Welcome to ”The Story We Share,” a series of Q&As that profile two people with similar identities ― but who live in very different places. As part of HuffPost’s Listen To America tour, we’re exploring how people’s lived experiences overlap and diverge depending on their zip codes. What is the “American Experience?” It depends where you look.
For a transgender child, a supportive family, much less a supportive community, is an invaluable privilege. Mothers of three Beth Claussen and Jamie Bruesehoff are the kind of fierce parents who get trans kids through the hard times intact.
Beth is a married mother to a 10-year-old trans son, Caiden, as well as 13-year-old Caitlyn and 7-year-old Megan in Des Plaines, Illinois, a fairly progressive suburb of Chicago. Jamie is raising a 10-year-old trans daughter, Rebekah, along with 8-year-old Elijah and 3-year-old Oliver, with her Lutheran pastor husband in rural, conservative Sussex County, New Jersey. Yet there are no easy conclusions to be drawn based on their locations.
What is common, however, is both parents’ strong commitment to figuring out how to best support their children’s needs, a commitment that is unfortunately not shared by every parent of a transgender child in this country.
According to studies done by the Family Acceptance Project, gay and transgender teens who are “highly rejected” by their parents are at very high risk for health and mental health problems when they become young adults. They are eight times more likely to attempt suicide, six times more likely to report high levels of depression and three times more likely to use illegal drugs as compared to gay or transgender youth from families with “low or no level of rejection.” In other words, family support is crucial.
Beth and Jamie spoke to HuffPost about their experiences as the parents of young trans children, the process of transitioning and perhaps most amazingly, how their communities have responded.
HuffPost: When did you first notice your child’s gender identity was different from how you originally perceived it?
Beth Claussen (Illinois): Really I started noticing in preschool, when he could verbalize he didn’t want to wear dresses and he didn’t want to wear his older sister’s hand-me-downs.
He was Spiderman for Halloween in preschool. At the costume store, I pointed him to the cute little girls’ Spiderman costume. He’s like, “No.” He goes over to the boys’ area and he’s like, “I want that one.” It was the super muscle one.
Jamie Bruesehoof (New Jersey): From the time that she could have a favorite color ― so 2 or 3 when they start to gravitate toward things ― she liked the color pink and things that were typically girly. We didn’t think a lot of it. We were like, “OK, we’re not those parents. Kids can like any color. Colors are for everyone.” Yes she can pick the pink thing but at the same time we didn’t run out and get her everything pink. I remember thinking “Well what if this is a phase?”
Beth (Illinois): One of the memories that stands out to me like, “OK, something might be a little ...” is when he was 6. I took all the kids to Target because they all needed socks or underwear. I said, “All right. Here’s your underwear. Pick a pair.”
I told Caiden that and he looked at all the girls underwear and he’s like, “I don’t want that.” He walked around to the other side and grabbed a pack of boxers, and was like, “I want these.” I said, “OK. That’s fine.” That stood out to me as it’s something that no one else sees that he felt more comfortable in. We bought it.
Jamie (New Jersey): By 5 or 6 she was very much gravitating toward all things girly. Most of her friends were girls. But she wasn’t saying at that point, “Oh I am a girl. I’m not a boy.” So we said, OK, you can like what you want. So we were supporting her and navigating how kids deal with that because she’d hear from people, “Why are your nails painted? That’s for girls.” So anxiety grew around that; what we first thought was anxiety about kids kind of bugging her about liking non-typical things eventually became more intense. She started to get really upset when she was separated into the boy group if it was separated boys and girls or if she was going to a birthday party and they were going to have certain things for boys and certain things for girls. And by the time she was like 7, it was preventing her from wanting to do things. So our super bubbly, outgoing kid was really having trouble enjoying the things that she’d always enjoyed. And as the anxiety got worse she just struggled more. Clearly something wasn’t fitting but she didn’t have the language.
Beth (Illinois): Fast forward, between 7 and 8 years old, he just became more angry. He’s always been a super-happy, throw-a-few-scraps-of-food-his-way kid and he’s fine. He just became more angry and more withdrawn.
He would say things like, “I want to be a boy.” I was like, “Well, I’m sorry, but you’re a girl. That’s what God made you.” We’d say things like, “Why do you want to be a boy?” He’d come up with things like, “Boys are stronger.” I’d pull up on the internet female bodybuilder pictures just to show him that females can be just as strong as boys. He’d say things like, “Boys are faster.” I’d pull up female runners.
Then it got to basically he’d say, “I don’t know why, but I just want to be a boy.” He never said, “I am a boy.” He always knew that he had girl parts. He always knew that he was a girl, but just saying, “I want to be a boy.” He wanted to cut his hair in preschool. It started off longer and over the years, it just got shorter and shorter and shorter. “I want that haircut,” he’d say, pointing to different boys.
I never let him until it was the summer after second grade. I let him cut it super short and he was so happy. He said things like, “Oh, great. Maybe now I can go in the boy’s line and they won’t notice.”
How did you come to an awareness that your child was transgender?
Beth (Illinois): A little before the eighth birthday, 7-and-a-half or so, we started looking into things online. Just ‘transgender kids’ and I checked out books in the library.
We found through Lurie’s Children’s Hospital that there was a support near us called Pinwheels. It’s a support group generally for transgender, gender creative kids and their parents. We had my parents watch the kids and just my husband and I went two months in a row and said, “OK, this sounds like what could be Caiden.” We met with a psychologist at Lurie’s Hospital who saw Caiden for about three months and then he would talk to us after.
Jamie (New Jersey): At that point she’d been in counseling off and on because she is a super sensitive kid. We’d been in counseling to help with anxiety tools and not taking on everybody else’s emotions and all of that and so when things got really, really tough we were able to work with our family doctor and our counselor to treat what looked like anxiety and depression at that point.
The conversation that kind of pushed us over the edge happened when we were preparing for her brother’s swim birthday party, and she was like, “Oh what am I going to wear to swim in?” I was like “Oh good question we can get you pink swim shorts we can get you a pink rashguard,” and I said, “Well let’s Google gender non-conforming swimsuits.” And when we did, some stuff came up that said transgender and LGBTQ and I said “OK maybe it’s a good idea that I explain this to you. This is what these letters mean.” And I explained what transgender meant and she went “Ooooh. Maybe that’s what I am.” It was very much a lightbulb moment. She didn’t realize that people could be transgender and that there are people who are transgender.
Beth (Illinois): The psychologist said, “OK, why don’t you try calling him a name in the house? A different name and different pronouns in the house and see how it feels? See how he reacts and see ...” I remember that just taking my breath away. I cried a lot then. It made it more real. I just remember a pit in my stomach. I think I just knew that this was probably the journey we were going down and I didn’t necessarily want to. I knew it was going to be harder.
How did you approach your child transitioning?
Beth (Illinois): We gave Caiden the choice of names and let him pick. I said, “I get some say so in this. I’m your mother. I named you initially. We get the say so in your new name.” He chose Caiden, so we started calling him Caiden in the house and trying to use “he” pronouns. We did that for many, many months, about a year. In the house and then slowly telling grandparents who babysit for us a lot and slowly telling some close friends and going and visiting the Pinwheels community. He really liked going there because there were kids like him. He was not the only “weirdo” that he knew of. He could totally be Caiden and it was not an issue. After calling him that for awhile in the house, we said, “OK.”
Jamie (New Jersey): She learned the word transgender at the beginning of March and by the middle of April she was Rebekah. For those six weeks every day, we were having these conversations about gender and she was asking questions and we found a gender specialist and we were like “Are we crazy? What’s going on here?” And she talked to Rebekah and she talked to us and said, “No, you’re doing the right thing. Keep following her lead.” So for awhile we’d talk to Rebekah and just say “Tell us how you feel each day. Do you feel like a boy? Do you feel like a girl?” Then every day it was never “I’m a boy,” it was always “I’m neither” or “I’m a girl” and then as she got more confident it was “OK. I’m a girl. I’m a girl. I’m a girl. I’m a girl. This is who I am.”
We gave her a name that I had considered when I was pregnant with her. There were two or three and she picked Rebekah. And we said “OK, let’s try it out.” And from that day on, it was so clear. I had no idea what we’re doing, we were holding our breath thinking let’s just see what happens, and instantly we had a kid whose spirit exploded. She was happy. She was joyful. She was more herself. She was running up to people at church and saying “hi” and shaking their hands instead of hiding behind me. It was very clear that this made sense to her and this was who she was.
How was the response been in your community?
Beth (Illinois): Overall, our community really is the school community, for the most part. I’ve had zero negative anything directed towards me or my kids.
The only thing I’ve ever gotten were parents emailing me. I said to the principal, “If they want to email me, if they want to text me, if they want to call me, I am open. I’m open to discussing this. I’m open to any sort of books, articles on how to talk to their kids or ways to talk to their kids.” I never got a call about that or a text or a email. I got one or two emails saying “Good for you. I’m very glad to be part of Caiden’s life.”
Jamie (New Jersey): We are in rural New Jersey. There’s not a lot near us. It’s super conservative. I mean 70 percent of our town voted for Trump. We would not expect the support that we’ve received because of the community we’re in. There is no reason that we should have had the positive experience we had living where we live with the resources we have and everything else. We’re just so grateful and hopeful that we can pave the way so others kids can have that positive experience in a rural place that you wouldn’t expect and have more resources and all of that.
Beth (Illinois): I don’t know everything that goes on on the playground. I don’t know everything that goes on in the bathroom or anything. My kid doesn’t necessarily talk about feelings at all. From teachers, principal, and parent, and what I can get out of my kid, it has not been negative. Really it doesn’t matter. We’re not changing communities. We like the community we live in, we like the school, we like the house we’re in. We’re going to stay put and hopefully things go ... continue to go smooth.
Next year, he will be in middle school. In middle school, they do change out of their clothes into gym uniforms, so it’s the whole locker room issue that I have not dealt with yet. We’ll deal with it when it comes. It’s the way I have to live. I can’t look too far ahead. People ask about hormones and surgery. I said, “I can’t look that far ahead. I just can’t.” It gives me way too much anxiety. I live day, week, maybe a month ahead of time. I can’t look too far ahead.
Jamie (New Jersey): We try to regularly while telling our story in an authentic way, also lift up that this is a best case scenario. Yes she faces discrimination and there’s a lot of stuff that’s really scary and there’s medical stuff we have to try to get approved ― there’s lots of challenges but we know it’s nothing compared to what other kids face and other families face, so we try to just say that over and over again because privilege matters.
Beth (Illinois): My in-laws, who are significantly older and very, very Catholic, are not accepting and think we’re wronging our child and think we are going against God’s plan. It’s sad. We don’t see them much anymore. I said, “As long as I can keep Caiden in a little bubble of support and love, I’m going to.” I know his whole life he’s going to have hatred and discrimination. If I can surround him by love and support right now, I’m going to. If that means not being around people that are not loving and supportive, then that’s the way we go.
Jamie (New Jersey): The one story I always tell is about this super-conservative, super-masculine, very gender role-oriented guy at church. I would never expect him to be OK with it. And yet she showed up in a dress and we said, “Oh this is Rebekah now,” and he came up to me later and said “You know, I don’t really understand this. I don’t understand it,” which is fair ― I don’t understand the whole gender thing either. But he added, “But I can tell you she used to hide behind you and not say ‘hi’ to me and today she ran up, twirled in her dress and gave me a high five. What more is there to understand?” It’s the power of the personal experience and seeing my kid and knowing who she was and seeing the difference in her that I think changes hearts and minds over time.
The other thing I would add is that we get these ideas about conservative areas but there are more people who are ready to learn ― I mean they talk about the moveable middle ― there are more people who have questions and just don’t understand. But when given an opportunity to learn, to see firsthand or to get a glimpse of your story they want to support you. They just don’t have the exposure. So I think there’s more of those people than there are of those really loud, horrible out-to-get-you ones. It’s reaching those that makes a big difference.
What is the message you want other families to take away from your experience?
Beth (Illinois): First and foremost, love your kids for who they are. It’s not always easy, it’s not always pretty but you need to love and accept them. This is not what I thought my family would look like, this was not in my “plan” but it is what it is and my husband and I are going to love, accept and support all of our children the best we possibly can. We agree that we would rather have an alive, happy, confident son than a dead daughter (suicide rates for trans teens are incredibly high). Lastly, find support, it is important to know that you are not alone. There are support groups/play groups that are very helpful. Surround your family with loving and supportive people.
Jamie (New Jersey): Rebekah has the privilege of having a supportive family and we were prepared to do whatever need be when she first transitioned. We were like this could go horribly wrong. The church, while they couldn’t really kick him out, [my husband] could lose his job over this. So before coming it was very much, “OK, this could go horribly wrong and we could have to move and start over somewhere else,” and we were just prepared to do that. We were hoping for the best but we were prepared for the worst. Knowing that other trans kids face not even being accepted by their family or not even having a school that supports them ... our personalities and our view of the world and kind of our call as Christians is to do good in the world and work for justice, and so we saw the power of Rebekah’s story and we wanted to share that. I think once we had a kid who had survived this and we’d survived this as a family and we’d come out the other side with a happy thriving girl we wanted to share that so other people struggling could say, “Me too,” or “Here’s hope. I’m in this hard spot but it’s really good to know that this can get better.”
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
CORRECTION: This article initially misstated the results of the study as indicating that “highly rejected” teens are more likely to die by suicide; rather, the study found those teens are more likely to attempt suicide.