When your child comes out as transgender, life changes for the whole family. In August 2016 Tammy Plunkett’s third child, Aaron, came out — much to everyone’s shock. Since his coming out she’s learned a lot about him and issues she never thought she’d be dealing with. Now Plunkett runs a support group called Parenting with Pride for other parents of transgender kids through Airdrie Pride Society — to help kids and their parents navigate this tricky time in their lives. We asked Plunkett to share her story.
Tell us how this journey started for your family.
Aaron came out to me in a journal entry in August of 2016, and we were in massive denial. His way of coming out was, “I want to start testosterone.” There was no “I think I’m a boy,” or any of that. He was wearing more gender-neutral clothes the summer leading up to coming out, but as a child he had no issue wearing dresses and we never had fights about long hair. Nothing really happened until puberty — that was the catalyst to him saying, “I can’t live like this this anymore, this is not who I am.”
How did you react?
My husband’s brother-in-law is gay and we had no issue with any of our kids being gay or lesbian. When Aaron came out, I was like why can’t you just be a masculine lesbian? Why do you have to be transgender? As a former registered nurse I know all the surgical and hormonal implications, I knew how hard this was going to be. Aaron didn’t just want to look like a masculine girl, that just wasn’t what was in his heart. It took a long time to wrap our heads around that part.
How have people handled Aaron transitioning?
We have a next door neighbour with a four-year-old son, and he was worried that his son wouldn’t be able to get the gender pronouns right. His son got it straight away. He was like, “Oh that’s cool he wants to be a boy, I want to be a dinosaur,” and he just carried on what he was doing. There’s always going to be that one kid at school or in the neighbourhood who thinks this is a great thing to make fun of, but generally people who know you as a human being don’t do that. Kids get it straight away.
Which makes me ask if the adults do?
Most adults are okay with it, but there have been some who’ve politely removed themselves from our lives. The phone calls didn’t come, the dinner invitations stopped. These were people that we thought were our friends, but I was okay with that because at least I knew where we stood with them. Then there was this group who made me feel like an animal at the zoo, where they’d ask really personal questions because they want all of the dirt and the tantalizing information. I had to learn which of my friends were looking for the sensationalism, and those looking to support us through it.
Why was it important to support other parents through this?
Because it is so difficult. The first thing you do when your kid comes out is hit Google and put in all the search terms because you want to know what’s going to happen to your kid. Then you go through a grieving process. I had to grieve the loss of my daughter. When she was born I never thought she would ever be anything other than who she was, and I had to grieve the loss of that person. My son does not like seeing baby pictures, and does not want to talk about the person he was before. There’s this thing called deadnaming (where you use the birth-name of a transgendered person), and as a parent you want to be respectful to your kid and their mental and physical health, but you also want to reconcile in your heart the loss of this child. That was very hard for me. I had to do that grieving in private. I couldn’t do it in front of my son because the last thing he needed was to worry about my feelings. I also didn’t feel I could do it in public because I had to always be the accepting parent.
I joined a group for parents of transgender children in Calgary, about 45 minutes away from where we live. It was hugely helpful, having other parents talk about how they were also grieving, and learning how to change birth certificates and gender markers on passports, and about using binders to hide breasts. I was very excited to join that group and decided to join Airdrie Pride, who were my first point of contact when Aaron come out. Through Pride we met with a transgender man for coffee before Aaron came out to people outside of our family, and talked about what it was like to transition and everything to expect. I was so grateful for that. When we did come out I went to Airdrie Pride and said, “We need support for parents, because parents are bringing the kids to appointments, they’re the ones standing up to the bullies at school, and I don’t think I should have to drive to Calgary for that.” They welcomed me with open arms, and helped me set up a group here.
What has this brought to your life?
I’ve been a privileged, middle-class, cisgender white woman most of my life. I’ve never been the diverse person in the room and now I am. People look at me differently. They feel the need to a show me they are okay with gay people, kind of like how I would imagine a black person is told, “Oh I have a black friend, so I’m not racist.” I’m in a new role now, and it has changed me and how I view the world. I’m a writing coach and my whole life has been about giving people a voice. I mainly focused on women because I wanted to give women a voice, but now I realize there are more than just women who are disenfranchised and need an equal opportunity to share their story, so that is changing my life too.
Our whole family dynamic has changed. I had three girls and a boy I now have two sons and two daughters. The other kids had to get used to it, my husband had to get used to it, and we had to decide whether it was going to pull our family closer together or drive us apart. We worked hard to keep it together.
Do you have any advice for parents who might be at the start of this process with their kids?
They are not too young to know who they are — I wish I knew that at the start. Aaron was not too young to be making this decision, because it is not a decision. My son knew he was a boy the same way I know I have blue eyes. I needed to trust that knowledge.
I’m sure that comes up a lot, that these kids are too young to know?
It really is. Now that I’m in the Pride world, you hear it all the time. There are parents being accused of abusing their child because they’ve put them on hormone blockers. In Alberta you can’t have the surgery until 18. But you can do it at 16 in Ontario — we’d have to go there and pay out of pocket. People that think 16 year olds don’t know enough to have the surgery but an 18 year old does.
It’s amazing to me that you’ve been able to roll with this.
You just have to. You see statistics that say 40 percent of transgender youth attempt suicide and that stops you dead in your tracks. Then you get a phone call from the school where they say that your son wants to commit suicide and you need to pick him up and take him to the emergency room and that stops your heart. I don’t care who wants to accuse me of being blind, or giving into my kid, or being a child abuser — my kid wanted to kill himself. It is the most horrendous call you’ll ever get, and that’s why I volunteer for Pride. If I could stop any kid from doing this — ever — that is the most important thing. These kids want to end their lives just for being who they are and feeling they can’t be themselves, it’s heartbreaking.