Recently, retired NBA All-Star Dwyane Wade opened up about supporting his daughter Zaya, who identifies as a transgender girl. During an interview, Wade mentioned that he and his wife, actress Gabrielle Union, were seeking more information to educate themselves about the transgender community.
As a psychotherapist, I work with clients who are going through the wonderful, beautiful, scary, and nerve-wracking transition that the Wade family is experiencing. As the parent of a transgender child, I can also empathize with the happiness and despair that the situation inspires.
Despite my understanding of the topic, I wouldn’t call this transition easy for anyone involved. But what should be an easy realization is that our children need our love and support.
For my family, we adopted A.A. Milne’s quote, “you are stronger than you know, braver than you believe, and smarter than you think you are”; this became our mantra: to make things easier. Perhaps for the Wades it has also not been easy, but the most admirable and important thing is that they are standing together and looking forward to supporting their daughter — with patience, understanding, and love.
Coming Out Together: The Impact of Parental Support
As parents, we want our children to have the best education, enjoy the most extraordinary experiences, and above all, develop the greatest strength and courage. We’ve dreamed of helping them become good citizens and successful professionals. As we see them grow and experience life, we do our best to protect them from bad influences — addiction problems, or legal issues, just to name a few — but then, after we believe that we have insulated them from all possible obstacles, protecting them from harm, we hear the words: “can we sit down and talk? I am transgender.”
A child’s coming out can be difficult for them, but it also can be difficult for us as parents. Not only were we mistaken about believing that we could clear all obstacles in their path, but our hearts sink as we start fearing for their safety. Sometimes, we even get concerned about what other people will say — or whether a specific family member is going to criticize or blame us. We have two options, we can either respond with robust denial and anger or with an understanding and loving spirit — one that demonstrates we have already come out from our ignorance, even before this conversation occurred.
This situation might create difficult feelings that both you and our children have to process. This is a pivotal moment for all involved. If you understand and try to support them, they will have a better chance to continue their path to become the successful, healthy adult that you dreamed of. But, if you meet them with rejection, they might fall into despair.
Most likely, you will not be the first ones to know about their desired change. That could mean that they have already been met with negative acceptance after rejection at school, or other places, prior to your conversation. It could also mean that, because of that rejection, they are distracted from accomplishing their other goals. As a result, they might become depressed and, without anywhere else to turn, give in to drug or alcohol abuse. Eventually, without your support, they might even feel that their life is no longer worth living, and they may become part, according to the Human Rights Campaign, of the more than half of transgender male teens and a 29.9 percent of transgender female teens that reportedly attemped suicide.
Supporting the Transition Process as Public Figures
In a recent video shared by Union, Zaya Wade mentions that she thinks that there is no point of being on this earth if you are trying to be someone you are not. Union’s introduction to this video read, “Meet Zaya. She’s compassionate, loving, whip smart and we are so proud of her. It’s OK to listen to, love, & respect your children exactly as they are.”
Today, social media plays an important role in educating the public about significant matters, like transgender issues. However, when a public figure utilizes it to say something positive about these matters, it plays an even greater role, since it tends to be impactful and teach others about love, acceptance, and the importance of human dignity and worth. This is exactly what we see when we read Wade, Union, and Zaya’s messages — their celebrity status highlights the topic in a positive way across a very broad audience; especially Dwyane Wade’s loving acceptance in contravention of many macho male stereotypes. By using his platform, a superstar athlete like Dwyane Wade — in an industry where diversity and inclusion is often lacking — propells the conversation of transgender acceptance forward.
As a psychotherapist and clinical social worker, I can attest that treating our children with dignity and respect — and promoting their capacity and opportunity — to address their own needs is imperative for improving their personal situations. This dignity and respect from us as parents, is as necessary for our children as some of the basic needs we all have as human beings. Therefore, I applaud the Wades’ strength, courage, and vulnerability because they are not only publicly supporting each other, but they are acting as agents of change.
In the words of famous author and social worker, Dr. Brené Brown, “vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.” This is exactly what Zaya and her parents are sharing with all of us.
The Acceptance Process Differs for All of Us
The coming out and transitioning processes are very personal. Both have to be initiated by the transgender individual. Outing them, or deciding what is “best” for them may trigger mental and emotional issues that could scar them for life. Once the person has trusted us enough to share how they feel or what they want, it is up to us to be accepting and supportive, to ensure their wellbeing in all aspects.
The help of a mental health professional is recommended to assist both the individual and the family. And just like when we receive a diagnosis from a doctor and then might want to get a second opinion, it is perfectly fine to meet with a second professional to get another viewpoint and learn different ways to help our child.
For example, you and your child can visit a psychotherapist and an online psychiatrist, or a counselor and a pediatrician. Since most of us have a plethora of questions, joining local support groups is also recommended to learn about resources and to hear from other parents who might be in the same situation that we are.
Upon finding oneself in that situation a great first step is learning a little bit more about transgender facts and statistics:
- Thanks to the Institute of Law at UCLA, we know that although it is difficult to determine how many people are transgender, the latest estimates suggest that there are about 1.4 million adult transgender individuals in the United States.
- Common comorbid disorders, when support is not present, are depression, substance abuse, anxiety, adjustment disorders, PTSD, and suicide.
- Although families may struggle or hesitate, pressure a child to transition or to not, this can be harmful; parents’ patience and support is immeasurably important.
- Mental health professionals and neuroscientists do not know exactly why some children are transgender. Diane Ehrensaft, a developmental psychologist and author of two books on transgender children, states that every child’s gender is “based on three major threads: nature, nurture, and culture.” That means that, although social experiences might help to shape a child’s gender identity, neither parents nor professionals can change that identity — and trying to do so can be extremely harmful for the child.
It is All About Love
While we might agree or disagree with our children’s wants or needs, or think it is just a phase, until there is certainty, our parental support can be demonstrated in different ways. It starts with love, is followed by patience and understanding, and ends with support. I suggest including the help of a mental health professional as well. Choosing someone who can walk next to us during this process, in person or via online therapy, enhances our ability to offer our children a greater opportunity to succeed in their transition and life in general.
Some people tell me that if I had not been a therapist, I might not have been able to understand my child and the coming out and transition processes the way I did. Perhaps that is true. However, while sitting on a cold white couch, when my child asked me to sit down because he needed to talk, I was just a mother, not a therapist. I was a mother that was not so concerned about what others would think, but more so worried about the obstacles my child would face ahead.