Barbara Walters
on transgender children

Barbara Walters
            on transgender children

"I loved my
first-grade teacher so much, I knew I would have to grow
up to be a boy so I could come back and ask her to marry
me," wrote actress Tammy Lynn Michaels
(D.E.B.S. ) in When I Knew, Robert
Trachtenberg's touching compendium of coming-out
stories. Eventually, Michaels realized she could love
someone of the same sex without changing her own.
Transgender youth, however, don't have that luxury.
And while sexuality doesn't fully blossom until
adolescence, gender expression starts as soon as a child
can walk and talk. Gender-nonconforming children often face
abuse and alienation both in their community and at
home, with no closet to hide in. A study from San
Francisco State University that is soon to be
published revealed that LGBT children who report high
levels of parental pressure to conform to gender
norms are almost four times as likely to attempt
suicide and use illegal drugs, and twice as likely to
be at risk for HIV infection.

Barbara Walters
was troubled by this reality, so she explores the
struggle of transgender children on Friday’s episode
of the ABC newsmagazine 20/20. In a
segment titled "My Secret Self: A Story of Transgender
Children" the veteran newswoman speaks with three sets
of parents and three transgender children (ages 6, 10,
and 16) about their quest for acceptance and
understanding. "There's nothing particularly extraordinary
about these families. They certainly never expected
this to happen," says Walters. "But the parents have
come to love and support their children, and they want
them to live the best possible lives."

What brought this issue to your attention?
We knew this was a subject that was just beginning to be
explored—and that there was a great deal of
misinformation out there. People don't understand
transgenders, in the same way they didn’t used to
understand gay people. At what age do people know
they’re gender-variant; how do you know if you
child is transgender; what do you do if they are? So I met
with some families back in September, and after they had
some time to think about it, they decided they were
willing to be seen, and [to] allow their children to
be seen, on television. It’s a big chance
they’re taking, a very big chance.

How did you find these families?
There had been an article on one family. Another woman
had started to reach out on the Internet and was
involved in a group that’s promoting
understanding about transgender children. But there’s
a big difference between being in print or online and
being on television—and having your children on
television, especially.

Can you tell us about the children you interviewed?
There’s a 6-year-old, Jazz—who may
be one of the youngest transgenders. She was born a
boy but is living as a girl. There’s also a
10-year-old boy, with a twin sister, who is living as
a girl. Her name is Riley. The third, who is now 16,
wrote a letter at age 14 to her mother saying,
“I’m no longer Rebecca, I’m
Jeremy.”

Given that these parents are sharing their stories,
can we assume they accept their children to some degree?

There’s total acceptance, because they
know what it’s like if the child is
rejected. They’re aware that some transgender
children go into deep depression or attempt suicide,
even at a very young age. And they’ve seen
the terrible struggle their own children went through until
they could be who they feel they truly are.

How are the neighbors and classmates reacting?
The schools, interestingly enough, have let the children
express themselves in all three cases. The two younger
boys dress as girls, and the teenager is heading off
to college, where she hopes to live as a girl. There
are children who don’t want to play with their
children. One set of parents said they won’t
let anyone come over for a playdate unless they know
the situation. They will do everything they can to not
expose the children to criticism. The 10-year-old is
bullied in school. Nobody has stormed the streets, but
there are parents who are saying, “My child
will not play with yours.”

What is the response from the American Medical Association?
I have no idea, but I’m sure there are many
people who reject this. Look how many years the
[American Psychiatric Association] considered
people who were gay to have a disease! We did talk to
doctors who deal with gender-variant children, but it's very
hard for parents to find them. Two of the families we spoke
to had gone to their pediatricians, who basically
said, “We don’t know what to tell
you.” It wasn’t until recently that there was
even a name for this.

Was there anything you discovered in meeting the
three families that challenged your assumptions about
transgender people?
Almost all of it surprised me. I am astounded by their
courage. I think these children have a very hard
future to face. In some ways it’s
heartbreaking, but in other ways it’s uplifting. I
had heard of the diagnosis and knew people went
through this, but nothing prepared me for the love and
sensitivity these people have for their children.
That’s what this is about.

What do you hope the piece accomplishes?
I am doing this with a great deal of thought, not
because it’s going to be provocative or a
ratings winner. This is not a daytime talk-show
segment: “Coming up next, transgendered kids!”
This is something we care deeply about and are
approaching, we hope, in the most dignified way to try
and generate some compassion and understanding. There will
be criticism; there will be people who say these
parents are terrible: “How could they do this
to their children?” But they haven’t met these
families. They are doing this after a great deal of thought.
The last line of the segment is “No one can
imagine what these special children go through to be
who they are. They and their families struggle simply to be
accepted. What if, one day, your child said, 'I am in the
wrong body'? Could they accept it? Could you?”

"My Secret Self:
A Story of Transgender Children" airs on 20/20,
Friday, April 27, on ABC.

Tags: World, World

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