What your transgender teen wants you to know

In 2023 I had the opportunity to speak to a transgender teen on the Teenage Kicks podcast. Jay Simmons told me about how she came to the realisation that she was transgender, what happened when she came out to her family and friends, and what she would like parents to know if they’re facing a similar disclosure from their own child, or wondering if their child might be questioning their gender identity.

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How do you know if you’re transgender?

It’s easy to imagine that transgender kids know deep down right from the start that they’re not in the right body for them. But Jay told me that wasn’t how she experienced it. She says she was aware she wasn’t exactly like the other boys at school as a child, but at the same time, she didn’t feel like the other girls either. But for most of her childhood she didn’t really think about it.

It was when puberty hit that Jay really started to question things. She describes looking at her changing body and not recognising herself in it. She couldn’t find anything online that explained that, until a website described the disconnect that some transgender people feel from their bodies. She described the feeling as an out of body experience.

Jay says that the ultimate push to accept that she might be transgender happened when her voice broke. She says her voice didn’t sound like her – she didn’t recognise herself speaking. Her acting training led her to experiment with a more feminine voice, and that’s when she knew she needed to seriously consider the fact that she might be transgender.

What’s it like being a transgender teenager?

At this point, Jay told me, things were feeling quite scary. She started to question everything she thought she knew about herself, querying the various labels she thought were available to her. She says a lot of transgender people change the labels and descriptors they use quite frequently in the beginning; she thinks that’s because they’re trying to figure out what feels right to them. Jay used the label “trans-feminine” because it felt easier to accept, before landing on the term female. She still finds that hard to accept.

We discussed the issue of labels, and how limiting they can be. Jay says that when you’re questioning your gender, you question every aspect of your identity, so choosing a label or being labelled by others isn’t helpful. You might identify as female, but that doesn’t mean that every part of you feels female; we all have both feminine and masculine aspects of ourselves on a continuum. Instead of trying to focus on finding the right label, we should focus on finding our authentic selves.

People can experience being transgender in different ways. The way Jay experienced it was dissociation from her body. Some people experience depersonalisation, feeling like their body isn’t theirs, while others feel like the world as they know it isn’t real (a term called derealisation). It was through internet searches for her feelings and symptoms that Jay began to unravel and make sense of her feelings.

Where to find support if you think you might be transgender

Jay says the official information available to people questioning their gender can feel unhelpful. She remembers that most of the information she found online suggested that she might have a personality disorder. Shocking as that felt, she was more willing to believe it than to consider that fact that she might be transgender. Eventually, Jay found some transgender communities online, and that’s where she started to feel more like herself. She says that transgender people experience their gender in different ways, but within the communities she belongs to there’s comfort in the sense that they’re all going through the same thing, even if it feels different.

I asked Jay whether she’d got her head around being transgender, and she told me that she thought she’d accept it – in that the feminine label would no longer feel weird – but three years on, it still feels strange to her to call herself a girl, and she still doesn’t feel fully like herself. She thinks she will only really accept it when she starts to transition physically. She says it’s a strange journey, and she doesn’t know if she’ll ever fully accept it. I wish I’d asked her if it might be okay not to.

What do parents need to know about their transgender teen?

Jay describes the moment when she told her family she was transgender. She says that she’d imagined it would be a big celebration, with everyone she knew offering instant and unquestioning support, but it wasn’t like that. Her family were shocked and confused, which she can now see was a completely natural response, but she was disappointed at the time.

Parents naturally worry about how hard it might be for their child when they come out as transgender, especially at school, but Jay says it doesn’t have to be like that. Her school was very supportive, and so were her peer group. She says there’s so much awareness of gender choice now, that in a lot of schools no one bats an eyelid. If that’s not your child’s experience, you can speak to the school about how they might be able to support them.

What if you suspect your child is questioning their gender identity?

I asked Jay what parents should say if they have a feeling their child may be transgender. She feels very strongly that parents should wait until their child opens up to them rather than trying to start a conversation before their child is ready. Coming out is a big moment, and they should be allowed to build up to it in their own. In the same way, don’t tell your teenager when they come out that you had a suspicion. This is a big deal, and they need their moment to speak their truth and feel heard.

Jay advises parents to be supportive in the moment, whatever their own feelings are. Your child choosing to tell you is a big deal for them, and they’re probably nervous about your reaction, so do your best to put them at ease. This is their moment, and the focus should be on what they need. Your child is always going to be happier being herself, and whatever worries you have about their possible outcomes, it’s going to be worth it.

Click the link to watch Jay’s TEDx talk What does transgender mean anyway?  Also, Young Minds has a great resource to support teenagers and parents who are curious about gender questioning and transitioning.

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