Raising a transgender teen
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) - When it comes to taking care of kids, parents deal with a multitude of concerns. Are my kids safe, are they getting a good education, are they happy?
For the parents of the more than 1 million Americans that identify as transgender, those concerns run deeper than most. In Arkansas, more than 13,000 people identify as transgender.
When it comes to the parents of LGBT children, many will tell you they knew something was different about their child at an early age. But, what comes next?
This is Willow's story.
Growing up transgender
It's an average Saturday night for the Childers family. Four of Michael and Tabitha Childers’ five children are out with friends or away at school. Everyone is gone but the youngest, 14-year-old Willow.
"This is my closet,” she said, showing off all her handbags, shoes, and chunky necklaces.
She's a "girly-girl" through and through. Only, like some transgender people, she was assigned male at birth.
"She was little, she was two maybe," her mother said. "I knew from an early age that she was not going to be the boy I was expecting."
In fact, Willow was born with a twin brother. Connor, her twin brother, is two minutes older and identifies as male. For their mom, the differences between the two were clear from the very beginning.
"Willow, if given a choice, would always pick the shiny thing, the pink thing, the bracelet. For [Connor], it was the obvious trucks or the action figures,” she said.
While she may have always known her twins couldn't be more different, facing that reality wasn't always easy.
"It's a sense of loss because when you give birth to a child, you see this biological boy, so you automatically have hopes and dreams and plans that you associate with this child," Childers said.
Childers watched her twins grow up, imagining them as two blond-haired, blue-eyed boys. She said she could imagine what her grandchildren were going to look like.
But, that all changed the day that Willow came out.
At first, it was just that Willow liked boys, but that evolved into Michael and Tabitha asking each other if Willow was transgender.
"We really felt that Willow was a girl that likes boys. So, my child is not homosexual, my child is a heterosexual female," Childers said. "It was just a few months later that Willow came to us and told us she felt she was female, and that was okay.”
Willow admitted that she didn't come out as transgender from the start because she thought coming "out of the closet" might make it easier.
"I knew at that point that I was transgender, I guess it was maybe like a stepping stone for me," Willow said. "I always intended to come out as trans-gender. I just thought, maybe that will ease the blow, I guess."
But, Willow's mother was not surprised by the revelation.
"I told her 'a momma knows her ducks,’' she said. "I knew, as a parent you know. You can either choose to accept, and embrace, and love, or you can try to hide it and be embarrassed and ashamed."
The Childers were neither embarrassed nor ashamed. As far they are concerned they "gave birth to a beautiful little girl, she just happened to have a part that was misplaced."
Faith, school, and gender identity
"We found out the hard way that church is not always a safe place,” Childers explained, “but I can never believe in my heart that my child is not the way she's supposed to be."
Shortly after Willow came out, faith became a conflict for the religious family. They thought Willow's decision was the right way and how "God intended her to be."
But, religious friends raised their own concerns of Willow's life. They claimed it was sinful for her to be transgender and for the family to accept her.
"I hate it when people use their faith to defend their bigotry, that's a big thing to me,” Willow said.
It wasn't just church though. Willow had trouble fitting in at school.
“No one ever wanted to talk to me. I sat by myself all the time. I struggled with a lot of depression and anxiety," she said.
After coming out, school and after-school activities became miserable for Willow. It was also a safety concern for her parents.
"Every day it was a struggle for me to get out of bed, to get out of school every day, I would fake sick," she admitted. "I would do anything in my power I could to not go to school. I didn't want to."
So, Willow and her parents took matters into their own hands and moved. They left the school, the church, and even their home for a new start.
"Michael had a beautiful home and 20 acres that he planned to retire on," Childers said of her husband's future. "For us, he was willing to put that on the market and move to a postage stamp of a back yard. Just to be sure the kids were in a safe spot."
The family did what many LGBT families have to do and shopped for schools with an LGBT-friendly reputation. They went to schools and thoroughly vetted each school, making sure the situation was right for not only Willow, but her siblings as well. Often times, Willow's siblings would get in trouble defending their sister.
After the move, Will changed her name to Willow, and began dressing according to her gender.
"They didn't hesitate to put Willow on my paperwork. They put it on my school ID, it's on everything. They didn't care. They don't care which bathroom I use. That was never a concern for them," she said.
It was at this new school that Willow began to bloom and her parents saw the depression and anxiety fall away.
"It's amazing," her mother said. "Once we found these safe places for Willow, how she began to blossom and what we've begun to see with her.”
Taking the next step
For those like Willow who may question their assigned gender at a young age, there are options.
Doctors are able to prescribe hormone therapy drugs, like estrogen and testosterone, as well as another class of drug, known as "puberty blockers." These blockers essentially stop testosterone or estrogen from being released, suppressing puberty, and leaving young people with more time to make the difficult decision.
"I want to get surgery," Willow admitted, "but that's something that is a very risky surgery and it's very expensive. Not all transpeople desire that. I do, but that sterilizes whoever gets it, so I can't ever have children. I'd have to adopt."
And for some, transitioning isn't financially possible. On average, sex change operations can cost upwards of $100,000 and are rarely covered by insurance.
"Hopefully, we will get some insurance relief with the surgeries. If not, we will figure out how to make it work for Willow,” her mother said.
In the meantime, the family is adjusting to their new home, new school, and more supportive surroundings.
"At the end of the day, a kid deserves to be loved and be happy and that's what we're trying to provide," her father said.
Willow hopes to grow up and become a therapist, helping other transgender teens and adults make the difficult transition into being comfortable in one's own skin.
On Friday, we will look at what life is like for members of the LGBT community in Arkansas. How far have we come and how far do we have to go for this growing segment of the population to feel safe in the Natural State?