I grew up in a big family. My parents proudly welcomed seven kids into the world. I was their third eldest, arriving after my sisters, Susan and Mary. We managed to live harmoniously in a modest bungalow in north suburban Chicago. We adopted a black cocker spaniel named “Howard” and somehow fit him into our crowded home.
Every Sunday, my family went together to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church for Catholic mass. We shared a family table every night for supper, and each sibling would report to Dad and Mom about what had occurred that day. My siblings and I attended classes at the parish grade school and participated in extra-curricular activities. Amidst all the normalcy, I knew early on, no later than the second grade, that I was “different.” My parents had given me the name “Michael.” I often heard them refer to me as their “firstborn son.” But I felt like a girl inside. My inner sense of self never went away. It was me.
Growing up, I was too afraid to share my feelings with my folks or anyone else. I feared that my parents wouldn’t understand or might reject me. I imagined that my siblings, classmates, or neighborhood friends would ridicule or ostracize me. I worried that I was disobeying God’s word in some way. I wondered if I was mentally ill or sick. I kept my secret locked deep inside for years. I paid the price later as an adult.
Today, when I encounter transgender children, be they teens or younger kids, I remember my own childhood. I recall the longing to be heard and seen as myself. I remember the confusing and oftentimes lonely battles with self-doubt. My need for support and affirmation from others was profound. I badly wanted to belong, just like everyone else. I know that these children want the same.
Transgender kids “feel” their true selves at a tender age. They typically are too young to be motivated by any desire to make a political or cultural statement. They are most often pre-pubescent and not thinking or feeling much of anything about the birds and the bees. Transgender kids are simply kids. Like their non-transgender peers, they are learning about themselves and developing with each passing day. They deserve and need love and support as they grow. That is increasingly difficult in today’s culture with the many hostile voices tearing down transgender people on social media, which is readily available to all kids.
Today, I urge all adults to open up their own hearts and minds to transgender youth. These kids, whether living in their birth home, with their relatives, or in a foster home, need the embrace of loving adults to help them thrive.
The difficult truth is that too many adults, for whatever reason, are unable to interact with transgender youth in a positive and affirming way. Whether an adult friend, a teacher, a social worker, a coach, or a counselor, you, as a caring adult in the life of a transgender child, can make an enormous difference in that child’s emotional well-being and sense of self-worth.
Listen carefully to these kids. Provide affirming guidance informed by what they communicate. Accept them.