United in anguish
Stunned parents of transgender children are turning to each other for support
Jeannette Cooper started a private Facebook group with another mom last February with the simple hope of providing parents of transgender children with a safe place seek help. Less than four months later, the group has 560 members.
Concerned Parents of Transgender, Non-binary Kids, Teens, or Young Adults contains hundreds of posts from parents, many blindsided by their child’s sudden desire to identify as the opposite sex or as non-binary, and in some cases, pursue medical interventions such as cross-sex hormones or mastectomies.
Cooper said she lost custody of her 14-year-old daughter in 2019 for failing to affirm her new transgender identity, including using a new name and pronouns. The Chicago, Ill., mother and divorcee said her daughter previously experienced social difficulties and mental health problems related to divorce trauma and other issues.
Since Cooper’s daughter began living with her father, who encourages her new identity, Cooper has turned to other parents for support.
“I probably know 2,000 parents now who thought they were the only ones,” Cooper said.
A child’s sudden determination to identify as the opposite sex affects vulnerable youth but also their parents, who are often pressured into silence if they are unwilling to affirm their child’s new identity. Out of desperation, a growing number of parents are turning to each other for help and forming underground networks of support after their children develop what researchers call rapid-onset gender dysphoria.
Physician and scientist Lisa Littman coined the term in 2018 after observing a spike of transgender-identifying girls who had no prior history of gender dysphoria. Her contested but vindicated study was instrumental in identifying the role of peer contagion—the influence of friend groups and social media and internet usage—in adolescent girls rushing toward transgenderism.
Littman’s research is part of growing international scrutiny of the “affirmation-only approach,” in which doctors, therapists, and parents immediately affirm a child’s transgender identity. Parents, under the affirmation-only approach, must go along with a child’s request for hormone-altering drugs and surgeries despite the irreversible health ramifications—while leaving unaddressed the underlying issues prompting the sudden change.
Littman’s study provided much-needed confirmation for Janine McLean, who uses a pseudonym to protect her identity from her estranged, transgender daughter. She formed Parents of Rapid-Onset Gender Dysphoria Kids (PROGD) in 2017 after a secret meeting with 10 parents. Each told stories of their teenage or young-adult children, predominately girls, who suddenly decided to identify as transgender. The parents resolved to support one another’s quest for answers.
PROGD now has 1,700 members, mostly from North America but also some located in the United Kingdom, Germany, and other European countries.
Other groups—including Partners for Ethical Care (PEC) and 4thWaveNow, and forums such as the Gender Critical Support Board, and U.K.-based groups Our Duty and Transgender Trend—have sprung up in recent years to provide support, resources, and in some cases, opportunities for activism.
PEC provides a live chat and templates for parents to contact state legislators anonymously. The group also began organizing protests outside prominent metropolitan hospitals with gender clinics.
Separately, another group of anonymous parents funded billboards in various cities that stated, “Puberty is not a medical condition,” in protest of harmful puberty-blocking drugs that doctors prescribe to children with gender dysphoria.
Still, fear pushes most parents into anonymity. McLean said she has received death threats. Three parents I interviewed said they were told by pediatricians, gender specialists, therapists, or school officials that they could cause their children to commit suicide if they failed to affirm their child’s transgender identity.
Many parents risk losing their jobs or custody of their child if they fail to affirm his or her transgender identity, said Erin Brewer, co-founder of PEC.
One mom, who goes by the pseudonym Claire Reed, said she and her husband lost family support and friendships over their decision to challenge their son’s abrupt announcement that he was a girl. She said her PROGD friendships and activism have helped her cope with her grief. Like other parents I interviewed, Reed once considered herself a liberal Democrat but now feels politically disillusioned.
Cooper, the mother who started Concerned Parents of Transgender, Non-binary Kids, Teens, or Young Adults in February, said watching their Facebook group grow is bittersweet: “We are excited for the day when the group doesn’t need to exist.”
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