Last week, UCLA geneticist and pediatrician Eric Vilain and Northwestern University psychologist Michael Bailey took to The Times’ Op-Ed page to discuss the development of transgender and gender dysphoric youths. As the headline suggests, their piece was novel in that it was directed at the parents of children who express discomfort with the gender assigned to them at birth; it read, “What should you do if your son says he’s a girl?”
Most of the roughly two dozen people who responded were experts in the field -- clinicians, researchers and professors -- who disagreed sharply with Vilain’s and Bailey’s conclusion that more research needs to be done on transgender and gender dysphoric children before someone like President Obama condemns (as he has) so-called conversion therapy for not just lesbian and gay youths, but also for young people who identify as transgender. Two letters -- one from a UC San Francisco psychiatry professor who sits on the board of the World Professional Assn. for Transgender Health, which opposes conversion therapy, and another from a clinical psychologist -- were printed in Tuesday’s paper; one distinguished between transgender children and those who merely exhibit gender nonconforming behavior, and the other extolled the value of therapy that emphasizes empathetic listening.
Also among the letter writers were those to whom the authors address their piece: the parents of transgender children. To them, Bailey’s and Vilain’s advice isn’t well-taken. They share their feelings of regret over their initial reaction to their children’s questioning of their gender identity, and they express hope that other parents are accepting of their kids.
Here are two of their letters.
Julie Mellen of Los Angeles says she regrets her initial reaction to her child’s identity:
I am the mother of a transgender boy. We found out soon after he went through female puberty, which was very stressful for him. It took us a year of therapy to allow him to go on hormone blockers, and another year for testosterone. I regret those years; so much time was wasted. I wish I could go back and change them.
Now my son is a happy, healthy, fully transitioned boy. He knew he was a boy when he was 12; he saw a television show that had a transgender character, and he finally understood what he was going through.
I wish we could have known then, to spare him the emotional distress he experienced. Children know their gender when they are young. I have met many, many trans children in the last four years, only one whose mind changed. Had I known what transgender was when he was younger, I would have seen the signs. We just thought he would grow up to be a lesbian. How ignorant we were.
Insisting that children try to match the genitalia they were born with, and not supporting their insistence and persistence that they are the opposite gender, is one of the roads that leads a young person to suicide. Forty-one percent of transgender people report attempting suicide, compared with 1.6% of the general population.
I would say this to parents with trans kids: You’ve woken up every morning, knowing fully what gender you are. Well, it’s the same for trans kids. Trust them to know their own gender no matter how old they are. No one chooses to be transgender; it’s not a phase.
Having your child alive is so much better than having to go through the heartache of losing your child to suicide because of hopelessness.
Julia Dragojevic of Woodland Hills says we should foster an environment of understanding:
Four years ago, at the age of 22, my biological son said she was in fact a woman. It came as a tremendous shock, and was difficult to absorb, but the more I read and learned about what it means to be transgender, I focused on the pain and frustration that my child had been experiencing, unbeknownst to our family, since the age of 9.
She never wavered all those years in the fact that her gender was truly female, but was terribly frightened to reveal what she knew to be the truth.
We need to create and foster a world in which transgender children can feel safe in the true expression of their gender identities. That will not happen if, as in the op-ed article, questionable statistics and conclusions are presented as truth. This will unfortunately only foster the rejection and fear of what some people do not wish to understand.