Most of us don’t bother with new ideas until they affect us. You may not know much about cancer until a family member is diagnosed, but then, you’re the first to pull up WebMD. You may not know how to speak French until your spouse suggests you take a trip to Paris, but then, you’re downloading a language app and brushing up on basic phrases. There’s only so much anyone can focus on, after all, so if something doesn’t seem to impact us, we often don’t spare it a second thought.
My “thing that didn’t affect me until it did” was learning about the transgender community. In early 2015, I considered myself open-minded. I had a teenage child who had recently come out as gay, so I was all-in on being supportive. Nearly halfway through that year, however, my child came out as transgender, and suddenly, I had a lot to learn.
At that time, I had a vague idea of what it meant to be transgender. I knew it was the “T” in “LGBTQ,” and I knew it was about gender identity, not sexual orientation. But beyond that, it was a topic that simply hadn’t affected me before. When my child came out, it became the only topic I could focus on. I dove into as much research as I could, poring over articles from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and every other respected medical organization I could think of. I learned that being transgender means one's gender is not the same as was assumed at birth. I discovered that some trans people are binary (they identify as male or female), while others are non-binary. I explored studies large and small and lost myself in the statistics: 1.4 million adults in the U.S. are trans. Almost three percent of teenagers in the U.S. are trans. That means there are more trans kids than red-haired kids or green-eyed kids, which clock in at about two percent of the population each.
That’s a lot of transgender teenagers just like my child.
Some of the statistics were scary, though. Transgender teenagers have higher rates of depression and anxiety. Transgender teenagers make up a disproportionate number of kids living on the streets. Nearly half of transgender teenagers attempt suicide. Transgender adults experience more poverty, homelessness and other negative outcomes than the rest of the population. These numbers made me worry for my child. Would being trans set him up for failure in life? Would he always struggle because of his gender identity?
As I dug further, I learned possibly the most important thing: transgender people are not mentally ill. They’re not more depressed, anxious or unsuccessful at life because they’re transgender. Instead, studies show that it’s how society treats transgender people that create the unwanted outcomes. When trans children have supportive families, for example, their rates of depression and anxiety drop to nearly the same levels as those of other kids. When trans people live in areas that have LGBTQ-inclusive human rights ordinances, they can’t be denied housing or employment just because they’re trans, which is important because that sort of discrimination is all too common. Simply put, being trans isn’t a problem. It’s how society treats trans people that’s the problem.
What that means for my kid and for thousands of other trans kids is that their future is in our hands. This is why the Equality Act is so important. The Equality Act would add gender identity and sexual orientation to the list of classes protected from discrimination by the Civil Rights Act. As Americans, we should work toward the most accepting, inclusive society possible, even if we’re talking about only a small percentage of the population and even if we don’t think it affects us personally. Frankly, the size of a particular population doesn’t matter – all Americans deserve equal rights, even the red-haired or green-eyed among us – and creating a better society benefits everyone in the long run.
Most of us might not think we know a transgender person, but there are millions of trans people in this country who are counting on us to ensure that they aren’t treated as second-class citizens for who they are. It’s something all of us can do, and it’s something we MUST do as a society so that the marginalized among us can live, grow, contribute, and leave those scary statistics behind. If it helps, while you might not have known a transgender person before, you can say you know my son now. He’s a pretty great kid. Let’s make the world the best it can be for kids like him by supporting the Equality Act. We can build a stronger society for all Americans, and that’s something worth sparing a second thought for.