06/08/2015 12:59 EDT | Updated 06/08/2016 05:59 EDT

Parents Have the Most to Learn From Caitlyn Jenner


Caitlyn Jenner's Vanity Fair cover set the Internet on fire last week. And the debates continue to burn. Along with emotional responses to the Olympian formerly known as Bruce, there are discussions on privilege (what about trans people of colour?), consonants (why didn't she choose "Kaitlyn"?), pronouns (Dear Fox News, Caitlyn is a "she") and most recently, about whether trans women can be feminists. But amongst the flames, one reaction matters most: that of her mother, Esther Jenner.

During the Diane Sawyer special where Caitlyn announced "I am a woman," her 89-year-old mother said: "I want you to be happy, and I love you. I was very proud of you when you stood on that podium in Montreal -- I never thought I could be more proud of you, but I'm learning I can be."

Since then, despite the fact that Esther's expresseddifficulty switching from Bruce to Caitlyn, she's called her daughter "beautiful," said she has "nothing but admiration for my child" and that she wants to learn more about gender dysphoria. In many ways, Esther's attitude is as valuable as the spotlight Caitlyn Jenner is shining on the trans community. Too often, mothers and fathers tell transgender children not to be themselves.

Parents have a huge effect on any child's self-confidence. But when you're a six-year-old boy or girl who feels trapped in the wrong body, you're especially in need of support. A parent's acceptance is the most important ingredient for a transgender child's well-being. A University of British Columbia study of trans youth found that those who had supportive adults were four times less likely to have considered suicide, and four times more likely to have strong mental health. Those results are significant, since this group is almostthree times more likely to suffer from depression than Canada's general population, according to Trans Pulse, and 25 times more likely to attempt suicide than a general U.S. population, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.

But instead of stories about supportive parents, we too often hear high-profile examples of adults who refuse to be open-minded about gender. Take the heartbreaking story of Leelah Alcorn, the transgender teenage girl from Wisconsin who committed suicide after her Christian parents subjected her to conversion therapy. Laverne Cox, the transgender actress, remembers that when she was eight years old her mother "yelled...that boys are this way and girls are this way." And it's not only parents of trans children that are the problem. Last year, a Winnipeg family was bullied by another mother because their daughter is transgender. Too many adults have not updated their antiquated views.

Anne Lowthian, the Ottawa mother of a nine-year-old transgender daughter describes the attitude many adults have towards her child: "You were born a boy, you're a boy, you're going to stay a boy." While half of millennials think gender exists on a spectrum, according to a poll by Fusion, less than a quarter of Americans over 30 think transgender students should be able to pick which washroom to use. Rather than change their ideology, adults often belittle young people's beliefs.

Many parents think children's brains aren't sophisticated enough to make a life-long decision about identity. Can we really trust those little peanuts who pretend to be a firefighters one minute and cats the next? Research says "yes." A recent study from Stony Brook University found that trans kids have a "deep-rooted" understanding of their chosen gender; they are not simply taking a game of dress-up too far. Children aren't yet weighed down by social biases, which makes them in some ways more in tune with their own identity than adults.

Caitlyn Jenner should be celebrated for coming into her own, but we should also celebrate her mother and all the parents who support transgender children. We need more role models with open minds to shield trans youth from the discrimination that still exists. We need more parents like Lowthian. When a three-year-old Charlie asked her if his penis would ever shrink, she suppressed her panic. Instead, the mother looked at her child who loved to watch Mamma Mia and wear clothing with frills and decided to ask the most important question: "Charlie, is that what you want?"

*This column previously appeared in the Ottawa Citizen


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