Letters: ‘Parenting Is Hard. We All Do Our Best.’

Parents of trans children respond to The Atlantic’s July/August cover story.

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When Children Say They’re Trans

In The Atlantic’s July/August issue, Jesse Singal reported on the choices facing the parents of children who say they’re trans. “The current era of gender-identity awareness has undoubtedly made life easier for many young people who feel constricted by the sometimes-oppressive nature of gender expectations,” Singal wrote. “But when it comes to the question of physical interventions, this era has also brought fraught new challenges to many parents. ... How can they help their children gain access to the support and medical help they might need, while also keeping in mind that adolescence is, by definition, a time of fevered identity exploration?”

I write to you, Mr. Singal, as someone who previously dismissed my child when he said he “feels like a boy in my heart and in my mind” at the age of five, when I convinced myself that he was just bending gender norms. I write to you as someone who had to face that her child was self-harming at the tender age of eight. I write to you as a mother of a transgender son: This piece penned by you is highly problematic. It muddies the water for parents navigating this path of raising a trans child, and is damaging to our trans youth.

By leading with the story of Claire, a young woman whose parents thought her childhood was “free of gender dysphoria” and whose mother claimed that online research “told her” to put her daughter on hormones, the piece signals that Claire’s situation is common, and that readers should panic. That message eliminates the mildly pertinent, helpful information weaved between the lines.

Her story was laden with a grave misunderstanding of what being transgender actually is, with a parent who had a difficult time delineating bad information from good, and a lack of a strong professional team that understands the complexities of gender dysphoria. Yet you chose her story to set the tone of the article.

Throughout the article you mention research has shown that transitioning does indeed alleviate gender dysphoria, yet you fail to truly highlight glowing examples of that fact until you reach the end. The stories of Scott and Orion, buried deep in the article, are far more common than those of Claire and Max. The focus should have absolutely been on the insurmountable research that supports affirming trans youth, both socially and medically.

I hesitate to mention anything I found remotely helpful in the piece since it was so grossly overshadowed, but Mr. Singal, you’re correct in the overall assessment that a greater understanding of each transgender individual’s needs should be continually and consistently managed by professionals: therapists, psychologists, endocrinologists, and primary physicians. A team of well-educated professionals with a flexible, long-term care plan for every gender dysphoric child is essential, absolutely. And they should certainly be free to explore outside of their assigned-at-birth gender. To all of that, I agree.

However, I find it extremely concerning that you chose to primarily emphasize “hormones and surgery” in this article. It is widely discussed and well known that not all trans kids medically transition. To focus on the tiny group of gender questioning, gender nonconforming individuals who desist or detransition is nothing more than sensationalized journalism. The narrative that our kids don’t know themselves and that we as parents are pushing hormones and surgery before properly vetting a treatment plan is absurd.

Your piece is simply unhelpful and largely harmful to a marginalized community; a waste of what could have been an amazing piece. Perhaps one that could have highlighted the strides that have been made, focusing on those children who are consistent and persistent in how they feel, solely listing examples of affirming treatment plans, thereby lifting up parents that are walking a challenging road.

Vanessa Nichols*
Venice, Fla.

Transgenderism is so misunderstood. As I have told my son, Jake, many times, much of what is thought about it is not borne of hatred, but ignorance, which leads to fear and loathing.

Jesse’s piece goes a long way to covering all aspects of it. It’s very impressive, and it will enlighten people, I hope. The part about detransitioning, something I feared early on with Jake before his top surgery, was hard to read. But I did not, as I’ve written before, do anything precipitously. I was, like some parents Jesse describes, in denial for a long time. But when I became unblinkered, I knew the truth. I knew what Jake wanted. I knew who HE really was.

I hope Jesse’s piece opens other eyes. So many families are affected by this, and they may not know it yet. I have had prominent members of the community reach out to me about their kids since my piece was published. It is not simple; there are many nuances. I wish I had embraced Jake’s path earlier—I thought he was a lesbian, thought it was a phase. But our bond was so strong, our connection so deep, that when I saw it … I saw it.

I wish I had read Jesse’s piece before Jake came out. I might have come around sooner. But it’s also possible I would have been more hesitant because, as his story describes, there are so many complicating factors.

Every one of these cases is sui generis. Parents just need to be patient and try to understand. The problem is when they don’t, when they succumb to the fear and ignorance, and shun their kids. I had nightmares of Jake committing suicide. I just wanted him to always know he was loved. That’s really all you can do.

Jon Ralston*
Las Vegas, Nev.

I’m disappointed The Atlantic is featuring this unhelpful article on the cover. As the mother of a trans child—though in their childhood we didn’t have words for what they were experiencing—I had a terrible time wading through the opening example of “Claire, Heather, and Mike” and figuring out what the article hoped to offer to families. There are bits and pieces of useful information, but they’re very hard to find and interpret.

The big piece that’s missing is the damage done by thinking in, and reinforcing for kids, a rigid gender binary. I’m grateful that the piece introduced readers to the University of Minnesota Medical School’s new National Center for Gender Spectrum Health, but it was only the briefest of quotes, with no attention at all paid to the word “spectrum” that makes this developing program unique. When I tracked the NCGSH down, I found a statement that could have been a big help to Claire and to readers facing Claire’s and her parents’ dilemma today:

Normative gender and sexual binaries pathologize nonconformity and limit the full range of healthy gender identity and expression for everyone. Moving beyond the binary to a spectrum/continuum approach allows for the inclusion and affirmation of the range of gender identities and gender expressions for all people.

If Claire had not been told she had only two choices, with more rigidity in social roles than in physical features and functions, she might never have thought she was trans. While the other programs and resources cited are certainly helpful to those confronting the binary dilemma, they’re always going to be playing catch-up. And unless they help kids know about what my child calls being a “spork,” those kids will never figure out who they are or how to reach comfort in their bodies. The problem, as my child put it on a t-shirt, is, “Nice gender. Your mom pick it out for you?”—to which the healthiest answer, for all of us, is, “Nope. Making it up as I go along.”

Barbara Kellam-Scott*
Vernon, N.J.

As the parent of a nonbinary adult child, I read Jesse Singal’s article with interest. I’m glad he wrote it, because it contributes to an important conversation. However, while the piece reveals a few shades of gray in what can easily become a black and white discussion, it does not do enough to help parents like me navigate the confusing world of gender identity.

Focusing almost exclusively on the merits of transitioning is not useful to anyone—parents of transgender children or the curious general public. The issues Singal explores are far more complex and multifaceted; I presume most of his sources have an agenda. I have one, too: I want more parents to set aside their fears and first listen to their children without judgment when those children gather the courage to talk about gender identity.

The gender spectrum as a whole deserves more discussion. Singal does not mention nonbinary youth, except in passing. It took me a while to wrap my head around the idea that gender exists on a spectrum—that it goes beyond male and female. If more people understood that, we could all engage in more meaningful conversations.

While it’s helpful to read articles about trans issues in mainstream publications, this piece plays on our worst fears. I acknowledge those fears. I experienced them myself: What if it’s a phase? What if something else is really wrong, and this is not the solution? Damn that internet! But dwelling on fears doesn’t help our children.

When my child first came out, I couldn’t find anything to read that wasn’t either clinical or geared toward young people. I craved the voices of concerned, supportive parents who wanted to do the right thing but weren’t sure what that meant. So my husband and I stuck with the values that have guided us as parents for 20 years: Listen. Take a breath, then listen again. Try hard not to judge in the moment.

Parenting is hard. We all do our best in a range of uncertain situations. I don’t like good/bad, right/wrong narratives about anything, least of all issues that matter to my family.

Susan Knoppow*
Huntington Woods, Mich.

As the parent of a transgender son who transitioned from female to male during his teen and college years, I applaud Jesse Singal’s efforts to offer a more balanced, comprehensive account of the pros and cons of supporting teens who want to transition at ever younger ages.

I never questioned my son’s ability to realize his own identity but battled assertively over his medical decisions—hormones, top surgery, hysterectomy—all before he was 22. We nearly fractured permanently over our differences. In our new book, At the Broken Places: A Mother and Trans Son Pick Up the Pieces (Beacon Press), we exchange personal essays about our different views on the various aspects of the entire experience, from shifting parent rights to what gender even means.

I experienced devastating grief over what I perceived as the “loss” of my only daughter but was told by many professionals to just “get over it.” Many perceived that grief as a form of transphobia. Educators at his high school essentially refused to talk to me when I questioned anything. The only way more trans individuals will receive the care they need and deserve, the only way fewer trans individuals will face homelessness or consider suicide, is if we evolve a plan for total family care that recognizes the emotional transition of the entire unit. That’s completely lacking in the current medical and educational system, and in Singal’s story. He even uses language like “she came around” or parents eventually “get it,” as though assuming that the questioning parent is wrong and just needs more time.

A parent has a right to ask a lot of questions when a minor under his or her care wants to undergo medical treatments to shift his or her gender. The minor has a right to realize his or her identity to the best of his or her ability. There’s so much pain inherent in that conundrum. The only real answer: whole family care.

Mary Collins
West Hartford, Conn.

*These letters were featured in an exclusive story from The Masthead, the membership program from The Atlantic (find out more).