Worriedmom is a mother of four (allegedly) adult children, who lives in the Northeastern part of the United States. She practiced law for many years and now works in the non-profit area. She is available to interact in the comments section of this post.
A piece of advice that parents of the newly-trans often hear, right after the admonition to “educate yourself,” is to attend meetings of PFLAG (which previously stood for Parents, Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays and now does not stand for anything, the acronyms apparently having become unmanageable). According to its website, PFLAG currently has over 400 chapters, representing over 200,000 people in all 50 states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico. PFLAG has a national administrative and lobbying presence but operates primarily through local chapters.
PFLAG’s original mission called for parents to support one another in what was then the frightening, emotionally draining, and fraught experience of having a gay son or a lesbian daughter. When PFLAG was founded back in 1972, by a courageous New York City mom, having a gay son or a lesbian daughter meant being in a terribly lonely place, where parents were fearful of confiding even in other loved ones, and social ostracism was the rule, not the exception. Then, too, ignorance about gay and lesbian people reigned supreme. Even highly-educated people believed that being gay or lesbian was, at the very least, the symptom of serious mental illness, and that at any rate, the closet was by far the best place for “queers” and their unfortunate parents to live.
As the 70’s turned into the 80’s, parents needed PFLAG desperately, as AIDS swept through the gay population and families frequently dealt with two simultaneous revelations: their son was gay, and he had come home to die. Parents became even more isolated and traumatized, often the target of violence and community exclusion (read up on Ryan White for a tragic example, although there were many more). It’s hard to believe, looking back today, how crazy AIDS made people in the time before effective drugs. PFLAG served the vital function of connecting parents who were dealing, in many cases, with incurable illness and horribly premature death, and who, as an extra-cruel burden, had to do it in secret. The support and comfort offered by PFLAG chapter meetings was truly a lifeline for many.
Time and medical science marched on, giving birth to the culture wars. At the time that my story begins, the U.S. was smack in the middle of the anti-gay-marriage law-making binge that many people thought helped re-elect George W. Bush in 2004. What originally brought me to PFLAG was my then-14 year old son, who was experiencing the feelings that eventually led him in the direction of bisexuality. He had dealt with a lot of bullying and other negative behavior in school, and I felt that I needed support to cope with this strange and upsetting situation. In 2006, primarily due to my congenital inability to say “no” in any given volunteer setting, I became the head of my local PFLAG chapter. My PFLAG experience became further pertinent in 2012 when my older daughter came out as lesbian during her first semester of college.
To preface, I can’t say whether my experience is typical for PFLAG, although I have no reason to believe it isn’t. When I decided to help start a chapter, I received no vetting of any kind. I was not asked to undergo a criminal background check, provide references, or establish my bona fides in any way. Neither when I established the chapter, nor at any time afterward, was I asked to become knowledgeable in any formal sense about the GLB community. My good faith was assumed. Much to my initial chagrin, I was not offered training in group facilitation or dynamics to help me work with an often-emotional and always unpredictable group of people. I have never had any training or experience in the fields of psychology, human sexuality, addiction or mental health, even though all of these issues came up repeatedly at our chapter meetings. (I should add that much, much later, PFLAG did begin to offer voluntary training in group facilitation.) I was actually a bit shocked that I was expected to, and did, “wing it,” in situations that often became intense and even confrontational.
This brings me to my first point on PFLAG and its place in the “trans puzzle” — that neither PFLAG leaders, nor other group members, should be assumed to have any expertise about anything or anyone involved on the “trans spectrum.” One might argue that when PFLAG’s mission was limited to parents of lesbians and gays extending kindness and empathy to other parents, this lack of professionalism and education was not a major liability (although, as I note above, on occasion I found it daunting). As the “T” part of the equation has come to predominate, however, it would be natural for parents to expect some level of informed if not authoritative opinion from PFLAG leaders and group members as to the many medical, psychological and social issues involved with an individual’s becoming transgender. If I am any example, however, it is more a case of “the blind leading the blind.”
Moving on, and energized by the rampant opposition prevalent in the “W years,” our chapter attracted upwards of a dozen people to each meeting, even 20 or more when we featured an author, academic or other person of note. As a PFLAG representative, I spoke at symposiums, conferences, youth meetings, schools, churches and more. Every year we fielded a large contingent at the local gay pride march. The chapter hot-line was connected to my home phone, and I spent hours every month, counseling parents. And people always called at dinner-time!
And then… the bottom fell out. By the early 2010’s, the enthusiasm and interest were just – gone. Newbies became “one and done,” then “none and done.” We were victims of our own success. Parents no longer grieved, no longer felt condemned to live in secrecy and fear. Gay became normal, fine even. We went on hiatus for a while, then re-booted, in a different location and time. We tinkered with the format. We tried publicity, Facebook, networking with other groups. But the writing was on the wall: parents just didn’t need PFLAG like they used to, and it was pretty obvious they never would again.
We were not alone. At our monthly regional conference calls, everybody had the same sad story: attendance was down, commitment was non-existent. The yearly national conference went to bi-annual, staff was cut at National, the end was near.
And then, about four years ago, things changed again. The chapter hot-line, formerly covered with cobwebs, began ringing off the hook. This time, it was parents of “gender-non-conforming” children, desperate for help and advice. Again, I had no expertise, no real understanding of transgender issues, but simply assumed that the “strong affirmation” model that worked fine for lesbian and gay people, would go double for trans. Today I am ashamed to say that I unthinkingly referred over 50 individuals and families to our local “gender-affirmative” therapist, and at least as many more to trans-activist and other trans-supportive groups (such as “free binder” sites). I also steered people away from organizations such as Straight Spouse Network, on the basis that those groups were not sufficiently “trans-affirming.”
I don’t feel good about my blind acceptance of trans dogma, but in my defense, I was never encouraged to develop any sort of critical perspective. The word, from National on down, was that “it’s 95% the same” (in other words, if we were experienced in providing support to parents of gay and lesbian children, we were perfectly well equipped to do the same for parents of transgender children). I was also told that I shouldn’t worry that I was ignorant about the remaining “5%” (relating to the medical particulars of transition). As leaders, we were to affirm “innate gender identity” and transition, full stop. “Trans theory” was accepted scientific fact. No other opinions or viewpoints were entertained, much less explored, and there was no contemplation of the wisdom or safety of the medical procedures that transition entailed. Parents who questioned were crazy. End of discussion.
A quick review of PFLAG’s website shows that it is, today, all-in on trans. We have an online course on “our transgender loved ones,” training in Trans Ally 101, a publication available for sale on becoming a Trans Ally, a transgender reading list for adults, a transgender reading list for young adults, a transgender reading list for children, films on gender and many, many more. It’s all just so wonderful!
Notwithstanding all this joy, meeting attendance was up but the mood was down. Parents were gutted. We had “learned” that “trans is the new gay,” but something was off. So many of the parents had children who already had mental health problems, or were on the autism spectrum, and as they cried and expressed their fear of what life would hold for their vulnerable children, it became increasingly difficult to remain sanguine. It began to occur to me that it wasn’t terribly likely that transition was going to “cure” anything for these kids, but instead would leave the child, and the family, with two serious problems instead of one. Parents worried that their children would never find employment, or even someone to love. Again, it grew difficult to assume those concerns away. While I had always felt quite comfortable assuring a parent that a gay or lesbian child could go on to lead a normal, even boring, life, I felt like a faker saying the same thing to the parent of a trans child. But there was never any space to explore alternative ways to mitigate the effects of gender dysphoria, how or whether to slow down a child’s rush to transition, or even whether the proper goal for every potentially trans person might not be transition, ASAP.
Meetings grew increasingly baroque. A parent would walk in the door:
“My 12 year old daughter just came out as pangender.”
“My older daughter is transitioning to be my son, and my younger daughter is now aromantic. Is it possible these things are related?”
“I think my three year old son is possibly transgender. What should we do?”
“My 19 year old son just came back from his first broney convention!”
“Our lesbian daughter is the only non-trans person in her entire GLBT youth group. Now who is she going to date?”
Gay and lesbian were boring old vanilla, and I was seriously out of my league. Conferences and gay pride panels became an exercise in “can you top this?” The mantra was “the children are leading the way, and isn’t it exciting!” Having several children of my own, I was pretty skeptical, given that these children leading the way could not reliably load a dishwasher or return a library book.
I began to look for more balanced discussion of the facts regarding transgender issues, and was horrified to learn (for instance) that transitioned children, whom I had blithely assumed would go on to lead happy and fulfilled lives, would actually wind up permanently sterilized. To put it mildly, PFLAG does not advertise this detail; nor are most leaders, in my experience, even aware of it. I also could no longer deny that some of the folks I had encountered via PFLAG were, in the vernacular, “creepy.” There had been discussion of fetishes and other “alternative” behavior that would, in any other context, have sent me right out the door. In retrospect, in the name of tolerance, I permitted my own boundaries to become fuzzier than I should have.
The final straw, for me, was the parent-assisted mastectomy of a troubled young woman in my community. I was just done. I actually continued to run our chapter for another excruciating summer, loathe to simply shut it down after so many years involved with PFLAG, but finally did. I do not expect that my concerns (which I circulated in a lengthy letter) will have any impact on PFLAG at all.
Absent the trans issue, I believe that PFLAG probably would have died a natural death, and that wouldn’t have been a bad thing! (As an example, Love Makes a Family, the marriage equality group in Connecticut, showed great integrity in shutting down after it achieved its objective.) The transgender cause has been a life-saver for PFLAG, organizationally speaking, even though there is a strong suspicion that homophobic parents may embrace transgenderism as a “cure” for their gay and lesbian children – hardly the vision of family acceptance originally put forward for PFLAG. (Go here for another sad story of an unacceptable lesbian daughter who became a cherished straight son.) “Trans” has provided new purpose and energy, a new “mission field,” and from what I’ve seen, trans people and their supportive parents have become the majority of PFLAG’s leaders and members. Some chapters are, today, almost entirely trans and trans-related. It’s where the action is.
A parent attending a PFLAG meeting needs to know that the people he or she will encounter are most likely strongly and personally invested in the promotion of transgenderism. If a parent has already endorsed and facilitated transition for his or her own child, obviously that parent has to believe that this was a necessary, benign and positive step. PFLAG is the last place to hear a dispassionate discussion of the actual facts of transition, much less any mention of the feminist perspective. Remember: PFLAG leaders and group members don’t necessarily know any more than anybody else about transgenderism, and most often are motivated to affirm and confirm their own decisions.
In my view, PFLAG has entered the trans arena with an approach and philosophy that will not serve it well for the long-term. Transgenderism is not just “super-gay,” and the “empathetic parent” model that worked so well back in 1984 is increasingly irrelevant in a context involving permanent, serious and potentially disfiguring medical decisions. Especially where PFLAG is seen as endorsing childhood or teen transition, eventually there will be consequences. It will be sad to see an organization that did so much good for so many in the last century, come to grief in this one.