks and discomfort by people around me. I did not want that to happen to her.
As a result of her treatment facility refusing to acknowledge her transness, she for the most part dropped the subject. Of course, I didn’t know the inner turmoil she was experiencing at the time.
When she came home, she seemed happy. She got a job at Starbucks, where she excelled, and planned to work there until she started college. I thought the whole issue was behind us.
When she started college, however, she assumed the name, “Arielle” and started using she/her pronouns full-time. Though I struggled for a while, I soon started to wrap my head around it. I began attending a group for parents of transgender youth, watching shows and videos, and reading books and articles to educate myself and feel better. This definitely helped. At the time, I heard the phrase, “You can either have a healthy, beautiful girl or a dead boy,” which really hit home because I love my child with all my heart. We had been through a great deal together and I would do anything for her, so why not this? I knew I would be in her corner no matter what.
At the same time, I had to grieve. I felt like I was losing my child. I felt like I was losing my baby boy, even though I logically knew that she would still be the same person. To be honest, I also felt uncomfortable at the beginning when her transition was obvious to those around us. I felt awkward when we ran into people who knew her from childhood and I felt the need to explain what was going on. My discomfort eased as she began to be read as female more consistently.
The journey to acceptance wasn’t always smooth. Whenever there was a new development in her transition — like the first time Arielle put on a dress and heels to go out or when she started wearing breast forms — I would go through the some of the initial feelings all over again.
It was difficult for me to remember to use the name “Arielle” rather than her dead name, and refer to her as she – after all, for twenty years, I’d been referring to her a certain way. It took time to change such an ingrained habit. Sometimes, she would be frustrated and come down on me pretty hard for making these mistakes. At those times, I would try to explain to her that I was doing my best, but it was going to take time. I felt that she didn’t have a lot of patience with me, and I would often cry. We would get through these emotions pretty fast because we communicated them to each other and processed them together.
Seeing her blossom and leave behind all the depression, anxiety, and self-injurious behaviors is really what helped me move into a place of total and complete acceptance. I could clearly see that she was the person she was meant to be, and that brought me joy. It is what any loving parent wants for their child.
To parents of trans people first coming out — I hope knowing that I had my struggles to get to this point of unconditional love and pride helps you. It is a process, as I have mentioned. There are many tools you can use to educate yourself. Use them. Keep the lines of communication open between you and your child. However, try not to burden them with your feelings of doubt and fear — they are already dealing with enough.
Above all, continue to love your child as you have always loved them. Obviously you would not be reading this if that were not your desire. Remember — it is about progress, not perfection.
I am thankfully in a place now where I declare loud and proud to everyone and anyone I can that I have a transgender daughter. If I can clear up just one misconception that somebody has, it is my honor to do so.
Many people have congratulated me on handling this so well. They say, “I don’t know if I could have done it.” Emphatically, I respond, “Yes, you would! If you love your child and want to keep them in your life, you would. It’s that simple, though admittedly not easy.”
RESOURCE GUIDE FOR PARENTS OF TRANSGENDER PEOPLE
I am Jazz — TLC show documenting the life of transgender teen activist Jazz Jennings and her family.
PFLAG — With nearly 400 chapters in cities around the US, PFLAG offers support groups for LGBTQ+ people and their families. Many chapters have both an LGBQ+ group and a TGNC (Transgender/Gender non-conforming) group. Their website also provides information on how to start a new chapter if there is not one accessible to you.
PFLAG’s “Our Trans Loved Ones” – Extremely thorough and frequently updated, this guide offers information and resources for families of TGNC people.
Gender Spectrum — Online groups for TGNC youth and adolescents and their families. Divided by age group (pre-teens 11-12, teens 13-19). Groups are sometimes centered around one topic, such as “Home for the Holidays,” or for one group of people, such as grandparents or fathers. Offer groups in English and Spanish.
Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt — This book documents the life of transgender actress and activist Nicole Maines (Supergirl) and her family.
The Gender Creative Child by Diane Ehrensaft, Ph.D — Resource guide to help families understand gender non-confirming children and adolescents
Trevor Project Resource Center — Offers a glossary of LGBTQ+ terms for beginners, crisis lines (one for texts, one for calls) for struggling LGBTQ+ youth, and more.
Communicating with Family and Friends about Your Child’s Gender — Gender Spectrum resource guide
Parenting a Transgender or Gender-Expansive Child: How to Protect Your Family Against False Allegations of Child Abuse — Collaborative guide by NCLR (National Center for Lesbian Rights), Gender Spectrum, NCTE (National Center for Transgender Rights), HRC (Human Rights Campaign), and GLAD (Legal Advocates and Defenders)
NCTE’s “Families for Trans Equality” — Helps teach families of trans people how to fight alongside us for transgender equality
This is by no means an exhaustive list, nor have I read every word of every resource that I’ve added. I do, however, trust the people and organizations that produced them. That being said, if you have a resource you think I should delete or one you think I should add, shoot me a message in the form below! Make sure to include a link to the resource.