What if you found out your child had a birth defect -- one that caused permanent suffering and could quite possibly lead to death before the age of 20? What if doctors told you there was a way to reverse that defect and give your child a shot at living a full and happy life? Would you be open to it?
My parents were, and I'm here today at age 45 -- happy, healthy and with a successful advertising career under my belt. Leelah Alcorn's parents were not, and she is dead at age 17.
The sad fact is 50 percent of all transgender teens will attempt suicide. And without parental support, many of them, like Leelah, will succeed. Her story, which has made headlines and gone viral on social media, is opening up a national discussion about "fixing society" through gender education. Schools at all levels are doing more and more to educate students on this topic and are adjusting their policies to be more inclusive of transgender kids. I believe this is critical as education and understanding will lead to acceptance. But all too often, as in Leelah's case, the problem isn't at school. It's at home.
While numbers are hard to quantify, studies suggest that nearly 60 percent of transgender teens go without support from their families and in those cases the risk of suicide is much higher. I know if I didn't have the support of my family, I wouldn't be here today. That said, when I first told my mom and dad back in 1993, they weren't all, "Well let's go get you some surgery!" But they listened. They didn't tell me I was crazy. Transgender wasn't even really a word back then. It was "Transsexual," which had a very negative connotation thanks to the movie The Silence of The Lambs and guests on Jerry Springer, the only mainstream points of reference at the time. Scary right? I'm sure you can imagine how my parents felt. Early on, my dad asked me if I could just quietly live with it and consider it my handicap. I told him I'd been living with "it" for 24 years and if I had to continue, I'd rather not live at all. He hugged me and told me we'd figure it out together... as a family. And it was that feeling of not being alone that kept me going. That gave me hope.
I'd wrongly feared that my parents would be focused on what people would think of them and all the gossip that would result from their daughter becoming their son. That they would be ashamed of me. What I soon realized was that they were really just worried for me. Worried that I would be deemed an outcast by society and lose all of my friends. That I would be worse off than I already was. But once I started coming out to my friends and my parents saw how amazingly supportive each and every one of them was, that's when they fully got on board. With this overwhelming acceptance, suddenly my future didn't look so bleak. They believed I had a chance at happiness and they were going to do whatever they could to increase my odds.
When you get right down to it, all parents really want is for their child to live a full and happy life. And for parents of kids who are transgender, gender education alone isn't going to provide that reassurance. What I think would really help are more everyday success stories -- people who can show trans kids, their parents and society as a whole that being transgender doesn't have to forever define you (unless you want it to). That you can still build a successful career, get married, raise a family -- basically live a "normal" life just like everybody else. I believe those kind of success stories would give parents a more optimistic outlook for their child, which in turn would lead to greater parental support for trans kids overall and less suicide attempts. The inherent problem with this solution is it would mean asking people who've purposely been avoiding the transgender spotlight to go center stage. It's a lot to ask. Which is why there aren't many of these stories to point to. All I can tell you is they do exist. I'm living proof.
My transition back in 1995 was certainly no secret. I came out very publicly at the ad agency where I'd been working. But I completed my transformation and moved on. Eventually so did everybody else and the transgender part of my identity faded into the background. At work I wasn't known as "Chris Edwards, the transgender creative director." I was simply a creative director. And when my friends introduced me to people, it was as their friend Chris. Not their trans friend Chris. The way I see it, the "trans" part of my life has been over for a while. I am the man I always knew myself to be. But this past year, I made the decision to step back into the transgender spotlight and out myself all over again. It's been an adjustment, I'm not gonna lie. But I figure if my story can help save even just one life, it's totally worth it.