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TYES offers necessary support to transgender children and their families

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Within the last three years America has seen an explosion of awareness and acceptance of transgender people. With this changing social tide, more trans people are coming out, and at younger ages. Depictions of trans children abound: TLC’s I Am Jazz, Amy Ellis Nutt’s new book Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family, and the documentary Growing Up Coy, which chronicles the civil rights struggle of Colorado’s own Mathis family.

Parents of trans children face a variety of unique challenges. In Colorado we are lucky to have Trans Youth Education and Support (TYES), a statewide education and advocacy organization that supports transgender and gender expansive youth and their families.

The Colorado Springs chapter of TYES is led by Shane Armstrong, who is trans himself, and the father of trans children. Armstrong has been working with TYES since September 2016, when he noticed that “many trans kids weren’t prepared for the world, and maybe some of that could be helped by the parent having a basic understanding of what was going on instead of just floundering and being angry.”

Since its founding in 2016, TYES has been focused on “offering family networking events geared toward families of younger kids. The biggest thing parents need is that initial support and contact,” according to Armstrong. He and TYES are currently partnering with Inside/Out Youth Services to provide a monthly TransParenting support group for parents of transgender or gender expansive youth.

In addition to offering this community support, Armstrong can offer families something many other support groups can’t: a trans perspective. “Our branch is the only trans-led group in the entire state,” Armstrong says, not without pride. As a trans person, Armstrong can help families come to terms with the reality of their situation and understand what their child is going through.

“A lot of parents think their child is just going through a phase and that they can just humor them until it passes,” Armstrong says, which unfortunately is a common misconception. By talking about his own experiences, Armstrong is able to advocate for trans youth, who may not have the resources or language to advocate for themselves. Armstrong helps families problem-solve by allowing them “to see what a trans person would want in that situation… what kind of support would have been effective.”
Armstrong also uses his position as a “professional trans person” to shield trans youth — many of whom are in the early stages of working through the Gordian knot that is gender — from the kinds of invasive questions that well-meaning cisgender people love to ask. These questions can often be invalidating when coming from acquaintances and strangers, but can be especially painful coming from close family members like parents.

Armstrong came to realize that “choosing to be out and active in the community, it’s a bit of a necessity to answer those questions. At the end of the day, stories offer more than anything else can. You have the ability to voice what a kid might be feeling or what a kid might need without putting them in an awkward position.” (I just wish I had known Shane back when I came out. My mother-in-law was very curious about what our sex life would be like now that her daughter was suddenly a lesbian.)

TYES also hosts an annual three-day summer camp for trans youth and their families, especially geared toward parents with younger kids. The Trans Family Camp offers workshops for parents, including discussions with medical professionals such as Dr. Daniel Reirden of Children’s Hospital Colorado, one of the preeminent doctors working with transgender children in the state. In addition to providing information to parents, “the kids just do typical camp stuff: swimming and boating and archery and camping,” but in an accepting, validating, trans-positive environment.

While the increased awareness of the existence of trans people has led in many instances to an increased acceptance, trans people still have to deal with discrimination and harassment. Without supportive family members and adults, many transgender youth have a hard time navigating life and becoming successful, well-adjusted adults. Groups like TYES and trans mentors like Armstrong provide them with a safe, supportive environment where they can grow and flourish, and an environment in which their parents can learn how to best support them.

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