Out of the blue at 17

We are a family of five, with three kids (one living and working overseas, one undertaking post grad uni study and one in their second year at uni). We've lived and raised our kids in Auckland. Mum runs an adult education business and Dad runs an IT company. Our middle child came out at 17 (6 and a half years ago). It was out of the blue – a complete shock. Yes, we freaked out, and spent months hoping she had made a mistake. There was nothing (to us) about her past that remotely suggested that she might be trans. I think it was a shock to her to realise too, although she had worked it out a while before she told us.

Even though we have always taught the kids to be accepting of difference, she said she was very scared to tell us. To be honest, back then we didn't even really know what it meant to be trans, so we imagined all sorts of scary things might be ahead. She told me in person, then told my husband in an email. That worked better because he got to have his initial reaction in private and had time to figure out how to respond. We both had all the usual thoughts like “is this a phase? How do we know this is for real?”

At that time (early 2015) there wasn't any trans clinics in Auckland. And we couldn't find any health practitioners with experience in trans health either. It was really scary, and frustrating. We started writing to clinics in Australia, England and Europe, trying to find experienced endocrinologists and physicians who could support her with her transition (which was pretty urgent, given that she was 17). We were seriously considering that we would have to go overseas to get care for her. Our GP was supportive and well–meaning, but without experience, as also were the counsellor and psychologist he referred us to. We felt very alone and unsure about how to proceed. Finally after about nine months, we discovered that a new trans clinic was opening and got an appointment. We also found a private endocrinologist who was willing to support our daughter. That was the turning point, and I can still remember the huge sense of relief as we listened to the adolescent psychiatrist in the clinic talk with our daughter about what had made her conclude that she was trans, and what the process would be going forward.

We would have loved to know who to go to for accurate information! Nobody we talked to knew anyone who could offer us that. We also didn't know what the ramifications of being trans were. It took nearly a year to start to see that she was going to be able to live a healthy, happy life after all. We had all these questions about “if your chromosomes don't determine your gender, then what does?” that no one could really answer adequately. That's still a bit of a mystery to us.

It was hard not being able to find skilled and informed practitioners to support our daughter. We just looked and looked until we eventually found some! It took months. We struggled with the volume of anti-gender confirmation surgery articles on the internet (just about every website we found was focussed on the rates of de-transition – including surgical). That's hopefully changed now. We also felt ignorant ourselves – this was vastly improved once we started with the trans clinic. They gave us lots of excellent and reassuring information.

A big challenge was keeping it a secret until she was ready for the rest of the family to know (about a year!). Once she was ok with other people knowing, I used this opening: “There's something I want to share with you. It's nothing bad, and I don't need you to do anything, I just wanted you to know…”. It worked really well.

It was a roller coaster waiting for blockers then finally getting blockers, waiting for hormones, then finally hormones, waiting for surgery, then finally getting surgery… In fact one of the hardest moments was when her bottom surgery was postponed due to lockdown, with no replacement date given. It had already been cancelled once due to changes with funding, so this was a devastating moment. I think she nearly gave up then, having been wanting this for six years. Eventually we just decided to pay for private surgery in NZ. We have no regrets about that.

We have a very open and honest relationship with her. I am utterly grateful that she invited us to attend appointments with her, so that we ourselves could form relationships with her amazing caregivers. I don't think we would have had this kind of relationship if she had not transitioned. We got to experience how much strength, confidence and resilience a young person can have. She has weathered torrents of heart breaking abuse on social media without becoming bitter or withdrawn; even though she is a fairly private person, she has willingly and publicly shared her story where it will serve to support and educate others; she has continued to go about her activities, even though she knows people are watching and critiquing her. We have seen her develop into a politically aware young person with strong values around social equality.

As a couple we have been compelled to reassess what we want for our children and their lives, and have found new, deeper alignment in our relationship with each other. We have witnessed the way her siblings have just taken her transition in their stride, which reminds us that we are in a world that has become much more understanding and tolerant even within one generation. We have met several astounding, supportive health practitioners, who are worth their weight in gold.

Don't judge yourself if you have a negative reaction at first. It takes time to wrap your head around this – months and maybe years. Especially if you've spent years thinking your kid was another gender. Take things one day at a time. Don't get too far ahead of where things are currently at. Everyone needs time to adjust. If a health practitioner seems to be negative, or dismissive (or even naïve): RUN! Find another one who actually knows what they are talking about. This is your kid's life we're talking about here.

Trust your child. It might feel hard to do so, but this isn't something they do for kicks, and they know it. If you have reservations about your kid's transition, find a counsellor or health practitioner with real experience in the field of gender diversity and let off steam to them. Don't do it with your kid. That will only make a hard situation even harder for them. They NEED you to be on their side (even if you're quaking in your boots as you do that). Do your crying in private too. You have a choice: you can treat your child being trans as a “Thing” (big T = expecting problems, pain and unhappiness) or you can treat it as a “thing” – (little t = just one of the range of things that happens in life. Yes, they might need some extra input or support, but its not really a biggie). Mindset and attitude are everything! Stuff like surgery is scary. No parent wants their child to have to endure physical pain and distress. But you need to keep your eye on the bigger picture, and that this (if it is needed) is part of them feeling ok in their own skin and being able to get on with life.

Surgery is not necessarily about getting “happy” with their body. It may simply be so that they move from feeling abnormal to normal.

Navigating high performance sports participation as a trans athlete has been one of the challenges our daughter has faced. People in her sporting code were either 100% supportive or very critical, even though she has, at all times, met all the criteria for competing. Despite this, she has felt most accepted respected and normal when with her fellow athletes – especially when competing in Europe, where mostly people didn't bat an eyelid.

When our daughter came out, she had been in a relationship with a schoolmate for about a year. They stayed together after she began transitioning, and about a year later her partner also came out as trans. (our daughter transitioned male to female, and her partner transitioned female to male). They both live with us, but are planning to move out next year. They have both had gender confirming surgery in the past year too, so are now over the major transition hurdles, thank goodness. It has been incredible to watch how different their two transitions have been, including in how differently individual people respond to hormones. They have been amazing support for each other, and although they have us, and supportive friends, I think only they can truly understand what each other is going through. I'm immensely grateful that they have had each other through these challenging years. While transitioning they have both earned degrees, and have good job prospects opening up. One is pursuing a career in gender education (!) and the other in medical technology design.