Updated: Aug 17
By Rachel Ellis
When our oldest started intermediate school (sixth and seventh grade in our area), our once happy kid started to struggle. Failed classes, turning friends away when they came to play, and an unusual amount of time spent alone in his room doing nothing, left us worried. We encouraged more time spent on developing interests and skills, talked with the doctor, tried medications, and even bought a dog as a companion. When none of those efforts helped, we restructured the school schedule, splitting the day between homeschool classes and classes at the public school. Things got even worse. Our child stopped speaking at school and in public, and opened up with us only about the tip of the iceberg of bullying that was happening – including being stabbed by a fork in foods class.
In the spring of this disastrous school year, we received a call from the school counselor notifying us of an anonymous tip that our child was self-harming. Because all friends had been pushed away except for one, we knew who the tip had come from, and wondered what else our child and this friend were talking about. So, we read their instant messages to one another and made a shocking discovery: our child was transgender.
We were completely confused and had no idea how this could be. Our kid had never gravitated toward stereotypically feminine clothing, mannerisms, preferences or activities. He had never told us he felt like a girl as a little child. Could someone be transgender if they hadn’t always felt that way? What would this mean for our child’s future? What did this mean in relation to our faith and understanding of God, the afterlife, and worship? We had no idea what to expect, or what the future looked like, and were terrified for our child. How would our child be treated? What would others think of us as parents if they knew?
We knew we were out of our depth. And we didn’t know anyone who had any experience with this. So, we started looking for a counselor. We figured a mental health professional would understand more about this, and have the tools to help our child. The first counselor we spoke with was recommended to us by a former neighbor, and sounded phenomenal. When we consulted with him, however, it was clear he knew as little as we did, and even made some comments that felt harmful. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we knew what felt wrong. And boy, were there a lot of things we came across that felt wrong! From counselors, to “studies,” to support communities that felt less than supportive, there is a lot of misinformation out there about what it means to be transgender.
The good news though is that the more we looked for sound advice, the more the misinformation gave way to better and more reliable information. Slowly we found things that were helpful. And, although it took months, we began to realize how important it was for us to support our child as our daughter. All the danger in the world wouldn’t affect her as much as whether or not we believed and supported her.
So several months in, we began. We gave her an opportunity to dress in a way that felt authentic. And holy moly, what a difference in her countenance! For the first time in months, maybe even a year or more, we saw her smile reach her eyes, her posture straighten, her laugh come all the way from her toes. And we knew. This was the way forward. Over Christmas break, we started using the name she’d chosen and been using online. I registered her for a conference so she could be with other LGBTQ+ teens. On that trip, I took her into the women’s restroom, bought her feminine clothing, and used feminine pronouns for the first time. She wasn’t ready to come out at school or church, so we switched back and forth depending on where we were and who we were with. Or, in my case, said nothing in fear that the wrong name or pronouns would come out. That was torture. I can’t imagine what life is like for people who stay in the closet for years at a time! No wonder she didn’t speak at school!
We registered her for a different school her freshman year – a performing arts school near our home. I was terrified to ask, but had to know about this school’s policies for transgender kids. I was pleasantly surprised to find that they had policies in place; they had had transgender kids for years, and were well-equipped to deal with the issues that would come up. The summer before her freshman year, she started living authentically. She was happy! She was thrilled to attend a school where she would be safe and among other kids who understood her experience.
That said, it hasn’t been a perfectly smooth road. There are times when things are difficult, as she deals with painful attitudes and expectations in the world around her. But she’s been lucky, and so have we. Our extended family has generally been very supportive and understanding. Our neighbors and friends have been kind and respectful. And Cyndi has the opportunity to experience a fairly normal, if not conventional, adolescence.
Four years ago, I was sure I was losing my child. Today, I can celebrate milestones with her, and she can plan for her future. This is no small feat. And I never take it for granted.