Columnist, Civilities


Transgender teen Gavin Grimm talks with reporters during a protest outside the White House in support of trans students, two days before President Trump rescinded a federal rule on transgender bathrooms in public schools. (Oliver Contreras/Sipa USA via AP)

Can we please stop playing politics with our kids?

Shortly after the Trump administration announced Wednesday that it was rescinding federal guidance requiring public schools to treat transgender boys and girls like other boys and girls, a move that will jeopardize their safety, I received an email from the “worried mom” of a transgender teen.

“My 16-year-old daughter told me she was transgender when she was 13,” she wrote me. “I was shocked.”

I figured that the mom was about to voice her anxiety about what rolling back the school protections could mean for her child. A 2015 study from GLSEN, an organization that champions LGBT issues in K-12 education, reported 75 percent of trans students saying that they felt unsafe at school. A similar study from the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA Law School that conducts research on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy, concluded that more than half of all transgender young people report attempting suicide at least once in their lives. These are — or should be — deeply upsetting statistics to everyone. I also hope they’ll remind us that when we’re talking transgender law and policy, court cases and political riffs, we’re talking about people. Kids — our kids — to be perfectly clear.

But then I read further down in her letter and came to this section:

“What has happened is that therapists that I took her to for help did not question her beliefs but made her think she should transition and that I should blindly accept her assertion,” she told me. “They pushed me to accept hormone treatment, which I refused.”

Although the mother did allow her daughter to change her name and pronouns, it was grudgingly: “I know 100 percent in my heart that this is not real and I live in a constant state of anxiety about the psychological and physical damage this is causing,” she wrote.

Of course, I too might be confused at first if I had a child tell me that they were transgender — much as my own parents were when I came out to them as gay. And I don’t condone “pushing” anyone into hormone therapy. So I forwarded the letter to several parents of trans and gender-nonconforming kids and teens to get their read.

Debi Jackson, the mother of 9-year-old Avery, who started to identify as a girl when she was 4, empathized with “worried mom” to a point, telling me, “I understand that fear. No matter what age our kids are, this comes out of nowhere and we don’t know a lot about it. We question ourselves [even as we try] to be supportive as our kids explore the boundaries of the gender spectrum.” But, she said, “showing your child that you’re not going to judge as they go through this process is so important.”

Another mom, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her children’s identity, told me that she’s had plenty of drama with her gender-nonconforming teenager. “Every day I try to figure out where the line is supposed to be between supporting a child and encouraging a transition,” she wrote. Of the letter-writer, she said: “It sure sounds as if this particular mom is not trying to figure that out, that she’s decided what ‘side’ she’s on about an issue where there needn’t be sides at all.” She advises: “Just love your child.”

What do the experts say? I reached out to Diane Ehrensaft, Ph.D., a developmental and clinical psychologist at the University of California at San Francisco and author of “The Gender Creative Child,” who says, “We should always listen to parents.” Yet “the parent [should] also listen to their child, as at the end of the day, that child . . . will be the arbiter of their own gender identity.”

Next month, the issue will garner still more attention when the U.S. Supreme Court takes up the case of Gavin Grimm, the 17-year-old transgender student from Gloucester, Va., who sued his school for not allowing him to use the boys’ restroom. On Thursday, he told MSNBC: “Right now, transgender students are probably feeling alone, and they are probably feeling afraid because their government has just basically said that the protections that they do have, they don’t feel that those are deserving of still being there.”

In the meantime, it doesn’t take federal guidelines or the Supreme Court to help us do the right thing for our kids. Here’s my advice:

Get to know trans kids. Read interviews with them and their parents. As Debi Jackson said about other moms and dads: “Try to relate to them as a parent to a parent, understanding that they’re not out to push anything onto you or your family. They just want the same things for their kids as your kids — that’s a fair shake.”

Use the name and pronouns that your kid (or another trans young person) relies on. If you’re not sure, ask — without judgment.

Stand up for trans kids. Even if your own kid is not transgender, tell your child’s school that you want all kids to be protected from bullying and bad bathroom policies.

Listen to the kids. If you’re the parent of a transgender child, here’s Ehrensaft’s beautiful advice: “Just remember, when it comes to a person’s true gender self, it is not for us to say, but for them to tell, but while they are exploring, the final word may not be out — so for that period consider it poetry in motion, with you as scribe and the youth as poet.”

Or to say it again, because you really can’t say it enough: “Just love them.”

Agree or disagree with my advice? Let me know in the comments section below.

You can reach the author on Facebook at facebook.com/stevenpetrow and on Twitter @stevenpetrow. Join him for a chat online at washingtonpost.com on March 7 at 1 p.m.