By Celeste Cramer, Executive Director of Stonewall Alliance of Chico
Lao Tzu once said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Most parents know this all too well. Spread out over a lifetime, a child’s life is a genesis. From their first words to their first holiday away from home, the interaction between parents and children represents a series of new beginnings across uncharted pathways. It is particularly true for parents who face the stark, devastating reality of endings: a child struggling with suicide.
Many parents have contemplated what the loss of a child would mean for them. It is rare, however, that parents have had to ask themselves how they would respond if that loss resulted from suicide. The very act is one that promotes fear and confusion, particularly for parents who did not know that their child might be struggling. In my long career as a mental health professional, I have lost count of how many parents have sat across from me, stricken with fear about the next step forward. In every instance, I felt haunted by their helplessness and distress, while simultaneously tasked with the responsibility of helping them understand that “What you do going forward, can be a matter of life and death.”
Within our culture, paradigms of parenting often place disproportionate importance on whether a child is a girl or a boy. Between gender reveal parties, naming pools, and nursery themes, this question is often central to how others regard a child’s identity before their personality, or even the child itself, really emerges. Most parents would probably say the number one question they get asked during pregnancy is, “Is it a boy or a girl?” It is little wonder, then, that parents are overwhelmingly distraught when their child expresses that they are not the sex they were assigned at birth. In other words, the war of blue and pink has ended with no one emerging the victor. As the dust settles, parents look to each other as if to ask, so what do we do now?
Of course, every situation is different. What some parents have found works to honor the identity of their child might not work for others. Much like gender identity itself, integration is a highly individualized experience and needs to be regarded as such. Nevertheless, some themes consistently emerge as being crucial to affirming the identity of young people and making that difference between life and death.
FIRST: CALL THEM BY THEIR NAME
Researchers led by a team at The University of Texas at Austin found that transgender youths who are allowed to use their chosen name have a lower risk of experiencing depression and suicidal ideation. Compared with youth who could not use their chosen name in any context, transgender youth ages 15-21 who could use their name at school, home, work and with friends experienced:
• 71% fewer symptoms of severe depression
• 34% decrease in reported thoughts of suicide
• 65% decrease in suicidal attempts
Those who have even just one context in which a chosen name could be used had a 29% decrease in suicidal thoughts.
In Butte County, over 60% of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth reported that they had seriously considered suicide versus 17% of their non-LGB peers. Similar results were found for transgender youth, with almost 55% admitting to having seriously considered suicide. This means that in one year in Butte County, approximately 491 middle school and high school lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth seriously considered attempting suicide. To read the entire study about Butte County, please visit www.stonewallchico.com/suicide-prevention-resources.
SECOND: USE THEIR PRONOUNS
For youth who are transgender, nonbinary, or gender non-conforming, claiming their authentic gender is an important step in their “coming out” process. However, this can be very difficult and confusing for their parents. When parents continue to refer to their child by their “old” pronouns, this is known as misgendering, which can be ostracizing and cause trauma. One parent – who was having a difficult time referring to his child with “they/them” pronouns – came up with a creative solution. He imagined that his child had a mouse in their pocket all the time, to help him remember to refer to his child with “they/them” pronouns.
THIRD: HONOR THE PERSON
Often, well-intentioned supporters are so fixated on affirming the gender identity of an individual that they forget that identity is complex and multi-faceted. Actress Laverne Cox, best known for her dynamic role as Sophia on the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” brilliantly drove home this point in an address to the University of Kentucky in 2014. Sidestepping her trans identity explicitly, Cox labeled herself as a woman of color born to a poor single mother and an actress arguing, “it is important to name the multiple parts of my identity because I am not just one thing, and neither are you.” This lesson is critical for parents: although respecting their identity is essential, remember that your child is more than the sum of their parts. Listen carefully and let the child lead the pace. Treat them as a complex person and let them decide what they feel ready for next and define their own needs.
If you are needing support with navigating your feelings and experience with a loved one’s gender identity or sexual identity, reach out and get help. Stonewall Alliance of Chico has a weekly support group for parents of LGBT*Q+ people where we offer a safe and supportive environment to get your questions answered, discover resources available in our community, and meet other parents in similar situations.
The following books are recommended:
• Seeing Gender: An Illustrated Guide to Identity and Expression by Iris Gottlieb
• Trans Allyship Workbook: Building Skills for Supporting Trans People in Our Lives by Davey Shlasko and Kai Hofius
• Unconditional: A Guide to Loving and Supporting Your LGBTQ Child by Telaina Eriksen
• The Gender Creative Child: Pathways for Nurturing and Supporting Children Who Live Outside Gender Boxes by Diana Ehrensaft
• Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt
• The Bold World by Jodie Patterson
Stop by Stonewall Alliance of Chico’s library to check out these books and many more. Visit Stonewall’s website at www.StonewallChico.org or call the office (530.893.3336) for more information and support.
Most importantly, even though this experience may be confusing for you, your child is still that beautiful being that should be supported and loved and treasured through their growth into discovering themselves.