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Journal of LGBT Youth

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Crisis, Acceptance, and Advocacy: A Supportive

Guide for Parents of Trans and Gender-
Nonconforming Youth: A Review of The
Transgender Child

Shannon E. Wyss

To cite this article: Shannon E. Wyss (2013) Crisis, Acceptance, and Advocacy: A Supportive
Guide for Parents of Trans and Gender-Nonconforming Youth: A Review of The Transgender
Child , Journal of LGBT Youth, 10:1-2, 163-168, DOI: 10.1080/19361653.2012.717832

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Published online: 28 Feb 2013.

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Journal of LGBT Youth, 10:163–168, 2013
Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 1936-1653 print / 1936-1661 online
DOI: 10.1080/19361653.2012.717832

Crisis, Acceptance, and Advocacy: A Supportive

Guide for Parents of Trans
and Gender-Nonconforming Youth: A Review
of The Transgender Child

Hyattsville, Maryland, USA

The first nonpathologizing book for parents on trans and gender-

nonconforming young people, Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper’s
The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Profession-
als, urges unconditional love and acceptance of both trans youth
and gender-nonconforming children. The authors encourage par-
ents not only to support their young people but also to become
advocates on their behalf.

KEYWORDS Book review, children, gender-nonconforming, gen-

der variant, parenting, schools, transgender, youth

Since the early 2000s, transgender and transsexual children and teenagers
(hereinafter, “trans”) have received increasing attention in the mainstream
press. Despite a small flurry of news articles and TV spots, however, there is
still very little understanding of these young people and their families (Flock,
2012; Nelson, 2009; Park, 2011; Reischel, 2006; Walters, 2007; Zaffiro, 2010).
Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper’s (2008) The Transgender Child: A Hand-
book for Families and Professionals responds eloquently to this significant
Although geared toward parents, the book is appropriate for other family
members, health care professionals, teachers, school administrators, social
workers, therapists, activists, and researchers. Major topics covered include
what transgender is, gender development and socialization, family reactions
to having a trans or gender-nonconforming (GNC) child or teenager, abusive

Received 11 March 2012; revised 5 April 2012; accepted 5 April 2012.

Address correspondence to Shannon E. Wyss, 5705 31st Place, Hyattsville, MD 20782.

164 S. E. Wyss

versus supportive parenting practices, whether to use puberty-delaying drugs

or cross-sex hormones, to whom and how to come out as the “parent of,” and
dealing with educational, medical, and legal institutions. Several chapters end
with a resource list, and The Transgender Child draws strength from many
quotations from parents.
The first nonclinical and nonpathologizing book for parents to focus
exclusively on trans and GNC children and teens, it differs significantly from
previous work: It is not geared exclusively toward social workers (Mallon,
2009) and does not focus only on gay and lesbian youth (Goldman, 2007) or
on trans adults (Shelley, 2008). And unlike other works (Cohen-Kettenis &
Pfäfflin, 2003), Brill and Pepper’s writing is solidly rooted in the notion that
there is nothing wrong with these young people. Indeed, the authors repeat-
edly make the case that adults must support trans and GNC children, while
acknowledging that many parents experience fear, anger, shame, regret, and
isolation during this process.
While the authors’ tone is gentle toward parents struggling to accept
their children, Brill and Pepper are uncompromising: Adults should not try
to—and ultimately cannot—change these young people. This approach puts
them at odds with the damaging and dangerous “reparative” methods advo-
cated by those such as Kenneth Zucker (Zucker & Bradley, 1996). Possibly
the most vocal advocate of “fixing” trans and GNC young people, Zucker’s
techniques are based on the premise that these children should be strongly
encouraged to accept the gender norms and identity associated with their
birth sex. His methods instruct parents to punish or, at the very least, with-
hold affirmation for their child’s GNC behavior, while actively encouraging
gender-normative activities. Most of Zucker’s work centers around GNC boys,
in an attempt to avoid them eventually identifying as trans. In contrast, Brill
and Pepper work from an LGBTQ-affirming perspective that sees nothing
inherently wrong with gender-nonconforming behavior or a trans identity at
any life stage.
Brill and Pepper are especially intentional in repeatedly addressing peo-
ple who may be struggling with feelings of homophobia: Those individuals,
and the communities in which they live, must make a concerted effort to
be aware of—and to end—this hatred in order to create a safe environ-
ment in which trans and GNC children and teens will be able to express
themselves. The authors pay special attention to fathers, who often have a
significantly harder time than mothers in overcoming their own homophobia
and accepting their GNC sons.
Although the title implies that the book’s sole focus is trans children,
it also details the specific issues faced by parents of gender-nonconforming
young people. For example, one of parents’ most common questions is how
to tell if a particular child is trans or “just” GNC. Brill and Pepper inform
readers that this issue is difficult to answer, especially for very young chil-
dren, and that parents will need to see how their child grows and develops.
Book Review Essay 165

As they state: “The agony of not being able to label their children can cause
some parents such stress that they actually would prefer their child to be
transgender. Yes, it may seem easier to have a transgender child or a typi-
cally gendered child—but that is not what you have. Remember to resist the
urge to make your child choose for your greater ease” (pp. 24–25). They
are clear that a child’s gender expression may never settle into a traditional
masculine/boy or feminine/girl box. This recurrent theme contributes to the
uniqueness of The Transgender Child in a field where so much writing
focuses either on gender-conforming, cisgender (non-transgender) lesbian,
gay, and bisexual youth or on trans teens (Beam, 2008; Goldman, 2007;
Pascoe, 2007).
For both trans and GNC young people, Brill and Pepper go further than
asking parents merely to learn tolerance; the authors repeatedly urge them
to advocacy:

[True acceptance] is marked by an understanding of the complexity of

gender. This understanding blends your own family experience with the
greater system of compulsory gender in our society. It embraces a deeper
understanding of the injustices of both homophobia and transphobia.
With this enriched understanding of gender comes a transformation in
how one sees the world, and parents usually become engaged in gender
activism as a result. . . . [I]f the problem lies with the system, you work to
change the system that discriminates against your child. (p. 59)

It is through such advocacy, they explain, that parents can smooth their
child’s or teen’s way in the world and give that young person the skills to
This advocacy can take many forms. One of the most significant revolves
around school. The authors stress the importance of ensuring that children
have a safe environment in which to learn and offer specific suggestions
on how to approach schools from prekindergarten through college, how to
handle teachers and other parents, and how to address bathroom usage and
sports. Another vital arena for advocacy centers around health care. Brill
and Pepper detail why parents must ensure that any professionals whom
their children and youth see are trans friendly—something that is especially
important for therapists, who have an essential role in helping these young
people navigate an often hostile world. Other areas in which parents can
actively make their children’s lives healthier include facilitating their access
to trans and GNC peers and to similar adults who can serve as mentors and
role models.
Parents are not left to wonder why they must undertake such activities.
Brill and Pepper explain repeatedly that unconditional love and support from
parents leads to better social, emotional, physical, and academic outcomes
for youth:
166 S. E. Wyss

Even if you are shy and unassuming, you must overcome your own
fears in support of your child. The time and energy it requires on your
part will be well worth it—it may make the difference between their life
and death. Supportive school and family experiences can help gender-
variant and transgender teens develop the self-confidence and resilience
necessary to form integrated, positive, and healthy identities. (p. 183)

With such dire potential alternatives—literally, living versus suicide—a par-

ent would be hard-pressed to finish this book and not realize the critical
importance of fully supporting one’s trans or GNC child or teenager.
The most glaring weakness of The Transgender Child is its lack of
attention to individuals who are not White, middle class, or Christian—in
short, to those who do not belong to dominant groups. While the authors
mention several times that families of “other” cultures and religions may
face different and stricter gender codes—and while one two-page section
heading is Cultural, Religious, Ethnic, and Racial Influences (p. 144)—the
book’s baseline is clearly White.
Such “whitewashing” of the experiences of racial, religious, and other
minority trans and GNC children and youth is apparent in multiple places.
For instance, while the authors council that teens, who may interact with
the police, should carry a notarized letter from a doctor or therapist if their
ID contradicts their gender expression, they make no mention that race
will almost certainly be a factor here. While White teenagers may not face
additional questioning by law enforcement, youth of color, especially those
who present as boys, are significantly more likely to be racially profiled and,
hence, to confront greater scrutiny because of pervasive, institutionalized
racism in the criminal (in)justice system.
The authors also do not discuss the fact that economically marginal-
ized families—among which families of color and immigrant families are
overrepresented—are less likely to have access to the health care system, in-
cluding supportive therapy and medical services. This dynamic leaves their
children and youth at greater risk for low self-esteem and being bullied,
which may lead to activities that are disproportionately common for LGBT
youth, such as skipping classes, dropping out of school, substance use, un-
safe sex, and suicide (Greytak, Kosciw, & Diaz, 2009; Human Rights Watch,
2001; Kosciw, Greytak, Diaz, & Bartkiewicz, 2010; Parents, Families, and
Friends of Lesbians and Gays, 2004; Russell & McGuire, 2008; Wyss, 2004).
Because the unspoken “default” child and teen in Brill and Pepper’s book
is always of the dominant group, they cannot analyze such specificities and,
hence, leave readers with marginalized identities to imagine their own ways
around the additional barriers they may face.
The other strange oversight in an otherwise LGB-friendly book is its
assumption that these children and teens are being raised in heterosexual,
monogamous households consisting of one mother and one father. While
Book Review Essay 167

Brill and Pepper make repeated mention of lesbian and gay young people,
they are silent on parents with the same identities and on households of
more than two parents. Hence, LGB-identified and polyamorous adults are,
similar to other parents with marginalized identities, left out of this book.
Nonetheless, The Transgender Child makes a crucial contribution to the
literature on the lives of trans and gender-nonconforming young people; it
stands to play a significant role in making family, school, and community
life happier and healthier for those children and teens who do not fit into
the boxes that so many adults think they should inhabit. Stephanie Brill and
Rachel Pepper’s book aids parents, teachers, and others in creating a happier,
healthier generation of trans and gender-nonconforming individuals. LGBTQ
adults will benefit from the work of these authors for years to come, as the
strong, fulfilled young people that this book is helping to create grow up,
come into their own, and join our LGBTQ community.


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Shannon E. Wyss works as the grants manager for AIDS United and volunteers
with the DC Trans Coalition and with a group of gender-nonconforming and
trans children through Washington, DC’s Children’s National Medical Center.