[EDITOR'S NOTE:] This guest post is by Shannon Garcia, who is the President of TransYouth Family Allies, Inc., a business owner, and the mother of six children, including a beautiful 8 year old affirmed female daughter. She speaks at schools, social service agencies, health care facilities, universities and conferences nationwide educating and advocating on behalf of transgender and gender variant children and their families. She lives in the Midwest with her husband and family.
TransYouth Family Allies, commonly known as TYFA, is a national organization dedicated to providing tools, resources and support to families negotiating life with a gender variant or transgender child. We also provide education, training and resources for service providers that work with children; including health care workers, educators, social service agencies and day care facilities. TYFA was born in the fall of 2006 after 4 women met in an online support forum and quickly realized that our need for social support had evolved to the need to create social change. TYFA now works daily on a national level to develop supportive environments where gender is freely expressed and respected. We believe that starting with kids will help strengthen the development.
I want to talk to you tonight about the little "t" in LGBT. Did you know that there was a little "t" in LGBT? We at TYFA have discovered that there is. We recognize the little "t" as the trans and gender variant children of the world...children who express their gender identity as young as the age of 3. I am the mother of a sweet and sassy little "t" who refers to herself as the TYFA Cutie. I need you to help me and TYFA make the world a better place for her and everyone like her.
I personally entered the activist arena after discovering that I had a transgender child and having great difficulty finding resources. I looked all over Barnes and Noble and the internet and couldn't find a book titled "Raising a transgender Child for Dummies", or any book that talked about raising a transgender child period. My sixth child, who was assigned male at birth, told me that she was a girl from the age of about 15-18 months. My husband and I really thought it was just a phase that would go away, so we allowed her to express herself at home in any way she saw fit.
Once school started, we quickly discovered that society didn't see things the way that we did. She was shunned, teased and even bullied by adults and children alike. She became suicidal and attempted to castrate herself with a pair of scissors...all at the tender age of 5. I thank God every day that I was led to a wonderful transman and therapist, Hawk Stone, who explained to me that my daughter was transgender and that there was no reason she couldn't live her life the way she wanted to and be a happy, productive female in society.
After much soul searching and an extreme desperation to save our child's life, in Dec. 2006, at the age of 6, our daughter socially transitioned. Over the last 15 months, we have gotten to know the child we never knew we had. She went from being an unhappy child, never speaking or smiling to being an outgoing, happy, confident child. The changes began to occur immediately.
Many families today are coming to the same realizations that my husband and I did. In the year 2007, TYFA was contacted by about 15 families that needed our help educating their schools, health care providers and assisting their families through the often misunderstood journey of childhood transition. Since January 1, 2008, we have been contacted by over 30 families. These families are located all over the United States and come from all different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. The numbers are increasing exponentially. Many children are able to articulate their gender identity and realize that it doesn't match their assigned birth sex, as early as age 3, and parents are more open and willing to help their children than ever before. We are taught as parents to nurture our children's self esteem and parents are listening. Positive media portrayals have also contributed to the influx of new families coming forward.
Childhood transition presents some of the same challenges that adult transitioners face, however, also presents a unique set of challenges. One of the biggest challenges is finding healthcare providers who are willing and able to treat them. Many providers don't understand gender dysphoria in children and aren't aware of new treatment protocols, such as, puberty inhibitors. Many are fearful of malpractice suits for treating transgender children. Once a willing and able provider is located, the cost of such treatments is typically expensive, and as with adult transitioners, insurance typically will not cover them. Puberty inhibitors can cost a family up to $1200 per month for just the medications...that doesn't include any blood work or testing needed to accurately prescribe the necessary drugs.
Working with a child's school to facilitate the child's social transition can also be challenging. Sadly, many people confuse gender identity with sexual orientation. Clearly, 5 and 6 year old children are not sexual beings. Many people not only view gender identity as a person's sexuality, but they also view it as a choice that people are making rather than it being an integral part of who they are. Educating schools on how to differentiate the two and to realize that these children are not "choosing" who they want to be, they are simply being who they are, can be challenging, especially in certain conservative geographic areas of the country. Educators worry about what to tell other children and what to tell other parents when questions are raised.
Young trans kids are not good candidates for surgical procedures for a variety of reasons; therefore, having their gender marker changed on identification documents is difficult at best; and nearly impossible in most cases. This makes simple things, like getting a job, very difficult. Trans kids also cannot obtain a gender congruent passport due to the current surgery requirements, which increases risks to their personal safety when traveling to foreign lands.
As with transitioning adults, sometimes family members are not accepting of kids who transition or desire to transition. For a child whose parents do not accept him/her, they are faced with a bleak set of choices...suppress their true identity, begin a life on the streets or sadly take their own lives. Trans kids are at great risk for substance abuse, exposure to HIV/AIDS and STD's due to risky behaviors that they engage in to obtain money to live or to buy street hormones. Self mutilation and suicide ideation and attempts are very high in the little "t" category. Trans kids are 3 times more likely than their peers to ideate or attempt suicide. Current estimates are that 50% of trans kids ideate or attempt....sadly, many succeed.
As we know, trans people are more likely to be victims of violence. This statistic is no different in the little "t" category. I don't have to tell any of you who Lawrence King or Gwen Araujo were. Sadly, we all know who they were due to the horrible way that they were taken too soon by the violence and intolerance of ignorant members of our society. GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network) does a biennial National School Climate survey which looks at different aspects of daily life for LGBT kids in America's schools. The results from the 2005 survey are available now and the results from the 2007 survey will be available in April of this year.
According to the 2005 results, 26.1% of the kids surveyed experienced physical harassment due to their gender expression. 11.8% were physically assaulted due to their gender expression. Those that experienced harassment were 5x more likely to skip school due to the harassment and 2x more likely than the general population to not pursue post-secondary education. Their GPA's are ½ grade lower than those that experience less harassment. It is proven that schools that have GSA's in place along with strong anti-bullying and anti-discrimination policies have much lower incidence of bullying, harassment and intolerance.
Despite the many challenges, childhood transition is a wonderful gift for these children and often necessary to ensure their survival. Puberty inhibitors have made it possible to save children from having to go through the torture associated with puberty or the unwanted secondary sexual characteristics that come with it. They will not have to endure painful, costly surgical procedures to correct unwanted physical changes that puberty brings about. The ability to be themselves from an early age will hopefully help them be integrated into society in their gender identity and role early on prevent them from enduring many of the challenges that those who transition as adults do.
How do we reach common ground? How do we come together as a community to help everyone in the trans community be accepted for who they are? How do we change the hearts and minds of America?
We begin with the children....we let the children pave the way. We continue to educate the world on the fact that being transgender is an integral part of who we are from our earliest memories. If we can help people see that a 5 year old child doesn't know who he or she will grow up to have an intimate relationship with, but he or she DOES know who they are, we can unlock understanding and acceptance for everyone. If we can build education programs in schools across the country that educate youth about difference in open and honest ways, we can change the way an entire generation of people understands each other. If we demand that all school districts everywhere create comprehensive anti-discrimination and anti-bullying policies inclusive of gender identity and expression that keep all kids safe, we can stop the violence before more children die senselessly.
Everyone, regardless of their gender identity or expression, socio economic status, ethnicity, or place in society deserves to be respected and acknowledged for who they are. We have ambitious goals that include making the world a better place for all people, transgender or not. In his book, How Children Learn, John Holt said, "Gears, twigs, leaves, little children love the world. That is why they are so good at learning about it. For it is love, not tricks and techniques of thought that lies at the heart of all true learning."
Let's work together to include the little "t" in our efforts. Let's unlock the LOVE and understanding that people tend to have for children and use it to bring that same understanding for all transgender people. We have to the teach people who do not understand it and the rest of the world a lesson that I share with my daughter nearly every day....difference isn't wrong...it just is.