A new mom settles into the couch across from me in my office. She called this week to schedule an appointment because her 17-year-old child just announced he was transgender and identified as a boy. As we begin to talk, the mom says, "If [he] had told us [he] was gay or lesbian, it would have been a no-brainer. But this gender stuff? We just don’t get it."
This is certainly not the first time I’ve heard this from a parent. In 2017, most people living in the United States know someone in their immediate circle who is lesbian, gay, or bisexual — a family member, neighbor, coworker. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people have come out in popular culture, music, film, and television, in sports, in politics and government, even in many faith communities. Most college students have peers who identify as LGB. Even my middle-school daughter knows classmates who are out as gay or lesbian. But the T has been a different story.
Yes, we have had more adult trans people like Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, Aydian Dowling, and others come out in major media, but most adults in America still do not know transgender people within their immediate social, familial, or professional networks. As a result, gender identity and gender expression, and the understanding of gender as distinct from biological sex, are still unfamiliar. While this is rapidly changing among adolescents and young adults, those of us who are over 25 often struggle to make sense of the “gender revolution” that is occurring all around us. And given how trans children can come out much younger than their LGB counterparts, the stories of their families are making a very different kind of impact.
This is why the recent National Geographic documentary Gender Revolution, hosted by Katie Couric, is so important. This two-hour special provides comprehensive and accessible definitions of terms often confused: biological sex (the sex we are assigned at birth), gender identity (our own internal understanding of our gender), gender expression (how we express our gender visually in the world), and sexual orientation (who we are attracted to). It presents up-to-date information about the differences between being born with an intersex condition and being transgender. It reviews the most recent scientific research that increasingly indicates a biological component to the development of transgender identity in utero. Beyond this, Katie Couric’s conversations with trans youth and their parents as well as transgender adults offer profound insights into the day-to-day emotions and experiences of these individuals and families.
When families first reach out to me, they are often confused, fearful, and unsure where to turn for the information and support they need to effectively parent their trans or gender-diverse children and youth. It is not unusual for me to spend 45 minutes on the first phone call because of how much they need to talk about and make sense of this new information about their child — whether it is a young child with gender-diverse interests and expression or an adolescent who just disclosed their trans or gender-fluid identity. These parents often feel isolated and making that first connection with someone who understands is critical.
As a parent myself, I am frequently aware that the task of raising healthy children does not come with an owner’s manual. Each child is unique and requires new learning about how to parent them effectively and affirmatively. Raising trans children and youth to live healthy, happy, meaningful, and compassionate adult lives requires that each of us be willing to open our minds and hearts to new ways of understanding and experiencing gender identity and expression. As Couric says, “We’re all a lot more complicated than we’ve assumed.”
Couric’s vulnerability about what she does and does not understand, her openness to deeply listen to the struggles of these individuals, and her commitment and compassion in sharing their stories open a window of understanding for all of us. It’s not just parents who need the information presented in Gender Revolution; we all need to hear these stories. Our transgender and gender-diverse youth need and deserve acceptance and support from all the adults in their lives — parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, teachers, doctors, neighbors, and faith community leaders.
Because of lack of understanding and acceptance, isolation, and discrimination, more than 40 percent of trans youth and adults attempt suicide compared to only 4.6 percent in the general population. Eighty-two percent of transgender youth report that they feel unsafe at school, 44 percent have been abused physically (punched, shoved, etc.), and 67 percent have been bullied online.
As a clinician, pastor, parent, and transgender man, the message of this film and our responsibility is clear. Vanessa and JR Ford, whose family is featured in the film, put it this way “Do you want a happy child?”
Increasingly for the parents of transgender and gender creative children the answer is a resounding “Yes!” and this film will be a catalyst for change among many. Thank you, Katie Couric and National Geographic, for opening hearts and minds.
ELIJAH NEALY is a licensed clinical social worker and assistant professor in the social work department at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, Conn.