Think back to the toughest time of your life (besides the 2020-21 lockdown). Was it sometime in your adolescence or early teenage years? For many people, all of the confusing changes of youth can be difficult; it can also be difficult figuring out who you are and dealing with the way that others see you. Now think about how tough your childhood and teenage years would be if you felt like you weren’t what everyone treated you as or what they expected you to be: what if you knew as a young person that you were transgender? Or, try looking at it this way: what if you were the parent of a young transgender person, and didn’t know where to turn for resources and support? Thanks to Susan Maasch, founder of Maine-based national nonprofit Trans Youth Equality Foundation (TYEF), transgender children and their families have had somewhere to turn since 2007.
“We Felt Like We Were Floating Alone”
Susan Maasch didn’t have to imagine what it would be like for a young child to come out to their parents as transgender. She watched it play out before her eyes: her own son came out as transgender at the age of 6 back in 2002. He was one of the lucky children, who had parents who wanted to support him. But, back in 2002, the key phrase was wanted to. Maasch talked about the frustrations that she came up against when her son came out in a recent podcast: “For myself, I had a transgender son, he came out to our family, he was 6-years-old at the time and we definitely felt like we were absolutely floating alone. The pediatrician didn’t know anything, anywhere we turned…and I remember thinking, ‘I’m a very resourceful person and a lot of people aren’t, a lot of parents are overwhelmed and how are these other parents going to get help that are going through the same thing?’ We were unable to get any advice, or certainly any appropriate advice from doctors, schools…so that’s how we decided to start the foundation.”
TYEF is founded on Maasch’s “resourcefulness” and her determination to advocate for and support her son. According to Maasch, “One way that we funded it was my son had experienced some very serious discrimination at school and we sued the school – and wilth some of the money that we received from that suit, we took some of that and started the foundation.” With some good friends and some transgender and youth providers, she began, from the ground up, to build the support and advocacy network that she had been unable to access for five long years. And so, in 2007, TYEF was born.
It immediately took off: “You know, I can’t say how many children we helped in those first few years!” says Maasch. “One of the reasons it grew so quickly…was sort of marketing – I came from a fine art background…I had to learn a lot about art marketing over the years, and I just used that marketing background. So we just sort of aggressively made sure that kids and parents could find us at a time when they could have been coming from anywhere, because there were no local resources, that’s how we got started.”
In 2017 alone, for example, TYEF served over 2,600 kids, up from over 800 in 2014 and 1,200 in 2015. And what do they do to support trans children? They have an impressive array of services and programs that they offer, and they serve children all over the country. For parents of transgender and gender non-conforming children and youth, they offer supportive shared experience discussions, resources, guest speakers and more. For transgender and gender non-conforming kids, ages 2-18, they offer support group discussions, community-building and social activities. They also offer things like legal and medical council, as well as resources for educators. They even have a summer camp specifically for trans youth.
TYEF has changed the landscape of support and advocacy for trans kids and their family, and it couldn’t have come soon enough. As Maasch says, “In those days [when her son came out] we definitely had kids that were more in a dark place, there was less help for them…It was so great to be at the beginning of the trans child movement and to be pushing that forward in a way that was so needed.” But the work is not yet done.
“Things Are Going to Get Dark Before They Get Better”
Trans Youth Equality Network and the work it does is vital: the need to support transgender youth can’t be overstated. Unfortunately, though, as Maasch acknowledges, many kids do not get what they need, even from their own families: “what many [families] would do…is to pretend that they are going to will it away.” Wishing one’s child’s true identity away is not helpful – and it is not realistic. There is a sizable portion of the youth population that identifies as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. In fact, the CDC actually estimates that almost 2% of young people identify as transgender, which means that there are at least 1.3 million trans youth ages 0-17. That’s a lot of kids in need of support; unfortunately, though, studies show that only 27% of trans youth say their families are very supportive, and fewer than half (43%) say they have an adult in their family they could turn to if they felt sad or worried. In addition, only 9% of trans youth say their community is very accepting.
All-in-all, those are worrying statistics, especially considering how essential having a support network is to trans young people’s mental health. Trans youth are especially vulnerable to mental health issues, including thoughts of suicide; according to a major study done by The Trevor Project in 2020, more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth have seriously considered suicide. As Maasch says, “If you ignore the needs of a transgender child, things are going to get dark before they get better if you don’t support them and listen in some way.”
Maasch drives home how a lack of support can end in tragedy. “We did have a kid [we supported at TYEF] whose father was just adamant that there was no way he was going to support this, and unfortunately his son became more and more depressed… and took his life…,” Maasch says, and his father realized that he “waited too long to come around… It was heartbreaking.”
“It’s a Beautiful Journey”
But there is good news: supporting trans youth has a measurable effect. It works, and the numbers confirm that: studies show that trans youth who have support experience a 52% decrease in suicidal thoughts, and a 46% decrease in suicide attempts. She also points out that it sometimes just takes reaching out to people to change things: “I always tell the kids that parents that seem absolutely like they will never come around often do come around.”
And experiences like TYEF’s camp, where kids who are transitioning can meet other trans kids at different points in the journey, can make a huge difference in these young people’s self-esteem. For example, the parents of one young trans girl, Maya, told Vice News: “‘When she came back from camp, she was bounding across the kitchen,’ [Maya’s mother] said. ‘She was more talkative after that. Her personality was amplified,’ [her father] added.” Being around other trans kids showed Maya that she wasn’t alone. “’I know who I want to be, and I’m just going to do it,’ Maya recalled thinking. ‘Now it’s not who I want to be, but it’s who I am.’”Ultimately, what Maasch wants us to remember is that trans children are in need of support and more understanding, and that needs to come from everyone, not just families with trans children. According to Maasch,
“[All experts agree] the mental health issues that transgender children experince is from the rejection, rejecton from their peers, from discrimination. It is not inherent to transgender children that they have mental illness, and of course many don’t, especially if they have support…The only reason they suffer from mental illness and have that kind of deep pain, higher rates of suicide, three times the depression of other children is because of that discrimination..it actually says that in the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders], we want to keep that in mind…I’ve thought about this a lot as the parent of transgender child…we teach our children to not make fun, I mean its a pretty cruel world out there, but to not make fun when children have medical conditions, and yet children feel that they can make fun of and be abusive to transgender children…they’re thought of as ‘less than’ in some places and we need to fight that.”
And the takeaway for parents of transgender children? As Maasch says, “Remember that it is stressful, and it’s time for you to practice self-care. And know that as tough as this journey is…that it’s also a beautiful journey and not to lose sight of that, because it’s a beautiful thing to be on that journey with your child, a journey of acceptance and reliability and trust and guiding your child and protecting them and teaching them what authentic love is. I mean there’s something beautiful about that and they’ll always, alway remember that you were there for them and it will give them inner strength.”If you would like to help, you can donate to TYEF here. If you are in need of resources, including recommended books, legal advice, Q&As, and helpful videos, please check out their website.