Interview: Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper
Author: Leith St. John
January 20, 2010
I was a transgender child. Mind you, I grew up during the ’70s, long before most people had even heard of the word transgender. Still, the experiences of my childhood appear to be consistent with that of many of today’s trans kids: I considered myself to be a little girl, despite the fact that I was sporting a penis, and insisted that family and friends recognize me as such. I appropriated various behaviors of my cisgender gal pals, including perching atop a toilet seat in order to relieve my bladder.
And I preferred toys that some considered gender inappropriate for my birth sex, like my Growing Up Skipper from Mattel, the first Barbie to undergo puberty and grow breasts by simply twirling her left arm (“Make her grow from a young girl to a teenager in seconds!”)—a key feature that now, looking back, contains a certain irony. But as is too often the case for contemporary trans youth, I was also subjected to the phobia and insensitivity of others—from relatives and classmates, to other parents and even a few of my own teachers—and consequently, at the age of 16, found myself admitted to the psychiatric ward of the local county hospital following a botched suicide attempt. (Luckily, I’ve developed much more life-affirming coping mechanisms over the years.)
So when I first heard about the publication of Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper’s The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals, I was cautiously excited. Fortunately, the cautious part was unwarranted. The Transgender Child is a compassionate and caring guide that presents a wealth of much needed information and advice for parents of transgender and gender-variant youngsters and teens alike—to help families become more sensitive and supportive of their children, and be better prepared for the unique challenges and situations that are ahead.
Which isn’t to say that The Transgender Child isn’t without its faults. In attempting to touch upon as many subjects as possible, a measure of depth had to be sacrificed. As a result, in some instances just as the authors begin to delve into a weighted or controversial topic (as in the discussion of teens, dating, and sex), it’s time to move on to the next matter at hand. Which is a reason why the handbook might be well served if it was accompanied by a companion website—especially considering that the text is replete with online references. Then up-to-date and additional information and resources could also be made available to readers, as well as pointers to online forums or message boards so that parents, educators, and care providers could continue the conversation—and work together to inspire social change.
Still, there’s no denying that a book on this subject matter has been severely overdue, and hopefully The Transgender Child is the first indication of many more to come.
Recently, I was given the opportunity to touch base with the authors, and ask them a few questions about their groundbreaking work.
Leith St. John: For those who may be unfamiliar with The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals, can you provide some personal background information and tell us how the handbook came about?
Rachel Pepper: This book was created out of keen professional and personal interest. Stephanie was working already in the field as a gender educator, and I had just completed work on my second book, the “Gay and Lesbian Guide to College Life,” from Princeton Review Press, which has extensive material for transgender and transitioning students. In writing that book, and talking to both college students and recent graduates, and their parents, I became keenly aware of the need for supportive and educational materials for parents of gender non-conforming kids of all ages. The more parents I talked to in PFLAG groups around the country, the more they stressed that a specific book on trans issues was really needed by families. Knowing Stephanie was doing similar work, and that we had published separate books on similar topics in the past, we decided to collaborate this time.
Stephanie Brill: As the Founder of Gender Spectrum Education and Training, I have worked with countless families raising gender-variant and transgender children and teens. We provide training and consultation to medical providers, mental health providers, social service agencies, and schools both nationally and internationally. Rachel conducted the majority of the interviews for this book while I was able to bring my wealth of first hand experience with gender variance and children to our collaboration. Our collaboration was a natural fit.
LSJ: What sorts of responses have you received as a result of the book’s publication?
RP: If you check the reviews on various retailer websites, you’ll see that people are very appreciative of the book, and we have received all five-star reviews, from parents, educators, and simply people who want to learn more about transgender and gender-variant children. In person, people are very complimentary, and make a point to say that they have purchased copies and either use it in their families, or their therapy practices, or have seen it in their doctor’s office.
SB: I would simply like to add that professionals report to us all the time having bought multiple copies of the book to hand out to their colleagues and patients. Parents find it indispensible and provide copies to their schools, friends, and extended families.
LSJ: Throughout the book, there are quotes from trans kids and their family members. In fact, some of the quotes were quite frank. What other kinds of research/information gathering was conducted for The Transgender Child?
RP: I interviewed a very broad spectrum of family members for The Transgender Child, families from all across the country, of all races, classes, ethnicities, and family makeup, including even a few LGBT-headed households who were just as confused about their kids as any other parent might be. I reached out extensively to both the national PFLAG transgender family support group and regional PFLAG groups across the country. They all supported this project right from the beginning. I also interviewed some key members of the gender-therapy and medical and legal worlds, cutting edge endocrinologists and doctors such as Irene N. Sills and Dr Norman P. Spack, as well as therapists—including transgender therapists across the country. Because of space limitations, we were not able to include all the interviews we did, but these definitely informed our research and let us know we were on the right track. We also had experts in their fields read certain sections of the book that pertained to legal and medical issues to fact check them before we went to press.
LSJ: One of the things that caught my attention while reading The Transgender Child was how transgender is defined—in that, you differentiate between the transgender and gender-variant. Because in the adult trans community, the words are often used synonymously as umbrella terms. Was this approach purposeful?
SB: The use of language in this book is very intentional. In The Transgender Child, we use transgender to refer to a very specific gender experience. That is, someone who has a fixed internal sense of gender that is considered by mainstream society to be opposite from their assigned natal sex. This definition of transgender is not an umbrella term, and helps to clarify what next steps might be for a school or a family—the only children considering gender transitions are those who are transgender.
The majority of gender non-conforming youth are not transgender. They are gender-variant in other ways that are equally as important and are often deeply discriminated against as well. The approaches of support needed change according to the elements of gender being expressed, so it is essential to have a working vocabulary to address these differences.
Language has the power to make social change when we all use words in the same manner. In The Transgender Child, we offer families ways to determine in what parts of gender their child is gender non-conforming, and provide them with language to describe their child that is simple and supportive.
LSJ: What role, if any, did the experiences and/or input of contemporary trans adults play in developing The Transgender Child?
RP: I have had many close friends and partners that are transgender, and their opinions and experiences were definitely important to me in writing this book. I also interviewed adult trans people I found through PFLAG when writing both my college guidebook and The Transgender Child. Several of the gender therapists and lawyers we consulted were also trans folks, and they brought both their personal and professional experiences to the project. Most of the adult trans people I talked to about the book were profoundly grateful for and supportive of the project.
SB: As a part of the butch/trans community, my social and professional world is very gender diverse. However, this book is focused on the younger generation of gender-variant and transgender people. It is a book written for parents and professionals, regardless of their own familiarity with issues of gender. As such, it is a compassionate overview of gender in a non-politicized manner based on the experiences of families just like them—whoever they may be. We are trying to guide parents and professionals to understand why it is vital to allow children to be who they are with concrete, research-based steps of how to do so.
LSJ: Some of the advice provided in the book, although logical, might be considered exceptionally challenging for most average families—such as moving to a more progressive (i.e., urban) area where trans-friendly programs and resources are available, or financing the gender transition of a child. (Even trans adults find the expense of transition prohibitive, and often have to make physical and/or psychological concessions regarding such. That’s why transitioning is considered an economic privilege.) What suggestions can you provide to parents for whom moving their family to a new community or covering the costs of a child’s transition simply isn’t economically feasible?
RP: Obviously, we do not expect most families to pick up and move if their child is gender-variant or transgender. This is used in the book only as one example of something empowered families can do, particularly if they are shunned in their current communities, or their child is truly unsafe. However, before families would even need to consider this, there are many other options to try, which we spell out in the book.
We also do not necessarily advocate early and costly medical intervention for the majority of children whose families may pick up our book. It is really about empowering families to accept and love their child as they grow into who they are. That is the book’s primary message.
SB: I would like to address the transition and privilege concerns. Although some transgender people do not desire to transition hormonally—and some who do are not able to due to other medical conditions—for many transgender people, the need to transition is not optional. For these people, it is the difference between a life worth living and choosing not to continue living at all. The right to affordable medical care is something that should be guaranteed. This is something we all need to work towards.
LSJ: How do you answer criticism that the advice provided by The Transgender Child, while obviously well intentioned, is still relatively untested—and could possibly be harmful in the long term?
RP/SB: This topic is controversial both within and outside of the LGBT community. Our stand is to encourage families to love, accept, and protect their children for who they are.
Currently, there has been no extensive research done in the U.S. about transgender children. This will happen, of course. But because the book is so groundbreaking, we didn’t have that kind of data to work with. Our work is designed for real world applications, and to help families and communities better understand a previously hidden and misunderstood population of children.
These medical decisions are not to be taken lightly, and are often agonized over by families for great lengths of time, even when the kids themselves push for treatment. And, again, it should be stressed that we point out repeatedly in the book that we do not necessarily advocate early medical intervention for most young people. Most gender-variant youth are not transgender, and thus do not need to undergo any medical treatments. This is part of why it is essential to distinguish between gender-variant and transgender children. Many transgender kids, by the time they enter adolescence, absolutely know who they are, and express great relief at being able to begin cross-hormones or just take hormone blockers. If you have ever talked to these kids, there is usually no doubt in their mind who they are, nor has there been any doubt for some time, often as far back as they can remember. Although there is always the chance that any choice that a parent makes for a child may be resented in their adulthood, this is not a reason to block access from appropriate medical care.
LSJ: Balancing the number of topics to include in The Transgender Child with the amount of detail you were able to provide for each one must have been challenging. After all, a parent of a gender-variant 4-year-old is wrestling with issues altogether different than, say, one who’s raising a pre-operative trans teenager hell-bent to start dating. Are there any plans to expand upon The Transgender Child, and explore some of the issues that were raised within the handbook more thoroughly?
RP/SB: We certainly agree with your point, and originally did contemplate that we could write two or three different books on the topic. However, that would have taken many more years, and the reality is that families were begging for something to be put in their hands as soon as possible. We also had a supportive publisher at Cleis who encouraged us to write a book that could be as inclusive as it was groundbreaking, and we managed to include information on familial homophobia, LGBT teens, sexual orientation issues, intersex, and many other issues we knew families were wondering about, as well as basic parenting, legal, medical, therapeutic, and educational issues. A lot of ground to cover, but we’re very happy we got it all into one book, as it will reach a wider audience.
Maybe in the future we will update it and break it out into a series, depending on reader interest. There are differences among families parenting gender-variant and transgender children, we know this, as do the families. However, the basic premise is the same—love and support your children.
THE TRANSGENDER CHILD:
A Handbook for Families and Professionals
By Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper
Paperback, $16.95, 272p