Ask Ari #103

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #103, Fall 2003.

We?re happy to welcome therapist Arlene Istar Lev?known informally as Ari?to our roster of columnists.?Ed.

Dear Ari,

I?m a 35-year-old transgendered person with a problem. I?ve told everyone in my family about my plans, and all have taken it remarkably well. This includes my spouse, whom I deeply love, and who has known about me since before we were wed. The problem now is deciding how to tell our five-year-old daughter. Any
suggestions would be sincerely appreciated.

??Ready to Tell?
Dear Ready,
With the support of your spouse and your family, I?d say you are one lucky person. The hardest thing for many transgendered people is coping with other people?s fears and misconceptions. The wonderful thing about young children is they don?t have a lot of fears and misconceptions about gender. Although it always seems to surprise the mental-health community, children of transgendered people usually cope with a parent?s gender-identity shifts with ease.

I?ve worked in my clinical practice with many families of transgendered and transsexual people; the young children in these families rarely struggle with these issues. It presents few problems
for developing gender identity
and few parent-child conflicts, unless there were previous problems (teenagers and adult children are a whole different issue). I appreciate your consideration of your family?s needs. Sometimes when people begin to address
long-repressed feelings, they don?t realize the impact on their family. However, as a person?s transgender identity emerges, it does affect the whole family.

My advice will depend upon your circumstances: do you cross-dress in private? Do you live full-time as the other gender? Are you on hormones? Are you considering sex-reassignment surgery? If you?re already cross-dressing in front of your daughter, you may not have to tell her anything. If you?ve previously hidden this from her, you can begin to let her see this other side of you through clothing choices and other cues. Children are very adaptable; what is presented as ?normal? will usually be accepted. As they venture out in the world, they?ll begin to see the ways that our families are different. They?ll bring home more questions, which can be answered as they emerge.

If you?re planning to transition from one gender to another, you might want to explain to her that you?ve not been happy living in
the gender of your birth and that you?ve decided to live in a way that makes you happier. This makes sense to children, who find happiness an admirable goal. Don?t tell you child that you have a problem, or a condition, or a birth defect,
or an illness. You definitely don?t have any of these. Instead, tell your child who you are, how much her parents love each other, and how much you love her. Remind your child that there?s nothing wrong or bad about maleness or femaleness; it?s just that the label they gave you didn?t fit you correctly.
Children often have questions about transitioning, usually ones that are more about how this affects them. Your daughter may wonder what this means to her sense of being a girl or how her friends will accept it. She may express sadness about ?losing?
a daddy or mommy role model. These feelings are best expressed and answered honestly.
In a culture where gender options are much greater than they used to be, children are constantly bombarded by divergent viewpoints about women and men. Recently, my 4-year-old son was lying in bed verbally reviewing (for reasons entirely his own) the gender rules he has discovered. Rather pensively, he said, ?Men wear pants, but women can wear pants also. Women sometimes wear skirts, but men don?t wear skirts. Unless they want to. Right, Momma??

?Exactly, son.?

Our little ones aren?t growing up in the same world we did. We grew up in a world where gender was immutable; mothers simply didn?t become fathers and vice-versa. Our children are growing up in a world where gender is flexible and can even be changed.
My friend and colleague Pamela Michaels-Fallon told this story of an exchange overheard in her son?s preschool class. One child asked another what he wanted to be when he grew up.
?A mother,? he replied.

?Oh, you mean that you don?t want to be a man?? a third child said, ?like my daddy didn?t want to be a man? You want to become a woman like she did??

The second child responded with ease: ?No, that?s not what I meant. I want to be a mommy so I can use power tools.?

This is their world, where women use power tools and men can become mommies. And I think it?s a darn good one.

Arlene Istar Lev, CSW-R, CASAC, is a therapist specializing in working with LGBT families at Choices Counseling and Consulting ( in Albany, New York. She?s a mom, educator, activist, and the author of two books, Transgender Emergence: Therapeutic Guidelines for Working with Gender-Variant People and their Families (2003, Haworth Press), and How Queer: LGBT Parenting (forthcoming, Penguin Press).