Being a parent isn’t easy, but realizing that your child is transgender is something that What to Expect When You’re Expecting doesn’t prepare you for. In Raising Ryland, Hillary Whittington recounts the moment her daughter Ryland proclaimed, “I’m a boy.” Taking one day at a time, the Whittington family learned to listen to Ryland and to support his transition (which included a haircut, new clothes, and new pronouns). Since Ryland’s declaration, the Whittington family has received many questions about what it means to be a transgender child and what it means to raise one. Here, Whittington shares five of the biggest misconceptions about transgender children.
Transgender. It’s a word that we hear often these days. From Caitlyn Jenner to Jazz Jennings, the media attention surrounding those who identify as transgender has grown tremendously. For many, it’s a welcomed change, as the attention brings a focus on the equal human rights that society has not acknowledged for the transgender population for so many years. More importantly, it’s opened a dialogue and an opportunity to educate the public on what it means for an individual to be transgender.
Often, this comes with a lot of questions. Although I can’t speak for the entire transgender community, as the mother of a young transgender child, I can share my own experiences and the common myths and misconceptions our family has encountered as they relate to transgender youth. My hope is to encourage the education of the general public in regard to transgender youth and help people to see the human side of this hot topic of conversation. Transgender people are people, and they certainly deserve to be understood as people. Having personally received a barrage of questions and inquiries that could be categorized as anywhere from offensive to downright comical, I find it critical to share the most common myths I have encountered.
Gender and sexual identity are the same
This is a common misconception that stems partly from the “T” being placed within the LGBTQ abbreviation. Being lesbian, gay, or bisexual has to do with whom someone is sexually attracted to. Being transgender is related to someone’s internal sense of their gender, and it may or may not coincide with the sex that was assigned at birth. I know… it’s confusing, and often the best way to describe this is to quote how it was explained to me: “Gender is who you go to bed as, while sexuality is who you go to bed with.”
Children are too young to know if they are transgender
Quite the contrary. Addressing the common misconception that sexuality and gender identity are related helps us to understand this. When interviewing and studying the transgender population, we find that many have felt strongly about their gender identity from a very young age. In fact, studies have shown that our gender identity is formed between the ages of three and five years of age.
Transition of a transgender child involves surgery
Nothing could be further from the truth. Transition of a child from one gender to another involves nothing more than clothing changes, pronoun changes, and a possible name change. All of these changes are reversible, should the child feel differently at a later point in his or her life. A child may change their mind, but this tends to be uncommon with children who are very persistent, consistent, and insistent regarding their gender identity at an early age. For adults, surgery is an option, but not all transgender people choose this option.
Being transgender is a choice
For many years, being transgender has been viewed as a lifestyle choice with therapies and treatment introduced as an attempt to change the way people felt regarding their identity. Unfortunately, past practice has resulted in the startling and appalling statistic that 41% of the transgender population will attempt suicide within their lifetime, and many will be successful. Society’s thought process has to change: We need to focus on affirming one’s gender identity, rather than trying to tell someone they are wrong for how they feel.
We are all just “left-wing” parents with a liberal agenda
Though many parents of a transgender child identify as liberal, there are a considerable number who identify as conservative. A transgender child can be born into any type of family! Almost always, it has nothing to do with the parents’ political leanings. If anyone knows how difficult and unconventional it is to allow your child to take the driver’s seat in this situation, it’s my husband and me. Unfortunately, many parents of transgender children have discovered that trying to force a child to become comfortable with their biological sex creates shame, discomfort, and deep pain. This pain has a tremendous effect on a child’s overall well-being and happiness. As parents, our role is to help our child to live the happiest life possible. We have all witnessed the incredible change it can make in your child when you affirm their thoughts, feelings, and identity—when we make sure they know that we love them the way they are. There is no agenda here, and it is not the same as a child pretending to be a dog or playing Superman. Gender is a significant piece of our identities and how we perceive ourselves.
Of course, there are many more misconceptions and myths that we have encountered along our journey, and I’m sure there are many more questions to come. It’s a tough road for any parent of a transgender child, and even tougher for the transgender individual. But, we must continue to have dialogue regarding this subject and try to connect with the human being behind the identity. As humans, we all deserve respect and understanding, and my hope is that this is just the beginning of our society’s change towards love and acceptance of a population that so desperately needs our support.
Hillary Whittington is a mother of two and an advocate for children. Her book, Raising Ryland: Our Story of Parenting a Transgender Child with No Strings Attached, will be published Feb. 23.