New-Age Parenting for Transgender Youth

Parents have a new and welcome option this summer for their transgender or gender non-conforming child -- a weeklong, overnight summer camp called Camp Aranu'tiq. Its organizers recently held a reception in the Boston area to introduce the program. In attendance were several new-age parents who, instead of rejecting their child's persistent gender non-conformity, are seeking ways to be understanding and helpful.

Parents have traditionally been told gender non-conformity is "just a phase," and psychiatric studies back that up assessment. Yet the research comes in part from the work of Dr. Kenneth Zucker, whose Toronto clinic provides treatments that encourage the child to accept their natal sex and associated gender. One has to wonder if Zucker's research is truly without bias.

New-age parents, frustrated at seeing their child become even more miserable after trying this approach, have begun looking elsewhere for help. And they have good reason to. Dr. Caitlin Ryan, head of the Family Acceptance Project, says that gay and transgender children rejected by their families were three times more likely to use illegal drugs, six times more likely to report high levels of depression and eight times more likely to have attempted suicide. No parent wants this for their child.

The professional consensus on how to treat gender non-conforming and transgender children comes from The World Professional Association for Transgender Health. WPATH's Standards of Care require significant involvement and guidance of a behavioral health professional to treat the trans child. But Dr. Scott Leibowitz, a new breed of sympathetic psychiatrist working at Children's Hospital Boston, points out that no process exists to train and certify professionals to play this role.

Fortunately, there are an increasing number of resources to help. Trans Youth Family Allies will work with organizations and individuals to help identify the services and support needed, and to provide the education and training useful to parents. TYFA's tireless Executive Director and Founder, Kim Pearson, is herself the mom of a transgender son.

Parents may also find their way to the free Philadelphia Trans Health Conference, which this June will have expanded programming for children, youth and families.

Another great resource for parents is the groundbreaking book The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals by Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper.

A child may become even more distressed when sex characteristics start developing that don't align with the child's sense of gender. New-age parents are increasingly turning to programs like the Gender Management Service clinic of Children's Hospital Boston to delay puberty, and if indicated, start cross-hormones to trigger the right puberty. GEMS founder and endocrinologist Dr. Norman Spack recently observed:

We are beginning to see great success. Patients aren't trying to commit suicide, they're bullied less at school, relationships are better and mammoplastic surgery may not be necessary.

Armed with these new resources, parents are becoming more visible and vocal in advocating for their children. Brave parents and their children first appeared on television in 2006 in an episode of 20/20 that Barbara Walters devoted entirely to the subject of transgender children. Others have since appeared on Oprah, Maury Pauvich, and, in the last few months, on the Tyra Banks Show and the Doctor Oz Show.

Unfortunately, parental support does not free a child from discrimination by the world at large, but caring parents have become powerful non-transgender allies in the drive for change. Carol Rose, Executive Director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, recently spotlighted the poignant testimonies of three parents in the hearing for proposed transgender non-discrimination legislation in Massachusetts:

Listen to the words of Ken and Marcia Garber, of Quincy, whose 20 year old son died after years of harassment based on his gender identity. Ken, a square-jawed fire fighter with a grey crew-cut, spoke at the State House today about how hard it was for their son to live as a second class citizen. "When you discriminate against transgender people, you discriminate against everybody who loves them," said Ken.

A mother, Marion Freedman-Gurspan, said "In my wildest dreams, I never thought that I'd have to stand here and beg for basic civil rights protections for my child. I thought that went out in 1964!"

Another father, David Hardy, spoke about his concern for the safety of his three kids: the one who is on duty in Kabul, the one who is a rock-climber and the one who is transgender. "We really worry about him," said Hardy.

Transgender people have had a tough time being recognized as ordinary citizens. The presence of supportive parents changes everything. These parents lend critical third-party credibility to our quest for basic human rights and dignity. With them leading the way, there is no doubt that we'll see social advances for transgender people at what feels like warp speed compared to what we have seen so far.