October is LGBT History Month. To honor transgender people and their unique histories, I will be featuring transgender people and parents of transgender children all month long. Through sharing their stories, I hope to raise awareness of this amazing population of people who still struggle for basic human rights.
By Mark Christianson, proud father of a transgender child
Men. We are the hunters, the fixers, the chest beating defenders of our little part of the world. We deal largely in absolutes and to be honest, for most of us, the challenges of being a parent to a transgender child goes outside the bounds of what we typically learned as being a parent. This isn’t an excuse; this is time to “man up”.
1. Who am I?
My name is Mark, husband to a loving wife and father to two amazing sons. My oldest son is 20 and is enjoying his second year of college, he is a member of the Marching Band, has gay and straight friends and actively volunteers to work at a drag club now and then.
My youngest son Aiden is 18, enjoying his senior year in high school, is National Honor Society student, a long time athlete, has gay and straight friends and actively participates in LGBT groups in the area.
The main difference between them is that Aiden is transgender (FTM). Aiden has been out as 'Aiden' since just before the summer started, we changed our pronouns and the process of legal name change is in the works so these last few weeks have been filled with who Aiden is becoming and the stresses of talking about these things with everyone.
About now you’re thinking my story is just another in the crowd but this is where it gets interesting. I am a republican, fiscal conservative, US Army paratrooper veteran who is active with veteran’s organizations and a God fearing Christian. While some believe that would give me every excuse to hide or deny a transgender child, I have been public, open and supporting because anyone who is MY friend will love ME for who I am and for loving my kids.
As I mentioned, during my time in the military I was a paratrooper, one of those nuts that jump out of “perfectly good” airplanes. The training was always that we will jump into a situation we 'think' we understand and then once we get on the ground we figure out what 'really' is the situation and then adjust ourselves accordingly. My past doesn't determine how I should think about transgender issues, it merely provides me the strength to have the courage of my convictions and realize that we are always learning something new and that I will adjust to whatever it is in order to do the best for my children.
2. There really is only one rule
If there was a list of things every parent needs to know in order to be successful then it would have ONE rule.
Love your children.
Notice that there is a period and there are no asterisks. The rule is true for any child, regardless of gender, sexual preference, race, adopted or natural born (you get the point). If you are a parent, THAT is the rule that dictates every other thing you do. This is where I draw every ounce of my strength as a parent to a transgender child, when confusion, stress and fear cloud my family’s way I think “If I love my child, I need to do WHAT at this moment?”
3. Why are they proud of me?
I've had many parents, friends, family and school faculty tell us how PROUD they are OF US and I don't handle it well. As I’ve already pointed out, in my mind my job is to love my kid just like any other parent should be doing. I don't think I deserve special recognition because my kid happens to be transgender. I tend to think in many ways we are more fortunate than parents of children with disabilities, mental or addiction issues. Yes, being a parent of a transgender child has challenges, stresses, difficulties and responsibilities but I don't think it is about MORE of anything as much as DIFFERENT things.
Most of the job as a dad seems to be centered around keeping an eye on the horizon, watching the bigger picture, listening for the cues that may tell us someone is smiling at us but grumbling behind our back. This is that silent “man job” that many spouses fail to recognize as actual work. Your husband may not seem active but believe me, most are doing the “hunter” job and keeping an eye out for threats. This is a quiet job, and one men like me will cling to. My wife is the advocate, she’s the one organizing and being the point parent on things. She is so active in doing this that many times there is an assumption that I am not on board but we both have our roles and responsibilities.
4. 180-degree thinking
I recently spoke with my parents about how hard it is to feel like you have to weigh every conversation, what I say vs what they say, be careful not to push too hard or be offended too easy. This is MY burden to carry as a transgender person's parent and if it takes a little of the burden off my son, then it is the job I do gladly because as I mentioned, my job is to love my kids and loving my kids means protecting them.
It’s a little selfish, but no matter what your child is going through, at some point we realize that we are going to have to re-assess every single person we deal with from extended family and co-workers to the people at church and the kids school. That’s the big social hurdle for we dads of transgender children, talking about it with others. This is where much of the fear creeps in because we all want to be accepted and having a stable life is sometimes such a strong instinct that we’ll lie or hide to stay in the herd.
That brings me to what I refer to as my 180-degree rule.
I have a bit of a mental exercise that has come in handy with Aiden and the transgender discussions. I flip any subject 180 degrees and if it sounds stupid, most likely it IS stupid (or unnecessary). Case in point, many parents seem to believe there has to be some announcement or explanation all the time ... almost an excuse for having an LGBT child.
If I introduced my oldest son like “Hey Bob, this is my son Josh. He’s straight, he’s a boy in a boy’s body.” First off, Bob is going to wonder what got dropped in my coffee. The point is, if I didn't walk up to people at work and introduce my oldest son as 'straight' or 'male' then why would I need to say any more than 'This is my son Aiden' when I talk about my transgender child? The gender or sexual orientation has zero bearing on the situation and is information that the other person doesn’t need to know.
Don't misconstrue that by not offering that extra bit of information I am not willing to have a frank discussion about it if the situation presents itself. I have both a short version and longer version of why one day I told you I had a youngest daughter, and why today I have a youngest son. It all depends on the situation, the person and the time I feel is appropriate because I am leading my family and it is part of my job to control the family information.
5. Lead your Family
As the male member of the household, tradition holds that we lead. Leading means doing things in the best interest of your family that stand as an example of how others should act. I treat my transgender teen like any other child and that means in private and even more importantly in public. Those around you will sense when you are not sure, they will know when you are wavering, unsure or inconsistent. Sure I have doubts, fears, questions and rough patches but those are for me to work on. These times of confusion are the fuel for talks with your trusted friends or even your child, you are a team going through this together. There is no shame in showing that you are not always a pillar of strength and knowledge.
6. Embracing Community
Men seem to be absent from the community discussions. I see concerned mom’s and scared children. As a man we owe it to our children to learn what we need to know to be the best parent possible. The suicide rate in transgender teens is too high. The messages of children who do not know that both parents love them and support them is heart breaking. Men have a role to play, we have children trying to learn to be proper respectful adults, many of which have never had the luxury of any of the “man” things children learn over time. Dive in, help out and make a difference.
I have been a parent for 20 years, and I have only been on this transgender journey for a few months but the message I work to present is clear and consistent to all those around me. “I am FINE with my children, they are two amazing individuals, each with gifts that I am proud of. If you do not feel the same, so be it, but it will not impact who I am and who they are.”
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Special thanks to Mary Tyler Mom who inspired this unique and beautiful way of honoring LGBT History Month.