What I can tell you as the Jewish mother of a transgender child

Guest Columnist
Sen. Karen Berg

Sen. Karen Berg

I was asked to write about raising a transgender child from the perspective of a Jewish mother. Typically, I would write such a piece beginning in my head. With time, the words would form themselves and I would simply commit them to paper. On this subject, that never happened.
The truth is, raising a trans child from the perspective of a Jewish mother is no different than raising any other child. For the first 14 years of my child’s upbringing, I didn’t know I was raising a transgender child.
Were clues missed? Maybe. One night in particular may have meant something:
We were at orientation for preschool at The Temple. At one point in the evening, Arlene Kaufman called all the children to the bima, directing the boys to her right and the girls to her left.
My 2-year-old biologically female toddler walked straight to the boy’s side. Arlene took our child by the hand and walked them over to the girls. He (back then, she) stayed in the girl’s line for seconds before toddling right back to the boys, clearly insisting on staying there.
My husband and I were both concerned that night. What happened was clearly noticeable, but neither of us knew what to make of it.
It was around puberty that my child began showing signs of severe depression, including self-harm. As any parent would do, we sought the help of therapy. Why was this kid, who had always been happy and healthy, suddenly withdrawing and so sad?
Our initial adventures into pediatric psychotherapy were not helpful. Psychiatrists we consulted were ignorant about whether a child this age (mind you, we were going on 14 by this time) could even know if they were transgender. The first told me he was treating a child who thought he was a wolf, the message being my child was delusional as well.
As a physician, I knew nothing about transgender children, but I knew I needed help.
So, I went online and I learned. A wonderful woman in the city introduced me and my husband to a trans gentleman she knew. He sat with us over dinner, trying to explain all this. He mentored my son.
I found out about Louisville Youth Group, a program for LGBTQ kids who meet weekly for two-hour mixed educational and social programs in hopes of finding a place where they might belong.
I learned about the Fairness Campaign and the social and political work they were doing for LGBTQ rights. This was another place for my child to “belong.”
I learned things that were both simple and hard for me to grasp. I learned that gender identity and sexual orientation are two different things: Gender identity is inside, how you view yourself internally. Sexual orientation comes later and has to do with who you find yourself physically attracted to as you mature.
Trying to explain gender identity, I sometimes think of an analogy to religion. People can be born and raised in one religion and yet end up strongly identifying with another. It’s an internal belief system that people on the outside can’t deny. You can say you weren’t born or raised that way. In our religion, you may even say that’s not what your genes show. But you can’t truthfully tell someone that is not how they should feel inside.
I imagine if your child is clearly happier, more at peace, with the congregation they find, and you allow yourself to realize that they have found a place where they felt included, whole and heard, then most Jewish mothers, like me, will be happy for them.
I could talk about the ungodly high suicide rates among trans youth and how terrifying it is when you realize your child is included in those statistics.
I can tell you that gender affirmation, a supportive family and community have all been shown to decrease suicidal tendencies in trans kids.
I could also talk about what it is like to watch ignorance, fear, bullying and microaggressions destroy your child over time.
And I could talk about the anti-trans legislation being adopted all over the country, including Kentucky, and what this says to the trans kids who are trying to get through the day with some semblance of safety and, God willing, belonging.
I can tell you that trans kids don’t make up their identities just to get attention, neither do they go back and forth from gender to gender.
I can tell you there are more trans people out there than you may think. Most adults just simply pass and do not want you to know they are trans.
I can tell you, as a mother raising a trans child, the things I pray for are understanding and inclusion. We are all created in God’s image.
It turns out I could talk a lot.

(Sen. Karen Berg, D-Jefferson, the only Jewish member of the Kentucky General Assembly, voted this month to sustain Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto of a bill to ban transgender girls from middle school, high school and college women’s sports teams. She urged transgender kids not to give up, even though the legislature overrode the veto, making the bill law.)

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