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Barbara Walters
on transgender children

Barbara Walters
on transgender children


This Friday on 20/20 the veteran newswoman sits down with children who are struggling with gender identity and their families. She gives us the exclusive first interview.

"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.

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