Father of a transgender tween speaks out

by Melissa Jeltsen on August 2, 2010

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What’s it like to raise a transgender child? In this Thrive exclusive, a father reflects on his experience. Click here to read more about his daughter and a new medical treatment at Children’s that offers hope to transgender teens.

My 12 year old transgender daughter is my mentor. It’s tough to put into words what a profound impact this small person has had in changing my core values, but since the young age of five, she has unknowingly encouraged me to open my eyes and heart to new ideas. It hasn’t been easy. I’ve watched her experience severe emotional pain and physical frustration, but thanks to support and guidance, I’ve watched as she’s become a confident, happy and healthy child. And as she changed, I changed too.

For a lot of men, change is hard. Over the last 25 years, my body has aged. I can no longer run a six minute mile, touch the rim of a basketball hoop or bench press 200 pounds. But my emotional change has been more shocking. Most men rarely experience something that radically adjusts their core values. When it happens, you quickly learn it can force you to revisit your youth and question the foundation you’ve built for your family.

Much of how I used to define myself as a man was passed on from my father. He offered me guidance through values, typical to his upbringing and generation, like “be a man, weather the storm.” Throughout adolescence and young adulthood, I was confident these core beliefs made me the type of man who could help my family strive and prosper. I would later learn that there was a great deal of room for improvement.

What happened next would rock my world, test my marriage, and challenge who I thought I was as a person. My baby, my beautiful son would begin to teach me that he was really my daughter.

After high school, I went into the U.S. Air Force, where I learned discipline. By the end of my four-year tour, I had developed a desire to further my education, and I attended Cornell University, which taught me much about myself and the world around me. Like most people, after college came my marriage and a career. Together my wife and I planned a family, bought a house and started our careers. Once our twins were born, I pictured my life like a modified Norman Rockwell painting: happy family, dogs, toys, church and state. The only change was that the Saturday Evening Post was now web-based, the toys were all digital and we learned from granny’s wisdom via email.

During the next few years I lived in an unaware bliss, an American dream I hoped would continue until retirement and old age. But my wife lived in the real world, a world that recognized one of our children was different. At first she could not put her finger on it, but she knew in her heart and soul that one of our children was special.

As time went on, others recognized the differences too. I saw signs as well, but pretended they were phases; anything more than that was too challenging to my moderate conservatism and pursuit of the American dream. I was convinced we could develop a strategy to love, support and raise our children and by staying “neutral” everything would be okay.

What happened next would rock my world, test my marriage, and challenge who I thought I was as a person. My baby, my beautiful son would begin to teach me that he was really my daughter. She, my son, their friends and my wife would show me that this was no big deal and change does not have to be hard if you love who you are changing for.

I learned real change means acceptance—not tolerance—and an acceptance that includes equal rights and freedoms for my daughter as I’d want for her friends. With time my wife would also begin to forgive me for the time when I denied the truth to try to protect my fragile dream. As I changed, I learned a lot from others too. People who were not on board with the needs of our transgender child taught me that changing people’s perception of “normal” was essential, not just for my daughter’s safety, but for the safety of all children that are perceived as different.

Change itself has not surprised me. What has blown me away is the extreme level of change I’ve experienced. The GLBT mentors I now call my friends are a joy. Difficult soul searching has allowed me to become a real person, a real man and hopefully a leader who, along with my family and others, can change the world in some small way.

I learned real change means acceptance—not tolerance—and an acceptance that includes equal rights and freedoms for my daughter as I’d want for her friends.

As a dad who struggled early on in accepting my daughter, I would like to help other dads. If you attend any transgender meetings or conferences, you will see very few men. You will listen to mothers talk about the difficulties, lack of support and frustration with their husbands. Sometimes they will talk about the loss of a husband and father. Why do men struggle with this? Is it because of the way we are raised?

I’m still most comfortable talking to women about our family and the needs of transgender kids. Women always ask to hear more. When I talk to men, the conversation is much different. Men do not say “tell me more.” When they are supportive, it is in a very different way. They support us or the cause in a silent way.

A year ago I took my daughter to a college class to hear a transgender college professor talk about her life. I wanted her to see that there are a number of strong, successful transgender women that she can admire and emulate as she continues to develop her own core values. Sitting proudly in that classroom as a changed man, I don’t like to think about what I may have said if that same transgender professor had come to my classroom 25 years ago.

I used to believe there was only one way to create the foundation for a “normal” life. I now know a family working together, exploring new ideas and being open to change builds a much stronger foundation that will stand the test of time. The shelter that you build on this foundation will help fend off most of the damaging opinions and fears of others and protect you from the rules that society considers “normal.”

My children and my wife taught me what my life experiences, early mentors and society at-large could never: that we must live both for our children and through our children.

Want to learn more about this dad’s daughter and her experience as a transgender tween? Read the full story here. An excerpt:

Ryan is now 12 and goes by the name Sylvia. In skinny jeans and metallic ballet flats, painted nails and pigtails, she comes off as an energetic tween girl. She’s the more gregarious of the twins, but her bubbly disposition also serves as a protective facade: Since that first therapy visit at age 6, Sylvia has been in counseling to help her cope with anxiety and depression. In a world where everything is divvied up according to gender, there’s little room for a kid who falls somewhere in the middle.

83 comments

  • femme

    Nice to see a male parent being supportive of his child who was born with transsexulism. That he can say he learned from her is nice and one can see how much she is daddy’s girl.People born with transsexulism need to be able to just live their lives, in this case with equal treatment afforded other young females. This is not much different then any other issue that some parents and society should get over already.

  • Carolhrncar

    good story! Enjoyed this article. Makes you understand with a more open mind! Thanks carol

  • Cheryl

    This father is, in my view a real man, a man who is confident and secure with himself, who is fully capable of looking fear and uncertainty in the face and coming out a better person, a father who loves his children and family unconditionally and a guiding light for the “christian” right. The world needs more men, and women like him. Someday, w/small steps perhaps the world will change.

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  • Dilalia

    No one is saying that the testosterone isn’t normal. In her male body, it is. However, it is not “horrific” to prevent normal hormone function if the child identifies as female. I repeat, IDENTIFIES AS FEMALE. To allow normal hormone function to occur in a FEMALE trapped in a male’s body is CRUELTY. Do not let your discomfort overcome your sense of morality. Be thankful that your mind matches your body. Everyone is not so fortunate. There is no rational or moral reason to allow this girl to go through male puberty. None.

  • Twinkies48

    I, too, was moved to tears. I read Sylvia’s story in the paper newsletter, but am now glad to have heard her Dad’s story. It would be so wonderful if, someday, every child who feels different knew they are not alone. Here’s hoping…

  • Dfweclecticone2

    As the newly married spouse of a transgender female, I applaud you. It takes courage to admit that you might not have been this open years before…the same words I tell when I speak of my ignorance against transgender before I fell in love with my wife. Bless you!

  • Dfweclecticone2

    Well stated…I am married to a 22 year retired Marine who is also transgender. As I know you know, you are not alone!

  • carol

    soooo eloquently written… i hope this article circles the globe and opens more hearts and minds to God’s beautiful creation! thanks for being brave to write the truth.

  • kedo

    Holy moley, after reading the article and a lot of the comments, man, you are all insane. You should all be flown to an island. And spare the “Oh, see, more hate speech,” crap, couldn’t care less, you’re all still insane.

  • kedo

    Insane! You are insane and what you did to your kid should be treated like child abuse.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tammie-Williams/1119794555 Tammie Williams

    Bravo to you for putting your child before yourself. It takes a strong person to allow their child to truly be who they were meant to be instead of what society says they should be and I commend any parent who is strong enough to stand up for their child’s rights.

  • Noa’s Mom

    Hello Queenie – What is this new law you mention? My 8 year old transgender daughter has just changed her name and we would like to do this legally as well.

  • Oshee

    In response to the question about new US passport regulations:

    ~~~~~~~~~~~

    Understanding the New Passport Gender Change Policy
    June 2010
    In June 2010, the State Department announced a new policy to issue passports that reflect a person’s current gender when either a previous passport or other personal documentation presented by an applicant reflects a different gender. Under the new policy, a transgender person can obtain a passport reflecting his
    or her current gender by submitting a certification from a physician confirming that he or she has had appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition. This policy replaces the Department’s old policy, which required documentation of sex reassignment surgery.

    Why the new policy was needed
    The purpose of a passport is to facilitate travel between a person’s country of citizenship and other countries; there is no need for a person to reveal gender-related medical care to either U.S. or foreign government officials in order to be able to travel. In the past, many transgender people could not obtain an updated passport and were afraid to travel abroad. Traveling with a passport that does not reflect your current gender can cause great anxiety and can be dangerous.
    Incorrect gender designations can “out” a person as transgender in all kinds of situations, and can put people at risk of discrimination, harassment, and even violence.
    In addition, like everyone else, transgender people’s medical needs vary. There are a variety of accepted treatment options for gender transition, and not all of them are appropriate for everyone. For example, people may have medical
    conditions that are contraindications for surgical procedures. Additionally, many people cannot afford the transition-related care they do need, and many insurance plans still do not cover these medical needs. Requiring particular
    medical treatments in order to change a passport did not reflect the reality of transgender people’s lives and is not in keeping with current medical practice.

    Obtaining a passport with your current gender
    Under the new policy, you can obtain a passport with an updated gender if you have had clinical treatment determinedby your doctor to be appropriate in your case to facilitate gender transition.
    If you are just beginning transition and need to travel abroad, you can obtain a two-year provisional passport. (The State Department calls it “limited validity” though it has all the force of a regular passport but is only good for two
    years.) Once your doctor and you believe you have had clinical treatment appropriate in your case, you can obtain a full, regular passport.

    When a physician certification is required
    Under the new policy, a physician certification is required if the documents you submit with your application, which may include a prior passport, driver’s license, birth certificate, or other documents, do not all reflect the correct gender. If all the documents you submit with your application reflect the correct gender, you do not need to submit a physician certification.

    See the application instructions for more details.

  • Meadow

    For some reason I have not read this until today! As a mom to a fifteen year old transgender daughter I can so relate to his transformation! We parents come from so many places, experiences and world views. What a heartfelt description of what love can do. I have sent this essay to so many people today because it speaks to the experience of my husband and my family’s transformation. Devastation, denial, acceptance and finally….pride and determination to create a safe and accepting world for our children who will someday be leaders. Bravo to this brave Dad!!

  • ErinRandt

    you’re father sounds like a cowardly prickish loser.

    i happen to be a christian and i know for a fact that the bible does not hate the homosexuals nore the transgender i hope you’re father finds what it means to be a real father and a true christian

  • ErinRandt

    how does you father treat people who are differant Miss i’m not trying to pick a fight but i am wondering i am a christian and a lesbian and i have seen the gauntlet on human emotion and actions towards people like me i have been beaten and been made fun of for being differant.

  • ErinRandt

    you are the one with a problem this father is showing his love for his daughter and i for one will suport him and his family and every one like them i take a very dim few of hate i happen to be a christian and a lesbian and i know for a fact god loves us all and that includes the killers, the streat walkers, the cross dressers, lesbians , the transgender etc you may wish other wise but the truth is gods love knows no bounderies.

  • ErinRandt

    it is you are the problem i have seenboth sides because i am a christian and a lesbian i ahve freinds who are strait who are transvestites who are transgender and one who is a convicted pedaphile who is trying to made amends for his past jesus when he was here on earth tried to show us to love each other as he has loved us and part of love is acceptance of others regardless of there past or there sexual preferance ore there lifestyle.

  • annie

    this is such a beautifully written sentiment (sorry, that’s such a trite word, but i can’t find one powerful enough)! thank you so much for sharing your experience, and for saying what needs to be said so eloquently. 

  • dominic

    Child abuse

  • dominic

    Child abuse.

  • Dee Omally

    Thanks Annie! Gosh, I completely forgot about this posting over one year ago! No, sentiment is exactly the right word…and contrite ;) as well. You will like my blog at http://www.transendgender.wordpress.com if you liked this posting!

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  • Foggysapphires

    This is a most moving post. Thank you very much for sharing it Melissa.

      I’ve recently interviewed the writers of “There Is No Word For It”, a book about the trans man, trans masculine experience:

    http://foggysapphires.wordpress.com/2011/12/14/genderful-an-interview-with-laura-bridgeman-and-serge-nicholson/

    Perhaps you could spare a moment to read it.

    Best wishes, from Caroline in London

  • Pingback: Children’s in the News: courageous Children’s family speaks with Boston Globe | Knowledge of Medicine()

  • Dee Omally

    Flagged for “review”??? With 23 likes? What was so offensive that 23 people “liked” it? Censoring…clearly an “American” tradition example of free speech….

  • Junie

    Hello Everyone,

    It’s so great to hear my family and I are not alone as I feel very alone lately in this new journey.  My child, born a boy, is 16.  I was never in denial that he was different, I just didn’t know what was wrong and neither did he until 4 years ago.  He started doing things that I didn’t understand but passed off as I don’t even know what. I never thought he was gay because he had a girlfriend.  This girlfriend would become a great confidant in his life and hold a great secret for him for a few months.  Only a few months because a month after he told her, I asked him a question that changed my life forever.

    One day, I called him upstairs to my room and said, “I may be completely off the wall and out of line, and you’re probably gonna get pissed, but what are the chances you’re one the people who are trapped in the wrong body?”  To my surprise, while all the blood was draining out of my head, he said yes.  I said ok, and it’s gonna be ok.  I said I’ve never known anyone else this has happened to so I’m gonna have a lot of , questions, and questions, I have asked.  

    I was immediately supportive of this child I had loved for the past 16 years.  It was still the same child I had shared laughs, tears many memories with over the years.  It was still the same baby I had fed and held and patted his back so many nights.  He was beautiful to me, no matter what.

    It has taken me a few months, we just had this talk in September 2011, it is now January 2012.  I am now trying hard to refer to him as her and use the name she has chosen.  It’s a pretty name and she allowed me to pick a middle name.  We see a psychiatrist and are working towards the ultimate goal of gender reassignment surgery. Something she hopes to happen as close to her 18th birthday as possible.  She may be starting hormones as soon as this coming Spring.  

    I have 2 other children, one is 15 and the other is 9. My 15 year old is a girl and goes to school with her.   Times have sometimes been hard.  We live in a small town and I think it may have been a good thing.  It could go either way.  My children have went to school with these schoolmates all their school careers. So the people that liked my “new”  daughter still seem to like her while she’s transitioning.  Some people think she’s a “coming out” gay boy.  If they ask,  she likes to say, “I’m tranny”, do you know what that is?   There’s always gonna be an ignorant person though and I’m sure my daughter will meet the bulk of them in her lifetime.  

    My wish is for her to become a successful woman in whatever she chooses to do.  I wish happiness for her as I know she has had some very dark, unhappy moments and it breaks my heart in ways I can’t even describe.

    I could go on and on.  So I will end by saying, to all the transgender out there, hold your heads up and be proud of who you are. Love yourselves, and take care.  

  • Rev Me

    A woman’s life and health are regulated, to a great extent by progesterone. Produced primarily by the ovaries in women and the testes in men, progesterone is an essential in the production of most of the other important hormones, including estrogen, testosterone, DHEA, testosterone and cortisol. Small amounts are also produced by the adrenal glands and in the brain.http://revmeupnow.com/

  • Tiger

    When someday you experience something so out of your realm and out of your control and it is not what you originally thought was the norm, may you find peace and love from those experiencing the same thing.  Just because you don’t understand it does NOT mean it’s insane…. It just means you have never experienced it.  How perfect for you that you are so perfect.  By the way, you can spend your spare time more productively by volunteering for something you do believe in rather than being so negative. I bet you’re a lot of fun to hang around (not).
    Love to all the people who have evolved and see the bigger picture…..
    Proud mother of a WONDERFUL transgirl!!!!!!!!

  • Emily Ru King

    What an awesome dad!!! I wish I was so lucky to have parents like these.

    I knew for sure that I was female at 14, however I ended up waiting 20 years because of religion. I just came out this year. Scariest and hardest choice I made in my life.
    One of my hardest challenges, is the regret. Last night at work, I was overwhelmed with it, and wanted to take a knife and put it in my heart and just end it all. Thankfully I work with some awesome people who helped me out.
    If you are a parent with a child who feels as I did, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE help them and support them. It will make you question everything, but it will help them be happy and true.
    I will always wish I had come out in high school.

  • Camilla Dixton-Voutilainen

    And ‘hi’ from a fluxing one; “neither” and “both” :>

  • xab

    I know I’m incredibly late to this, but I just want to say that this is unbelievably beautiful. You are a wonderful father.

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