Mind the Gap
Why we need a parent’s guide to understanding our transgender teens
Both in my role as a parent and in my role as Editor of News24's parenting vertical, I get to see so many of the issues that parents are facing. From teething to tantrums to transgender kids...
In my experience, questions and concerns about children expressing a different gender to the one they were assigned at birth are coming up more and more frequently.
Parents are learning terms such as 'non-binary', 'gender dysphoria' and 'transgender' and trying to understand why their child is getting serious about pronouns. They're discovering that schools are moving towards gender-neutral uniforms and shared bathrooms.
Parents - and teachers - are confused, maybe concerned, but not necessarily against any of it. They just don't have enough information, they're not sure how to support their children and they're wondering if what they are experiencing is a normal and expected teenage phase, or something more serious.
They're reaching out to me asking for information, for links, for resources... for anything that will give them some insight into what their child is experiencing.
And one of the most common questions that comes up is: Is this normal?
It is obvious to me that parents need more guidance in this area. We've covered stories of transgender children before, but it feels different now.
There is more to this than the pros and cons of puberty blockers and whether schools should have shared bathrooms, although those conversations must be had - this is about our children's physical and mental health, about how they fit into the world, and about how we as their parents can help them to find their true selves, to be as settled and as content in themselves as they can be as they grow into the people they are meant to be.
With this in mind, I invited journalist and mom of two, Samantha Herbst, to write a series of articles specifically aimed at those confused, concerned parents who want to help their children through whatever it is they're going through, whether it be a phase or a complete transformation.
Sam spent months researching and interviewing and learning all she could, speaking to parents, teachers, doctors and psychologists, she interviewed people who have transitioned and parents who are supporting their children through this now, we've spoken to doctors and psychologists, and we've put it all together in one place for you to find.
We also plan to keep updating these resources and information, as we learn more and have more to share with you.
An umbrella term used to capture the spectrum of gender identity and gender-expression diversity
I’m a heteronormative mom of two.
Here’s what I’ve come to understand about the trans experience
I'm a 35-year-old, married (and straight) mom of two. South Africa's version of a picket fence (no dog, unfortch). I'm white bread, bro. As vanilla as they come.
You might have guessed that I'm also cisgender. I was born female at birth, with a vagina, a vulva, a uterus and ovaries, and I identify as such. No doubt my chromosomes are marked with a double-X, and if you were to catch a glimpse of me in the street, you would know that I am a woman (hear me roar).
But lately, I've been wondering whether I'd be leaning towards nonbinary on the gender spectrum (that is, identifying as neither explicitly male or female). If I had come of age in 2022, instead of 25 years ago, would I feel more comfortable to be gender-nonconforming?
It's a bold statement for someone who's breastfed both her babies and feels quite attached to her period, but it didn't start out this way for me.
An androgynous person is someone who feels and expresses both masculinity and femininity simultaneously, fluctuating from more masculine to more feminine or equal.
‘He’s still the same person inside’
Mom opens up about parenting her transgender child
According to Cape Town mom Laetitia*, her 17-year-old trans son Declan had been a carefree, fun-loving little girl pre-puberty. Assigned female at birth, he was a goofy, lizard-loving tomboy (which made sense at the time, with two brothers in the mix). Declan was happy.
That is, until puberty struck, triggering gender dysphoria that would become a catalyst for the teen's female-to-male transition.
Not wanting to see himself naked as soon as his breast buds developed, Declan started showering with a swimsuit on. At the time, Laetitia thought that her 'little girl' – being very childlike – did not want to admit that she was growing up. But, once his breasts had developed, Declan told Laetitia that he wanted to have them cut off one day. And while he's never said out loud that he wants to be a boy, he did tell his mother that he doesn't want to be a woman.
After wrestling with his sexuality – coming out as asexual, then lesbian, then bisexual – Declan eventually pegged his unsettling feelings on gender dysphoria. His struggle was less about who he was attracted to, and more about how he felt within himself.
"Just before he turned 15, he told me he needed to talk to me about something and then said, 'I think I'm trans'. Obviously, it was a shock to hear, but I kept my cool. I asked some questions and told him that I would support whatever he wanted to do. I just wanted him to be happy," Laetitia tells News24.
The process of changing the way a person looks and how people see and treat them so that they become the gender they feel on the inside.
Gender diversity is no longer up for debate, and mounting scientific evidence supports this
The room quickly divides into two distinct parties. The first group holds a steadfast belief in the black and white of the binary (that there are only two genders, one with a penis and one with a vagina). The second believes that gender exists on a spectrum (that there is more to gender than the biological sex you were assigned at birth).
As recently as two years ago, a large portion of the science fraternity would have slotted into the first divide. Most medical professionals viewed gender diversity as a form of mental illness that they termed Gender Identity Disorder – many still do, but would be hard-pressed to admit it in the current 'woke' climate.
Increasingly, however, healthcare workers, particularly those sensitive to affirming other people's lived experiences, are beginning to acknowledge that there may be more to gender than meets the eye. So much so that in May 2019, The World Health Organization (WHO) voted in favour of new diagnostic guidelines that no longer described gender nonconformity as a mental disorder.
A state of generalised unease, unhappiness, restlessness, dissatisfaction, or frustration. The opposite of euphoria.
Irreversible damage or necessary intervention?
What parents of trans kids need to consider about transitioning early
Laws around our children's consent caused a furore when Covid vaccines were approved for teens and pre-teens aged 12 to 18. There was an outcry among some parents who refused to believe that their children had – as per The Children's Act – "sufficient maturity…to understand the benefits, risks, social and other implications of the treatment".
Similarly, most parents' blood would run cold at the thought that our children – aged 12 and up – have legal autonomy in South Africa to medically transition to another gender without parental consent (this is also assuming they have access to finances and safe, reliable healthcare).
However, there's no reason to fear that your teen or tween might be a boy one day and a girl the next. And certainly not before you or they have had time to consider the route forward and process this major life change.
This term refers to the gender society assumes for you based on your biological sex, gender expression or gender presentation.
‘We’re progressing, not progressive’
In solidarity with gender-nonconforming students, this Cape Town high school allows students to wear pronoun badges
Setting the trend for what is likely to become commonplace at most South African secondary schools in future, Cape Town's Westerford High School has given its students the option of wearing pronoun badges as part of their uniform.
Around 200 pupils completed a Google form in February, giving them an option to order badges with their preferred pronoun. According to Westerford deputy principal Alison Gray, the aim was twofold:
to give gender-nonconforming pupils, staff members and parents the right to be called by their preferred pronouns, and
to normalise the act of stating one's pronouns at the school – even in the case of cisgender students and teachers – so that trans and gender-nonconforming people don't continue to feel marginalised.
It was an inclusive act of solidarity championed by the school's PLUS Society.
Someone who identifies their gender identity with their sex assigned at birth; the term cisgender is not indicative of gender expression, sexual orientation, and/or physical anatomy.
Gender incongruence or just plain growing pains?
This is how you know it’s the real deal when your kid identifies as trans
Adolescence is challenging for everyone, and there's no doubt that it will be for our children, if they're not already in the thick of it. So when our teens identify as transgender or nonbinary, how do we know whether it's just run-of-the-mill adolescence or legitimate gender dysphoria?
Perhaps stoked by fear that we might lose our kids, or be deemed 'out of touch', most millennial parents seem to be doing what they can to wrap their heads around the heady concept of 'gender as a construct'.
Still, the shift in thinking has betrayed a lot of our core beliefs. That there is no binary. That gender lies on a spectrum. That my boy could actually be a girl. Or vice-versa. Or neither. Or both.
Most of our fears and hesitations around the issue are rooted in what we do not know, not only what we might not understand. Is it simply that we're less progressive than we thought we were? Do we still have a lot to learn? Or, is something terrible going to happen on our watch?
The manifestation of one’s gender identity through clothing, hairstyle, voice, and so on. Person's behaviour, mannerisms, interests, and appearance that are associated with gender.
'I felt like I wasn't designed to have babies or be a mother'
South African trans dad shares his story
I might not know what it's like to not identify with the gender I was assigned at birth, or to want a penis instead of a vulva, or to hate my body so forcefully that I want to cut my breasts off.
But I can, to a much smaller degree, relate to the dysphoria.
I know what it's like to not recognise the reflection in the mirror. I know what it's like to feel so unlike me that I want to pull the skin from my bones. I know what it's like to feel alienated, isolated and alone. I know what it's like to question my identity, and to feel dysphoria. I know, because I am a mother.
Transgender dad Noah Evans was a mother once too. Two decades ago, he slid into a severe depression – just 18 months after the birth of his second child – and was admitted to a psychiatric facility.
Then a mom who had carried, birthed and breastfed two children under four, Noah had not yet transitioned into the man he is today. Still known by his dead name, Noah was just another struggling mother.
One’s internal sense of identifying as a woman, man, neither of these, both, or another gender(s). Can correlate with sex assigned at birth, or can differ from it.
What if all it takes to bridge the gap between trans teens and parents is for parents to know themselves better?
Most parents are hyperaware that, when it comes to raising kids, we don't get a mulligan. This is it. It's probably why guilt – closely followed by fear – is so pervasive in parenting. It's also why we're all so desperate to not fuck it all up. It's probably why you're on this site, reading this article.
With this in mind, when we're faced with a child who tells us that they're transgender, nonbinary or simply questioning their gender identity, there's no doubt that we want to do right by them. We want to say the right thing and take the best next step, because we love them.
With that said, we're also the first generation of parents to be fumbling our way through the imminent normalisation of gender fluidity. So how do we know that we're doing this right? How do we not fuck it up?
Sex assigned at birth
Refers to the determination of one’s “biological sex” on the basis of external genitalia. Chromosomes (such as XX or XY) and hormones (such as oestrogen or testosterone) are also involved, but hardly ever tested in assigning a sex to an individual.
Reach out for help:
Parenting a transgender child or teen can feel overwhelming, isolating and lonely, but it doesn’t have to be. Be sure to reach out for professional advice and support.
There are several excellent local organisations and services you can turn to including, but not limited to:
The Gender Identity Development Service is part of the Red Cross Children’s Hospital Division of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. It is run by child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Simon Pickstone-Taylor. For State-run gender-affirmative healthcare phone +27 (12) 685 4103 or email DCAP@westerncape.gov.za.
Matimba is an advocacy organisation that aims to educate and support transgender and gender-variant kids and teens, as well as their families, to cultivate a healthy, caring and safe environment for gender-diverse youth. Phone +27 74 084 5237 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be True 2 Me is a trans-led non-profit organisation that supports transgender, nonbinary, intersex and gender-queer individuals, as well as those connected with them (included schools, employers, parents and caretakers). Send them a WhatsApp message on +27 83 455 1183 or email email@example.com.
Iranti-org is a queer human rights organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa, working within a human rights framework as its foundational platform for raising issues on Gender, Identities and Sexuality. Phone +27 (11) 339 1468 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gender DynamiX aims to advance, promote and defend the rights of trans and gender nonconforming persons in South Africa, Africa and globally. Phone +27 (21) 447 4797 or email email@example.com.
Triangle Project is a non-profit human rights organisation offering professional services to ensure the full realisation of constitutional and human rights for LGBTI persons, their partners and families. Phone +27 (21) 422 0255 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
GALA Queer Archive (Gala) is a centre for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) culture and education in Africa. Founded on the principles of social justice and human rights, Gala’s primary focus is to preserve and nurture LGBTI narratives in South Africa, as well as to promote social equality, inclusive education and youth development. Phone +27 (11) 717 4239.
Transgender and Intersex Africa (TIA) focuses primarily on Black transgender and intersex people living in rural areas and black townships in South Africa. Their advocacy programme seeks to ensure that trans and intersex rights are recognised and protected. Contact them here.