Dear parents (and siblings, relatives, close ones) of transgender persons,
I’m writing this letter because I don’t want what happened to me to happen to anyone else. If there’s a transgender person in your life whom you love, I have no doubt you want the best for them. I’m hoping we can work together for a moment to make sure the person you love experiences your care.
What I have to say isn’t a treatise or transsexual manifesto. I just want to share my personal experience so you can hear the feelings of a transgender person other than your loved one. Sometimes we’re so close to someone that we can’t see them clearly. I hope that by intruding my own voice, you can hear the voice of your transgender loved one more clearly.
If anything from my experience resonates with you, I pray that you take it to heart. I don’t know your situation, I can’t experience your unique pain, and I can only feel my own experience and glimpse the experience of those closest to me. I want to generalize from my own life, but you should only take in what makes sense for you in light of your own situation.
My story is that I’ve experienced some form of gender dysphoria for as long as I can remember. When I was a child, this experience was secret. I felt different from everyone else in a way I couldn’t put into words. My parents knew nothing about this. I was a quiet child who didn’t complain much even though I was constantly sick, and I obeyed my elders (and peers) without question. When I crossdressed (starting age 4 or 5), it was almost always in secret. My parents only witnessed a few incidents which they were able to write off as “normal for a young boy,” but they weren’t around to witness the frequency of it. This wasn’t their fault. From an early age I intuited that it was “bad” not to conform, so I kept everything bottled up. My parents didn’t know because I didn’t let them know. Children can be surprisingly perceptive and astonishingly deceptive.
When I passed through a male puberty around age 13, my gender dysphoria went from quietly perplexing to all-out agonizing. It was like my brain and body were flying in opposite directions and stretching me between them like taffy. As my body became more masculine and my peer group became more demanding, I found I couldn’t just go with the flow like I did when I was a kid. Now I had to make a concerted effort to please people and hide the secret part of me. I would present myself as masculine to the outside world, but then I’d retire to my room in the evening and just lay there for hours imagining myself bridal shopping or dancing in a billowy skirt.
This double life was exhausting, and every year I spent more and more energy trying to shut down my girl identity so I could keep on pretending to be masculine. I tried everything in my power to embrace my “God-given masculinity,” all the while shutting down my heart more and more until I could barely feel anything. The only hopes and dreams I had were the ones other people dictated for me.
After 21 years of this, I finally collapsed. I’d used up an entire lifetime of energy to pretend I was a boy. Even my deepest reserves were utterly spent. I felt like I could barely lift my head in the morning. I wanted to keep on being the person my family expected me to be, but I simply couldn’t. Emotional breakdowns became more and more frequent. Whenever my fuel reached empty, the curtain I was holding up to so desperately hide myself would simply fall to the ground because my hands couldn’t hold on one more second.
So finally, not by my own choice, I confronted what I’d been running from for 21 years. I admitted I was severely gender dysphoric. And as I allowed my heart to speak for the first time in many years, I also admitted exactly why I was gender dysphoric: I feel like a girl. Not I feel feminine, but I truly and utterly down to my very bones feel like a girl who everyone in the world mistakes as a boy.
Eventually I told my parents. It was the most terrifying experience of my entire life. After 21 years of thinking I had to present a certain image in order to find acceptance, my entire self-esteem rode on that moment of revelation. My parents were understandably shocked, confused, hurt, and afraid. They gave me their first reaction: this is a lie of Satan, and we need to pray over you to expel this transsexual demon.
I wasn’t terribly troubled by this initial reaction. I put myself in their shoes. This was out of nowhere for them (which was my fault). They coped with their shock by turning to the simplest and most readily available explanation: that Satan had tricked me into this.
We had many discussions after that first one, most of which were very painful for both of us. We both had so much to say, but couldn’t speak through our torrent of emotions. They came to me with many theories about why the story I’ve told up to this point is inaccurate. My mom, crying, handed me a book of my drawings from when I was a kid. She showed me pictures I drew of pirates and cowboys, and said “This is the child I knew. You were a boy.”
In these conversations we always ended up talking past each other. We talked about Scripture, our Church tradition, what could have made me transgender, and all other sorts of things, but we missed each others’ grief. Neither I nor them were really present to the other’s pain because we were all hurting so much on our own. I don’t think it was anyone’s fault, but it unfolded that way because we couldn’t talk about where the real pain was coming from.
Now it’s too late to have that conversation. Our relationship has been damaged to the point where only God can heal it by a miracle. I’ve been cut off from my family. I can no longer see my younger siblings. We’re a broken household, and I’m alone in the world. My parents are hurting more than they can bear, and so am I. I wish I could rewrite history, but I can’t. Instead, I want to help you in any way I can. You’re going to hurt, but there’s some pain that can be avoided.
My parent’s grief, and maybe yours as well.
Gender is a huge part of who we are. I think that’s why issues of gender like this are so painful for everyone involved. We attach so much of what we know about a person to their gender. If that gender paradigm is challenged, it challenges everything we know about that person.
When I came out as transgender, my parents were overwhelmed by how different this was from what they thought of me. In fact, they simply couldn’t bring themselves to see me any differently than they always had. They love their son Anthony with every aching bone, every breath in their body. They’ve fed their little boy, carried him in their arms, and kissed him goodnight for so many meaningful years. They love that boy with all their heart. This new “girl,” Anna, is an intrusion. These feminine characteristics, these new clothes, they aren’t part of the child they remember raising. These aberrations must be something foreign – a demon, a deception, or a sinful choice.
My parents are hurting so much because they’re mourning their son. In their hearts it feels like the son they’ve cared for so tenderly is dead. Everything they say and do about me comes from that feeling. The reason I’m cut off from them now is because I’m not really me in their minds. They believe I’m someone else now, someone different than the boy they raised. They’re too hurt by their son’s death to even acknowledge me. Their love for Anthony is unconditional. They refuse to acknowledge Anna because Anna is not Anthony. It’s Anthony they love unconditionally, and no one else.
I believe there are other parents who feel similar to mine. I know some of you have said things to your transgender children like, “You are dead to me.” And I know you didn’t say this to be mean. You said this because this is how you feel. You feel like the child you knew is dead. That hurts. I’m so sorry you feel that.
It’s important for you to remember what you’re grieving about. Everything else is secondary. Scripture and theology are valuable, but chances are when you initially turn to them for support, what you’re really doing is grasping for something, anything, to keep your child from dying. Maybe you want your child to live a respectable Christian life and give you lots of grandkids. Maybe you’re terrified of what the neighbors think. Maybe you’re terrified that this makes you a bad parent. There’s a lot to sort through, but the biggest grief is the passing of your child. Nothing is more painful to even the most callous parent than losing a child. And you aren’t a callous parent. You’re a Christian parent who wants to love.
In all your interactions with your transgender child, that grief is going to come through. It’s going to propel your words and color your vision. You need to feel that grief, acknowledge it, and acknowledge how it’s affecting you.
Once you do that, you need to let yourself sympathize with your child’s grief. It’s not enough to be distressed at their pain. You need to try to glimpse their innermost sadness.
My grief, and maybe your child’s as well.
When I came out as transgender, I was also overwhelmed. I still am. Chances are your child is too.
Try for a moment, if you can, to put yourself in my shoes to see how I feel. Maybe your child feels similar, maybe not, but I know for a fact that many transgender people feel as I do.
Imagine that for as long as you can remember what you’ve really wanted more than anything else is to be loved and cared for. This was so important to you that you’d do anything to be loved, even if that meant hiding many of your feelings and desires. Sure, everyone told you true love is unconditional, but when you played with your friends or watched television you saw that weird people get made fun of and normal people get rewarded. You don’t even really understand what “normal” is, but you feel different. So you imitate others in the belief that love is conditional and you need to be like others.
But after many years of hiding, you’re still incomplete. You don’t want to be loved just for certain parts of you, but for all of you, and when people tell you “I love you,” all you can think is “well you wouldn’t love me if you knew everything about me.”
So finally, after much agonizing, you go to the people who’ve promised to love you no matter what. You put their love to the test, not because you want to find out if they really love you, but because you need their love.
So you tell them this deep dark secret. You’re afraid they won’t love that part of you too. You’re afraid love has conditions. But you tell them anyway, because you’ve reached the point where you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
When you tell them, to your dismay they confirm all your worst fears. All those secret worst-case scenarios and hidden nightmares you’ve been harboring your entire life come true right before your eyes. Love is conditional. There are parts of me that can’t be loved. I do need to perform to be accepted. And no matter how many times your loved ones assure you “we love you unconditionally,” their words seem empty to you. Everything they do and say screams something else. They tell you the transgender part of you is bad; they’re fine saying this because they don’t really think it’s part of you, but all you feel is they think I’m evil. They tell you they cannot love Anna, and they’re fine saying this because they don’t think you’re really Anna, but all you experience is they don’t love me. They forbid you from coming to family events, and they allow themselves to do this because they think the real you is gone anyway, but all you experience is I’m still here and I’m hurting like hell.
Transgender parents, this is what I’ve experienced from how my parents reacted to me being transgender. Your child might feel the same way. Please know the power you have to give them affirmation.
Whether or not you think transgender identities are a lie, whether or not you accept the gender dysphoric part of your child, whether or not you even think their gender dysphoria is a real part of who they are, what’s important is that this is how your child is experiencing your rejection. It doesn’t matter if you’re right. Your child is hurting to the core. You need to understand or at least acknowledge that grief if you’re going to preserve your child.
The reality of gender dysphoria.
If your child identifies as transgender, there are many objections you might have. Maybe you think identifying as anything other than a “child of God,” including queer or transgender, is a sin. Maybe you’re afraid that your child is adopting a liberal transgender agenda by using that label. Maybe you’re afraid that your child will transition, which you believe is a rebellion against God’s created order.
All these fears are smoke screens over the basic facts.
It doesn’t matter what you believe about transgenderism. It doesn’t matter what you believe the correct standard of care is for a person who experiences gender dysphoria. It doesn’t matter what you think causes gender dysphoria. You first need to acknowledge – really acknowledge – your child’s experience, even if you think that experience is delusional.
Gender dysphoria is very very real. It’s also very uncommon, which means you as a transgender parent are special. Count yourself blessed or cursed – you’re dealing with a unique parental hurdle and it’s going to be difficult.
Even though transgenderism is relatively rare, it’s a fairly well-documented phenomenon. Most people line up remarkably well biologically and psychologically as 100% male or female, but exceptions do occur on almost every level. Gender dysphoria is an exception on the mental and social level. Your knee-jerk reaction may be to push your child back into 100% conformity, but please first stop and consider that maybe your child really is one of these remarkable exceptions. Maybe they aren’t making this up.
I’ve experienced gender dysphoria since I was a small child. My parents cannot grasp this. They’re incapable of believing anything other than I’m making this up or rewriting my history. But the fact remains that I’ve always experienced gender dysphoria. I have nothing to gain by lying about my experience of gender. In fact, I’ve lost everything by being honest.
It’s extremely hard to empathize with a transgender person. Our experience is difficult if not impossible to grasp. Your child is going to have a very hard time communicating their feelings and experience to you. If they change the way they talk about their gender, it’s not because they’re flip-flopping. In all likelihood they’re just trying on different words to more accurately communicate an experience that we don’t have words for.
What does gender dysphoria mean to me? I was born biologically male, but I identify as a woman. You’re knee-jerk reaction may be “but you’re not a woman!” and then end the discussion there. But whether I’m correct or not, I actually experience myself and believe myself to be a girl. If you tell me I’m not a woman, it doesn’t sway me at all, it just invalidates me. It’s a conviction that’s so deep, 22 years of constant effort to change it couldn’t budge it an inch. I went to pastors, prayer ministers, even an exorcist, and that conviction remained.
No one chooses to be transgender. It’s not a fashionable social trend. There’s nothing trendy about losing your family and facing the anger of society. Who volunteers to be a leper? If our collective voice has gotten louder in recent years, it’s only because our pain has reached a boiling point. All the political correctness in the world doesn’t ease our need for genuine love and respect.
At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what you think the proper treatment for gender dysphoria is. The first and most important step is to simply acknowledge the fact that your child is gender dysphoric. It’s difficult being gender dysphoric. If your child chooses a particular course of care like hormonal transition, they aren’t being brash or rebellious. They’re choosing how to respond to the fact of their gender dissonance. Whether you agree with their choice of treatment or not, you need to find a way to stand beside them in their predicament.
Meeting the stranger in the room.
As I’ve become more and more outwardly feminine, my parents have treated me increasingly like a stranger. Sometimes they talk about me like I’m not even in the room. They talk about the “boy” me and “girl/transgender” me as two separate entities, one of which is their son who died, and the other of which is the deception that murdered their son. This is their way of conceptualizing their grief, which is completely understandable. However, I’m afraid they’ll be stuck there for a very long time.
If you’ve believed your child to be one person their entire life, and now they come to you saying they’re someone else, how do you cope?
You need to grieve the person you think you’re losing, but that’s only the first step. After that, it’s essential that you find your child again and celebrate who they actually are. You owe it to yourself and to your child.
In doing so, you should remember four truths about your child: they are infinitely mysterious, their life is in flux, they haven’t changed as much as you think, and they’re still here.
1. Your child is infinitely mysterious.
First, you need lots of humility. I know you conceived, bore, and raised your child. You know your child more intimately than anyone else, and that’s incredibly beautiful. However, I’m sure deep down you also know how strange and mysterious this child really is. You can spend every day of your life with someone and still not have more than an inkling of what’s going on in their heart. Think of your spouse. You are joined to them, and yet how incredibly other are they to you? This is true of everyone you meet, but it’s harder to grasp when it’s your loved one.
If your child is saying something about their gender, whether they’re 3 years old or 30, they need to be taken seriously. You need to see them as the manifold, complex, deep person they are. Your ideas of who they are, whether it’s your idea of gender, emotions, or inner motivations, will always only scratch the surface. This is scary, but it’s very important to come to terms with. People are made in the image and likeness of God, and like God we’re all terrifyingly mysterious. You need to give yourself room to learn about your child. It’s a lifelong process that will never truly end.
2. Your child’s life is in constant flux.
Second, you need to acknowledge as a fact how your child is now, not just how you experienced them 10 years ago. We’re all constantly changing; the person we were 10 years ago is so different than the person we are now. Yes, you’re the same individual that you’ve always been, but how much have even your hobbies and interests evolved in the last few years? You experience this in yourself all the time, so the trick is letting yourself experience it in your child. Yes, your child’s revelation about their gender may seem sudden to you. It’s hard to digest change all at once since normally we experience it gradually, but the same basic principle is still at work. You can love your child across change now as much as when the changes were harder to notice.
3. Your child hasn’t changed as much as you think.
Third, don’t let the trappings fool you; your child is still the same person. Especially if your child is physically transitioning to live as their preferred gender, it’s easy to get caught up in how much they’ve changed. This will distract you from how much they’re the same. I liked boxing before I came out, and I like boxing after. I liked cooking before I came out, and I like cooking now. I was a hopeless romantic then, and I still am. I still have the same insecurities, hopes, fears, and attachments. I drew cowboys and pirates when I was a kid; well guess what? I’m more into pirates and cowboys now than I ever was before!
The only difference is there’s more of me now, not less. I don’t only express the parts of me that people expect from a guy; I also express the parts that I once kept hidden. Those parts were always there to begin with, so even the things I do that my parents see as a radical change were really already there to begin with.
Sadly, they haven’t gotten to know the “new” me enough to realize it’s really still the old me.
4. Your child is still here.
Fourth, your child is still alive. It may feel like they’re dead, but the same heart that started beating in their mother’s womb is still beating now. My parents may think that there’s an old true “me” and a new false “other person,” but really I’m just one person. Whether you call me Anthony or Anna, or consider me a boy or a girl, I’m just me. Even if you think Anna isn’t really who I am, I still feel hurt when you reject Anna. I’m here, alive, feeling the full weight of rejection. And this same me is the person who was conceived by my parents, who was masculine to them for a long time, and who came out to them as transgender. It’s all one person: me. And your child is one person who’s still there and feeling everything. You may think their personality has been so swallowed up by this “other” gender-switched “alter ego” that they aren’t really there anymore. I can tell you: they are fully there, fully alive, and fully feeling. They may have evolved, but they haven’t changed. If you cut them, they still bleed.
Holding your child’s hand.
When I told my parents that I was physically transitioning, they told me they cannot walk down this path with me. That was when I was officially cut off from my family.
I understand their decision to some extent. After all, they disagree with my transition. How can they walk down a road that they believe is wrong?
As Christians we’re called to walk with each other, and we need to make a distinction between agreeing with someone and walking with them. I think my parents have bought a lie that Christian culture tells us: that you need to agree with how people live their lives to be present to them, lest you “enable” their “lifestyle.” Whether you agree or disagree with someone is entirely beside the point. The call is to walk with people, whatever their situation is.
For one thing, if it turns out that I’m wrong, how would I ever find the truth if everyone who supposedly loves me abandons me? Isn’t our model supposed to be Jesus Christ? Jesus spent most of his time with all the “wrong” sorts of people: tax collectors, prostitutes, zealots, Romans, lepers, and a ragtag bunch of fishermen with anger management issues. Scripture doesn’t say he went into the slums to tell people why they were wrong; it tells us that he sat with them and ate and drank in their presence. He didn’t love them after they changed their life; he loved them, and as a result their lives were changed.
I think it’s significant how much we talk about Jesus’ love, and yet not once did he go up to someone and say “I love you.” Instead he showed them his love. No matter how many times you tell your child that you love them, your words will mean nothing if they don’t experience your unconditional affection.
I think it’s also important how everyone has their own idea about how to respond to transgender people. There are so many theories, speculations, opinions… Just consider how different your idea of transgenderism might be from your child’s. With all these clashing voices in the air, can’t we all have the humility to admit that at the end of the day transgenderism is a mystery to us? Maybe then we can move forward with fear and trembling, but also with hope that God will sort things out.
Yes, HOPE. Hope and trust are key here. Too often we get so caught up in culture wars that we lose sight of the bigger picture. If we really believe in an all-powerful loving God, then we must believe that the Holy Spirit will lead this ship safely to port.
So how can you apply radical faith, hope, and love to your transgender loved one? I think it’s really simple, and once again Jesus provides the answer.
Just think about how Jesus treated outcasts. The Pharisees and disciples were busy making theories about why some people are born different. They thought that if you were blind, it was punishment for your wickedness, or maybe your parent’s sins. How much does this sound like how Christianity responds to transgender people? But what was Jesus’ response? All Jesus heard was the cry from the side of the road. All he saw was the person in need of love. All he cared about was the person in front of him.
I think that’s a pretty simple model to follow. I don’t think you need to overthink it much. I’ll let you figure out in the quiet of your heart what that kind of love means for you and your transgender child, but again: I think it’s very simple.
I hope you found something helpful in this letter. I pray for you and your loved one, that you may enjoy God’s love together even in this life.
With deepest affection,
“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!”