Parents of Transgender Children Share Their Stories


(Originally published as my Mombian newspaper column.)

Parents of transgender children “are the best parents ever. They unconditionally love their children, even when they don’t completely understand what their child is going through,” writes mom Tracie Stratton (herself such a parent) in Transitions of the Heart: Stories of Love, Struggle and Acceptance by Mothers of Transgender and Gender Variant Children, edited by Rachel Pepper. That lesson of acceptance and love, conveyed through the 32 essays in the collection, make Transitions of the Heart a valuable read for any parent, regardless of the gender identity of their children.

Many lesbian moms will know editor Pepper from her previous book, The Ultimate Guide to Pregnancy for Lesbians. She is also a therapist who specializes in working with families that have transgender and gender variant children, and co-authored (with Stephanie Brill) The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals. Unlike those two books, however, Transitions of the Heart is not a how-to, but rather a sharing of stories: the contributors tell of how they first realized their children were transgender or gender variant, how they responded, and how they are continuing with their children on this very personal journey. They do not offer universal answers, simply the ones they each have found—along with many questions that remain unanswered.

The contributors come from a variety of backgrounds. There are Black, White, and Latina mothers from the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.; biological and adoptive ones; married and single ones; and moms of different beliefs, from “New Age spirituality” to “hard-shell” Southern Baptist. Most of the moms are straight; two are lesbian. They have a mix of female-to-male and male-to-female children.

Mostly, though, they are all at different places in their family journeys. Some mothers sensed something “different” about their children’s gender identity when the children were still in preschool; others were surprised by revelations when the children were grown. Some are still figuring out how best to support their young children; others have watched their children grow and transition.

Mary Lou Houle, now eighty years old, writes that her son’s transition from female to male “has been a long, hard road for me.” Now, however, she says they are closer than they have ever been. She advises others to “love your children no matter what. God gave them to you and they have a right to be happy, well-adjusted people.”

In contrast, Dana Lane writes, “I can’t really say I’ve come to peace with my child’s transition. She is still in the middle of it, and I am still hoping she changes her mind about this.”

Nevertheless, she says her relationship with her child is getting better, and she wants to remain close. Her thoughts are not far from those of Houle when she says, “I hope she succeeds in her quest to be comfortable in her own skin. And, most of all, I wish her happiness.”

Through the love that permeates all of the essays, we also see the fears: fears for one’s child’s happiness; fear of societal responses, including school bullying; fear about both the safety and cost of medical procedures. While some of these concerns are warranted—several of the moms tell of their children being rejected, bullied, depressed, and suicidal—there is hope: schools administrators and neighbors who are supportive; children who have grown to be happy and well-adjusted; family relationships that have healed.

Not all of the moms have made the same choices along the way. Among the mothers with younger children, many wonder whether to give them drugs to delay puberty until they are old enough to decide whether to transition. Some have; some haven’t; others are still struggling with the question. Other parents of transgender children will appreciate the range of perspectives here. There are no easy answers, and none are given.

My only quibble with the book is that Pepper explains her choice to focus on moms by saying, “as children transition, so too must their families, and no one feels this change as acutely as mothers, who often both bear their children and act as their primary caretakers.” Adoptive and nonbio moms as well as fathers might question the relevance of “bearing” children here—and the sweeping nature of the statement seems a bit misplaced in a book that asks us to broaden our views of gender.

Nevertheless, Pepper is to be commended for bringing together the stories of mothers of transgender children, whatever the reason. The collection will be a wonderful resource to any parent with transgender or gender variant children as well as to others looking to support these families. (Perhaps Pepper or someone else will gather stories from fathers for a future volume. Just yesterday, notably, a story broke about a dad in Germany who wears skirts in solidarity with his gender variant son. Via The Advocate and EMMA.)

Additionally, the stories of unexpected twists in the journey of parenting should resonate with all of us who have ever been surprised at the directions our children take. Whether parents of transgender children are the “best ever,” as Stratton asserts, is a subjective matter—but after reading this book, you will likely believe that some indeed can be shining examples to the rest of us. Not perfect, by any means (none of us are), but deeply admirable in their willingness to face challenges and take risks in order to support their children, and to love them fiercely as they find their true selves.

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