A half-dozen or so metro Atlanta moms and dads gathered last month at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Druid Hills, hoping for clarity as they process the myriad and complex emotions that come with parenting transgender and gender independent kids.
Granted it was one more meeting in their already busy lives, but it couldn’t have been more welcomed. If you’ve ever wished your child came with a how-to manual, imagine having one who may need extra care.
Imagine having him announce to you one day that he is, in fact, a she.
That’s what happened to former NBA star Dwyane Wade, who recently opened up about his 12-year-old daughter Zaya coming out as transgender.
Or imagine the situation in reverse.
About two years ago, it happened to Peter Isbister and his wife, Robyn.
Looking back, that wasn’t as shocking as it might seem. They had noticed, for instance, that he seemed more comfortable in a Golden State Warrior basketball jersey than a dress, that he wanted his hair cut short and almost always preferred playing with male classmates.
Then one night as his mother was reading the story of Coy Mathis of the popular “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls” series, Isbister said, “a lightbulb went off for our kid.”
That’s me, he told his mom.
Born in the fall of 2013, she was 5 years old, one half of a set of twins who were assigned female at birth.
Now she was coming out as a boy.
There was little conversation about that that night, but in the days that followed, they talked and asked lots of questions.
When did you know this about yourself? How long have you felt this way?
Each time, the answer was forever.
“For us, it felt very fast,” Isbister said. “For him, it wasn’t fast at all.”
What was clear, he said, was he just hadn’t had the words.
Sometimes there just aren’t any, but the Isbisters knew that as his parents, their job was to empathize, to try somehow to put themselves in the shoes of their son so he’d get the nourishment and protection he needed going forward.
“There was a fair amount to process,” Isbister told me, including facilitating conversations between 5- and 8-year-old siblings.
Meanwhile, their son settled into his new reality. He was a boy at home and during Sunday school, but for the next week, a girl at school. By the following Monday, he was a boy, and that was the end of the back and forth.
Let me hasten to say here that the Isbisters have not yet surgically or chemically transitioned their son’s sex to match his new identity. They believe those decisions can wait.
For now, they’ve elected to adhere to counsel from experts who say that the best practices for treating prepubescent children who may be transgender are to affirm the child’s choices and afford them the space to explore their identity.
It makes sense to me, but there is so much about the transgender space I don’t understand. Just writing about it causes such consternation among readers, they feel the need to question my Christian faith for even broaching the topic. I don’t quite understand that either.
The Isbisters, who chose not to identify their son, say they haven’t had to deal with that. They enjoy nothing but support from family members, neighbors, colleagues and members of their church and synagogue.
In fact, it was their Rabbi Pamela Gottfried at Congregation Bet Haverim who last summer told the family about TransParent, a not-for-profit providing connection, support and resources to parents raising a transgender or nonbinary child.
Despite there being 18 chapters across the country, Isbister said he was surprised to learn there were very few if any chapters in the Southeast.
When he called the nonprofit’s St. Louis headquarters to get a better understanding of its mission, he knew local parents and caregivers of transgender kids could benefit.
“Our meetings are not the place for allies, people who are supportive,” he said. “It’s not for transgender kids themselves or for parents of kids who are gay, lesbian or bisexual. It’s a peer-to-peer support group.”
The other defining feature is parents don’t have to worry about having to talk about how they feel about having a transgender kid. They can be heartbroken or totally cheerleading and anywhere in between.
“With a suicide risk of almost 50% by the age of 19 due in large part to a lack of family acceptance and support for transgender children, TransParent chapters are needed more than ever to help eliminate this outcome,” said Kim Hutton, TransParent’s founder.
As Robyn Isbister likes to say, their son is the mayor of every room he walks into. He’s happy but even more so now because he’s able to live his truth.
And yet, reading news stories about violence and discrimination against transgender people, knowing the suicide rates leaves the Decatur attorneys fearful and apprehensive.
It has helped that they have the support of their community, especially their faith families, Congregation Bet Haverim and St. John’s, where the family worships.
The Rev. Nancy Christensen, the pastor at St. John’s, told me it was never a question of whether they’d embrace the Isbisters or TransParent.
“I know Peter and Robyn. They are amazing people,” she said. “Plus in addition to their son, we have several folks here who are in the same situation and to allow their children to claim who they really are is a beautiful thing, something Christians shouldn’t judge.
“This is the church that absolutely would open their arms and I’m thrilled this can be that safe and welcoming place for them and so is the congregation.”
For that, the Isbisters are counting their blessings. After all, a happy transgender son is far more important than a dead kid who had been forced to deny his or her true gender identity.
That support is why he felt well-positioned to start the TransParent organization at St. John’s.
“Our family is coming from a position of strength, and we wanted to offer that to other families,” Isbister said.
And so for the first time last month, seven moms and dads, including Isbister, gathered at St. John’s to talk. They will gather there at 7 p.m. on the second Thursday of every month.
If you’re a parent of a transgender kid of any age and at any stage of that journey, you’re welcome to join them.
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