Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Parental support is critical to the health, safety of trans youth

All four members the family cuddle on the couch and look at a family photobook. The mother is pointing at a picture and the family is laughing.
Screen capture
VPM News Focal Point
Colton, Chad, Stephanie and Ellie look at family photos.

Many families are learning about the transgender community, what it means and how to help their own children.

Transgender policies in Virginia schools have become a political flash point impacting families across the commonwealth. At the same time, many parents are learning about the trans community, what it means to be transgender and how they can help their own children. One family’s journey illustrates the importance of parental support to the health and safety of transgender youth.

Stephanie and Chad, who did not want to use their last name for privacy reasons, have two children who attend public school in Central Virginia. Their daughter Ellie who is 10, loves art, hanging out with her hermit crab and watching Sponge Bob. Their son Colton, age 12, is into soccer and playing video games.

“We have two beautiful, healthy children who are completely unique in their own ways,” Stephanie said.

This close-knit family is navigating something that was completely new to them. When their youngest child — who was assigned male at birth — was 2 years old, Stephanie and Chad started to notice non–gender conforming behavior.

“It started with things like accoutrements. There was always something extra like a necklace, and she always had flair. There was a long period of time where she insisted on wearing a cape,” Stephanie said. “I can’t tell you how many times she would actually put a pair of pants on her head or a towel and fashion it like so that to her it felt like long hair. We did not realize it at the time, because we just didn't know that this is very common behavior for transgender children who were assigned male at birth.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, transgender children tend to identify their own gender before they reach age 5 — and their expressions and behaviors can illustrate that from an early age through clothing preferences, aversions and strong desires to play with "toys typically assigned to a different sex."

More importantly, the Mayo Clinic encourages parents to avoid labeling a child as transgender because over time, they are more likely to explain their gender themselves.

Ellie remembered how she felt at 5 years old, “I was very into fashion and dresses and makeup and hair and stuff like that. I kind of knew that I was a girl from like that age. Just I was very scared to tell everybody because I thought, like, no one would accept me like that.”

Her parents started researching and asking doctors and other experts about this behavior. “For probably three years, every now and then I would Google ‘signs of transgender kids,’” said Stephanie. “Early on, like she never came out and said, ‘I’m a girl.’”

Stephanie said Ellie showed her and Chad who she was in “a thousand different ways” first.

“There was a day when she was kind of doing flips on the bed in a dress, and she had said that when she went to school, she wanted to wear girl clothes for the upcoming school year and I asked her, ‘Do you feel like a girl inside?’ And she just looked at me and kind of meekly said, ‘Yes.’”

Stephanie tried to suppress her first reaction, but she was internally reeling.

“Inside, I felt like I was on fire. Like, ’Oh God.’ Like this just wave of panic,” she said. “There's nothing wrong with Ellie. There's never been anything wrong with Ellie but knowing what we would be up against from other people was the real problem.”

Chad, who grew up in a rural Virginia community, hadn't been exposed to issues surrounding gender identity. But he knew he loved his child.

“All I could focus on was, ‘I don’t know what this means.’ I know how society treats it, but like, I don’t know anything about it.” Chad said. “But I love my child, so it doesn’t matter. All I ever wanted was for her to just be herself, for her to feel comfortable. I didn’t care what that was.”

Ellie’s older brother Colton agreed, “At first, I never knew about it, but then, I started seeing the dresses and I was like, ‘What's going on?’ And then I figured out this now I'm like, 'OK, so you want to be a girl? You can be a girl. I don't care. You just do you.’”

The family decided to support Ellie’s transition at home and at school. Ellie was 7 when she changed her name, pronouns and the way she dressed.

“I came to school one day and I was like, ‘Hey guys, I have a new name. And I'm a girl now.’” Ellie said. “Everyone at school was like, ‘What? You can't do that. That's not what people do. That's not normal.’”

Ellie said the transition was very difficult, but she knew what felt right.

“People don’t get to tell me who I am,” Ellie said.

As they navigated these issues, Ellie’s parents sought guidance from Shannon McKay, executive director and co-founder of He She Ze and We. It’s a Richmond-based nonprofit that serves families with transgender youth through support, education and advocacy.

“Family support is the No. 1 protective factor for trans youth,” McKay said. “Sadly, only 1 in 3 trans or nonbinary youth report that their family is supportive and affirming of their gender identity. That wrecks me. That's why we do this work — because we can do better than that.”

In 2021, the Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention and crisis support for LGBTQ+ youth, reported that 42% of LGBTQ+ youth considered attempting suicide the previous year. Out of that number, half were trans or nonbinary. McKay says one way to support youth and reduce self-harm is to respect them.

“When a young person tells us who they are, we need to believe them. It's their truth,” McKay said. “It is very hard for kids to come out to their parents or to a trusted adult or to a friend. And the best thing that we can do is say, ‘I believe you. I trust that you know yourself, and I'm here for you.’”

“It's very nice to have parents that are very supportive of me, because I know some kids don't have supportive parents. And what happens is sometimes they'll, like, run away and end up homeless,” Ellie said. “And I just feel like, why did you have kids if you're not going to accept them as who they are?”

Ellie’s brother Colton stands by his sister’s side, “I would say to the bullies, ‘Back off. We're stronger than you think. We have every right that we were born with, and you can't take that away from us,’” Colton said.

In this years’ General Assembly, Virginia legislators voted down 12 bills this session that would have restricted the lives and freedoms of transgender youth, but the debate continues over Gov. Youngkin’s proposed “model policies” for Virginia public schools.

While Stephanie says many friends and teachers have been supportive of Ellie, the political climate in the General Assembly frightens her because she says those bills were aimed at children like her daughter, Ellie. “We can’t just wait and hope that things will change. Things only change because people work for change.”

Her husband Chad said he’s learned the importance of advocacy, “It's not enough to just let things happen. It's providing that support. It's providing that affirmation, it's providing that I see you, I love you and who you are, and there are others like you, and we love them too.”

From a father’s perspective, Chad wants his children to be free to be who they are.

“We just want to live, right? We just want to be us, and it just so happens this particular topic is getting more attention. Transgender people have existed forever. It's finally getting the light of day that it probably always should have. We finally have social momentum to allow these conversations to happen,” he said. “I'm proud of her. I love the fact that we can provide an environment where she can be herself and she can be her best self.”

Chad, Stephanie, Ellie and Colton say they will continue to fight for LGBTQ+ rights.

“I really don't want other kids that, like, are in the LGBTQ [community], I just don't want them to be scared,” Ellie said, “I really want people to feel that everyone is going to accept them, and they are going to be safe. Why be mean, for no reason? Just because I'm not who you want me to be?”

Watch VPM News Focal Point weekly on VPM PBS or the PBS app.

Virginia LGBTQ+ resources

Equality Virginia is an advocacy organization in Virginia seeking equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. It provides a list of community organizations and resources, too.

He She Ze and We serves families with transgender loved ones through support, education and advocacy 

Side by Side is dedicated to creating supportive communities where Virginia’s LGBTQ+ youth can define themselves, belong and flourish.

Virginia Department of Health, Virginia Transgender Health Services and Support 

National LGBTQ+ resources

The Trevor Project suicide prevention and crisis support for youth 

Human Rights Campaign (HRC) 

Gender Spectrum 

Video: Why Gender Pronouns Matter

Related Articles
  1. He She Ze We serves families with transgender loved ones through support, education and advocacy
  2. Richmond Triangle Players Celebrates Queer Artistry
  3. In Focus: Narissa Rahaman and Dr. Erica Anderson discuss school policies in Virginia for LGBTQ youth