My child came out as transgender and our lives changed forever
A deeply personal account of one family’s journey to acceptance
My daughter was a happy child. She was a tennis player on the state circuit, got good grades and was popular in school. But when puberty hit, she became a different person — her grades dropped and she stopped playing tennis. She started wearing more unisex clothes and even cut her own hair, in her bathroom. I don’t know how she managed that.
We’d always been close but this change cause a minor strain in our relationship. We were arguing constantly about her grades and rebellious behaviour. She was withdrawn and aggressive, spending hours in her room listening to music, slipping into what I thought was depression. Based on her physical transformation, I began to wonder if she was a lesbian. Growing up, our exposure to the LGBTQIA+ community was zilch.
During one of our altercations when she was 13, I told her it was okay if she was a lesbian, and to stay focused on building her future by studying well. I gave her examples of Jodi Foster, Ellen Degeneres, Martina Navratilova — I was patting myself on the back for being a progressive parent — and she told me, ‘Dad, I am not a girl who likes a girl, I am a boy who likes a girl, so stop the lesbian stuff with me’.
I had no idea how to react or any idea about the transgender community, except a little awareness about the Hijra community.
We sent her to the US, hoping a change of scene would help her. She continued to be withdrawn, wearing baggy clothes and putting on a lot of weight. She was so quiet — a complete turnaround from the happy, vibrant child she used to be.
When she was 17, I chanced upon an article that changed our lives forever. ‘Transboy: biological identity – female, gender identity – male’. I immediately Skyped her and said, ‘I know what the issue is’, and she replied ‘Dad. that’s what I have been trying to tell you’.
The child knows early on that they are trapped in the wrong body. Mine was three, having a meltdown, when she asked, “Why am I born a girl?”. We thought it was just a tantrum, like ‘I want to wear jeans’ or ‘I want to cut my hair, like the boys’.
It’s harder for trans women, because if they’re assigned male at birth, and start to wear what’s considered ‘female’ clothing, they stick out like a sore thumb. No one questions a girl when she’s a kid and wearing jeans and shirts — you just think she’s a tomboy. The trouble starts at puberty when breasts start developing and hormones are all over the place.
It’s like, ‘I’m a male but I’m developing breasts, getting my period…’. A lot of transgender kids tend to put on weight so they can mask their curves.
My wife and I came to terms with it quickly — we had no time to dissect it or ask ‘why us?’. The focus was on what to do next for the child.
In order to start the gender change process, you have to be evaluated by two separate psychiatrists to ensure that this is just not a psychological issue and actually a gender identity disorder. The child has to live for a year in the gender they are born in. Eventually after getting the green signal from the medical fraternity, my child began receiving a testosterone shot every month, under the guidance of a endocrinologist.
Getting facial hair, side locks, hair on the arms — this is a big deal, a validation of their identity. The transition process sometimes includes a double mastectomy to remove the breasts, and a hysterectomy to remove the uterus. It’s a tough process. The boy might start getting menstrual cramps, start spotting and these are all trigger points.
The last step of course is genital reconstruction, which again isn’t 100 per cent successful and in India, it’s difficult to find, and expensive. Earlier it was difficult to find experienced doctors — though this is changing very fast, not only in the medical field, but also via government support. Simultaneously, you’re doing the legal paperwork – you have to announce the name change in the paper.
Life is a little easier for the transgender community in cities like Bombay, Bangalore, Delhi, Pune — there’s more knowledge and exposure. But even then, it’s hard for parents to accept. I started speaking to some transgender kids through an NGO — 50% of the guilt and stress they carry gets lifted by parental acceptance.
Building a great support structure is very important. I explained the situation to my family and friends even before he came back from the US. Everybody in my friends’ circle was aligned with us. I was very firm, there was no choice.
My son still has terrible ups and downs. He’s 26 and doing his undergrad in international business administration and management. He has had a study break for about nine years. Life stood still during this time. I would like for him to get his life and career back on track, but he’s still going through so much. The moment I try to discuss it, he blocks me out and goes into a funk. Sometimes I don’t know whether he’s actually going through something or using a strategy to avoid discussing issues.
Psychologically, they keep going through these cycles of depression. He’ll go to the terrace, have a drink and a smoke, and I worry about what’s going on in his mind. The suicide rate is very high (in the transgender community). Substance dependence (like alcohol) is quite high within the community to cope with the stress. Probably gives them courage to face society.
He has a decent peer group and new friends who don’t know the details of his past, so it’s a fresh start. The problem is relationships, because that’s the ultimate validation that you are a good-looking man. My son wants a heterosexual female partner, which is going to be difficult.
There’s also a big fear about how society will treat him. Will he be targeted and bullied in buses, at the mall, in a pub? What will happen at an airport security check or in a public washroom?
I have to accept that I have no control and have to build tremendous levels of patience. You can’t use the same yardsticks which the world uses for other kids, when it comes to trans kids, so you have to have faith that life has something planned for them.
It is an extremely tough battle, don’t let the child fight this on his/her own. It’s your kid, accept him or her as you would have if they were a Harvard graduate or a software engineer with Microsoft.
Educate yourself and forget about unaccepting relatives and neighbours. Reach out to members of the transgender community — they will be your biggest support.
*Members of the transgender community prefer being referred to as the gender they identify with. The article only uses the female pronoun to make the timeline of the transition clear for the reader.
As told to Chandni Sehgal