Gender Identity – Raising Transgender Kids
By all accounts, there was nothing to indicate anything would be different.
It began in 2016, when the youngest of Cynthia Sweeney’s three daughters was 10 years old.
Click for video transcription
Welcome to where parents talk. I’m Lianne Castelino. Our guest today are two moms with five children between them. Cynthia Sweeney is a diversity inclusion and equity educator, mom of three and author. Brianna Simons is a registered clinical social worker in private practice, a mom of two, and an author, Cynthia Sweeney and Brianna Simon’s co-authors of the pink balloon. Thank you for joining us today.
Thanks for having us.
So, Cynthia, you started on this journey in terms of writing this book about two years ago, tell us what made you want to put this down into a book form.
I really wanted to, I guess, to bridge a gap between the knowledge that was being introduced in schools to children around gender identity, and not having a start at the end of elementary school and lumped into the Healthy Living component, where you’re talking about puberty and sexual orientation, because that’s not gender identity. And we’re born, you know, we’re able to express ourselves as children, and no or gender identity from as early as two, three years old. And not talking about it younger, it really limits the conversation for children, it limits the ability for them to shine as them self, and it makes them invisible and erases them, and create this kind of level of shame. And so I really just I wanted a story that could be great for families with young children, and teachers as well to be able to use as a tool to create great allies in students, but also gives space and representation to gender expansive and trans children.
So Cynthia, you talk about gender identity is something that children can identify as young as two or three years old, Brianna, that actually was your case, with your four year old take us through how your child told you that they were transgender.
So she was four when she told us but we certainly saw signs earlier than that. We actually started kind of witnessing some I want to say some some indications as early as like 18 months into years old, but at the time, we didn’t see it as that we just kind of saw that our child was had preferences for and had experiences that were outside of the gender norm, I want to say and what a lot of parents of our age and older really wouldn’t have had a lot of information about. So we kind of just paid attention to it, we made note of it, but we didn’t really do anything specific about it at that time. Um, and then it would have been around the age of three, that we started having more explicit things said or that she asked us about certain things so one of them was not wanting to have her hair cut anymore and wanting to grow it up longer. Another was specific to clothing and just appearance and in what she had more preference for around clothes. And and then it kind of shifted into her experience and our experience when we were out in public with people at the time misgendering her based on kind of where we were at at at at that point. And we kind of later you know, found that that was actually more in alignment with what her identified gender is. And so we kind of that, I would say that was the point and that was at three years old. That was the point in which we were like, Okay, there’s something more here that we’re experiencing. And this isn’t just kind of a passing or a preference. There’s something more here in regards to how she’s identifying. And so we just kind of took her lead with that we would check in with her around what do you want us to do? When people refer to as a girl at first it was it’s okay to crack them and then it shifted quite quickly within a month or two of you don’t need to crack them anymore. You can just kind of you know go along with it not saying anything. And then it shifted into wanting to kind of had that experience like you can go along with it to the point where you are then calling me that and calling me your daughter and using sure she her pronouns. And then it was didn’t until when she was four. That was when she actually had expressed the language and said to us, I am a girl. So that was when we had that kind of confirmation of all the things that we had seen leading up to that, that that was kind of underlying and that was, where she was coming from. And, and that was the way she expressed it at that point without having the actual words to say it.
It’s interesting, Brianna, in your case, we’re talking about your eldest child. And Cynthia, in your case, we’re talking about your youngest child, the youngest of three, take us through how it happened for you, and how it was revealed, as well as what steps you took immediately after this revelation came to light.
Sure, I can I can remember the weekend explicitly but the I guess the leading up to it was over a period of a few weeks, because the teacher in the school when my child was in their grade five class started reading a book to the class that featured a transgender character. And it was a piece of the curriculum that they needed to cover, but they could have talked about anything and they chose to talk about gender identity. And so this book, well, that story was being read. It was like this light bulb moment for my child like and they were just absorbing every ounce of the story. And they even said afterwards, I don’t even know if anyone else in the class listened to the book, but they would come home from school and dinner at the dinner table. Ask me questions like had you ever wished that you had had a boy? Because they’re two? They’re two older sisters, or have two older sisters. Or if you had a boy, what would you what would you call him. And at the time, I didn’t really I didn’t put two and two together that that they were trying to tell me that they are a boy. And then it was at the end of the story. They came home off the school bus. And I think they had had a previous conversation with a very good friend of theirs at the time. And their friends said you need to tell your mom, you need to tell your parents. This is important. And so they came in the door. And it came in the door. I apologize if the light is a little bit funny. We’re having a beautiful sunset here in Nova Scotia. They came in the door and they rushed into my office and they said, I need to I need to talk to you, Mom, I need you to believe me. I have to tell you something, you have to listen to me. And I was working. And I was like, Yeah, okay, sure. Tell me and they said, No, you really you need to listen. And I looked at them and they had this look in there I’d never experienced before but this fear and and they were just terrified. They were so small and so terrified. And they climbed up onto my lap and they said, Mom, I am something called transgender. And I was born in the wrong body. I’m I’m a boy, I’m not a girl, and you have to believe me, you just have to believe me. And I said, Oh, at the time, I remember I kind of sat back and I said so like maybe you’re a tomboy and thinking you know, because they had always sort of express themselves a little bit more masculine and that they didn’t like dresses, they didn’t like tights made their skin burn. They fought me tooth and nail on what they wanted to wear. When when when they were little, but I really I just thought maybe tomboy, like maybe that’s just they’re expressing themselves differently. We all express ourselves in different ways. I used to wear my hair super short and choppy. And they got very upset and very distressed when I when I said that because I meant in their mind. I wasn’t listening fully with my heart and and so they said no. And they repeated themselves. And I said, okay, and they said, What are we going to do? You have to help me? And I said, Okay, I said, I love you and leave it with me, mommy, mommy needs to understand this. And I said, but it’s going to be okay. Mom loves you. And it’s going to be okay. Alright, so you just have to just give me a little bit of time. I’m going to keep talking about this. And so we had the weekend. And I I first shared it with my sister, because we had gone it was my birthday weekend and and she was like what you know, and it was like that shock? And I said, Yeah, I know. And I’m like, I’m not sure maybe this book has put some ideas into their head. Like I had some fears that are very common in a lot of parents. It’s that, you know, how did I not know this as a parent? You know, you get all these like books when you’re a new parent and your villages they’re telling you oh no, they’ve got to eat this and don’t introduce broccoli first and you’ve got this kind of an unwritten manual But I didn’t know anything about this. And anybody I tried to share it with was also kind of shock and awe like, oh, how do they know? How could they know? And now since I’ve learned and I can look back and go, Well, how did you know that you’re cisgender? How did you know that you’re a girl or a boy, it’s the same way children know, their gender identity just as much as any cisgender child. So I told my husband, I called the school, I set up a meeting with the guidance counselor, because I just wanted to find out. And in that meeting with a guidance counselor, I shared some of my fears. And I said, okay, like, I will support them, I will do what it takes. But what if they changed their mind? And what if they? What if I, you know, I get on this train? And we do, okay, like, they want to change names and pronouns, but what if they change their mind? And they sat back? And they said to me, what if they do?
And I thought, you know, this isn’t about me, this is not about my fears. This is not this is about them. And what if they do if I don’t give them the space? How will they ever really know? How can they ever be true? So it was really great. And I think that’s sort of the beginning of our story. And then we It all happened really quickly it all when once they have that confidence, and and they can share it, then it’s like, okay, well, I want to really cut my hair short mom, I really I want boy clothes, can we go shopping, and I want to use he him pronouns. And they were very adamant. He him pronouns, clothing, all of that. And so as a parent, you’re you’re going with it, right? Somehow you’re living in the moment there, and then you’re closing your bedroom door, and you’re kind of experiencing your own feelings. And while that was happening, his sisters were also experiencing this as well. And because as much as we didn’t see it, as parents and his dad, like, we all really don’t dealt with it differently. I probably got comfortable with it as quick, because it’s that mom, mama bear with me. You know, we just love our kids, and we want them to thrive. But the girls, the older sisters, it they both took it very differently in in in their own time. And, and it surprised me how one dealt with it, versus the other was the opposite and how they would and even sharing it with family members, the people I thought would be the least accepting and understanding shocked me. And they just were like, Okay, what do we need to do? What do we need to know? How can I inform myself? So it’s unique, I think for every family.
You know, there’s so many layers to what you just shared there, Cynthia, for everybody involved in a family situation and outside the family as well. Around acceptance. Brianna, you are a clinical social worker by profession. I wonder, what was your reaction when you were, you know, finally told about, about your child being transgender? And how did you go about accepting it within your family? And where did you go for help and support?
Um, for me, I feel like I was processing it way before. Um, just because I saw some of those indications. I didn’t quite know what it was. But then obviously, when I was told, like, it all made total sense for me. Um, and I, it’s not the first time I had been, you know, aware of it. So I had also worked with children previous to that, that were gender expansive. So it’s not like it was a complete shock for me. But, um, where did that Where did I go was actually like, for me, I was like, Okay, I need to find my community, I need to find people who have similar experiences, because I found value in that, like, you can certainly read online, you can gather information, but it’s those lived experiences that were really important for me. So at the time, I was in a more rural area of Nova Scotia, I feel like everywhere that’s outside of Halifax, Dartmouth area, is rule. And so I when I was looking for resources, that’s where I found it was in the city. So for me, I just knew that I’m just going to have to kind of travel there and connect with people and then see what I can do in more rural areas and just start it myself. So that’s actually how Cindy and I met is a group for parents of transgender and gender expansive children and youth and it was in the city. It was an hour and a half drive about 14 It was about an hour at the time from where I lived at the time so it was an hour and as soon as Cindy and I connected and you know, we talked a little bit about our story I had said I’m a clinical social worker providing work on the south shore, there isn’t anything, there isn’t anything on the south shore or in the valley that’s like this where parents can go or families can connect. So Cindy and I immediately like, Okay, we’re going to start it, we’re going to start it on the south shore to. So we did do that. So my reaction was not only what do I need for myself, and what do I need for my child? But it was also okay, how can I bring this to other people as well, because I work with a lot of families. And I knew that this was something that was going to be a part of my professional experience as well. And so for me, it just kind of happened a little more naturally, because I did have some of that base knowledge. But then. So family, this is a little bit of a different dynamic, too, because we don’t have family in Nova Scotia. So all of our family is in Ontario. And so for me, I knew that I had my community, my connections in Nova Scotia, but now I had to share this information with my family in Ontario. And I didn’t necessarily know how people were going to respond or react. And the difference too, is, and I say this a lot to people that I work with is, it can be harder for people to can conceptualize, when they don’t see your child regularly. Right. So for us, we saw the daily changes we, we saw after she was able to express herself and live, you know, in a more authentic way of who she is the huge change in her self esteem, her confidence, just really blossoming as a person. And so for people that lived in Ontario, all of our family that, you know, maybe see her once a year, see her sometimes on, you know, FaceTime or something, we knew it was going to be harder for them to grasp because they didn’t see all the things that kind of happened before.
And the way that I shared that was just, I did have some conversations like by phone in advance, but the way that I kind of dispersed it to everybody in a in a larger sense, before we were going to Ontario, again, was just to I wrote a very lengthy email, I crafted an email that had all the information in it as around, you know, this is what we’ve been experiencing. For the last few years things we’ve noticed. This is how it’s kind of transpired and, and how we were told and what we’ve done since and what you’re going to experience when you see our child and us next time. And we the other thing that I think was really important. And I also talk a lot with families that I work with is also establishing our boundaries as a family. This is what we hope and expect for in regards to your relationship with our child and us going forward. These are the things we’re not going to be accepting of. And I also included a lot of resources and links. I felt like by by sharing the information about our experience, but also sharing easy access, ways of getting education and information was helpful, because then I knew that I knew the information they’re getting I knew that it was it was valid, it was accurate, instead of just leaving them to kind of explore that on their own and potentially finding things that weren’t going to be credible resources around it.
It’s a very important point. Definitely. Cynthia, you know, I wonder a lot of parents who might have to deal with this, one of the questions that may enter their minds is, you know, how can this child be sure, at whatever age they are, in your case, your child was 10 a girl at birth? And you know, I don’t know if that crossed your mind. But what advice can you provide given everything that you’ve gone through and your own lived experience as well as what you do in your professional life? And it’s still on this journey?
What can you tell parents about about that particular piece in terms of how can they be sure that their child is sure about their transgender?
Mm hmm. Well, I think you know, as parents with young children, firstly, you don’t need to be sure That’s, that’s not the most important piece, I think you need to be able to listen and respect your child for who they’re sharing with you who they are, you could because your gender identity is your innermost sense of self, as a man as a woman, or as long as somewhere in between the gender lines, or is lying outside gender lines all together. And so it’s allowing that space to explore, I think we’re always learning about ourselves, we’re always growing even as an adult. And so for children, especially giving them that space to try on different things, you know, there are phases sure, like I went through that Madonna phase with all the bracelets and, and that that phase is generally divined by about six months, maybe six to eight months. But your gender identity is something that, you know, is very inherent of view from your entire life. But how we see ourselves in a world is also directly connected to how the world sees us, because how the world sees us gives us these rules, and definitions of how you need to fit. We’re always negotiating, okay, well, how am I going to fit? If people perceive me this way? Am I going to be able to get this job? Am I going to have a friend am I going to be able to get invited to this party? You know, like we’re always negotiating how the world sees us. And so if we, if we narrow those spaces, and we judge people for being able to try on different hats and see what they feel good about them, we’re really stifling ourselves. We’re really not giving ourselves the space to really truly be who, who, who we truly are. We’re living our life on other people’s expectations and definitions of who should be.
Cynthia, it’s interesting, your child was impacted greatly by a book that was read to him about a transgender story. You then sat down and put pen to paper to write the pink balloon a couple of years ago. Could you tell us what in broad strokes? First of all, what is the story about? And what do you want readers to leave with?
Sure, I’ll try to do that. In the reverse.
I’m going to fold it up so people can see it here.
Yeah, so it’s the pink balloon, the hard copy of it. And so I really want the pink balloon to be an opportunity for families and children to learn more about gender identity and, and that it’s not something that can be given to us at birth, that it’s something that we need to show the world who we are as, as we live and we grow and we experience life. And that was really, really important in writing it. But it was really, it’s inspired. It has pieces of both of our journeys in it. But this story was inspired by Brianna’s story and her journey and I just I thought when she shared it with me, this was the story I wanted to write this was a story I wanted to get into the world because it’s so positive. And for not just parents of gender, expansive, and trans youth, but for parents of children who are ever inevitably going to come in contact with children of diverse backgrounds, and allowing them to understand that diversity is good, and it’s worth celebrating. But perhaps I would rather throw it to Bree just to share a little bit about about the book itself.
Um, it’s interesting, because Cindy and I have actually talked about this before we were on the radio with me, I don’t know, but not even with that, like a year ago before the book even was fully written and illustrated because we were talking about gender reveal parties. And and, you know, the reasons why gender reveal parties aren’t an accurate, you know, depiction or tradition that really should be occurring anymore. And so for for me, part of our story is that for our first child, we wanted to celebrate everything about the pregnancy, the experience, and you know, all of that. And again, kind of being in that stage and not having all the knowledge that I have now, we ignorantly and naively took part in having a gender reveal party and our family is from Ontario and so we were traveling back to Ontario to celebrate all this and that was a part of our baby shower and but the interesting thing is when we had the balloons in the box, I had one have a different color in the off chance that it you know, it wasn’t accurate. And it but it came from a place of, um, my sister in law was was told the gender of her child, you know, via ultrasound and all that stuff. And when her child was born it, her child was assigned the opposite sex of what she thought she was having. So it came from a different place, but then the meaning behind it has so much more significance now, because and I have it on video of my my brother saying in the background, but maybe a girl. And so now that we’ve had this journey, and we’ve had this experience, it just really smacks you in the face with how much you didn’t know, when you weren’t aware of even well meaning like, um, you know, for us, we didn’t raise our children with, you know, gender boxes or limitations based on gender in regards to toys, play, you know, appearance and all that. And so it’s not that we were coming from a very traditional place of like, you’re a boy, and you do this, and you’re a girl and you do this. But, um, so that was part of our story. And when Cindy and I got together, and we’re speaking about it, it kind of like just that messaging and that, that the imagery of it was just so significant in being able to share that story.
So it’s in the book, and the story itself is narrated by Briar, the child and the book has a unique name for the character in the book, but it’s narrate narrated through the child and, and how when they’re born, they’re wondering, you know, what did they say, and what does that and no, I think they’ve mixed me up. I’m not a blue balloon, I’m a pink balloon, and and and how I’m going to have to show them who I am. And yeah, it’s, it’s a beautiful, it’s a beautiful story. And I you know, I’m glad that it’s inspired by a true story. And I hope it’ll be far reaching.
Cynthia, what could you offer to parents who may find themselves in a similar situation who may not have the support who may not be as accepting of this new reality potentially in their lives? What could you offer those parents as potential tips and support as they move along this journey?
Well, it’s difficult because there is a lot of misinformation out there. So I would say stay away from Google, if you can. And look to look to organizations that are there to support you. So I’m a part of PFLAG in Halifax, PFLAG, Canada is a national nonprofit, there are great organizations of 519 in Toronto, and across Canada. So be careful where you’re finding your information, but, but I think it’s understanding that there is nothing wrong with being transgender, and unfortunately, our society has portrayed trans being trans as as a pathology. And we need to move beyond that, because it’s not the who only I think. But now instead, you know, it was maybe 2015 That, that it’s not a pathology, it’s like, you have red hair, I have brown eyes, I’m cisgender you’re transgender. That’s, that’s all it is. And, and so maybe relax your fears, and really listen, and give your children that space to show you and maybe, maybe they’re transgender, but maybe, maybe they’re just you have a son that likes sparkles and likes to try and nail polish are a girl that, you know, like, I’m thinking traditional societal norms. And that’s okay, you know, if something is a phase that they’ll they’ll they’ll grow out of it, but it is apparent, you limit them and say, No, you’re not allowed to explore this. You’re not allowed to get high top Nikes or I think when I was a child, I wasn’t allowed to wear jeans because of the the traditions back then. You know, it’s just gonna, it’s shaming, it makes you feel bad about yourself. It’s confusing, for sure, to a child. And, you know, by giving them that space, you’re just giving them the ability to be confident, youth and adults with great self-esteem and know that there’s space in the world for them. So
and you have like a website with all kinds of resources. Yeah, so I really I was great about finding information. I’m a bit of a sponge that way I like investigative journalism. That was my background. I used to actually work in children’s television and And the idea of a child being raised or suffering because a parent just doesn’t have the right information. It was just something I couldn’t, I couldn’t sit with comfortably. So I created a website that evolved into what it is today simply good form. And there is a whole area of resources specifically for parents, to help them from family, to schools to health care, and gives them information and also gives them a lot of really great resources and stories from families from trans people, so that you can actually understand a little bit more about gender identity and see that you know, transgender is not a bad word, and recognizing that we all have a gender identity, not just trans and gender expensive kids. We all have a gender identity. And it’s not something that we should feel like we need to hide. We should celebrate it.
Cynthia Sweeney and Brianna Simons, thank you so much for your time today.
“I can remember the weekend explicitly,” says Sweeney, resident of South Shore, Nova Scotia, describing the experience during an interview with Lianne Castelino of Where Parents Talk.
“Leading up to it was over a period of a few weeks,” Sweeney continues. “The teacher in the school where my child was in their grade five class started reading a book to the class that featured a transgender character. And it was a piece of the curriculum that they needed to cover, but they could have talked about anything, and they chose to talk about gender identity. That story was being read [and] it was like this light bulb moment for my child. They were just absorbing every ounce of the story,” she says.
That book would effectively begin a whole new chapter for Sweeney and her family, on several fronts.
Initially, she wondered if her child was confused or mistaken, flooding Sweeney’s mind with questions of her own.
“I’m like, I’m not sure maybe this book has put some ideas into their head,” she says. “I had some fears that are very common in a lot of parents. It’s that, you know, how did I not know this as a parent?”
Her child’s revelation thrust Sweeney on an intense fact-finding and knowledge-seeking mission.
” I told my husband, I called the school, I set up a meeting with the guidance counsellor, because I just wanted to find out.”
The trajectory for BriAnna Simons was decidedly different.
“We actually started kind of witnessing some indications as early as like 18 months to two years old, but at the time, we didn’t see it as that, ” says the registered clinical social worker and mom of two.
“We just kind of saw that our child was had preferences for and had experiences that were outside of the gender norm,” she says.”It would have been around the age of three, that we started having more explicit things said or that she asked us about certain things. One of them was not wanting to have her hair cut anymore and wanting to grow it longer,” adds Simons. “She was four when she told us.”
Given her professional background, Simons says it wasn’t a complete shock.
“I had also worked with children previous to that, that were gender expansive,” she says. “For me, I need[ed] to find my community. I need[ed] to find people who have similar experiences because I found value in that. You can certainly read online, you can gather information, but it’s those lived experiences that were really important for me.”
Simons would find some of her people, and in particular Sweeney — at a support group for parents of trans children.
Strangers at first, their friendship would evolve into a partnership as authors of a story book.
“I really want The Pink Balloon to be an opportunity for families and children to learn more about gender identity,” says Sweeney who wrote the story. “It’s not something that can be given to us at birth, it’s something that we need to show the world who we are as, as we live and we grow and we experience life.”
“We’re able to express ourselves as children and know our gender identity from as early as two, three years old,” continues Sweeney. “And not talking about it younger, it really limits the conversation for children. It limits the ability for them to shine as them self, and it makes them invisible and erases them, and create this kind of level of shame.
And so I really just I wanted a story that could be great for families with young children, and teachers as well to be able to use as a tool to create great allies in students, but also give space and representation to gender expansive and trans children.”
The Pink Balloon is based, in part, on Simons’ story.
“I’m glad that it’s inspired by a true story,” she says. “And I hope it’ll be far reaching.”
Perhaps similar to the story book that opened the door for Sweeney’s child to discover themselves.
During their interview with Where Parents Talk, Cynthia Sweeney and BriAnna Simons also discuss:
- Signs to look for
- Messages their children provided before confirming their true gender identity
- Tips for parents
- Potential next steps if a child comes out as transgender
When Your Child comes out as Transgender: A Parent’s Perspective
How Parents Can Best Support their Transgender Child: Research Study
On Life, Loss, Legacy and Transgender Parenting: A Dad’s Journey