Published on April 20th, 2017 | by Rachel Aimee0
“Welcome Them”—An Interview with Alisa Bowman on RAISING THE TRANSGENDER CHILD
As Janet Mock recently explained in the New York Times, “Young People Get Trans Rights. It’s Adults Who Don’t.” At this regressive moment in history, as the Trump administration rescinds legal protections for trans youth, it’s important to remember that culture continues to march forward. More and more trans kids across the country are living as their true selves at home and at school, and increasing numbers of parents and educators are realizing they need to learn how best to support the trans kids in their lives. Raising the Transgender Child, a new parenting guidebook by Alisa Bowman and Dr. Michele Angello, is going to make that a whole lot easier.
This practical and super readable book breaks down the issues for everyone, from those who are only just learning the word “transgender” and want to know, “What’s the difference between LGB, LGBT, LGBTI, and LGBTQQIP2SAA?” to those who are knee-deep in navigating the legal and healthcare systems to get their child’s transition-related healthcare costs covered by insurance and may turn straight to the chapter outlining “Seven Ways to Avoid Going Broke.” It’s also packed with statistics from the latest research illustrating the devastating costs of refusing to affirm a child’s gender identity, for the next time that conservative uncle tries to argue that your child will “grow out of it.”
“This wonderful book arrives at exactly the right moment, providing parents, families, and educators with an invaluable resource for raising a trans child with wisdom and love,” says Jennifer Finney Boylan, author of She’s Not There and Stuck in the Middle with You.
I spoke with Alisa Bowman about her personal reasons for writing the book, and how other parents are responding. – Rachel Aimee
MUTHA: What made you want to write this book?
ALISA BOWMAN: This book began one day over coffee with my literary agent. I casually mentioned that my son was transgender. At the time, Caitlyn Jenner had just come out, and my agent leaned toward me and fired off dozens of questions. She was genuinely curious and wanted to learn. I was genuinely generous and offered as many answers as I could.
On my way out of the coffee house, a young man tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I couldn’t help but overhear…” I thought he was about to lecture me and tell me I was raising my child wrong. Instead he said, “I’m trans. I think you are a wonderful mother.” Then he handed me his business card and said, “If you ever need ANYTHING, please reach out.”
We marveled at how small this world can be. Then we parted ways.
Several weeks later, my agent emailed, saying she thought the world needed a guide for parents like me.
Just the idea of it made my stomach turn. At the time, my son was in the closet. He looked like any boy. Most people had no idea that he had ovaries and a vagina.
I told her that, though I could see the need for it, I could not pen a book like this. It was just too dangerous.
But she persisted.
Soon a publisher was interested. I talked the publisher into allowing me to use a pen name. But then August of 2016 happened. That’s when things got personal. That’s when a high school student went before our district’s school board and she told them that she didn’t want transgender students in the locker room with her. Her story went viral. Soon people were commenting on Facebook about kids like mine being freaks and perverts and mentally ill.
I knew my son was none of those things.
I also knew something else: it was time to stop being so silent.
Three weeks later, my son and I went before the school board, and we brought an entire loving community with us. A video of my son’s speech soon went viral, and we were inundated with requests for interviews. What shocked me more than anything was how many people stood up for us once they realized it was safe to do so. That’s when I asked our publisher to put my real name on the book rather than have me write under a pen name.
MUTHA: That’s an amazing story. As you discuss in the book, many parents think they are protecting their children by preventing them from expressing their true gender identity, but the research shows the opposite. What advice do you have for these parents?
ALISA BOWMAN: I used to be one of the parents in the former category. I wanted my son to “just” be a masculine girl rather than a transgender boy. In other words, I would hear myself wishing, “Can’t she just be a masculine girl?” and “Can’t she just be a lesbian?”
My reasoning was that society was more accepting of masculine women than society was of men with ovaries and, therefore, he’d be happier and safer as a result. But I was wrong. By trying to force an identity onto my son, I didn’t see him for who he truly was – and that was a lot more harmful than accepting him and helping him to find his way, even in a world that may or may not accept him.
We’ve all probably experienced milder versions of what transgender people experience, and those experiences can help us to empathize with what it’s like to be told you are “wrong.” Perhaps, for example, you were told that you were crazy for loving a particular song or movie. Or maybe, your parents strongly encouraged you to go into a STEM profession, even though you loved the arts. Or maybe you were told to dress a certain way. When our families, friends and society attempt to define us without our input or permission, it’s annoying and frustrating and anxiety producing. So just imagine how it would feel if society was telling you that you were wrong about how you perceived and expressed your gender, perhaps going as far to tell you that you were going to go to Hell for it. Imagine how it would feel if you felt your parent’s love was conditional on you behaving in a way that didn’t reflect who you really were. Imagine how stressful it would be to go through the world pretending to be someone you knew you weren’t. That’s the experience of transgender youth who are not accepted by their families, and it’s partly what is driving the very high rates of depression, anxiety and suicide among transgender people.
MUTHA: What kind of response has the book gotten from parents?
ALISA BOWMAN: During a recent book signing, I was heartened to meet several parents who had been raising transgender children near me. We didn’t know one another and probably would have never met if not for the book events. And had we never met, they would have felt as if they were all alone – with no other families like theirs in the area. I literally watched the expressions on their faces change from fear to comfort, and that made every bit of this process so worth it for me.
MUTHA: What are the most useful things that parents (not just parents of trans kids but all parents) can do to support gender diverse kids and their families?
ALISA BOWMAN: Affirm. Affirm. Affirm. Use the name someone asks you to use, even if it’s not technically their legal name. Use the pronouns they ask you to use, even if it feels awkward at first. Welcome them into gendered spaces. Believe them when they tell you who they are, and make every effort to treat them as their identified gender.
And talk to your own children about gender. Help them to be the kid who sticks up for someone who is being bullied. Talk to them about the importance of kindness, compassion, and love. The bullies of the world are pretty rare, but people who stand by and do nothing as those bullies accomplish their dirty work are very common. Teach your child what to do so they are not scared into silence, but rather courageous enough stand up for the most vulnerable among us.