Coming Out to Children as a Transgender Parent
Written by: Jenna Mizner and Sarah Altajar
I. Who Am I?
Unable to answer the seemingly simple question: who am I? Can stand in the way of being a good parent and having a solid relationship with one’s child. How can a parent teach their child to love and respect themselves if they do not love and respect their own self? How can they teach their child how to react to the world if they themselves do not know how to react to society? We have focused on the relationship between transgender parents and their children by watching Transamerica, reading She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, Trumpet by Jackie Kay and interviewing Jessica Lam. From these sources, we have found that for a transgender parent to have a relationship at all with their child, they need to be open and honest with them about their gender and who they are inside. Being comfortable with who you is the basis of having any stable relationship, no matter what gender you are. When Jessica Lam, a transgender female was deciding to undergo sexual reassignment surgery, she realized that in order to be a better parent she had to be completely comfortable with herself and her gender.
Jessica Lam was previously known as Jesus Lam and was married and fathered two children. Jessica knew at a young age that she was supposed to be a woman. She would put on her mother’s clothes, shave her legs, and pluck her eyebrows in the middle of the night. When her mother caught her, she told her daughter to put those thoughts out of her head. Growing up, Jessica tried to be the son her mother wanted in the traditional sense. She got a girlfriend and they moved in together and eventually got married. However, Jessica still knew that she wanted to be a woman and her and her wife would even cross-dress together. Her wife then got pregnant with two boys, Christopher and Jesus. Jessica got divorced and gained custody of her two children. When her kids were around the ages of six and seven, Jessica decided she wanted to have sexual reassignment surgery. She was always open with her children about her gender and the process she was going through.
Jessica compared her inner turmoil of feeling like the opposite gender and being a parent to a parent dealing with alcoholism. She told us: “I figured that if I were an alcoholic I would have to deal with the fact that I was an alcoholic or else I would be useless to them because that bottle is always going to be between us. You need to take care of yourself first to become a better person. The only thing you have control over in this world is you. I had to come to terms with my gender identity in order to become a better parent.” She knew that if she did not come to terms with her gender identity, there would always be a barrier between herself and her children. If she was not true to herself, how could she expect her children to trust her?
Jessica post-surgery with sons Jesus and Christopher
In Transamerica, the protagonist Bree used to be known as Stanley. She has been waiting for years for her sexual reassignment surgery, but right before the big day she gets a call from her biological son whom she fathered when she had sex with a woman in college. When her therapist makes her go meet her son, Bree hides who she is and tells her son Toby that she is from a Church group. Bree decides to try to form a relationship with him before opening up about her gender and how she feels inside. This is completely different than how open Jessica was with her kids. In opposition to Jessica who was comfortable with her transgender status, Bree was completely uncomfortable in her own skin. She tells her therapist that she has no close friends and is estranged from her parents and sister. During the movie, Bree and Toby stop at Bree’s parents house because they need a place to stay. Bree’s parents did not approve of her transgender status, and this in turn affected how unhappy Bree was with herself. During their visit, Bree’s mother says to her, “Don’t do this awful thing to yourself, please. I miss my son.” Bree replies, “Mom, you never had a son”. Bree’s father then tells her, “Your mother and I both love you.” Bree’s mother then shouts, “But we don’t respect you!” It is easy to see why Bree had not accepted herself. Because of her parent’s rejection and alienation, she was not able to become close to anyone out of fear of being rejected and alienated once again. Bree was not able to open up to her own son as herself as a woman and also his father.
Another major difference between Jessica Lam and her children and Bree’s relationship with Toby is how they saw themselves as a person once they became women. In our interview, Jessica told us “Jesus is still apart of me. He made me who I am today”. On the other hand, Bree completely disassociates herself from Stanley, the man she used to be. When Bree first finds out about her son through a phone call, she tells her therapist “I got a phone call last night from a juvenile inmate of the New York prison system. He claimed to be Stanley’s son”. Her therapist then replies, “No third-person.” Bree pauses and finally answers, “my son”. She acts as though they are completely separate people that have lived separate lives. Their different views of themselves and their past has a direct correlation to their relationships with their children.
II. Coming Out To Children
Our society today is based on gender binary roles and expects girls and boys to behave in certain ways and their parents are supposed to be the one to teach them. But what happens when your dad becomes a woman? Whether we are reading Trumpet, watching TransAmerica or speaking to Jessica we found that one of the biggest obstacles to overcome when transitioning is coming out to your children. Being transgender does not only effect the individual going through the transition but proves to affect everyone else in their life as well especially their family. Families who have a transgender in them have come to be known as “transfamilies“. This term exemplifies how much it affects the person’s family. Jessica stresses the importance of thinking about the consequences of having a sex change. Jessica Lam chose to always keep her children in the loop. Her kids always knew that she wanted to be a woman, viewing her as a woman from as long as they remember and were very comfortable with her getting surgery. As long as Christopher and Jesus remember Jessica, they remember her as a being very feminine and as a woman. Jessica describes being transgender as a two way street. She explained that a transgender spends as long as fifteen to twenty years contemplating their true gender thus its only fair to expect one’s mother, father, child to take that long or more to fully recognize their change. Often transgenders are upset when they are not accepted right away but that’s not fair to other person in the relationship.
Although families are expected to provide their children with unconditional love, we see the problems that arise when the question of transgender arises such as between Stanley and his parents after his transition to Bree in Transamerica. It is difficult to accept your son as a woman when you raised him playing sports and doing masculine activities. It is even harder for children to accept their parent as transgenders since it is such a confusing and emotional subject especially for someone younger. Jessica stresses that the most important thing to do when coming out to your children is to be completely honest. Hiding your gender identity proves to cause more problems in the future as can be seen in Trumpet and in Transamerica.
Even though Joss transformed from Josephine to Joss long before Coleman’s addition to the family, he owes Coleman the truth of his gender identity. Referring to Trumpet and Joss’ specific situation it seems that Joss’s secrecy hurt Coleman and his relationship. Growing up Coleman was unable to get close with his father and relate to him. After his father’s death Coleman was lost and upset. After much debate in class there seems to have been a divided opinion on whether or not Joss should have come out to Coleman. Some argued that Coleman had no right to know what happened behind his parent’s closed doors since besides that every other aspect of Joss was masculine. However after speaking to Jessica and referring to Joss’ specific situation it seems that Joss made the wrong decision because as upset and confused as Coleman was going to be after he heard the truth of his father, it was going to make their overall father-son relationship that much stronger. This is the exact situation seen in Transamerica, in which Bree holds off speaking to Toby and telling him that she is his father. After Bree confesses the truth of her gender identity, Toby is upset and Bree doesn’t understand his fury. Toby who is Bree’s biological son found out that Bree was his father through a mere accident. Not given an explanation it is only natural that Toby would feel upset and deceived. After being given a short time to recover from this big news Toby is able to accept Bree as his father and their overall relationship is strengthened by this confession.
Billy Tipton, the inspiration for Joss’ character
In Jennifer Boylan’s novel, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders a prime example of an effective coming out discussion with one’s child is given. Jennifer speaks to her young son Luke about her decision to transition in a calm manner right after reading a book about Eskimos where the child asks his mom what she would do were he to transform into a walrus. Jennifer follows up the story by saying,
Jennifer: “What would you do Lukey, if I turned into a woman?”
He looked unsure
Luke: “I would…still love you?”
Jennifer: “Would you?”
He thought it over
Luke: “Sure, you’d still be you, wouldn’t you?”
Jennifer: “Uh-huh. Have you noticed that I’ve been looking more and more like a girl over the last year.”
We sat together on the couch for a while.
Luke: “Some of my friends think you are a girl.”
Jennifer: “That must be hard for you.”
Luke: “Not really. I just tell them, that’s my daddy.”
Jennifer: “Lukey, I need to talk to you about something. I have a condition, it’s like when a person’s sick, that makes me feel like a girl on the inside, even though I’m a boy on the outside. Does that make sense to you, that a person’s insides and outsides wouldn’t match?”
Luke: “Sure. I know what that’s like.”
Jennifer: “So I’m taking some medicine that is slowly making my outsides more and more like a girl. After a while, I’m going to totally be a girl. I know that might make you sad, but it’s what I need to do.”
Luke gave her a big hug.
Luke: “I won’t be sad, you said you’d still be you.”
Luke seems to be completely aware of his father’s transition into a woman. He is not only calm but also very accepting and understanding, which is surprising for a child with little life experience. It is because of the unconditional love between parents and children that allow them to have such a strong relationship that can withstand such drastic changes. Jennifer’s openness with her son results in a positive reaction because she has taught him from a young age to be accepting of others despite how they may look. Children are more likely to be accepting and understanding than adults which is why it is a widely accepted idea that parents should but to come out to their children. Jessica Lam took a similar approach in raising Christopher and Jesus and it has proven to be much more effective than hiding the truth of their gender identity.
Coming out to your children is highly recommended to transgenders who come in with questions or to be counseled by the YES Institute and are referred to Jessica. It is also endorsed by the LGBT community in general giving rise to a lot of resources to help transgender parents such as the website TransParentcy.
III. Effects on Children
Many transgender parents are apprehensive to come out or to get sexual reassignment surgery because of the effects it will have on their children. Will their child accept them? Will their child still love them? Will they be ridiculed and ostracized? There are so many repercussions because as Jessica explained to us, coming out is not only about the person coming out. It affects everyone who is close to that person and will change all their lives.
One major question that arises when thinking of the effect of a transgender or gay parent on a child is the loss of a masculine influence in the child’s life. Many individuals who transition from a man to a woman worry that their child will resent them for not having a traditional father figure in their life. Since Jessica used to be a male, and therefore a father in the traditional sense of the word, we asked her if her children felt deprived of having a “father” and how they dealt with their dad becoming a woman. Jessica told us that her sons were able to cope with the situation by having professionals in their lives, each other and family members to talk to. As accepting as her children were when Jessica was undergoing transition there were many times when they did resent her and longed for aconventional father figure. One example she gave us was when her son Christopher went away to a youth camp and was playing basketball. He became really stressed because he couldn’t make a basket and was so upset thinking, “Why couldn’t I have had a father who could teach me to play basketball, a more traditional dad?” He was mourning the traditional father figure. He got so angry. He eventually put the ball down and cried. He realized, “So my dad doesn’t look like regular Dads but my Dad taught my to see the world with open eyes, to see people for who they really are, and right from wrong” and finally reconciled the whole notion. Jessica mentioned multiple times that in raising Christopher and Jesus her biggest concern was to make them realize that they need to accept people in whatever form they represent themselves with no judgment. On the complete opposite spectrum from Jessica and her sons is Joss and Colman whose relationship suffered by the lack of honesty. Although Joss lived his life as a transgender, he failed to raise Colman to respect others for who they are and not what they look like. Colman was unable to accept his own father after learning the truth about his gender identity. Even if he did not know that Joss was transgender, you would expect him to be raised to be much more accepting in general.
Jessica’s son Jesus also went through a period of bitterness. Jessica told us that he came up to her one day to kill a bug and when she refused he said, “why cant you be like any other guys and play in the mud and pick up bugs” to which Jessica replied, “if I was still a guy, I still would not be okay with picking up bugs”. Since Jessica had been so open with them about her gender their whole lives, she taught them to grow up to care more about what is inside of someone instead of how they look on the exterior. In the interview on Larry King Live that Jessica and her sons had, her son said that Jessica “may have taken away a father, but in his place became a better parent”. Christopher’s statement allows us to understand the importance of coming out to your children because keeping it from them only creates a wall and space between them that is hard to overcome.
Of course with having a transgender parent one must expect people’s negative response, which may include bullying and teasing, especially in the case of children. Middle school is an especially vital time for a child’s growth and proves to be the hardest time for children to be accepted. Unable to find an explanation for the absence of their father, Jessica Lam’s children Jesus and Christopher resorted to lying to their classmates about their transgender parent. They would say that their father was away on work trips and explained the presence of Jessica as their stepmother. Instead of being angry at her children for lying to their friends, Jessica understood that this was the way they had to deal with it and that they still viewed her as a parent figure but did not want to go into all the details. When asked about their father now, Christopher and Jesus are not the slightest bit hesitant to tell others the truth. They even still refer to Jessica as “Dad”.
Although Jessica got a positive reaction from her sons, unfortunately this is not always the case. In many cases, the child does in fact resent the fact they did not have a traditional father figure in their lives. One example, although slightly different is Colman in Trumpet. Once Colman found out that this father was a woman who assumed the gender of a man, he began to question every “male bonding” experience he had with his father and doubted their relationship, such as his dad teaching him how to shave or talking about sex. Once Colman found out that Joss was Josephine, he questioned Joss as a parent. He resented his father for putting a wall between them.
Another major consequence of being a transgender parent is that their child may be bullied and alienated from their peers. In today’s society, gender roles are so stereotyped for people of all ages, from babies to adults. Little girls are supposed to like dolls and wear pink, and boys are supposed to like trucks and action figures and wear blue. If someone breaks this stereotype, they are immediately stigmatized. Even young children know about the stereotypes and will make fun of other kids who don’t fit the normal gender roles, or whose parents don’t fit the normal gender roles. Transgender parents therefore worry about how their child will be treated when people find out they have a transgender parent, or a dad who looks like a mom.
IV. Betrayal and Deception
Listening to a loved one tell you the truth of their gender identity is bound to release a flood of emotions. Among confusion, children are bound to feel angry and upset. The sense of being betrayed and deceived by one’s parent is inevitable if the truth about the parent’s gender has been kept a secret. However, transgender parents have the opportunity to keep a strong connection with their children after they come out if they do not wait too long to reveal the truth. The strongest portrayal of betrayal and deception can be shown by Joss and Colman’s relationship. To Coleman, it seemed as if Joss had been lying to him his whole life. Coleman had never questioned Joss about being a good parent and even admits that he never questioned who his birth parents were since he did not feel any need to when he had Joss and Millie in his life. The disloyalty Coleman felt from his father dominated any feelings of love he had for Joss and he did not only mourn the loss of his father but the loss of Joss every being in his life.
Jessica Lam explained that any betrayal by a parent is detrimental on their child’s life and emotional well being. She gave an example of another major aspect of their life a parent could hide from their child: “Lets say your parents were married for fifty years and you found out that Dad has been cheating on Mom for twenty years. You’d be pissed off at that-maybe not that he was cheating on Mom, cause Mom can be a bitch, but because you had been lied to and he had kept a secret from the family and not owning up to it”. Anyone would be upset that their parent had hidden a whole other part of their life from them. It begs the questions-what else are they hiding? Do I really know my parent at all? Does this devalue all of our time spent together? Any lie that a parent tells their child will have an enormous effect on the child’s ability to have stable relationships. When parents are dishonest with their children, it teaches the child to expect less from other people because if you don’t expect too much, you can never be let down. If you can’t trust your parent, who can you trust?
Even if a parent does not necessarily want to reveal the truth about their past, they do not have to come out with it right away. Jessica said that when you first meet someone, you don’t come right up them right away, and say “Hi nice to meet you, I’m Jessica and I’m a transgender, how are you?” the same way you wouldn’t say “Hi im so and so and my dad used to beat me as a kid, and he’s an alcoholic too”. You don’t come right out with your life story. You get to know someone and small talk, and eventually start sharing your life. Then Jessica said something that really hit home: “But you never lie, even if you have to dance around the truth a little. Dance around it, but don’t lie. In the end, what people don’t like is to be deceived”.
V. Final Thoughts
Jenna: The main concept that I learned from doing this project is that being a transgender parent and coming out to your kids is one of the most tricky processes I have ever encountered (although not personally). There is not one way that works and should be done by every parent. Each parent/child relationship is so different that coming out sooner or later may be the best chance for that relationship to survive, it just depends on the situation. Most importantly, a person’s relationship with themselves is the most complicated relationship. If you do not accept and feel good about yourself there is no chance that a connection with someone else can last whether it be with your parents, friends, or children. Over all, the main thing I learned is that there is really no right answer. No matter what happens, someone is probably going to get hurt. But in the end, all you can hope and wish for is that your family will eventually accept you and love you as much as you love yourself.
Sarah: Any questions that I had or was unclear about concerning transgenders and their relationship with their children was cleared up after hearing Jessica speak. I learned so much from her in that short hour. When Jenna and I asked her if her experience post-surgery fit all her expectations, she told us that happiness in life stems from the journey you take and the obstacles you overcome. Such a positive outlook on life, I wonder if most transgenders are forced to be so optimistic and content so that they are not in a depressive state. However, I did disagree with Jessica and also Jenna on the idea of coming out to your family. During the interview, Jenna asked Jessica if she would have reconsidered her sexual reassignment surgery if her son, mother, family did not support her decision. Jessica hesitated and then told us that it was not even an option. She told us that if her family did not come around to support her that she would have to cut them out of her life. I cannot relate to Jessica’s point on this topic because although I have no idea how being a transgender may feel and all the frustration that comes with it, I believe that family is the most important aspect in one’s life.