COMING OUT AND “INVITING IN”: TRANSFAMILY DIRECTOR KATHIE MOEHLIG TALKS ABOUT CHALLENGES FACING TRANSYOUTH
March 3, 2016
By Melanie Yarborough
At Neutral Corner’s February meeting, Special Guest Speaker Kathie Moehlig gave an inspiring talk on her work as Executive Director of TransFamily Support Services (TFSS), a non profit that assists families and trans youth on their journey. Her discussion touched on raw, difficult truths, but also featured enlightening observations and humorous anecdotes.
Kathie is the proud mother of Sam, her teenage trans male son. She freely admits that Sam is privileged to have “a Mom who has a big mouth and is not afraid to use it… and who won’t take no for an answer”. She is a regional director of PFLAG (a support and advocacy group for parents family and friends of the LGBTQ+community) as well as a Unity Minister. In addition, she has many years of experience as a parent counselor and motivational speaker.
A transgender child’s coming out can be scary for parents, and Kathie has seen parent reactions cover the spectrum from loving acceptance to brutal rejection. So she shares this thought with concerned families: “It’s not a matter of coming out. It’s about inviting in. This is an intimate path your child is on, and they want to invite you in.”
Kathie likes to share a story about one mother’s response when her trans male child came out to her. The mother took a long moment and said to herself “Think carefully about what you say next. Because he’s going to remember exactly what you say for the rest of his life”. This mature, intelligent and positive response is one that we wish all parents would have!
As Kathie puts it, “I keep the parents going, so they can keep the kids going”. In some instances, TTFSS may help with simple family chores such as shopping to give burdened families some needed breathing space as they deal with a transgender child’s situation. In other instances, it can involve graver issues such as helping families keep a suicide watch for a distraught child. It’s estimated that 47% of trans youth have attempted suicide. Yet while there are trans youth tragedies, there have also been successes. Kathie has often found that “A lot of our [transgender] kids are more mature for their age. Carrying this around makes them grow up a lot faster”.
A trans youth’s coming out not only affects the immediate family, but others as well: the extended family, the family’s workplace, their social circle, and their religious institution. A child’s gender change is something that simply cannot be kept secret. Accordingly, TFSS provides advice and direction to help families navigate through these concentric rings of people and institutions. In these cases, it’s important to SHAPE THE NARRATIVE. Rather than let information leak out and become the subject or rumor and innuendo, families must proactively get their truth out first. By creating a loving and supporting narrative at the start, they can minimize and preempt social negativity and backlash.
Insurance Companies are at the center of TransFamily Support Service’s work for one simple reason: money. The cost of psychological services, hormone therapy, and various surgeries for trans youth is beyond their family’s financial reach. The only way to obtain these often life-saving services is through health insurer coverage. Not surprisingly, insurers are usually loath to cover gender transformation procedures. While there are a growing number of laws in California and nationwide to deal with insurance issues for transgender ADULTS, there is a sad lack of a corresponding laws for transgender CHILDREN.
Kathie counsels parents to expect denial from providers the first time around, and to be prepared for a lengthy appeals process. She also advises that parents obtain a case manager, and build a positive rapport with them. A case manager can often become a vital go-between and advocate with the medical and insurance bureaucracy to help trans youth obtain the important-and yes life-saving services they need. And at all stages of the process, document WHO said WHAT and WHEN.
Medical professionals are an equally important part of TFSS’s work. The organization works to expand their list of supportive medical providers.
“Therapists are the gatekeepers” Kathie wryly notes. Mental health professionals are the initial point of contact who refer trans youth to medical professionals. However, sometimes psychologists may claim to be experienced in gender issues when this may not be the case. Often, a patient winds up having to educate their counselor. TFSS seeks out mental health professionals who are not only sympathetic, but truly conversant in transgender matters.
Endocrinologists are perhaps the single most important medical professionals in this process. The first half of a younger trans youth’s transition process is endocrinologist prescription of hormone blockers. This is because the most agonizing moment in any trans youth life is when their body starts changing to become a gender they feel is not who they really are. But the other equally important step of the trans youth transition process is the concurrent prescription of cross-hormones to enable then to develop to their desired gender. There is some controversy here. Some feel that trans youth should first block one hormonal process, and then several years later promote the other. Kathie feels that it is important trans youth go through the desired puberty AT THE SAME TIME AS THEIR PEERS. As she frequently points out, what trans youth want more than anything else is be like all other youth. They do not want to stand out, but to feel the affirmation of being accepted by, and treated equally by, their peers.
Surgeons provide necessary physical reconstruction. One important process for female-to-male trans youth is breast removal, also called TOP SURGERY. For young trans males, breasts are a source of anxiety and shame. The removal of breast tissue gives trans males the desired flat chest and thus body integrity and self-esteem. But just as importantly, it gives them the chance to participate in sports, an integral part of any boy’s life. Before top surgery, sporting events which involve tight garments (such as tanktop shirts), or swimming (upper body exposure) are unthinkable and a source of frustration. After top surgery, trans males can now happily join their male peers in sports. However, both female-to-male phalloplasty or male-to-female vaginoplasty, also called BOTTOM SURGERY, must often wait until after a child is 18 years old. Many trans youth may want this bottom surgery as soon as possible. However, surgeons are understandably concerned with possible legal consequences. They face the very real fear of malpractice lawsuits, particularly if the child-turned-adult later decides that the surgery was a mistake.
School is central to trans youth life. TTFSS works with School Boards and Superintendents, as well as with Principals, Teachers, and School Staff. One problem is that while California has many laws on the books to protect transgender students, at the school level there is often a confusion or lack of training to implement them.
Transgender issue Competency Training is crucial. For example, trans youth are routinely bullied and harassed by some of their peers. A teacher who witnesses or hears of this, needs the appropriate vocabulary and skills to nip it in the bud. This is an absolute necessity as peer verbal abuse frequently (and perhaps inevitably) escalates to physical abuse and violence. Kathie admits says the goal is to create SAFE SPACES on campus. But, she admits, “No campus can be 100% safe because kids are kids… they learn prejudice from their parents”.
Kathie is, however, often still surprised by the genuine acceptance many youth do have for their transgender peers. This may be due to their exposure to the internet, and a more nonjudgmental attitude about life. Even youth coming from a conservative family background, while not embracing transgender, keep a quiet but non-intimidating distance. Kathie jokes “This generation totally gets it. Now, all we need to do is get the adults onboard”.
Equating the trans youth experience with the gay youth experience is frequent, but not correct. In our educational system, when a youth comes out as homosexual, they are still called by the same name, and still use the same bathroom and gym locker room. For trans youth, they obviously must deal with these three important issues. Ironically, American society at the moment seems more accepting of gays and lesbians than of transgender men and women. Trans youth are sometimes asked by their peers and even their own parents “Why can’t you just be gay?” It’s as if by some weird logic, this would make their situation somehow easier to deal with.
School bathrooms and gym locker rooms are the new frontline in the trans youth struggle. As a sign of the growing backlash against trans youth visibility, there are dozens of legislative bills across the United States banning or restricting transgender access to bathrooms or locker rooms of their preferred gender. TransFamily Support Services in San Diego is working with the American Civil Liberties Union and the San Francisco based Transgender Law Center to work to fight these pieces of legislation. However, Kathie sadly admits “This is going to be a very long fight nationwide. It’s going to get uglier before it gets better”.
Schools often seek the compromise solution of accommodating trans youth with a separate bathroom. The problem is that this quickly gets around school . Students ask “Why does he (or she) have to use a separate bathroom”. Kathie says “Our students don’t want special treatment. They want to be treated like anyone else”.
Another problem with transphobic bathroom or locker room legislation is the question “How does one enforce it?” Does this mean mandatory strip search and review of persons genitals, or actually viewing them use the bathroom? Kathie cites an analogous situation at Rancho Bernardo High School in April 2002. At a school dance, a high school assistant principal asked young ladies to show their underwear before entering a dance to “ensure appropriate school dress”. Several girls were asked if they were wearing thong underwear, and advised to go home and change if so. In addition to violating youth privacy, it was socially embarrassing for them. A San Diego city Police Officer on site for security witnessed the event and felt it was “totally out of line.” The offending assistant principal was suspended and later demoted. (Those seeking more information on the incident in question may google keywords rancho bernardo high thong panty check).
Some transphobic parents have argued that their children will be traumatized by having to share a bathroom or locker room with a transgender student. Kathie points out that given the actuality reality of the situation, this is pure nonsense. No transgender child will strip naked in front of their peers. Trans youth will simply go to a locker, take their clothes, go to a bathroom stall, and change there. Moreover, there is often not enough time for ANY child to shower and be on time for class. So where is the trauma? Kathie believes that the problem is transphobic parents and students lack of education: “When you’re uneducated, there’s too much space for fear”. In addition, many parents and students have never met an openly transgender youth-although they unknowingly have associated with many closeted ones. Once they actually meet and dialogue with a trans youth, the barriers of ignorance, prejudice and fear break down.
Other transphobic individuals make the argument that mischievous youth may “pretend” to be transgender so as to sneak a peek at the opposite sex for a thrill. Kathie responds to this argument “Nobody is going to pretend to be trans. There’s so much bullying and stigma that nobody is going to pretend to be what they’re not”.
Kathie observes that there is now greater transgender visibility, citing Jazz Jennings, Laverne Cox, and Catilyn Jenner. However, it is a double edged sword. “More transgender stories coming out can push the buttons of those people who are not accepting” But, she adds “We can’t let this stop kids from owning their own space”. She concluded by emphasizing the importance of BUILDING THE TRANSGENDER COMMUNITY, with special attention to at-risk trans youth: “The more we band together as a community, the less people have to have the secrecy of being who they are”.