Father of a transgender tween speaks out

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What’s it like to raise a transgender child? In this Thrive exclusive, a father reflects on his experience. Click here to read more about his daughter and a new medical treatment at Children’s that offers hope to transgender teens.

My 12 year old transgender daughter is my mentor. It’s tough to put into words what a profound impact this small person has had in changing my core values, but since the young age of five, she has unknowingly encouraged me to open my eyes and heart to new ideas. It hasn’t been easy. I’ve watched her experience severe emotional pain and physical frustration, but thanks to support and guidance, I’ve watched as she’s become a confident, happy and healthy child. And as she changed, I changed too.

For a lot of men, change is hard. Over the last 25 years, my body has aged. I can no longer run a six minute mile, touch the rim of a basketball hoop or bench press 200 pounds. But my emotional change has been more shocking. Most men rarely experience something that radically adjusts their core values. When it happens, you quickly learn it can force you to revisit your youth and question the foundation you’ve built for your family.

Much of how I used to define myself as a man was passed on from my father. He offered me guidance through values, typical to his upbringing and generation, like “be a man, weather the storm.” Throughout adolescence and young adulthood, I was confident these core beliefs made me the type of man who could help my family strive and prosper. I would later learn that there was a great deal of room for improvement.

What happened next would rock my world, test my marriage, and challenge who I thought I was as a person. My baby, my beautiful son would begin to teach me that he was really my daughter.

After high school, I went into the U.S. Air Force, where I learned discipline. By the end of my four-year tour, I had developed a desire to further my education, and I attended Cornell University, which taught me much about myself and the world around me. Like most people, after college came my marriage and a career. Together my wife and I planned a family, bought a house and started our careers. Once our twins were born, I pictured my life like a modified Norman Rockwell painting: happy family, dogs, toys, church and state. The only change was that the Saturday Evening Post was now web-based, the toys were all digital and we learned from granny’s wisdom via email.

During the next few years I lived in an unaware bliss, an American dream I hoped would continue until retirement and old age. But my wife lived in the real world, a world that recognized one of our children was different. At first she could not put her finger on it, but she knew in her heart and soul that one of our children was special.

As time went on, others recognized the differences too. I saw signs as well, but pretended they were phases; anything more than that was too challenging to my moderate conservatism and pursuit of the American dream. I was convinced we could develop a strategy to love, support and raise our children and by staying “neutral” everything would be okay.

What happened next would rock my world, test my marriage, and challenge who I thought I was as a person. My baby, my beautiful son would begin to teach me that he was really my daughter. She, my son, their friends and my wife would show me that this was no big deal and change does not have to be hard if you love who you are changing for.

I learned real change means acceptance—not tolerance—and an acceptance that includes equal rights and freedoms for my daughter as I’d want for her friends. With time my wife would also begin to forgive me for the time when I denied the truth to try to protect my fragile dream. As I changed, I learned a lot from others too. People who were not on board with the needs of our transgender child taught me that changing people’s perception of “normal” was essential, not just for my daughter’s safety, but for the safety of all children that are perceived as different.

Change itself has not surprised me. What has blown me away is the extreme level of change I’ve experienced. The GLBT mentors I now call my friends are a joy. Difficult soul searching has allowed me to become a real person, a real man and hopefully a leader who, along with my family and others, can change the world in some small way.

I learned real change means acceptance—not tolerance—and an acceptance that includes equal rights and freedoms for my daughter as I’d want for her friends.

As a dad who struggled early on in accepting my daughter, I would like to help other dads. If you attend any transgender meetings or conferences, you will see very few men. You will listen to mothers talk about the difficulties, lack of support and frustration with their husbands. Sometimes they will talk about the loss of a husband and father. Why do men struggle with this? Is it because of the way we are raised?

I’m still most comfortable talking to women about our family and the needs of transgender kids. Women always ask to hear more. When I talk to men, the conversation is much different. Men do not say “tell me more.” When they are supportive, it is in a very different way. They support us or the cause in a silent way.

A year ago I took my daughter to a college class to hear a transgender college professor talk about her life. I wanted her to see that there are a number of strong, successful transgender women that she can admire and emulate as she continues to develop her own core values. Sitting proudly in that classroom as a changed man, I don’t like to think about what I may have said if that same transgender professor had come to my classroom 25 years ago.

I used to believe there was only one way to create the foundation for a “normal” life. I now know a family working together, exploring new ideas and being open to change builds a much stronger foundation that will stand the test of time. The shelter that you build on this foundation will help fend off most of the damaging opinions and fears of others and protect you from the rules that society considers “normal.”

My children and my wife taught me what my life experiences, early mentors and society at-large could never: that we must live both for our children and through our children.

Want to learn more about this dad’s daughter and her experience as a transgender tween? Read the full story here. An excerpt:

Ryan is now 12 and goes by the name Sylvia. In skinny jeans and metallic ballet flats, painted nails and pigtails, she comes off as an energetic tween girl. She’s the more gregarious of the twins, but her bubbly disposition also serves as a protective facade: Since that first therapy visit at age 6, Sylvia has been in counseling to help her cope with anxiety and depression. In a world where everything is divvied up according to gender, there’s little room for a kid who falls somewhere in the middle.