In June, my 19-year-old left home in the middle of the night and drove 14 hours from St. Louis to Virginia Beach to be with a 28-year-old man he met online. A week later, after a lot of panic and tears on my and my husband’s end, and some frank talk on his end, “he” came home a “she.” Our drum-playing, car-loving, video-gaming son was actually our daughter. Mom and Dad, meet Jasmine.
This was the parenting curve ball of all time. The child you have known and loved since adopting at 3 is not who you knew at all. My two immediate thoughts:
How could I not have seen that my child was transgender?
So that’s why we’ve been struggling with anxiety, depression, isolation and anger since middle school.
As a child, she was a rough and tumble, sports-loving boy. There were no explorations of gender identity that my husband or I saw. When puberty hit, she realized she was different: the other boys wanted to date a girl, and she wanted to be one.
She pushed these feelings down because she thought if anyone knew, she would be unloved and abandoned. So she doubled-down on boy-ness. She attended an all-boys high school, played football and grew a beard. I didn’t see her gender identity because she kept that secret locked away.
When you believe something about you is so flawed that no one can know, it takes its toll. For Jasmine, that looked like years of slowly moving away from all that she loved: sports, music, friends. Now I understood why she never went to dances or on dates, and never had many close friends. If you are terrified to share the truth of who you are, you are going to be more and more isolated.
When Jazz came out as a trans woman, everything got better. Her relationship with me and my husband is much stronger. All those years of not being able to quite figure out what the struggle was melted away.
Jazz is happy now and the last few months of her life have been her best. She is working with a therapist to gain confidence and create a new vision for her future.
When Jazz sent that text to me: “I am a woman in love with a man,” I could have reacted in several ways. I chose acceptance and it made all the difference. Here’s why it is critical to support our LGBTQ youth, especially those in foster care, and how you can do it.
You are dealing with the triple whammy. Adolescence is hard, harder even for youth in foster care and hardest of all for LGBTQ youth in foster care. The typical turbulence of adolescence, combined with the grief and loss of living in foster care and then compounded with gender identity issues makes for a vulnerable adolescent.
Expect to deal with LGBTQ issues. Katie Corrigan, director of family development at Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition in St. Louis, said, “Many teens in foster care are LGBTQ because they have come out and been kicked out of their homes, or they have run away because they don’t feel accepted and loved.” She tells the parents she recruits that these issues are the norm and to expect them.
Accept the declaration as truth. If your foster or adoptive child comes out as LGBTQ, you don’t have to like it, love or understand it. You have to accept it. To not is putting vulnerable kids in an even more dangerous situation. “We don’t judge our parents for their beliefs, and we get a baseline understanding of where they are coming from, then we educate and support. It is OK for them not to understand, and just be a support system and love their child unconditionally,” Corrigan said.
Show acceptance. LGBTQ youth will seek to find acceptance, even if those people are involved in risky or illegal behavior, just to feel accepted and loved. When we show acceptance, we are creating those safe, supportive spaces. Joni Stacy, co-founder of Equality Advancement Partners, an organization out of Omaha, Neb., that supports LGBTQ people, says small adjustments can make a big difference. “You don’t go from coming out one day to being in a gay pride parade tomorrow. You get time to adjust and small changes over time make a big difference.”
You don’t have to have all the answers. When Jazz came home, we decided to go shopping for clothes. She was nervous about being “out” in public and I was nervous too. She asked for advice and I said, “Honestly, I don’t know. Let’s figure it out together.” Kids don’t expect you to have the answers, they need you to walk with them to find the answers.
“Kids have a sixth sense about your intention,” said Stacy. “As long as you are honestly trying, they will respond.”
When they come out, your life will get better. If your foster or adoptive child is struggling and you don’t know why, and they come out to you, it is a good thing. Now you know the true struggle. Now you can help them. You can be the unconditional support and stable guide in their life that they so desperately need.
This is life or death. Jazz and I talk openly that if my husband and I rejected her, she would have been stranded in another city across the country with no money, no support system and feeling unloved. She could have connected with people who may not have had her best interest in mind, to put it mildly. Accept, don’t reject, and work on understanding, support and growth together.
Stacy said, “The main concern is moving from youth to young adult alive. There are real mental health consequences for not being accepted that can lead to suicide attempts.” And the murder rate for transgender people is continuing to rise, with 2017 the deadliest year on record in the United States.
Get educated. Collier and Stacy use the Family Acceptance Project as a resource for education. Websites like genderbread.org can help in your understanding. “Having a universal language to start from is the first step,” Stacy said.
As foster and adoptive parents, we are called to love those often deemed unlovable. When we see our kids for their full humanity, they can connect with us in an honest and authentic way, allowing us to give them the support, guidance and love they need to grow into productive adulthood.
Maryanne Dersch is founder and principal of Courageous Communication LLC, and serves on the board of the Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition. Her book, “Courageous Communication: How Codependence is Making Your Nonprofit Brand Boring and What to Do About It” is available on Amazon.