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How the Mothers of Transgender Children Are Changing the World

Aug 23 2016 7:19 PM
How the Mothers of Transgender Children Are Changing the World

Photo by Nabi Tang via Stocksy

According to a new study, mothers play an essential role in ensuring that trans kids are raised in a loving and accepting environment.

Being met with love and acceptance at home is majorly beneficial to the development and survival of young people. High rates of suicide and homelessness in the transgender population can probably be traced back in part to parental rejection. In February, we reported on a study that observed an obvious truth: Trans kids who are accepted develop similarly to the general population, instead of being plagued by depression due to discrimination. A new study released this week looks closely at the accepting families of trans youth, finding that mothers play an essential role.

Researcher Krysti Ryan conducted in-depth interviews with 36 parents of trans children between five and 16 years old, who all self-identified as accepting of their child's gender identity. They were recruited by word of mouth, in support groups, and from online forums. Mothers made up the overwhelming majority (29) of her subjects, with only seven fathers participating in the study.

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According to Ryan's study, mothers usually take on the majority of parenting responsibilities despite being more professionally qualified than their husbands. Fifty-one percent of heterosexual mothers in Ryan's study have "a higher level of education than their partners, with discrepancies as wide as mothers holding professional or doctoral degrees while their husband's hold associates degrees or less," the study reads. Nonetheless, it was the mothers in Ryan's study that gave up their jobs in order to raise the kids and "bear the brunt of the childcare labor, and by extension the brunt of the care related to their child's gender diversity." One working mother told Ryan she handled more than 90 percent of her trans child's needs, even though the kid's father is retired.

In an interview with Broadly, Ryan explains that these disproportionate parenting contributions are "a reflection of really [deep-seated] cultural presumptions that women are better suited to childcare than are men."

"As far as we have come in terms of gender equality in other areas," she continues, "the family home continues to be a stronghold of gender stereotypes and traditional gender roles."

But her findings show that mothers also have the power to radically alter gender norms through parenting, particularly by parenting kids who do not conform to traditional cisgender identity. Moms are "changing the landscape of gender politics and gender ideology in the United States," Ryan says. Gender is such a fundamental part of culture, and the home is where much of gender conditioning begins.

However, women who mother trans children are also put in a difficult position. Ryan says that the moms in her study have to balance "two competing mandates of contemporary motherhood ideology." On one hand, mothers are judged by society based on their ability to raise "children in accordance with social norms," Ryan says. One the other, mothers are meant to provide unconditional love and support to all of their kids. According to Ryan, mothers negotiate these "conflicting expectations" by becoming "lay experts in gender diversity."

In many cases, according to Ryan, moms who previously knew nothing about transgender people or the concept of gender identity have gone on to become advocates for the needs of trans kids—from coordinating medical care to filing petitions of name change with the court. They do all of this to ensure their children are both accepted and allowed to live authentically.

"In the process they develop new understandings of gender that they then share with their husbands and other family members in order to affirm their child's sense of self and advance acceptance of gender diversity more broadly," Ryan explains.

Ryan tells Broadly that the parents of transgender girls typically "identify their child as gender-nonconforming at earlier ages" than the parents of transgender boys. In fact, "all parents of [trans girls] had identified their child as gender-nonconforming before the age of five, and most before the age of three." On the other hand, trans boys tended to come out to their parents closer to puberty. "I do have some evidence to indicate that parents of transgender boys moved to a place of acceptance and support a bit more quickly than did parents of transgender girls or gender-diverse boys, but in this sample it is hard to say if that finding is a result of child gender or the age at which the child came out as transgender, " Ryan says.

A small subset (only four) of the parents she studied were what Ryan calls "instant adopters," meaning they did not experience a period of shock or grief after their kids came out, accepting them instantly. Though Ryan doesn't draw conclusions about this group in her study, she does note that these parents all had trans boys who came out at the time of puberty.

Eighty-one percent of the parents in her study were straight. Ryan says that is difficult to make generalizations about LGBT parents based on their minority representation in her study. However, she does tell me that, while she expected to notice differences between the parenting of straight and LGBT parents, she didn't notice significant discrepancies.

"I suspected that as part of the LGBT community already, gay and lesbian parents might understand and accept their child's gender identity more readily than did heterosexual, cisgender parents," Ryan explains. Though there were some parents who reflected that expectation, "in several instances, LGBT parents expressed having had a particularly difficult time coming to terms with their child's gender identity—mostly because they feared others would judge them unfit as parents for having raised gay or transgender children."

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Ryan believes that her research is important because of the social upheaval currently underway in the US. "Parents whose kids are transitioning today are having markedly better experiences than parents whose children transitioned even five to seven years ago," Ryan says. "Their friends, families, and communities better support them. They have more social resources to turn to and better laws to protect their children."

This progress is the product of culminating efforts across the country, from grassroots activism to positive celebrity representation of transgender people. Ryan's work sheds light on another important driving force for transgender equality. "So much of it is due to these parents who are choosing to publicly support children's gender diversity, rather than trying to force their kids into conforming," she says.

"What we're really talking about here is social change," Ryan notes. "Once we can understand how change that engenders acceptance and support for one group happens, we can use that knowledge to advance the rights and privileges of other groups as well." Part of this, Ryan says, is strengthening the message that transgender children are just that—children.

One parent in her study put this well. "They're our kids," the mother told Ryan. "Gender—throw it out the window. Doesn't matter. They're our kids, and we need to love them, no matter what."

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