Trans Parents, Trans Kids: Two New Guides

(Originally published in Bay Windows, July 10, 2008.)

Two new works offer much-needed guidance for families with transgender members, but each approaches the subject from a different perspective. One addresses parents of transgender children, while the other targets children of transgender parents.

The Transgender ChildThe Transgender Child, by Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper (Cleis, 2008), is subtitled, “A Handbook for Families and Professionals,” but speaks mostly to parents. With even mainstream media such as NPR and the parenting magazine Cookie broaching the subject of gender variance in children in the last few months, the appearance of a thorough, authoritative work for parents is long overdue. This book fills the need with balance and sensitivity.

The authors have each published other books on LGBT parenting: Brill authored The Queer Parent’s Primer (New Harbinger, 2001) and co-authored The New Essential Guide to Lesbian Conception, Pregnancy, and Birth (Alyson, 2002). Pepper, coordinator of LGBT Studies at Yale University and an editor at Curve magazine, wrote The Ultimate Guide to Pregnancy for Lesbians: How to Stay Sane and Care for Yourself from Pre-conception through Birth, 2nd Edition (2nd Edition, Cleis, 2005). In addition, Brill has extensive experience working with gender-nonconforming and transgender children and their parents. She started a parents’ support group at Children’s Hospital Oakland, founded Gender Spectrum Education and Training, and co-produces the national Gender Spectrum Family conference.

Brill and Pepper draw on their own knowledge and that of professional therapists, lawyers, endocrinologists, and activists. The book begins with some basic definitions and a discussion of what shapes our understanding of gender, then moves on to what parents may be experiencing if they suspect they have a transgender or gender-variant child. While Brill and Pepper are unfailingly supportive of children’s expression of gender, they also stress that not all expressions of gender nonconformity are evidence of a transgender child. The Transgender Child offers ideas for how parents can find support for themselves and their children and remain close to each other during what is often a challenging and uncertain time. It suggests specific parenting practices, such as a thoughtful use of language and careful selection of toys and clothing, that can help gender-variant children find their own paths and strengthen their sense of self-worth.

The book then focuses on how parents can best aid their children during the nonlinear process of transitioning, and how to weigh the pros and cons of disclosing their children’s gender identity to others. The authors are careful not to promote one “right” answer for everyone. The last three chapters turn to the practical yet still emotional matters of dealing with schools, the law, and medical issues.

Overall, The Transgender Child is well balanced and informed by the experiences of actual families, who are quoted throughout. At times, however, it could benefit from more detail. The list of steps schools can take to support gender-variant and transgender students, for example, includes good ideas like creating a resource guide, updating policies and forms, and providing staff training. The authors note that volunteer parents can do some of these tasks while “others require more of a system overhaul.” It would be helpful to know how other schools have implemented these overhauls with success. Who championed the cause? How did they build support? What arguments did parents use in the face of bias, apathy, or budget constraints?

There could also be a few organizational improvements. The chapter on stages of gender development would seem to fit better next to the one titled, “Is My Child Transgender?” rather than between the two chapters on family acceptance and effective parenting practices. The many additional resources listed at the end of several chapters might work better as a single categorized list at the end of the book, for easy reference.

Nevertheless, this is an immensely valuable book for parents of gender-variant and transgender children, a vital roadmap for navigating territory that remains largely uncharted.

The Kids of Trans Resource Guide, by Monica Canfield-Lenfest of the COLAGE (Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere) Kids of Trans program (and a KOT herself), likewise starts with basic terminology and a discussion of gender. It then provides succinct advice on matters such as what to expect when a parent transitions, what to call them, how and when to come out about being a KOT, and how to deal with shifts in family structure. It also includes a section about dealing with transphobia, but follows it with an upbeat one on “Benefits of Being a KOT.” An additional but helpful piece has “Transition Tips for Parents” to make the process easier for- everyone in the family. Like Brill and Pepper’s book, the Guide explores the many facets of each issue, includes quotes from those who have been through them before, and avoids one-size-fits-all answers.

Most importantly, the Guide discusses how to find support and community, and reassures its readers that they are not alone. It includes an extensive resource list of books, movies, and support groups, online and off.

The typography and grammar could use editing in a few places, but the work is by and large an enjoyable and readable resource. It should be of enormous value to those with transgender parents. Download a free copy and view other COLAGE resources for KOTs at: www.colage.org/programs/trans/.

Whether it is a parent or child who is transgender, Canfield-Lenfest and Brill and Pepper are in full accord that the whole family transitions together. Both of their works will help families do so with greater understanding.