Opening the Door 

Parents of transgender children aim to balance privacy and community.

click to enlarge Jasper Gunn, a former University of Richmond student, started a transgender child-care co-op in Richmond.

Scott Elmquist

Jasper Gunn, a former University of Richmond student, started a transgender child-care co-op in Richmond.

Shannon’s daughter can captivate an audience. If that weren’t enough to make a mother proud, consider the subject matter that the 9-year-old shares with college classes and other groups — her experience as a transgender girl.

But her mom has a unique challenge, walking a line between protecting her daughter’s privacy and encouraging her to feel secure in her identity.

“You don’t want her to hide,” Shannon says. “It can be damaging to her spirit, and I never want her to feel any shame. There is nothing to be ashamed about.”

Born a male, Shannon’s daughter has identified as female since age 5 — rejecting her brother’s hand-me-downs and openly telling people that she was a girl. Her mother has been supportive, but knows that transgender youth face a world still catching up to the realities of gender expansive identities.

The biggest issue is adults, Shannon says. Being judged for allowing your child to be who they are can be severe, she says, and parents often feel alone. Having found another Richmond parent in similar circumstances in 2012, the two are working to make it easier for other parents facing the same challenges.

Dubbing the group He, She, Ze and We, they’ve held monthly meetings in Richmond for more than two years, with the most recent gathering representing 14 families. They include parents of children as young as 4. The other parent organizer says the group is ready to seek out more members publicly, even as she declines to have her name published. Doing so could out her child.

“We want to respect our children to be able to let their own friends know who they are whenever they want to,” the other parent says. “This is not a road that’s paved very well.”

The meetings range from a support group atmosphere to guest speakers such as medical experts and trans- or gender-expansive adults who can answer questions their children can’t.

Jasper Gunn, who plays in the Richmond band Queer Rocket, started a transgender child care co-op around the same time. Gunn, who began seriously exploring gender-queer identity while attending the University of Richmond, has been a resource as a speaker and a go-to contact.

“It started by getting a haircut that I liked, starting to use neutral pronouns, changing my name socially and later legally,” Gunn says. “It’s an ongoing process.”

Gunn, 23, says the co-op provides role models that the children didn’t have.

“I would have enjoyed so much having gender-queer providers in my life as a kid,” Gunn says. “How it took so long for me to realize my gender was that I didn’t have role models in my life who felt similar to me.”

More role models will be needed as society continues to open up to differing gender expressions, says Beth Panilaitis, executive director at Rosmy, a Richmond-based resource center for LGBTQ youth.

The Internet and general public awareness have helped encourage younger people to identify and come out as transgender or gender expansive. Rosmy, founded in 1991, has held a transgender youth support group for the past three years.

“It’s not a need we saw 15 years ago,” Panilaitis says. “Young people have the language. It’s not like individuals didn’t have those feelings 20 years ago or 40 years ago, but a young person at 16 has the language to say, ‘This is what those feelings mean.’”

Because Rosmy focuses on working with youth, Panilaitis says that He, She, Ze and We fills a need for parents who often feel disconnected. Shannon calls it the most important work she’s ever done.

“For the most part, [parents] don’t know anyone else in their situation until they reach us,” Shannon says. “There’s a lot of support out there. No one has to be alone.”

Partially emboldened by the recent ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that affirmed a judge’s rejection of Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban, the other parent says the group is ready for more publicity to make it easier for parents to find. The group has started a Facebook page, will manage a youth area at Virginia Pride in September and is reachable by email at heshezeandwe@gmail.com.

“We’re kind of coming out in that way,” the parent says. “We definitely want people to know.”

Gunn has embarked on a listening project to help understand how to better connect with parents of children who are transgender. By finding out those needs and continuing to expand the co-op’s services, Gunn hopes to build an intergenerational community.

“Gender stereotypes are oppressive to all of us,” Gunn says. “I want to create an environment that’s challenging, where kids can say, ‘Maybe I can play with the pink toy,’ and expose them to the idea that people can be transgender. Any child can benefit.”

The parent says her child now has the role model Gunn didn’t have: “I wanted to make sure my child could see you can grow up and be who you are.” S

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