Brenda Ferns lives in Bend and is a mother to five children including Levi—her 14-year-old trans son. She remembers how around the age of five he would come to her and confide that he wanted to be a boy. "At that point, I wasn't educated on (the transgender experience)...I hadn't even really heard of it," she recalls. "So I said, 'you can't be a boy, but you can wear boys' clothes.'" Looking back, Ferns wishes she had known then what she knows now, and had followed her son's lead.
Ferns is not alone. Many parents are like she was in her son's early years: undereducated about trans youth. The term "transgender" alone is largely new to many people—especially those living in smaller, more conservative locations where access to resources and information are limited.
According to Jamie Bowman, the president of the Human Dignity Coalition in Bend, residents are likely to be surprised by the size of the local transgender population. "The trans community in Central Oregon is much larger than folks know about," says Bowman. "There are at least a couple hundred trans folks..."
The Human Dignity Coalition hosts two support groups for trans adults that meet twice a month. They also have a Queer Youth Space for LGBTQ+ teens between the ages of 13 and 20 that is largely attended by trans members. Additionally, Bowman says the HDC offers a junior version of the adult support group for kids 12 and under. She estimates the age range of the trans community runs from three to 70.
It wasn't until Levi began going through puberty, between the ages of 11 and 12, that Ferns realized her son was trans. "He cut his hair short, dyed it black and began wearing masculine clothing," she explains. "Then, he was at the park and was bullied for looking like a boy and so he started overcompensating and being more feminine." Levi began dressing and acting in ways that his mother recognized were out of character for the child she knew and loved.
According to Ferns, there were many things that led her son to the decision that he had to be his true self, but the most important was meeting other children who shared his experience and helped him put a name to what he was feeling. By that time, she knew more about the transgender experience and had close friends who had transitioned or were in the process. "I thought, 'OK, now this all makes sense. I just wish I had listened to you when you were 5.'"
With more information and support available than ever before, parents can educate themselves about what to look for and what to do if they think their child may be transgender.
The Human Rights Campaign Foundation, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Osteopathic Pediatricians partnered to produce Supporting & Caring for Transgender Children*, a groundbreaking resource that helps families support transgender youth. It provides parents with a handbook on the basics including the various definitions involved in gender identity, the associated vocabulary, guidance for determining whether or not a child is trans and common steps in social transition.
Determining Whether Your Child is Trans
According to the HRC, most children engage in behaviors associated with different genders: the classic example being girls who play with trucks and boys who play with dolls. It's important to note that engaging in gender nonconforming behavior does not mean your child is necessarily trans.
According to the HRC, a child is likely transgender if they are consistent, insistent and persistent about their gender identity being different from the one they were assigned at birth.
Levi first revealed that he knew he was a boy at age 5. Both his words and behaviors consistently reaffirmed and confirmed his belief over time. Ferns advises parents to listen to their children and follow their lead. She says, "Don't worry about if it's a phase or not because that just muddies the waters. It's irrelevant and it makes them feel devalued, diminished and not important."
It is important to note that trans youth are at a higher risk for depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts and attempts than their non-transgender peers. Finding a community that accepts and supports them is key to keeping them safe and healthy.
The HRC suggests the following ways to support trans youth:
• Use the child's preferred gender pronouns and name.
• Advocate for your child and demand that others respect their identity.
• Educate yourself.
• Assure your child they have unconditional love and support.
Fern's best advice to parents with trans youth? "Just honor them and celebrate them because community is really important especially when (they are) dealing with depression and... fear of being themselves," she says. Then she shares a simple reminder—something that is the cornerstone to every child's happiness and mental health, "When we are surrounded by a community of people that loves us and supports us, we feel safe."
Local Resources for Trans Youth and Their Families
Human Dignity Coalition
PFLAG Central Oregon
Provides support for families, allies and people who are LGBTQ
OUT Central Oregon
A Meetup that schedules outings and gatherings for LGBTQ Central Oregonians and their families.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Oregon
Bowman suggests using this resource to find mentors for your trans teen.
Your School's Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA)
Support clubs held at schools for LBGTQ students and allies.
*The guide, Supporting & Caring for Transgender Children, is available for free download on the HRC website: hrc.org/resources/supporting-caring-for-transgender-children