Father of a transgender tween speaks out

by Melissa Jeltsen on August 2, 2010


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.


  • Delphi

    Your comment representing the “contra” viewpoint is refreshing as it represents your honest perspective. My hope is that all replies will be as constructive.

    As an adult undergoing physical transition to female, I feel compelled to offer the reminder that just as two persons can describe an event in an almost contradictory fashion so too can two persons experience a gender transition differently.

    Let us remember that tolerance by definition means to “put up with something” one disagrees with or lacks comfort in. As such, it is laden with negative connotations. Anything deemed worthy of tolerance is not welcome but must be “suffered”.

    Acceptance on the other hand is a word laden with positive connotations. It means to receive something or someone despite uniquely different characteristics which serve to enrich the human experience. To accept is to “welcome” a person or event without disagreement or discomfort.

    As members of the human experience, we are born male, female, both, or variations thereof both physically and/or mentally—not as an animal. This is not to be confused with playing a superhero role.

    Additionally, the article is clear that the child began communicating to the parents that she was a girl, not the other way around. To the contrary, dad believed he had a son until convinced otherwise. Also, hormones don’t make anyone “feel” masculine or feminine. Again, the article is clear that the child has yet to begin taking hormones. Hormone blockers simply place the child in a neutral state hormonally, yet she has felt female all her life. I said “felt” as in feel—clearly stemming from her mind. The purpose of hormones is to effect positive physical change to reflect one’s feeling of being male or female—a physical solution to an internal mental perspective. A gender transition is not a mental disorder. After a diagnose of GID, a medical doctor assumes all care.

    A hormonal imbalance doesn’t begin at age 4, 5, or 6. It occurs much later during puberty when the body begins to develop and mature as male or female. A hormonal “imbalance” IS medically corrected with gender-specific hormones—specific to an internal gender perspective..

    Regarding tattoos, marking the skin has as much to do with gender as wearing pants—that is, nothing at all. Feeling like a girl or boy, despite a physical contrast is wrong only if being a girl or boy is wrong. It must be reiterated, however, that it is not the parent but the child that is communicating either verbally and/or physically that something is wrong not mentally but physically. Again it isn’t the mind that’s wrong—it’s the body. Gender Identity (physical) Disorder, as I have stated is a “physical issue” and definitely “not ideal” while growing up either—and yes for many persons failure to resolve it has led to an early death.

    “Mistakes”, are all around us, both mentally and physically. We are given no choice but to “accept” this fact and in turn accept others in the human family with such ailments, gender identity not excluded. If at one time a person existed in a perfect state, I have yet to meet an eyewitness to such. The cause of our mistake-laden existence is for others to ponder. Clearly, since none of us exist as examples of perfection, only a perfect being has earned the right to evaluate a non-perfect being as a “mistake.” Just as clearly, from birth until departure mankind exists in a planet tasked with problems and provided with intellect to find viable solution, including the lack of gender congruency.
    In closing, I must say that from my experience, I have never, ever been confused by my gender. Having a body that didn’t match my gender left nothing to be confused about anymore than being born without an arm is confusing. It is not a state of confusion but a state of succinct acknowledgment that a problem exists begging for a solution–no more and no less. Let us not forget that we are born with a physical representation (external) and with a mental representation (internal). To live as “we are born” is exactly what this child and others undergoing gender transition are doing, unless we are born first physically then in time a brain “is born” within the body with the passing of time, which is clearly not the case.

    I have come full circle. I opened with the statement that no two persons experience an event in the same way; likewise as there are “remorseful” transgender females, there are even more that finally get to live their life physically matching “just as they were born” mentally, despite heavy costs accepted as the price for “doing business”.

    Cheers and Love,

    Delphi L.

  • Happy

    There are no “ravages of testosterone”, the testosterone that is present in your child is absolutely normal. Preventing normal hormone function is any child is horrific.

  • http://chartreuseflamethrower.wordpress.com/ Z

    Just saying ‘hey’ from another neither. :D

  • http://chartreuseflamethrower.wordpress.com/ Z

    Actually- it’s extremely unusual for women to have such high levels of testosterone and it can cause emotional problems and make her uncomfortable in her body.

  • Queenie

    Thank you, Z. I inadvertently made this clear as mud… my daughter is biologically male.

  • Queenie

    Jessica ~ it breaks my heart to hear how cruel your father was. What about your mother? Did he berate her from accepting and supporting you? I hope in your adult like you have found peace and happiness.

  • Queenie

    If you were forced to live in the opposite gender you identify with… right now, from this moment forward… imagine how horrific every minute of every day would be. Imagine wearing board shorts in the shower since age 6 because the mere thought of seeing body parts incongruent with your core being is traumatizing beyond words and is today, at 17. Suicide is not going to claim my happy, grounded, beautiful, smart, healthy, AMAZING transdaughter.

  • Anonymous

    Since you asked if male hormones could be used to make someone feel more masculine, I offer the story of my best friend. She began to transition at age 34, after having felt unambiguously female all her life. When her hormone levels were tested before beginning treatment, it was found that her testosterone level was double the male average. The hormones don’t dictate whether you feel male or female. What they do is affect the body, and the mood, to a degree. When my friend started on estrogen therapy, she didn’t feel “more like a woman”, but she did feel a lot more comfortable with a body that wasn’t trying to send her the wrong signals.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you so much for this article. It really hit home.

  • Kd

    What an amazing, strong, loving dad. Your kids are lucky to have you! I’m sure very few people read this with a dry eye…

  • Anon

    I’m not trans, but I am queer. Your unconditional love and acceptance of your child gives me hope that one day it won’t have to be so hard for all of us who are born different. Thank you.

  • Mnd

    Absolutely FANTASTIC essay and family story. As you know, this is what makes you a real man — opening your eyes, proudly changing, using all of yourself to love and protect your family. I’m typing this with one hand because my beautiful 3-month-old boy is asleep in my lap. If he ever feels he wants to be somewhere other than purely ‘boy’ on the gender scale, he will have an easier time in the world because of amazing parents like you.

  • Babblefishie

    Thanks for sharing. It’s testimonials like this that are changing the world we live in. Wishing you and your family all the best.

  • http://chartreuseflamethrower.wordpress.com/ Z

    So? She’s still a woman- and it’s still extremely uncommon for a woman to have testosterone levels that high.

    Also- you may want to read this: http://thisiswhatamanlookslike.wordpress.com/2009/10/29/this-is-what-a-male-bodied-person-looks-like/

  • Joseph Krahn

    RR, you are severely misinformed. The only reason transgender adults have to endure pain learning to accept themselves is because there are so many people like you.

  • http://apisgirl.com/ Apis Girl

    This story, and the one’s left in the comments are making me cry so much. It’s happy crying for the most part. I’m really glad to hear that there are people on the planet that still know what love is, and how to show it. Thank you for keeping my hope’s up.

  • Kelly

    If anything I have found that there is not a “Norman Rockwell” family in this day and age. To truly love your children and life as is it is, is the best way to become a happy, healthy, strong family and person.

  • GL

    I am non-trans, but I identify as gay and genderqueer and my partner is trans. It was my privilege and pleasure to volunteer for a camp for queer and trans young people earlier this summer. Getting to know trans youth who had a space to focus on growing up and going through the usual teenage drama while living as who they truly are was so refreshing and full of hope. All children should be wanted, treasured, and nurtured as they grow up healthfully into the unique individuals they are.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Danielle-Krieger/1386982667 Danielle Krieger

    Thank you, sir, for posting this for all to see. As a transgender woman, I went through many of the things your daughter has already experienced… and some of the things she’s lucky she will never have to face. You are a good man.

    I, myself, have had a unique experience. Growing up, I had a step-dad who was a lot like you, in the beginning. In many ways, he’s still the man you USED to be. From a very early age, I was subject to his wrath because he wanted to change me to “be a man” and I could never honor that demand. To say that we have a broken relationship is an understatement. On the other hand, I have my biological father who has more than earned the title “Daddy” in my eyes. He and my mother divorced when I was very young and he spent much of his 20-year service to the United States Navy aboard ship and away from any family at all. Until I was an adult, we didn’t spend much time together save for some odd weekend when he was actually granted leave. Since I “came out” to him, though, he’s been very supportive.

    As I read through this essay, there was a rollercoaster of emotions. Much of your early experience reminded me of my step-father, bringing anger and frustration to the surface. It was never a good experience for me. Then, things began to change and I began to weep tears of joy. In more ways than one, I truly envy your daughter. She has a Dad who loves her, truly, and would do anything for her. Just what every little girl needs.

    I’m certain she will likely say it one day, but allow me to thank you from many of the rest of us for truly being a real man. We need more of you in this world.

  • Queenie

    Her testosterone levels are kept at bay with Spironolactone ~ as in the Netherlands study, we halted puberty before male traits such as adams apple, deepened voice, facial and excess body hair, pronounced jaw, nose and brow bone as male, etc. And thank you for the link, Z ~ I enjoyed the article!

  • Queenie

    Last Friday my daughter’s U.S. Passport arrived with her correct gender marker rather than that recorded on her birth certificate 17 years ago, thanks to new law passed in June. This has been quite a journey for an amazing transgirl ~

  • Momrunr

    I pray my husband reaches this place not only for our child but for himself as well. I love them both but as a mother I feel I need to be that voice for my daughter who’s bravery amazes me. My daughter was born “male” and I knew very early on. I did not know that it had a formal name until I was lead to a book called “Dress Codes”. My child is 10 going on 11 and make a beautiful daughter. She does not have to live in fear of who is going to catch her cross-dressing, she dresses as a tween, crushes on boys, and shares with me her innermost thoughts. I will stand by her from now until forever. I use to read to her “Love You Forever”…and it is so true I have that unconditional love. I introduce her as my daughter and it does cause marital strife. This story gives me hope for my child, my family and my husband.

  • shana

    its in the brain. studies have shown transgender humans are born with the brain of the gender opposite of their physically gender. Many many test r done and have been for over 60 years. many countries in this world understand and even pay for the reconstructive surgery. it is human nature to correct something that is incorrect. its natural its normal its human. all humans are created individually and different. love and acceptance is humane. LOVE and acceptance and understanding. Bless you dad for loving your child. Transgender is not the same as playing like a dinosaur or any other type of play its real its here and its happening and will always. All things are created for us to learn from. open our hearts breath deeply and love. I am transgender, i remember knowing i was a girl at 3, i am free to be me , i am a successful business owner and live a full life and am very social with a world full of friends. i am happy and it matters to me. Never keep someones true happiness from them, u cannot compare transgender with any other scenario because its not any other scenario its what it is and what it is. God bless all of you parents including my own caring loving parents and family who love and accept me as i love and accept them UNCONDITIONALLY. LOVE is in the air, n it starts in the heart. Feel it and share it. LOVE, Aits my best friend. Shana

  • Anonymous

    I love this!

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  • Scstevemclark

    I really related to this article as a dad of a trangender child- we adopted an older child from the other side of the world who could hardly speak a word of english, so we started lacking needed parent-child bond, language and even any knowledge about TG kids. Dads especially need to have simple, strong tools to carry you and your family though the many dark nights (do you know that any way you handle your TG child is wrong in someones mind? everyone is suddenly an expert in something deeply personal yet public at the same time), the love for you child (or in our case the knowledge that we had adopted a kind, decent, intelligent human being plus faith that love would follow) has to be a candle to carry you through. Id love to have a beer (or two) with other dads of TG children

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  • 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.

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