4 ways to be an ally to transgender youth and their families

In the last two years, the ReadyKids Teen Counseling Program has seen an increase in participants who identify as transgender. Someone who is transgender has a sense of personal identity and gender that does not correspond with their birth sex.

Nationwide, about 0.7% of American teens identify as transgender, but nearly 2% of the participants in the ReadyKids Teen Counseling program have identified as transgender or gender variant. That’s an almost 200% increase than what you’d expect to see.

“There are a lot of variables that lead into it,” said Jordan Leahy, Teen Counselor. “People who are transgender are more visible than ever in our society, but there is also a political climate that is trying to deny they exist. This is increasing mental health needs.”

Coming out as transgender in your teen years comes with a variety of struggles, particularly with parents. For instance, studies show that familial rejection can lead transgender youth to engage in behaviors that put their health at risk, trigger depression and other mental health problems, and in the worst of cases – result in suicide. Furthermore, lack of family acceptance after coming out as transgender is one of the top reasons teens runaway or are kicked out of their homes by their parents. Among homeless youth, 20-40% are transgender, and most face discrimination when seeking even temporary shelter.

Support for Trans Youth Matters

However, familial support does the opposite. Parents who accept their child’s gender identity can act as a buffer against bullying and bias outside of the home. In other words, for some transgender youth, family support can be the difference between life and death. The ReadyKids Teen Counseling Program wants to help families and teens in this journey toward acceptance and support.

Here are 4 tips our counselors offer on how to be an ally to a transgender teenager.
1. Use their preferred name and pronouns

“A name is significant, and we don’t always have an understanding of that in our culture,” said Leahy. “If a person has chosen a new name for themselves, it’s usually because their given name is in some way hurtful. If you live in a home with someone who doesn’t acknowledge who you are and can be cruel to you for who you are, that has a huge effect.”

If you’re unsure which pronouns a person uses, listen first to the pronoun other people use when referring to them. If you’re still unsure, you can default to “they/their.” If you must ask which pronouns a person uses, start with your own. For example, “Hi, I’m Alex, and I use the pronouns he and him. What about you?”

Most importantly, if you mess up (as everyone who has known someone as a different gender for a long time is likely to do), quietly correct yourself.

“Many people are well intentioned and want to be supportive, but if you miss a beat and say something wrong and everyone can get hurt,” said Dee Keller, Senior Teen Counselor. “Mistakes do happen. It’s okay to go back. It’s okay to learn. It’s okay to do things differently.”

2. Break the connection in your mind between gender identity and sexuality

“When teens come out as transgender, this can be confusing, especially for parents,” said Leahy. “But gender identity is not the same as sexual identity.” Transgender does not mean gay or lesbian. Gender is about who you are, not who you are attracted to.

Trans Student Educational Resources has a helpful diagram called the “Gender Unicorn” which explains how gender identity, gender expression, what gender someone is physically attracted to, and what gender someone is emotionally attracted to all exist on a spectrum. For example, it’s possible to be born female, transition to male and still be attracted to men. It’s also possible to be born male, and later identify as genderless (part male, part female), but that doesn’t mean you’re A-sexual and not interested in a relationship. A wide variety of possible combinations exist, over 7 billion!

3. Be patient

A person who is questioning or exploring their gender identity may take some time to figure out what’s true for them. They might, for example, use a name or pronoun, and then decide at a later time to change the name or pronoun again. Do you best to be respectful and use the name and pronoun requested.

4. Become educated

Being transgender is no longer taboo. With people like Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black and Caitlyn Jenner from the Kardashians being open about their identities, trans people are more visible than ever. GLAAD has a number of resources to expand awareness of trans issues. Locally, the Cville Pride Community Network has a compiled list of resources as well.

Check out art, literature and films about trans people. Barnes and Noble has a helpful list of Young Adult novels about transgender characters, IMBD has a list of movies featuring trans main characters, and an online comic called “Assigned Male” has great cartoon strips about the daily challenges trans people face.

Support for Trans Youth Matters

As a parent, if you come to a point where you don’t know what else to do, the ReadyKids Teen Counselors are available to talk any time, 24/7 to any teen or parent of a teen in the Charlottesville area. Call (434) 972-7233.

“Trans kids are more vulnerable. We want to have the space to welcome these kids,” said Keller. “The runaway risk and family conflict is high for LGBT kids, having a supportive family is a huge resilience factor. We hope to equip families and teens.”

The ReadyKids Teen Crisis Hotline is a free service that can be reached at any time by calling (434) 972-7233.

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ReadyKids Teen Counselors, Jordan Leahy and Dee Keller.

They ran away from home.  The Virginia State Police reports that 74 juveniles were arrested within the city of Charlottesville during 2015 for running away from home.

The word “home” connotes feelings of nurturance and safety, but that’s not true for everyone.  Can you imagine feeling like there was no other way to solve your problems than to leave home?

The teen years are difficult.  This is even truer if there are disruptions in the family such as divorce or remarriage, substance use or abuse.  Every day, ReadyKids’ two teen counselors – Dee Keller and Jordan Leahy – are in the community meeting with teens and families to help keep teens safe and off the streets.

A Q & A with Ready Kids Teen Counselors

Q:  What does the Teen Counseling Program at ReadyKids do?

Dee:  The Teen Counseling Program helps local teens and their families find stability. We are a short-term counseling program – on average about 3 months – that support teens who are facing a wide range of challenges and are vulnerable to running away or being kicked out of their homes.

Q: What does a crisis situation look like for a teen?

Dee: This could look like teens or families experiencing feelings of being overwhelmed and at a loss of what to do next; there may be high tension or conflict at home or even teens that are looking for a space to process all the stressors of their lives.

Jordan:  For teens, a crisis is a pretty inclusive term. It could mean everything from feeling overwhelmed by a disagreement with a friend, to witnessing or experiencing domestic violence or abuse in the home.

Q: What does the Teen Counseling Program provide for teens and their families? 

Dee: We provide access to counseling by being flexible in meeting teens at school, in-home, our office or the community. We not only provide individual or family counseling, but also a 24/7 hotline to teens, families or professionals looking for support, guidance or connections to other community supports.

Q: How does the work of the Teen Counseling Program contribute to the future of Charlottesville?

 Dee: We hope that the work of TCP impacts Charlottesville by creating more connections and promoting safer environments for our teens and families. We hope that teens feel they are not alone in the challenging moments and that they feel more stable and ready to take the next steps in their journeys.

Jordan: The city’s youth are the city’s future. TCP supports them by helping them build resilience in times of struggle, so that they can do the same in their relationships and communities in the future.

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