Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Defending Your Identity to the State: When Families of Trans Kids are Accused of Child Abuse

Like other families publicly fighting for their transgender kid and the greater trans community, we get a LOT of angry feedback. We get angry hate-filled messages and letters just about every way we can receive a message, so much so that I’m waiting for a carrier pigeon to drop off some hate mail next. Add in all the angry articles written in response to our family’s advocacy and we know quite well how this very loud portion of the population feels about our parenting and our child.

The messages say all sorts of things, but right now, I want to talk about one of the most common themes: outraged accusations of child abuse for supporting our transgender child. They tell us how our children should be taken away, and we should be prosecuted and put in jail. After a while, it became such a broken record that I went numb to it. These weren’t as bad as those messages threatening violence, so I just began to ignore them. I’d scroll on past the comments or click delete without a twinge of emotion… until New Jersey’s Division of Child Protection and Permanency knocked on my door because someone had reported us.
Someone who has likely never met us reported us, anonymously and from a blocked phone number, for forcing our son to be a girl. They used her deadname. They said she was 7 years old when she’s actually 10, and they said we were forcing her to take hormones, something she won’t take for a few more years as medically appropriate, to make her into a girl. Honestly, it’s so absurd it’s almost laughable. It might be laughable if it weren’t so damn dangerous.

I’m finding this to be one of the most difficult things I’ve ever written both because I feel it is deeply important to communicate clearly and because it feels deeply vulnerable. There was so much pain, anger, stress, fear and waiting in this process, and then I went numb. I spoke with some parents who have been through this process, through a Child Protective Services investigation, and a few said it was no big deal. Maybe that is true for some. It was not true for my family. The fact that this investigation happened at all is a sign of the raging transphobia embedded in our culture and institutions, and while I wanted to trust that the system would see the truth and all would go well, I know all too well that isn’t always the case.

Now, I knew this was a possibility all along. In fact, when I do trainings or speak about transgender children and youth I often bring up the fact that parents are encouraged to have a “safe folder” filled with documents attesting to their child’s good health, gender expression and identity, and their good parenting in case someone reports them for abuse. People are almost universally shocked when I share this piece of information. They are shocked anyone would report a family for supporting their transgender child, and they are even more shocked that we would need documents to help prove our child is who they deeply know themselves to be.

They are more shocked than I expect them to be, because we live our lives in a day to day fight with this kind of thinking and hatred so much so that it becomes normal. Parents who support their trans kids are vilified across many circles. Usually it’s the mother’s fault. It’s her own mental illness, it’s her need for attention, it’s munchausen syndrome by proxy. Misogyny runs deep. Not every trans kid has two or any supportive parents, let alone two supportive parents who happen to be straight, cisgender, white, Christian and highly educated. Not every trans kid is neurotypical, white, economically secure, English speaking, or fits neatly into the gender binary. Kids and families who are not protected by these pretty little white picket fences of privilege are most at risk, and the results can be devastating.

At the same time, if I’m being honest which apparently I’m going to be, I didn’t think it could or at the very least would happen to us. I was naive. We have so much privilege, and we live in a little bubble of support. We live in a state with pretty good protections, and our rather conservative town has been very kind to us. Our family and friends from across the country have been incredible in their love and encouragement. It’s why we choose to be as visible as we are; we hope to be visible for those who can’t be.

So when the nice people from the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP) showed up at our my door, my husband explained to them that our daughter was transgender and her name was legally changed to Rebekah. The two men were confused. They said, “well then why would someone call this in?” My husband patiently explained our public advocacy and the backlash we’d received. The two men were still confused. They said, “Okay, but still why would someone call making this accusation?” My husband still patiently, bless his heart, further explained that, at best, these people believe children cannot be transgender and so it could only be a result of abuse. They said, “Oh. So they’re just ignorant.” Yeah, something like that, except there is nothing small or minor about their ignorance, and the reality is at their worst this is a tactic being used by the far right to silence those of us speaking out for transgender rights.

That’s part of why I’m having a hard time writing this. I don’t want the haters to know they’ve gotten to us, but I need our allies to know this is what parents of transgender children face. I wish I could brush it off and say “Good try! You can’t rattle us”, but we were truly rattled. This happened two days before my daughter and I were scheduled to be on Good Day Philadelphia. I wanted to cancel. I wanted to hide. I wanted to never speak out again. It was my husband who reminded me that our silence is exactly what they want. I wasn’t about to let that happen.

Rebekah on Good Day Philadelphia with her mother and Christian Fuscarino of Garden State Equality
The people from DCPP were kind enough, but the entire situation was deeply problematic. We knew they had a trans affirming policy in place for how youth are handled in their care. We’d even heard from an acquaintance going through foster care training that our family was lifted up as an example of how you support transgender children. And yet, every professional we spoke to shared the same anxiety we did. They said things like, “The system is broken. I don’t trust them. They hurt good families and fail to help hurting ones.” Now, of course, I know that’s a sweeping generalization… but for the professionals in our family’s life to have such feelings said a lot to us. We all knew our family should come out of this okay, but we were collectively concerned nonetheless.

When they came on a Saturday and said they’d be in touch on Monday, I spent the next 48 hours struggling to breathe, cleaning every surface preparing someone to enter my home and assess my parenting, and scrambling for every document I knew we had that could prove my child is in good health, well cared for, and is, in fact, transgender, all while trying to maintain a sense of normalcy and calm for our family.

When I had to explain to my children that someone would be coming to the house to look around and ask us questions, I saw the look of terror on my transgender child’s face. Before I even said the words she knew someone had reported us. No matter how much I tried to tell her everything was okay, I still found myself holding her while she cried deeply worried the state would take her away from us because of who she is and our support for her.
When they asked for releases to speak to my child’s doctors and find out about details about her care in order to “ensure she was receiving the appropriate medical care”, I wondered how the state thinks they know more about care for transgender children than the Gender Clinic at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

When they asked my kid if she was really a girl, I know they don’t realize the depth of pain that caused a child who has fought to articulate and be accepted for her affirmed gender for years. My 10 year old child had to defend her identity to the state. Every. single. time. we ask transgender people to prove, authenticate, and demonstrate that they are trans-enough, that they are girl/boy-enough… it is deeply painful and damaging. This is exactly what I spend every day fighting against and that fight brought them into my home.

I share all this not because it’s so unique or we are so special. I share this because it happens to families with transgender children. It happens to those of us who are public in our advocacy, and it happens to those of us who are just trying to support our kids and live out our lives quietly. This experience was traumatic for my family, but we are the lucky ones. We are the ones with the support, resources, time, and education to provide document after document proving my kid’s identity and good health. We had family, friends, colleagues, and pastors graciously respond to our last minute call for letters of reference and support. We are the ones without a bunch of other check marks against us in the CPS handbooks, whether that be because of marital status, economic status, sexuality, gender identity, citizenship, race, religion, health, educational level, family background, or the state where we live. We are the ones who came out the other side relatively unscathed. Others are not so lucky.

The rhetoric that somehow parents force transgender identities on their kids is deeply damaging and downright dangerous. The idea that medical care for transgender children is abusive or that children shouldn’t be allowed to transition until they are 18 is life threatening to our children. The ripples created by anti-trans and anti-LGBT language and policy at the federal level impact our families on a far greater scale than most realize. The power those who think transgender people have no place in society have over families like mine is far too great. The system has to change, at every level. It starts in our homes but the change has to go deep into our institutions. Families shouldn’t have to live in fear of the courts, and misinformed strangers on the internet shouldn’t be able to put families through what we went through. Kids like mine shouldn’t have to be scared that they’ll be taken away because their parents love and affirm them, and no transgender person, let alone a child, should have to defend their gender identity to the state.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Dear Betsy Devos: This is What Happens When Your Support Trans Students

Dear Betsy DeVos,
You know what happens when trans students are supported in schools? They have the opportunity to succeed, to work to the best of their ability, and to grow, learn and excel in a safe and affirming environment.
My daughter is lucky to have support, and it's because of that support that she can focus on academics, being a positive member of the school community, and growing into an adult who will contribute to the betterment of our country.
It's because she is fully supported that she is able to "make the most of [her] educational opportunities... diligently working to reach [her] goals". Those are the words Donald J. Trump used in the letter she received as a recipient of the President's Award for Outstanding Academic Excellence. He continues on to implore her to continue to pursue her educational goals. He writes, "Your community and your country are counting on you."
Well, Ms. Devos and Mr. Trump, trans students are counting on their communities and, yes, their country to support them, to protect their rights and to ensure they have access to the education every single student in America deserves. They are counting on you. My daughter is lucky to live in a state and a district that protects her rights, but it shouldn't come down to luck. Do better.
A Proud Mama Bear to a Transgender Student

Originally posted on Facebook, June 15 2017.

Extended Article Available at Huffington Post.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

NYC Pride Rally and Award

Rebekah and I were honored to speak at the NYC Pride Rally last month! I wrote this on Facebook the following day...

"This kid amazes me every day.
And this community continues to amaze me. I am humbled, and grateful beyond words to the LGBTQ community for the welcome they have offered Rebekah and our family. Rebekah walked away last night with an immense amount of love and encouragement, and even an editor to help her towards her dream of being a writer!
As I said last night, it's because of this community, it's thanks to every trans person who has gifted us with their story, their experience, and their friendship - whether in person or by putting it out into the world - that I can be the mom that Rebekah needs… It’s because of you that Rebekah sees possibility and hope in her future. Thank you. We will keep fighting alongside you."

She was honored a few weeks later to receive the NYC Pride Award for Outsanding Rally Speaker. She is humbled and grateful, and we are so proud of her and thankful to an incredible community.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

A Little Louder For the Folks in the Back

Dear Friends, because I keep running into this thinking ALL OVER THE PLACE, I'm going to say it a little louder for folks in the back.
Your child learning that transgender people exist WILL NOT make them transgender. It won't even increase the likelihood that they will be transgender or gender non-conforming.
Your child learning that gay people exist WILL NOT make them gay. It won't even increase the likelihood that they will be anything short of 100% straight (whatever that is 😂).
Your child learning that IT IS OKAY to be transgender, non-binary, gender non-conforming, gay, bisexual, pansexual or anything else will not morph them into any of those things.
Do you know what it WILL do?
It will make them better friends and neighbors to people who are LGBTQ or whose loved ones are LGBTQ. I know my kid would really appreciate that.
It will reduce the likelihood that they will be ashamed or confused about who they are and how they are feeling if they happen to be LGBTQ.
It will introduce to them the rich and beautiful diversity of this world we live in filled with people who look, act, believe, love, and live in a million different ways.
Friends... gender identity and sexual orientation aren't contagious. They are not confusing ideas that you must keep out of pure little children's heads. The more we teach our kids from the. very. start. that there are all different ways to live and love... the less we'll have kids unintentionally (we're not even going to talk about the intentional messages right now!) shaming or insulting other kids about who they are or what their family looks like simply because they haven't been exposed to the idea that not every family looks like their family.
Thanks from this kid, our family, and all the other LGBTQ families out there.
#transkidsmatter #diversityisratedG #changetheworld #raisethemright

(Originally published on Facebook on July 20, 2017.)

Thursday, May 11, 2017

A Note to My Child on Their First Day of State Educational Testing

Originally published on Facebook on May 3, 2017.

This is just a test. It's a silly test really. It's a test the state uses to try to measure what you have learned in school and what your teachers have accomplished in teaching you. They think that by sitting you in front of a computer tablet and having you answer their oddly worded questions, they'll be able to know what you know. They won't. What you have learned in your 10 years thus far goes far beyond that school building, and even what your teachers have taught you in that school building goes far beyond what any test can possibly measure.
The test can't see your love of dance, your connection to nature, or your willingness to climb any mountain put in front of you. The test can't see how you take an assignment from a teacher, any assignment, and put all of yourself into it. The test can't see your passion for applying what you learn in books to the world around you, your desire to know about the world, then and now, in order to better serve it.
Sit down, take the test, and do your best.
But I need you to know that this test does not change absolutely anything about you. Regardless of what your test results read, you will still be strong and brave. You will still be a hard worker. You will still be a good friend and a kind human. You will still be deeply loved by your family, friends, and God. You will still be capable and determined. Your spirit will still shine. Your smile will still warm hearts. Your writing will still inspire us. You will still have a huge heart and an intense love of learning.
Maybe you think I only mean if you don't do as well as you'd like on this test that the results won't matter, but I truly mean whatever the results are, they. will. not. matter. Even if you have the highest of the highest scores... it will not make you more loved. High scores will not mean you are a better person or even a better student. They will not mean that anyone in your life values you more, because our love and your worth do not depend on a test score. You can't possibly lose or earn more love or worth. You've got it all, right now, just as you are.
So go ahead, take the test, think of it as a puzzle or a game... but know we love you, and you're an incredible human being we're all proud and grateful to know. No test can measure your worth.
Edited to add: I'm so thankful for the way my kids' teachers walk with them daily, the way they love them and care for them and yes, teach them... even when these pesky tests get in the way. These test says as little about teachers and the gifts of love and education they give their students as it does about their students' worth and abilities.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Rated G: Diversity for All Ages

My 10 year old daughter is transgender. Overwhelmingly, when people in our lives find that out, they are surprised but supportive. She, of course, doesn't go around introducing herself to everyone she meets as transgender, but when she gets close to a new friend she usually tells them. More often than not, they simply don't believe her. They know her as their friend, Rebekah, and they can't conceive of her ever having appeared to be anything else. They see her as a girl through and through, which is good, because she is. In those situations, I get the sticky task of contacting parents and trying to facilitate a conversation with them. We have been lucky beyond words that most of these parents have been very receptive, eager for resources, and happy to help. We send home some children's books and websites for parents, and everyone leaves the situation feeling grateful to have a little more understanding and connection.

Photo by Maegan Dougherty
Of course, Rebekah could choose not to tell them. She has no responsibility to out herself to anyone. However, for her, it seems important to share this part of herself with those whom she builds community. 

Unfortunately, even supposedly supportive people don't respond this way. Some people don't want to tell their child about my daughter's identity. They say things like... "Oh she's too young to know." "I don't want to have to explain that." "That's not a conversation I'm ready for..." If you're not the parent of a transgender child, perhaps you don't realize how those statements feel like a punch in the gut. They are saying my daughter's identity is somehow inappropriate, is mature content, is not G-rated. They are suggesting she is scandalous, dirty, or somehow seuxal. She's not. She's 10. There's nothing inappropriate about who she is, and pretending to be okay with who she is while hiding it from your children isn't helping anyone.

Oh no, they'll say. We don't have a problem with Rebekah. We just don't want to tell our daughter about that yet.

But what if the that  you were referring to wasn't my child's gender identity, but some other type of diversity seen in children. What if the child had a limb difference? Surely, we all agree that averting your child's eyes and rushing away so as to not have to explain that is wildly inappropriate. What if it isn't something seen on the outside, what if the child has type 1 diabetes and a parent contacts you because their child wants their friends to understand who they are and what they live with? Surely, no one would imagine saying "oh I'm sorry, I just don't want to have to explain that to my child." How about a child in a wheelchair? A child who has Autism Spectrum Disorder? We all rejoice when these children are featured in books and media. We all agree that to create empathetic and accepting children, they need to learn about their peers in all of their diversity. Why is my daughter excluded from that? 

This is who my child is. She was born this way. This isn't a choice. It has nothing to do with sexuality. Teaching your child about it will not suggest to them that they should be transgender anymore than teaching them about diabetes makes them want to start taking insulin. She deserves to been seen, valued, and celebrated for who she is the way every other child does in their uniqueness, and she deserves peers who are taught about gender diversity just like any other type of diversity. 

It's why we're so thankful for books for all age levels that tell the rich and varied stories of transgender and gender diverse people. This list is a great place to start for children's books. So grab a book and have a conversation. Or join in a reading of I Am Jazz on HRC's National I am Jazz Reading Day coming up on May 18. No reading happening by you? Maybe you're just the person to host one. They have some fantastic resources on having age-appropriate conversations with children about gender (nothing scandalous here, promise!). Anyone can host a reading - parents, educators, librarians, faith leaders, Scout Leaders, and beyond. Check out a copy from your local library, grab a copy from your local bookstore, or order on Amazon and you'll have it with plenty of time!
I'll thank you in advance on behalf of my little girl who is anything but a reason to cover your child's ears or avert their eyes. She's just a 10 year old girl who takes dance class, goes to Girl Scouts, works hard in school, loves her friends, and happens to be transgender.