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Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 6–8 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Q.Please help me define transgender. I’m 17 years old and I can’t ever remember feeling like the sex I was assigned at birth. I’m only out to a few friends. I do have support, though. Can you write something that maybe I could show my parents to teach them? I know they love me. I’m just not sure they’re ready for this. I fear their love will turn into hate. I’ve heard the nasty things they’ve said about trans people. They talk in front of me without knowing their own child is one of those people they mock. I’ve never considered suicide, but I can get why someone like me might feel that way, especially if they were alone. Just write it like you were talking to my parents.

17-year-old

Mary Jo’s response: Thank you for your courage. Your questions may help another young person or family.

The first message I’d like to offer is for you. A person’s gender or gender identity is one piece of the individual’s whole self. It’s a key component of your selfhood – a vital part of you – but doesn’t represent all of you. People are people, full of amazing possibilities. One of those unique possibilities is transgender. Like all aspects of being human, gender identity is deserving of respect.

You are worthy. You matter. Your voice should be heard. You are lovable and loved.

Research shows the risk of suicide is much higher in teens who identify as transgender; studies also show supportive families can ease anxiety and decrease a young trans person’s stress level. I’m pleased to hear you say you feel your parents’ love. Their support is important. Your parents can best support you by respecting you and giving you space to be yourself.

Some parents easily accept their children questioning their gender; others need time to adjust. It’s possible for parents to grieve over the loss of the child they thought was theirs. Grieving can lead to acceptance. I’ve witnessed parents become strong allies and support their children with great dedication. Please give your parents a chance.

My words to your parents come from my heart. This is your child. Your love needs to be unconditional. When a newborn becomes part of your life, guiding that child to respect self and others is a primary task. If the idea of gender identity is complicated to you, please respect your child and seek education. If it is difficult to accept, please respect your child’s humanity. I will be happy to meet with you, without judgment, to help you process your feelings.

Here are some terms to help educate (Taken with permission from “The Teaching Transgender Toolkit,” authored by my dear friends Eli R. Green, PhD, CSE and Luca Maurer, MS, CSE, CFLE):

  • Cisgender: An adjective to describe a person whose gender identity matches the biological sex they were assigned at birth.
  • Gender identity: A person’s deep-seated, internal sense of who they are as a gendered being. The gender with which they identify themselves. All people have a gender identity.
  • Transgender: An adjective used to describe a person whose gender identity does not match the biological sex they were assigned at birth.
  • Many people confuse gender identity with sexual orientation. Sexual orientation refers to a person’s feelings of attraction (emotional, psychological, and/or sexual) toward others.

Please remember you’re not alone. I am here, as are many other adults in our community. Persad (412-441-9786) offers counseling and guidance for questioning or trans young people. I’ll be happy to guide you to their services. Locally, the Washington County Gay Straight Alliance’s website is http://www.wcgsa.org. They can be reached at info@wcgsa.org. Your parents could connect with other parents of trans youth. Our Common Ground Teen Center is at 92 N. Main Street. We offer a safe environment for all young people ages 13 to 18.

Please stay in touch. I believe #EachPersonIsAPersonOfWorth. I believe you are important.

Peer Educator response: Transgender people are just regular humans whose biological, assigned gender (their body parts) doesn’t match the gender they truly are. Basically, their junk doesn’t match their minds. No matter our gender identity, we’re honestly all just regular humans trying to live and thrive in the world.

Have a question? Send it to Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski’s email at podmj@healthyteens.com.

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