A father of a trans child responds

In response to my piece, “Concern for Children Transitioning,” Erik Kluzek added comments which are insightful and important. They warranted my bringing them to your attention. Erik agreed to my posting them.

As Erik states, he is the father of a transgender child, who transitioned as a youth and is now an adult. Also, Erik is the writer of the other letter in my post, “Two More Rays of Hope.”

Listen to Erik.

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Gina, thanks so much for this well done article on transgender kids. I would like to add a little bit from my perspective as a parent of a transgender child, who is now an adult. I’ve also worked with a lot of parents of transgender kids in peer support groups. So I know something of the experience from the point of view of parents.

Let me first of all affirm what you have said. Medical interventions do not happen to young children. The first step that may be used as you point out are puberty blockers which have been safely used for decades for precocious puberty. And they are safe and reversible. HRT is not reversible—but neither is puberty. They do have to pick either natal puberty or HRT. PIC is the language we use as well—persistent, insistent, and consistent. It’s not something done on a whim. The risk of suicide that you point out is very real as well and often transgender kids either make attempts or are hospitalized for suicide ideation (even for very young children). What I’ve seen over and over is that behavior drops as the kids transition and start to feel comfortable in their own skin.

Let me bring in a couple points from the original question which I’ll divide into three parts: “can kids make life-changing decisions at young ages,” “do kids eventually come to terms with these things,” and finally are professionals “actively forcing reluctant parents?”

First, can kids make life-changing decisions at young ages? What research has found is that kids gain a gender identity at about ages 2-6 years old. It’s also found that identity isn’t able to be changed. Even the conservative Dr. Kenneth Zucker has admitted that if a child’s gender identity is firmly transgender at about age 12—they aren’t likely to change and he recommends medical transition treatment as needed. Here’s some great advice from the AAP which is the US organization for Pediatricians (60,000 strong).

https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/gradeschool/Pages/Gender-Non-Conforming-Transgender-Children.aspx

Second, do kids eventually come to terms with their natal sex? There’s better articles on this than I. But, let me point out a major new understanding on this. In the past the diagnostic criteria for Gender Identity Disorder included kids who don’t identify themselves as being the opposite gender—but only display behavior that is stereotypical of the opposite gender. Most of those kids will desist. But, the kids with PIC as Gina pointed out—don’t. Hence, the new criteria for Gender Dysphoria has to do with what gender the child identifies with themself.

Lastly are professionals actively forcing reluctant parents? As a parent I understand this fear. It’s not something that I’ve seen however, and I think it could only be done very rarely. I also understand that parents in this position are very terrified—I certainly was. And that is what I see in the majority of parents, especially at first, they don’t understand, and they are scared to death. Since parents have parental rights for a child, a professional can’t force a parent to do anything they don’t want for their child—unless the professional can prove it’s in the child’s best interest.

In one study that opened my eyes the likelihood of attempted suicide for a person that is transgender and has family that is highly rejecting of them is a horrific 57%, while for supportive family it’s near the normal of 4% (to put a human face on it remember Leelah Alcorn).

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Taken from the website Erik cited.  The numbers speak for themselves, and they scream out the need to compassionately listen to our children.

Other metrics are similarly horrifying. Even with that a professional can’t force a parent to act. A parent has to consent for medical interventions on their child, until the child is 18. The only way that can be overturned is in the rare case, where a child can be legally emancipated. That process is long and difficult, and multiple people have to agree that it’s in the child’s best interest.

I used to think it was outrageous that my kids school can’t give my child aspirin without my consent, but they can send them for a highly dangerous medical procedure of abortion. What I know now is that having parents that are unsupportive of their transgender child is very dangerous for that child. Is there a point where a child is so unsafe with their parents, that parental rights should be taken away? Yes, there is. Does that happen very often? No. And I suspect it only happens in the most egregious cases, and probably not as often as it should.

As I say, just witness Leelah Alcorn.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Leelah_Alcorn

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What I hoped to achieve by attempting suicide

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You have likely heard it said that suicide attempts are cries for help, that these people really don’t want to die but use the moment to get help, help which they otherwise could not figure out how to get, even with the availability of suicide prevention phone numbers.

I wonder how many, who attempted suicide, ended up dying, who never wanted to die.

I wonder how many, who attempted suicide, found themselves in no different a situation after the attempt, leaving them just as frustrated, leaving them just as trapped, leaving them feeling just as terrible as before.

And leaving them contemplating their next suicide attempt.

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When I found myself feeling the worst, I never wanted to die, but I really wanted to try to kill myself. Over and over, and over again, I had the same conversation with myself: “You hate being a man. You can’t be a woman. Just kill yourself.” But I didn’t want to die. I wanted to live. I wanted to “beat this thing” as I would say, whatever that would mean. And though my will to live was so strong, I could not shake the thought, even the desire, to try to kill myself.

Outside of talking with Julie, with whom I shared everything, holding back nothing that I was experiencing, I had no ability to imagine revealing my secret to anyone else. Telling my kids—are you kidding me? Telling my siblings—was that any less worse? Telling my closest friends and fellow pastors—was that not just as bad?

Trying to transition? At my age? As tall and large as I am? Having the money to do so? Becoming a laughing stock, an offense to many?

Leaving the ministry?  Leaving the work I so loved, the perfect job for me?  Leaving the people and town which Julie and I adored?  Giving up a secure income, with good benefits?

Trying to keep my mouth shut and go on as I had been? Hoping therapy would finally help me find a way to stop hating myself?

Every question came back with an answer that just plain stunk. How was I ever going to live through this?

So, what did I do?  I went about my life as if all were well.  I did my job, putting on a happy face for everyone and then, when I went home, once again fell apart.  One would have had to have been able to read minds to know that I was constantly thinking about killing myself.

That’s the way it is with those suffering suicidal ideation—they are really good at hiding it.

It was this time of year, four years ago, that I began the trek of telling my kids, and then my siblings and, as I had opportunity and need, talking with friends and professional peers. That I navigated everything and successfully transitioned, mine is a survivor’s story and, just for that, it is worth telling, because someone might read it and find the strength to take heart and move forward. Even more, I find it important to talk about why people try to kill themselves, because what I hoped to achieve by it has a common plot.

Two of every five people—41%—who are struggling with their gender identity, will try to end their lives. The reasons come from the internal struggle and the external realities. I am confident that there rarely is one thing, but a mixture of stressors—trying to accurately understand oneself, fear of rejection from family, what will happen to job and economic situation if I attempt transitioning, will I be safe, will God reject me, and more—which pile on, egging on that “just kill yourself” voice, to call more often and more clearly.

Again, we who are suffering—not only we with gender dysphoria, but anyone who is suffering terribly—don’t really want to die; we simply can’t see a way out in which we will not suffer horribly, ending up in a life which could be far worse than what we have now.

But we don’t know how to cry out, to say the words to others, and so we turn inside. Fear is mighty powerful; addressing it can be crippling.

We make a plan. We hope that, should we attempt to carry it out, we won’t die, and we won’t be permanently disabled, but we will be hurt badly enough so that when the most important people in our lives ask why we did it there will be so much concern in their words and compassion in their hearts that we will finally be able launch into our story.

I had made a plan. Whenever I thought about my plan, I wondered why it was my plan. “Just take a bunch of pills,” I would tell myself. “You’re not a violent person. It’s the only logical way to do it.” Yet, pills were too passive for me. Though I constantly rejected the notion of causing pain to myself, that’s exactly what I wanted to do.

Another reason some of us attempt suicide is because we believe we deserve to be punished. We tell ourselves that we were not strong enough to get our act together. If others knew about us, that’s exactly what many of them would say. Indeed, after I undertook transitioning, I was asked: “Why didn’t you try harder to be a man?” Before I transitioned, one pastor said it straight out: “Greg, be a man.”

I was finding it impossible to satisfy either of those men, and I wanted so desperately to do so.  I was a failure.

Encapsulated in their words is another reason we attempt suicide. We are misunderstood. Many will never understand us. Many will not even try. Many will allow their prejudices and preconceived notions to speak louder than we can talk to them.

Two events in 2013 stand out as low points, when I so wanted to try to kill myself. The first occurred just before I was about to begin telling others about my gender dysphoria and that I was going to retire from the ministry. The second came in the autumn, after I had an intense week of telling key people in the ministry.

Both times, I was on county roads near Port Hope. In the first, I was heading home, just east of Filion on Filion Road. In the second, I was going south on Ruth Road, on my way to Bad Axe.

Both times, my situation had so broken me that I devolved into bitter bawling. I was driving fifty-five miles an hour, crying hard and screaming at the top of my lungs everything that I was feeling, and begging the Lord to spare me.

“Please, let me die,” was combined with, “Please, let me live.” Back and forth.

On Filion Road, a semi was heading west. “Turn into its path,” I tried to convince myself. “You have to do it now, or the opportunity will be lost.” As the truck neared the ideal spot, I knew I could not do it, because I would have put another human into harm’s way. No, if I were going to try to kill myself, I could not bring another person into it.

Four months later, as I was crying and screaming and praying down Ruth Road, I had already formed my plan. These county roads have really wide and deep ditches. I had buried two teenagers who had fatally met up with them in separate crashes, so I had experienced their power against a careening vehicle. I would release my seat belt, increase my speed, and aim myself at the ditch on my side of the road.

If it is possible to be equal parts angry that you didn’t do something and glad that you didn’t, I was that. My desire to live, to “beat this thing,” not to test the Lord that He was duty-bound to take me to heaven, not to harm Julie and my family and all who loved me, won the moment. I would drive to Bad Axe. Instead of calling on some shut-in members, I headed to Julie’s place of work. She came home with me. I resolved to quit the ministry that very day. My pastoral counselor talked me out of it. I managed to plow forward eight more months in the ministry, to tell my kids and siblings, and Julie and I figured out a path for ourselves, a path which now is in its fourth year.

I didn’t try to kill myself mostly because I didn’t want to die. I also didn’t try because I feared that I would . . .
. . . barely be hurt, but I would total my car, and the whole thing would simply be an expensive, embarrassing, impossible-to-explain mess.
. . . be hurt so badly that I would be left paralyzed. Can you imagine that, still suffering gender dysphoria and now confined to a wheelchair? I could, and it almost took away my breath.
. . . actually die. And I didn’t want to die.

But I so wanted to try to kill myself. I saw it as a way of letting the world know so that I didn’t have to find my own way to do it. I wanted sympathy, because I feared judgment. If I went public only after surviving a suicide attempt, maybe—just maybe—I would get the “Poor guy. What he must be going through” comments for which I longed, that everyone would feel sorry for me and, if I did find that I had to try transitioning, they would recognize it as the life-saving measure it would be.

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If you know anyone who is hurting badly, please show them a gentle spirit and compassionate concern.  They might be suffering suicidal ideation.  And they might find you a safe person to whom they can open up. You might just save their life.

If you know anyone who tried to kill her- or himself and lived, please be sympathetic and kind, and do not judge them as weak. Actually making the attempt to take one’s life might be the hardest thing a person can do. How badly does a person need to be hurting, to finally take the pills, hang the noose, turn the wheel, pull the trigger?  For as badly as I suffered suicidal ideation, I still think an actual attempt was a long ways from my grasp.

If you know anyone who has succeeded at the act and is now dead, I hope you are able to mourn and grieve this horrible loss, to love those who remain, and to grow in compassion and understanding. Somewhere, someone else is having the thoughts, making the plan, and longing to try to end it all.

And hoping to live through it, so that the suicide attempt can speak for them, to be their lifeline.

The transgender suicide problem

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The transgender spectrum is anyone who has a mismatch of sex and gender, whether or not they transition, attempt to transition, or transition full time.

The attempted suicide rate for those on the transgender spectrum is forty-one percent.

41%.

Two of every five.

That’s ten times the rate for all Americans, of which it is estimated about 4% will attempt suicide at least once.

In this piece, I endeavor to examine why those on the transgender spectrum are prone to attempting to kill themselves.  I will break it down into four groups, seeking to cover vital areas of impact but not presuming to address every last one, nor to cover things in great depth.

Those who are keeping it to themselves

For those who feel wrong about themselves in their sex and gender, the idea of telling anyone—spouse, parents, children, siblings, friends, even a therapist—can be beyond their imagining.  Many circumstances can increase the height of the hurdle, among them being marriage, religion, and work.

“No good thing could come of it,” is where the person arrives.  “And much bad would come of it.”

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Alone.  These folks feel completely alone.  They cannot comprehend anyone understanding.  They easily can envision trouble with every person, in every sphere of life, a total destruction of their lives.  So, they stuff—check that, they try to stuff their feelings deep enough to be able to ignore them, which they find impossible to do.  They find they must deal with their angst, yet they cannot find a way to do it.  In time, they might arrive at an impasse so great that death seems like the only answer.

Those who open up

The next group includes those who took the leap and gave voice to their gender identity issues.  Perhaps, they told one or more of those closest to them, or they first sought a therapist.  They have gotten it off their chest, revealed their deep secret.  In one respect, telling someone felt good.  Of course, there now are others involved.

If it were a close relative, that person’s reaction and feelings are now on the table. If the person saw a therapist, there will be much to work through.  By telling the therapist, the person might find facing it—“The therapist said I might in fact be transgender!”—to be too much.  Whatever was said, the person now is facing the issues, can see being on a path, and the path might look very scary.  By confessing to the family member, the fall-out could easily have done perceived or real irreparable harm to the relationship.

These matters might now be mulled in this person’s head so much that they become big, and they can become so big that they can be seen as unconquerable.  “Why did I ever open my mouth?!”  Seeking an exit, suicide begins to look like the way out.

Those who begin transitioning

Should a person progress, transitioning might be undertaken.  The person tells family and friends, those at work and online.  There will be many supporters, but there will be those who do not.  Worse, there will almost assuredly be opposition, and the resistance can come from people in positions to adversely affect the trans person’s life—emotionally, spiritually, economically.

Virtually no transgender person experiences 100% acceptance from the entire family.  Some of the contention can be so severe as to be traumatic, even to cause division between the supporters and the opposers.  If it is internalized as guilt, the impact can be experienced deeply.

Your transitioning could bring you trouble at work—from not receiving a promotion which, otherwise, you are confident was coming your way, to an out-of-the-blue firing when you always had been an appreciated employee.  Indeed, every sphere of your life now is in play.

If you find transitioning to ease internal stress, because of these new, external stressors, the tension can mount to the point of needing to alleviate it.  You might first try (and likely already have) relieving the stress with alcohol or drugs.  Indeed, some studies show the alcohol abuse rate to be higher than the attempted suicide rate among those on the transgender spectrum.  Distraction is another tool employed by many—“If I just stay busy”—but it’s one you probably tried before you ever bared your soul, so you already know it is as temporary a fix as getting drunk.

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If this person’s pain becomes too great, the scales will tip.  Tip too far, and it will crash in a suicide attempt.

Those who have completed transition

We arrive at those living entirely as how they sense themselves.  If they longed to have their name legally changed, to have any of several possible surgeries, to socialize in their revealed self, they have accomplished each aspect on their wish list.

They have undertaken the challenging task which is transitioning, and they have succeeded.  From my reading of books and getting to know many who have transitioned, when the task is undertaken methodically and carefully, not rushed or with a person mistaken in the source of the gender identity issues, most reach peace.  The internal tension has been resolved.

We began with having issues which are only inside us.  Should we tell our story, then, if we attempt transitioning, we move to now experiencing issues both inside and out.  If we successfully transition, that should take care of our issues, shouldn’t it?  All desire to kill oneself is erased.  Right?

While in the surveys I have read I have yet to find accurate studies done on this, some show that the attempted suicide rate remains high among those who have fully transitioned, perhaps even not having reduced from the 41% of all on the transgender spectrum.  While I have neither appreciated nor respected the manner in which this specific bit of information has been used—always by those who are adamantly opposed to transitioning—it is not a shock to me that the fully transitioned person does not fall back to the attempted suicide rate of the average American but remains somewhere between the 4% and the 41%.

Whatever the attempted suicide rate is for transitioned transgender individuals, it should surprise no one that it likely remains unacceptably higher than the general population. Even if a person has erased all inner turmoil—even when this provides a new, perhaps never-before-in-life-experienced emotional strength—there possibly remain areas of outer turmoil.

No, that is not strong enough.  There will remain areas of outer turmoil.

  • At home.  There might be family members who are struggling with, or opposed to the one who transitioned.
  • With family and friends.  Estrangements and losses will have littered the way.  One might feel, or be made to feel out of place at gatherings, weddings, funerals, or might not even be invited.
  • Religion.  While some faith groups have become understanding and accepting, many have not.  It is common for transgender members to be condemned and expelled.
  • At work. Biases against trans folks can arise in many and various ways, some of which I noted.
  • Under the law.  Protections and privileges which belong to everyone else might not be yours where you live simply because you are transgender.
  • In public.  Trans persons never know when someone will take exception and bring harm to them.  Even insults, which can be quick and casual—looks and stares, laughing behind one’s back—sting and add up.

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How trans folks manage all of these—how many of them there are, and to what degree the impact—will make a huge difference in their lives.  I have heard far too many sad stories from folks who continue to have family squabbles, who are not accepted, who are called by their old name and misgendered, who are told, “I will never accept this.”  I have heard far too many upsetting accounts of trouble in the workplace, when the trans person has done the job and minded his or her own business.  I have heard from far too many who are afraid of going out in public, as after the Pulse nightclub massacre last year and whenever there is another report of a trans person being murdered: real fear smacks the trans person right in the face.

Get enough of these into the equation and they can add up to too much.

These are not weak people.  Let no one look at them and think that they are lacking in character, in personal fortitude.  Those on the transgender spectrum share every attribute of any group of people.  Indeed, as a group, transgender women and men might be stronger than the average Joe.  As metal is tempered by fire, the trans person grows for having endured the heat.

Ultimately, trans folks are typical folks—regular people in an extraordinary circumstance.  We can take a lot, but we feel and hurt just like the next gal or guy.  We can take a lot, but sometimes it’s too much.

All we want is what everyone wants: peace, respect, and the chance to live a decent life. When we have finally gotten what every human desires, thoughts of killing ourselves will have melted away.