Briefly describe how your child first came out to you and your initial reactions.
My wife and I were returning from a vacation and stopped to spend the night with my son Bion and his wife Samara in Tacoma. In the morning we went to church with our daughter-in law but not our son. Do you ever hear inner voices speaking to you during worship, nudging you to do something about a relationship or to get something done? Well that morning I clearly heard an inner voice tell me, “You must accept Bion.” My wife also felt the Spirit leading her to focus on her love for our son.
After worship we stopped by their apartment and my son asked us to come in. “I have something to talk to you about.” It sounded pretty ominous so we sat in their living room. My son asked us, “Have you ever looked in the mirror and been convinced that the reflection you see is not who you are?” My wife said, yes, when I look in the mirror I expect to see a young woman.” Bion said, “Well it’s not quite like that. As long as I can remember when I look in the mirror I expect to see a girl looking back. I am transgender. I am a woman but in a man’s body. My wife and I were stunned, but we are trained clergy so we went into pastor-matic mode. “Uh hu tell us more.”
Bion told us that she had a new name Ashley. We listened and then told Ashley that no matter what we loved her and always would love her. After some tears and hugs and a prayer we got in our car. We were shaking so hard it was difficult to drive. We felt glad that Ashley knew nothing would change our love for her, but we had a lot of work to do. We ended our vacation right then and drove home in shock. That is how our adventure with being the parents of a transgender child began.
What concerns did you experience over the first weeks or months? How did you deal with them?
I felt real inner confusion. I did not know anything about being transgender. I associated the word with being a transvestite. Perhaps we, as parents, had done something to fail our child. I thought that maybe I was not a strong enough male role model or maybe my wife had done something wrong. I cried a lot inside.
As we faced the reality of the situation we also had to surrender our dreams and fantasies about what our son’s life would be like. My son was named for my father, now gone, and my brother who was killed in Vietnam. His name carried a connection back to them. My eldest was the only male in our extended family who would carry on our family name. Because of decisions Ashley and her spouse made we realized we would not have grandchildren. Letting Ashley be free to be herself meant a part of me and us, as a couple, had to die. Time will heal most of that grief but some will always be part of me and part of my relationship to my wife.
Has your child come out to other family members over time? What was their reaction?
We have another daughter whose reaction to Ashley’s news was, «I always wanted a sister.» Ashley was very angry as a teen and her sister received a lot of that anger. It really hurt her. Now that we can understand why Ashley was so angry and because she is now much happier they are rebuilding their relationship.
We asked Ashley’s permission to tell other family members about her being transgender. Everyone on both sides of our family accept Ashley. One person because of their conservative Christian faith believes that Ashley is hurting herself because of a choice she is making. But that person remains outwardly caring and supportive.
What is the hardest thing about knowing their LGBTQ identity?
The biggest struggle for me was my anger that God had somehow let me and my child down. I felt betrayed and separated from God. My relationship with God is the center of my life and it wasn’t working. I know I was depressed for a year and then sick. Eventually I had to have heart surgery.
The greatest freedom for me came when I realized that Ashley’s being transgender was not a defect but a gift in my life. Being the father of a transgender person has helped me recognize how much hurt is inflicted on others by the lack of acceptance of gender diversity in our society. I have opened my heart to people who are crushed by other people’s attitudes and indifference. I became an advocate for LBTQI issues and done education events to help others understand gender diversity. I have grown closer to my daughter and seen her becoming happier every year. This journey has made me a better father and a better person.
What are some challenges have you faced concerning your LGBTQ child?
I had to learn about what being transgender meant. I read Jennifer Boylan’s autobiography, «She is not Here: a Life in Two Genders.» That book helped me understand the tremendous pain Ahsley had experienced as a teen. I read medical information that explains that being transgender is not a matter of nurture. It comes from how the fetus develops in the womb and is probably genetic. Finally I read Sam Killerman’s book, «The Social Justice Advocates Handbook: A Guide to Gender» which helped me understand that gender is far more complex than I had imagined. I went to events and tried to meet and listen to other transgender people. I learned that transgender people are quite diverse in the ways they experience life and deal with their gender identity.
As a transgender person our daughter is not safe. When she goes out she is at risk of violence or abuse from others,even from the police. She has to worry about something as basic as where she can go to the bathroom when not at home. We have to deal with that fear. She will have limited employment opportunities so we worry for her future.
What is the best thing about knowing your child's LGBTQ identity?
Our daughter doesn’t have to hide her inner life from us. We have all become so much closer. Our child was bright, happy, and outgoing until he reached 6th grade and then suddenly he became withdrawn, inwardly focused and depressed. He would smolder with anger. We knew something was wrong and took him to see a psychologist who couldn’t figure out what was going on. We feared his unhappiness was somehow our fault. We came to think he was just a very odd person.
Now we understand what was going on. Many transgender kids can’t handle the pain that accompanies having a body that doesn’t match the brain. Many kill themselves or turn to drugs and alcohol. We are so grateful that Ashley stayed alive until she figured out where the pain was coming from.
Seeing her happy now. She has a loving spouse and is becoming the person she was created to be. This is the greatest joy a parent can have.
Knowing what you know today, would you want your child to “stay in the closet”?
No. The pain of having an inward gender identity that doesn’t match the outward body can lead to depression and even suicide. It’s too hard if you are alone. Relationships are always fake when one person has to pretend to be who they are not. Having parents and family who understand and love her makes her stronger to deal with all the challenges of claiming her true self. Learning about my child’s gender identity or sexual orientation has changed me for the better. It has taught me much about myself. The way we have handled it has made my marriage stronger.
What would you say to other parents learning the LGBTQ identity of their child?
It will probably be a shock, followed by pain, grief and anger. Cut yourself and others a lot of slack for a while. Give yourself time and space to deal with grief and confusion. Find others who will support you through the experience. This really hurts so be careful not to lash out at your child, your spouse or yourself. The words you use matter and are hard to take back. Letting go of your dreams for your child is hard. Educate yourself so that you understand your child’s situation.
Make sure your child knows you love them unconditionally. It might save their life. Research shows your acceptance will greatly decrease their chance to avoid depression, addiction or suicide. Your acceptance will give them a greater opportunity to imagine that they could be happy in life.
If you are struggling with religious issues about right and wrong, think for a moment would you rather be right (hold on to your opinions) or have a relationship with your child? Does God choose to reject you because you are not right or does God love you unconditionally? Like a good shepherd God keeps the relationship alive.
What would you say to youth coming out to their families?
God made you the way you are and you are wonderful. Repeat this often.
Have a support system of friends and others who will be there to listen after you tell your parents. Don’t go it alone.
When you tell your family it will probably be very hard for them. It maybe a shock. Be patient with them. If they say mean things it maybe because they are surprised. They may regret it later or even change their minds when they have time to think about it. Even if they are accepting, your news will turn their world upside down. It is ok. Their grief or pain is not your fault. It is just how life works. They will adjust over time. If you can, tell them how much you love them and appreciate them.
If they will not accept you because of their religious values or just plain prejudice. It will hurt. But God made you the way you are and you are wonderful. You are lovable. Their rejection is their problem. Though everyone longs for the acceptance and love of their parents, many people don’t receive it. You will find other people who love you and support you.