A parent's story about gender identity

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Mel's story about her son Jacob (19)

My son Jacob is 19. He identifies as a young man and he is transgender – he transitioned to male when he was 15.

Jacob was having trouble at school and with friendships when he was in his mid-teens and he was also finding it difficult to know what his sexual identity was. He was playing around with different sexual labels like gay, bisexual or pansexual. It’s not uncommon for a transgender person to experiment a little like this. He was also feeling depressed and he started seeing a psychologist who was helping him work through some of these issues. One day he told the psychologist that he identified as male and the psychologist immediately called me in to discuss this.

The psychologist did not agree that Jacob was a transgender person and she told me that she believed I had in some way ‘normalised’ the idea of transgender for Jacob and not set appropriate boundaries for him. She said that it was my ‘fault’ he was feeling this way and that it was not a true reflection of his inner self. This assessment knocked me for six. Naturally I took some of it on board, after all I was getting this from a health professional. I looked to myself and wondered if I’d done a bad job as a parent.

Luckily for us, shortly after this someone recommended we visit the Gender Service at the Royal Children’s Hospital. We got a referral from our GP and then an appointment within 12 weeks. Jacob met with two psychiatrists and was assessed for gender dysphoria. After the first appointment the psychiatrist called us in for a family meeting and said to Jacob, ‘You’re a brave, articulate, strong young man and we can support you and help you.’ It was a huge relief to Jacob and to me to have this validation and support from a medical professional. Immediately we felt a weight had been lifted. From that point he started his journey to transition. Jacob never saw the previous psychologist again.

School was very difficult for Jacob. A lot of his friends abandoned him after he started transitioning and he found himself socially isolated and seriously bullied. I believe that some of Jacob’s teachers were uncomfortable around him, not knowing how to treat him. A big concern for parents of transgender teenagers in high school is where their child is going to go to the toilet. The school’s answer for Jacob was to give him a key to the male teachers’ toilet, which wasn’t a good solution for him. He found it very intimidating as a newly transitioned, 15-year-old male to be sharing a toilet with adult men. In the end Jacob applied to study through distance education. He successfully completed Year 11 but last year was a tough one for Jacob and our family and he hasn’t yet completed his final year of school. We’re both hopeful that he will finish Year 12 when he’s a bit older and his mental health issues are more under control. In the meantime, he’s looking for a job and runs a small online business with a friend.

When Jacob first told me he wanted to live as male I was outwardly supportive but inwardly grieving. I grieved for the daughter I was losing and even for the grandchildren she wouldn’t give me – at least not in the same way as I’d always expected. Another parent of a transgender person has told me that grief is a fine place to visit but we can’t live there. Like every parent everywhere, I soon realised that Jacob’s life is not about me, and as I saw him get happier and happier I realised that this was the best decision for him. I couldn’t possibly love him any more than I do, or be prouder than I am.

I’ve had enormous support from my family: my parents, my brother and sister, my older son, my dear friends. I have found great resources like www.genderhelpforparents.com.au which in turn have helped connect me to other parents in my situation. There are some things that only another parent of a transgender or gender diverse child will understand.

Over this process I’ve learnt that it’s okay to question health professionals if what they say doesn’t sound quite right to you. I’ve also learned to stop apologising for Jacob. When he first transitioned I apologised to everyone if he made them feel uncomfortable. I’ve come to realise that if Jacob makes you uncomfortable just by being who he is, that’s your problem, not his or mine.

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