3 min

Educating parents of trans youth

New guide aims to help families learn the facts

The creators of a new guide for parents of trans youth say it was motivated by the complete lack of information available.

“Ultimately it came from the youth,” says LeeAndra Miller, the coordinator of counselling services at Central Toronto Youth Services’s (CTYS) LGBT program Pride and Prejudice. “One of the things youth have to negotiate is coming out as trans to their parents and the parents not even knowing what that means. There was nothing.

“I get calls from parents just trying to understand something and having nowhere to turn. For trans youth the process is actually very public. I felt that home at least needed to be a safe environment.”

The Families in Transition guide — which includes information and explanations, parents’ stories and a list of resources — was produced by CTYS. It has its official launch on Sun, Jun 8.

Nicola Brown, the researcher and lead author of the guide, hopes it will help parents work through their initial feelings.

“I think parents have a lot of strong feelings in the beginning: shock, confusion, maybe anger and guilt,” she says. “They ask, ‘Did I do something wrong?’ This also helps provide a lot of information about the difference between being trans and gay.”

Miller says parents often don’t understand what they themselves will have to go through.

“Parents also have a coming-out process,” she says. “They tell people and they face discrimination themselves. It always comes down to, ‘How do I tell Grandma?'”

For J Wilson, a mother living an hour outside of Ottawa whose story is included in the guide, it did come down to telling her grandmother, a devout Catholic, that her granddaughter was becoming her grandson.

“My son wrote a letter, a very moving one, and we went over to hand-deliver it. It was the longest 10 minutes of my life. When she finished she put her arms out and said, ‘Honey, I hope you don’t think we would stop loving you.’ She realized, amazingly enough, that it wasn’t a choice.”

Wilson says that while she was able to deal with her son’s transition, having a guide available would have been a godsend.

“I would absolutely have loved to have had a guide like this,” she says. “I would have really benefited from sections like, ‘The things you go through as a parent, keep them to yourself.’

“I even convinced my son to use a gender-neutral name that maybe we could hide in our small town. I really blew it in the beginning.”

Initially the guide is being distributed mostly in the Toronto area. The first print run is 500 copies with a second printing expected soon. Brochures in French, Spanish and Chinese will also be available. The guide can be downloaded as a free PDF from the CTYS website or ordered in hard copy for $10.

Brown and Miller hope distribution will eventually spread all across the province, especially to smaller towns.

“We’re hoping a lot of youths and service providers and parents come to the launch and spread the word in their own communities,” says Brown. “Copies are going to all the children’s mental health agencies and all the people we know who work with trans youth.”

Miller says the lack of resources is much more pronounced in more remote areas.

“I’ve had parents call me from all over the place,” she says. “The majority of them are from outside Toronto, from smaller communities.”

Provincial health minister George Smitherman says he is considering sending copies of the guide to Ontario MPPs in the wake of his decision to restore OHIP funding for sex reassignment surgery (SRS). (For more turn to page 7.)

“When I heard that they had produced this guide for parents of trans children I thought it might contain some wisdom that would be wise to pass on to other folks who are seeking to gain a little more information,” he says. “I’m not sure that we’ve concluded that we’re going to distribute it but the idea did come to mind for sure. I thought that since they have a resource why not help to distribute it and make it available to some other individuals who are probably interested to learn more?”

Miller says the relisting of SRS is a positive step but adds that conditions have not really changed for trans youth since she began at CTYS eight years ago.

“I think we’ve got a long way to go,” she says. “Because there’s more trans representation in the broader media they might come with slightly more knowledge, but the issues are still the same.”