Q&A with Sue Chitayi
Image: Stephan Hochhaus
Sue’s son came out to her as transgender and started transitioning to male when he was 23. Sue has learned a lot from her son’s experience and now works as a parent volunteer for community interest company Gendered Intelligence, providing advice and support to other parents of trans children.
She’s talked to parents of adults and younger transgender children, and described how the process and the emotions involved are similar whatever the age of the transgender person, for both the parent and the child. She is also a fully trained Street Pastor, mother of three, grandmother of five and soon-to-be great grandmother of one.
How did you find out your son was transgender and what was your initial reaction to the news?
My son was 23 when he came out to me as transgender and told me that he had decided he wanted to transition from female to male.
When my son was younger, he had always felt more comfortable dressing androgynously and was a tomboy. He had never seemed to feel comfortable in his own skin and so was quite withdrawn – he wasn’t that affectionate or sociable, particularly after he’d gone through puberty.
When he came out to me as transgender and said that he wanted to start transitioning to male, he told me how he had already started experimenting with his gender identity – passing as male in public for example, and he described how it had felt really ‘right’. His involvement in a youth drama group that put on performances to young teenagers about the LGBT community helped him realise who he really was. The central message of their performances was that it’s OK to be different and to not fit in with the stereotype. Through meeting people in the drama group, he came to realise that the reason why he had never felt truly comfortable in his own skin was because he’d been living out his life in the wrong gender.
It was a shock, and there are a lot of emotions involved when your child tells you that they’re not who you thought they were, but I knew that this wasn’t a decision that was taken lightly. I just asked him if he was sure, he said yes, that he’d been thinking long and hard about it – and so I knew I just had to be there, and to fully support him. I simply wanted to find out what to do next and how best to help him.
The first priority for my son was taking hormones and initiating the process for having chest surgery, although it’s different for everybody. He had already begun the social gender role transition and so wanted to continue building upon that. He arranged for somebody from Gendered Intelligence to come to talk to me – going through the process with me and answering any questions I had.
What did you struggle with most and what’s your advice for parents?
I had no doubts about my son’s decision, but I know that for some parents, it can be difficult to accept.
I really struggled with describing him with new gender pronouns and using his new name – I still thought of him with his female birth name.
My advice is that it’s OK to struggle at first – it’s completely normal as you’re changing the habit of a lifetime. Just stick with it, correct yourself and it will soon become second nature. Imagine how tricky it would be to suddenly change the word you’ve used to describe something – for example if one day you have to start calling a kettle a sink, or vice versa! It’s tricky, but you’ll get used to it – and your child will be much happier and more at ease when you do.
I’ve also spoken to parents with younger transgender children who are experimenting and choose to express a different gender when they’re at home / when they’re out. Switching the name and pronouns like this can be tricky but just persevere and you’ll get there.
How would you advise a parent that is struggling to accept that their child wants to change gender?
When you see how much happier they are once they’ve started living as the gender they feel they actually are, it makes any confusion or difficulties that were there at first seem 100% worth it.
Since my son started his transition I have witnessed an amazing change in him – from being withdrawn and depressed to a young man who is full of confidence, will speak publicly, shows loads of affection to me and who has an incredible social life – this just proves that he is now the person he was always meant to be.
It’s not just my son who’s changed – his experience has taught me so much too. Through him and Gendered Intelligence I have met some truly wonderful people who have made me re-evaluate my life. I have learned a lot about gender and sexuality and am learning more every day.
If you’re unsure about the idea of your child transitioning, or just can’t believe they really want to go through with it, focus on their happiness – it’s far better to have a happy child that’s transitioned than a miserable child who hasn’t.
There are some shockingly high statistics of transgender children that have become depressed and self-harmed or attempted suicide. In a recent study, 78% of trans people said they had thought about ending their life, and 40% had attempted it. You don’t want your child to become a part of these statistics. Gender dysphoria is very real, and not helping your child tackle it and become the gender they want to be (if that’s what they want) can have terrible consequences.
What should I do first if my child says they want to change gender, or don’t feel comfortable as their current gender?
If your child is questioning their gender, it’s important to let them explore and experiment with their gender identity – it’s an important stage of the process. This could involve dressing or behaving differently. Don’t dismiss what they say, how they look, or suppress their wishes to experiment by saying no or not allowing them to.
Be encouraging and supportive – tell them that you love them and that you want them to be whoever they need to be in order to feel happy and comfortable.
It will become obvious if your child has gender dysphoria and if it’s more than just a phase. You’ll know if and when you need to find further support for your child.
What’s the next step if I think my child has gender dysphoria?
The next step would be to see your GP. They can then refer your child to an expert on gender dysphoria to arrange initial assessments.
Remember that these sorts of decisions are not taken lightly at all and children go through a long process of assessments before any permanent change is made.
If your child definitely wants to eventually transition to the other gender, and their care team agree, then they can choose to suppress puberty with hormone blockers. This is still completely reversible, so if they change their minds, they can stop taking the hormone blockers and puberty will commence as usual.
(In January 2011, the age at which hormonal treatment can be offered to children was brought down from 16 to 12 years old. The change was based on a study by the Tavistock and Portman into the effects of hormone blockers earlier in puberty.)
Going through puberty when you have gender dysphoria can be a very traumatic experience and can trigger mental health difficulties such as depression.
If your child is sure they want to make a permanent change to be the other gender, the fact that they’ve had their natural puberty suppressed makes the transition much easier, especially if your child wants to transition from male to female.
Any other tips?
I know that it can take some time for parents to accept that their child is trans but it’s so important for your child to have full support during this change in their life.
It can be very emotional when your child is not the person you thought they were and it does help to talk to someone who is further along the path than you may be. Some of the parent support groups in the resource section below may be able to help.
Above all, listen to your children, and talk to them about their feelings – be open and communicative and allow them to explore their gender identity.
If they don’t want to talk to you or any other member of the family about it, encourage them to talk to someone – perhaps a school counsellor or someone from an organisation such as Gendered Intelligence or Mermaids. It’s really key that they have a solid support network.
Gendered intelligence aims to increase understanding of gender diversity and support people who identify as trans.
– Parent meetings at Gendered Intelligence http://genderedintelligence.co.uk/families/sessions (link is external)
– Gendered Intelligence also offers school mentoring and training for both staff and pupils on trans issues. http://genderedintelligence.co.uk/professionals/training (link is external)
– GI also have two youth groups, one for 16-25 year olds and another for 11-15 year olds. http://genderedintelligence.co.uk/trans-youth/16-25 (link is external)
For younger children, Mermaids is a helpful resource.
Mermaids is a support group set up to help children with gender dysphoria. Mermaids also have a parent support group.
From CEOP and the Parent Zone