As Pride month celebrations continue across the country, many LGBTQ2 advocates are stressing the importance of gender-affirming care for transgender youth, especially as the rise of threats and protests against the community mounts.
A Toronto mother is hoping that her story about raising a transgender child can help Canadians gain a deeper understanding of gender and acceptance. Global News has agreed to conceal the identities of the mother and child due to safety concerns.
Her six-year-old child was born female, but last June told his parents he identified as a boy.
“It felt very overwhelming, I was really scared,” the mother told Global News. “There were a lot of family members I had to convince that my child was (a boy) and you can change pronouns and the world wasn’t going to end.”
Although her son disclosed his gender identity last year, his mother said the signs had been present since was a toddler.
“Retrospectively he’s been telling us for a long time,” she said.
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For example, when her son was three years old, he screamed when she showed him the dress he was going to wear for Thanksgiving dinner. He was adamant about cutting his hair short, and said, “Don’t call me a girl. Call me a kid.”
“There was a photo of him on our wall, he wearing a white dress at 11 months old, it was a really beautiful photo and was a really beautiful dress,” the mother said. “And when he was two, he looked at the photo and said, ‘That’s not me.’ He was so adamant and he screamed until we took the photo off the wall.”
She said it didn’t surprise a lot of people who knew him when he said he was a boy. Everything just made sense.
“It’s not developmentally inappropriate for kids around three to five to be expressing a strong sense of gender identity … it’s an appropriate developmental milestone,” Kaylen Lamb, a counsellor at Rainbow Resource Centre in Winnipeg, said. “It’s very normal and healthy for them to be expressing that.”
He added it’s also normal and healthy for kids around the age of puberty to start expressing there is a “disconnect between my physical body and the way that people are gendering me and perceiving me because my body doesn’t fit with how I see myself.”
High rates of depression, suicide
One in 300 people in Canada aged 15 and older are transgender or non-binary, according to a 2021 Statistics Canada report. The government agency does not have data for children under the age of 15.
The report also found that generation Z, (Canadians born between 1997 and 2012), were three to seven times more likely to identify as trans or non-binary than the baby boomer generation (born between 1946 and 1965).
Transgender youth often experience higher rates of victimization compared to their cisgender peers, and they are more likely to have encountered physical, sexual and verbal harassment at a young age, according to Lamb.
They also have higher rates of mental health issues than non-trans youth, frequently reporting depression, self-harm, suicide ideation and suicide attempt, he said.
“It’s not because they’re trans that they have these increased rates of self-harm, suicide, problematic substance use … it’s a direct result of people experiencing transphobia, harassment and discrimination,” Lamb explained.
“It’s that the world is so hostile towards queer trans people that those folks do not have the safety nets and the supports in place to make it so that they’re less likely to attempt suicide or have mental health problems,” he added.
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A 2019 survey by TransPulse Canada found that among transgender and non-binary youth (aged 14 to 24), one in five respondents avoided schools in the past five years for fear of harassment or outing.
The report also found that two in five respondents considered suicide in the past year and one in ten had attempted suicide.
“Many of our trans and gender-diverse young people report experiences of harassment and bullying at school,” said Fae Johnstone, the executive director of Wisdom2Action, a queer-owned consulting group working in transgender health.
“Many of them experience ongoing microaggressions, the inability to be referred to with simple, respectful language like the right name and pronouns.”
Access to supportive, caring adults
Research shows that gender-affirming care, such as medical and mental health care, helps mitigate health disparities among transgender youth. Support and acceptance from caregivers also have been shown to positively impact a child’s well-being by affirming their true gender identity.
“The evidence we have tells us that access to supportive parents and caring adults has an immense impact on the mental health and well-being of these young folks and in fact reduces the rates of suicidality by an exponential amount,” Johnstone said.
“And having parents who are able to back up their kids means the world and encourages positive, personal and social development for these young people.”
The Toronto mother who spoke with Global News explained that when she started calling her child by his preferred pronouns, he became happier, calmer and more social.
“He has become an entirely different kid since he let us know of his gender,” she said. “He used to have these rage attacks … he’d be so angry all the time. And now, I think it was because he was just being misgendered all the time by everybody because we just didn’t know.”
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The mother expressed that providing support to her son throughout his journey has been relatively easy, although it has been a challenge gaining acceptance from family and friends, particularly when it comes to using the correct pronouns.
At school, she said his peers and teachers have been very accepting.
“I think the kids are young enough that they don’t really question him. Sometimes he’s misgendered and if he’s alone, he just corrects people,” she said.
Johnstone and Lamb both stressed that it’s understandable for parents or caregivers to be scared or confused during this time, adding there are resources available for family members to help them navigate the process, such as the Rainbow Resource Centre or Planned Parenthood.
“I think it’s important that we all educate ourselves and that parents who might be struggling or friends and family that might be struggling, that they reach out for support. There are tons of parent groups and peer groups and it’s very valid to have some worries or some insecurity and anxieties, but it’s not fair to take those anxieties out on your transgendered young person,” Johnstone said.
“If you’re messing up the pronoun or you need a shoulder to lean on, find that shoulder, but don’t make that burden one that your trans loved one has to walk with each and every single day,” she added.
What does gender-affirming care for youth look like?
Medical intervention, such as puberty blockers or hormone therapy, is typically not needed (or possible) for young children, Lamb said, adding that for young people, gender-affirming care begins with the simple yet significant steps of using correct pronouns and names.
“It starts with letting your child express their gender through their clothing, through their hair, and through how the people are seeing them. And those things are not medical interventions. Those things are very easy to change,” Lamb said.
“No medical intervention is possible until puberty starts to happen. There is nothing we can do until that point. Your child just needs to be seen and respected and heard,” he added.
According to the Canadian Medical Association Journal, it is widely recommended that hormone blockers should not occur before puberty. But it’s recommended (on average) at age 10.5 years in individuals assigned female gender at birth and 11.5 years in those assigned male gender at birth.
This is what the Toronto mother told Global News.
“He’s six, so we’re not there yet,” she said. “But he has been very clear that he does not want breasts. And that’s a conversation that I am so open to having … whatever he wants and needs.”
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