Trans Kids Can Be Happy Kids, With Support
"I just always felt like a boy."
Nine-year-old Skyler Kelly was born a girl. But he didn't feel like a girl. From a very young age he knew he was supposed to be a boy. He can't explain how he knew. He just felt like a boy.
But he didn't know how to communicate that to his mom.
"I never really told her. It went piece by piece. I never actually told her the real thing. She realized it herself," Skyler said.
Skyler's mom Tiffany Kelly did eventually realize her child was transgender. But it took her a while.
"A lot of it is signs in retrospect," she said.
From the moment he could dress himself, Skyler picked out the least girly clothes he could find in his closet. He wanted to play with the boys at school.
"And when we talked about pretend play it was always policeman or cowboy, and I really took it to mean that he thought the boys had more fun," Kelly said. "So we did a lot of, what about cowgirl or policewoman? And he just looked at us."
The signs got more noticeable. Shopping for clothes became a nightmare, brushing Skyler's long hair induced meltdowns and Skyler became more and more unhappy.
When Skyler was about four and a half, he told his nanny that he was glad his name wasn't girly, because that meant he wouldn't have to change it when he got older.
That's when Tiffany Kelly first started to think that her child might be transgender. But she couldn't find a lot of information about transgender kids. There wasn't exactly a check list for her to tick off so Kelly wasn't sure if she was a first-time mom who was over analyzing her kid, or if her baby girl was really supposed to be a baby boy.
"You didn't hear as much about it. But the stories that you did hear were parents saying, you know my child told me from the moment they could speak that they knew that God had made a mistake and they were supposed to be this. And Skyler wasn't saying that because I think Skyler was wise enough to realize that it was a scary thing and he didn't want to make us unhappy, " she said.
"Unfortunately I was mistakenly waiting for him to come out and say this is what I need, this is what I want. And I finally realized that was a lot to ask of a four-year-old."
Kelly said there was also a nagging feeling that if she was the first to say it, she would be influencing Skyler's decision.
"So many of us parents will say, as much as we think we're accepting, we're afraid to actually say the words out loud, like you're going to plant the idea. And now of course I laugh at that," Kelly said.
It was just before Skyler started first grade that his unhappiness boiled over.
Kelly still remembers where they were in the house as she and her husband tried desperately to console Skyler during one of his meltdowns.
"This was just unhappiness breaking through in someone that just couldn't really bear how unhappy they were," she said.
But Skyler wouldn't tell his parents what was wrong.
"I finally said, just out of desperation, 'Do you want to whisper it in my ear?'" Kelly said.
And when Skyler finally worked up the courage he whispered: "I want to start wearing boy's underwear."
"And part of me was like, OK, this is what we've been looking for: the sign," Kelly said.
It was shortly after that Skyler told his grandmother that he wanted to start first grade as a boy. He wanted to be called "he" and "him."
"And we did that immediately and the change was immediate," Kelly said.
"It was just night and day. This is someone who is happy to be alive. And I mean, I might have had questions and worries and everything up until then, and as soon as I saw the difference it made in him my worries and fears were about the world, but not about the social transition because it just gave me my child."
Kelly acknowledged that some people question whether or not a child can really know whether or not they're transgender.
"People say, 'Well my five-year-old says that they're a horse and I'm not going to let them live as a horse.' First of all, when we were a year or two into this, you realize that a phase doesn't last a year or two. It's that consistent, persistent, insistent that we were seeing. But also, what's so wrong about just accepting? Why do we have to argue these ideas out of our children's head?," she said.
"I know that Skyler is a boy, but for some reason if that hadn't been the case, I've done nothing worse than let my child know I love them no matter what."
And that support has an impact according to new research from the University of Washington.
Kristina Olson is the director of the TransYouth Project at UW. She's following a group of transgender youth from across the U.S., including Skyler Kelly, as they grow up.
Her latest study shows that transgender kids who are supported in their gender identity early on are just as happy as any other kid their age.
And that's a big deal because it goes against the normal narrative of mental health in transgender people.
More than 40 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide at some point in their lives. That's nine times the national average. Transgender people also have far higher rates of depression and anxiety.
But Olson believes it doesn't have to be that way. And we may start to see changes with this new generation of kids who are being supported in their gender identity from an early age.
"For a long time I think people have thought of transgender people as kind of, by definition, having mental health challenges. And I think what's neat about following this new generation is that we don't have to have that assumption. And I think these data tell us that: That you can be happy, healthy and happen to be transgender," Olson said.
The pronoun change and acceptance of gender identity by parents and schools is a big part of what creates a supportive environment for these kids, according to Olson.
"We're not just talking about a parent who allows their kid to wear a dress, we're talking about a kid who is embraced as a female in their life," she said.
Until about 10 or 15 years ago, this would have been an uncommon experience for a transgender child, Olson said.
But it makes a huge difference. Olson said the kids who grow up being supported in their gender identity have remarkably good mental health.
"I guess another way you could think about it is that they have very average mental health. They look just like any other kid," Olson said.
"That's radically different than what we see in transgender teens or adults and it's radically different than previous generations of non-conforming kids who hadn't socially transitioned. Those individuals tend to have very high rates of depression and anxiety, whereas our kids don't."
Olson acknowledged that acceptance from parents doesn't mean life will be a picnic for a transgender kid. Puberty will be tough, dating will be tough; there are many things that could result in mental health issues down the road.
That's part of the reason she plans to follow the kids in her study for the next 20 years, to see what impact this supportive environment has in the long run.
But she's quietly optimistic.
"These kids are growing up in a culture in which there are people who are making a difference in the world that are public about their transgender identity. Having role models out there must have such an impact," Olson said.
"This is a new generation. Kids are thinking differently about gender than people of our generation and generations before us."