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Editors Note: Britt Rubenstein is the mother of Lily Rubenstein, the fifteen-year old transgender girl profiled in the Emmy nominated web series, This is Me: Generations. She also appears in E!’s “I am Cait.” Lily was gender assigned male at birth and until the age of twelve presented as a boy. Currently, Britt and Lily are both advocates in the transgender community for teens and parents. When Britt and I spoke she used female pronouns for Lily before age twelve and after. Following Britt’s lead and GLAAD’s language guidelines, this article will use consistent female pronouns when talking about Lily in the past or present.
“It was a huge relief to have supportive parents.”
Lily Rubenstein; This is Me: Generations
INTO THE UNKNOWN
“Mom, I’ve got something I have to tell you.” Three years ago, Britt’s then 12-year old child, Lily (presenting as a boy at the time), sat her down, trembling, and told her, “I feel like a girl inside. I don’t know what to do with this. I really want to present as a girl and dress as a girl. I really feel this way.”
Britt’s first instinct was, “This can’t be real. You’re such a boy,” she was shocked. “This was the boy’s boy, the kid who was in the tree, doing every sport there could be, football, soccer, rugby.” Responding to her child’s emotional state, she knew instinctively she had to be reassuring and on board, taking in her child’s words she said, “We’ll figure this out.” “Inside, I was freaking out.” In their tight knit San Diego Jewish community, transgender wasn’t part of any of their vocabularies.
A few months prior, while watching tv, Lily heard a transgender person share their story. She went online to find out more, and finally had a word to describe how she felt – transgender. Anxious about what to do next, she retreated into herself, slowly building up the courage to tell her mom.
Later that evening, Britt privately shared this news with her husband Stuart, a prominent pediatrician and sought after mohel. She felt it was important to protect Lily from the potential shock of an initial unfiltered reaction. He too felt blind sided, but this explained concerns they’d been having about Lily: her unfinished homework, slipping test scores, pulling away from friends “We had a kid who people gravitated towards, who people loved to be around and suddenly there was this withdrawal.” That night, after Lily went to sleep and in the privacy of their closet, Stuart and Britt “lost it.” As parents, they were navigating unchartered territory.
THE IMPORTANCE OF LISTENING
Dr. Johanna Olson, the Medical Director of the Center for Transyouth Health and Development at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, recommends that parents of transgender children begin by really listening to their children, take what they say seriously, be comforting even if they themselves are confused or anxious. For children, feeling responsible for the emotional anxiety of their parents adds additional layers of stress that can prevent them from fully communicating the depth of their experience. At this vulnerable moment parents need to be the support system.
While Lily had been processing and researching this for months, Britt and Stuart now found themselves in a place fairly common for parents of transgender teens, knowing less about the situation than their child but responsible for navigating very practical next steps. At home, they decided to keep this private as they figured out a plan, the only other person they told was Britt’s older son, Eli. Fourteen at the time, the siblings were only two years apart and had always been very close, learning his sibling was transgender didn’t change that.
A YEAR IN LIMBO
After phone calls and research, they found their way to Dr. Belzer, a colleague of Dr. Olson’s at Children’s Hospital and Darlene Tando, a local therapist in San Diego who works with transgender kids and families. It took over a month to schedule a first consultation with Dr. Belzer and even more time to fully evaluate their situation.
For a transgender teen, impending puberty poses both a challenge and an opportunity. Going through an undesired puberty, with its secondary sex characteristics like facial hair and breast development, can be emotionally devastating for a child who identifies as a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth, suddenly they feel out of control. At this point “medical intervention can be very helpful,” says Susan P. Landon, Director of the Child and Adolescent Program at the Los Angeles Gender Center. “There are hormone blockers available that will block physical development, ease the anxiety and depression, and allow the child and family to determine their next steps.” Cross sex hormones can then be used to facilitate the puberty that matches the child’s gender identity.
Medical intervention requires a parent’s consent. This is where the relationship between parent and child and parent and parent can get complicated quickly. Navigating the legal and financial issues falls to the parent and the laws vary widely from state to state. As Britt noted, “if our marriage was not as strong and healthy as it is, I can see where this becomes something that really affects a family.” Not all parents choose to follow clinical recommendations, some hold on to personal dreams for their children while others can disagree between themselves and cause greater familial stress. In divorced families differing opinions about a child’s transition can be written into custody agreements.
“Can you imagine what they’re going to do to me when I show up & I’m a girl.” – Lily
Even in the most understanding of communities navigating transition can be increasingly stressful when young teens are confronted with casual daily intolerance. Instances of suicide in the transgender community are significantly higher than the national average. Research has shown that the emotional support families provide play a key role in positive outcomes.
At the start of Lily’s seventh grade year, she and her parents had choices to make around when and where Lily would publicly transition. On picture day, a purple shirt Lily wore incited a barrage of teasing. Coming home she told Britt, “Can you imagine what they’re going to do to me when I show up and I’m a girl. I don’t think I can come back to this school and present as a girl.” While some schools around the country are beginning to accommodate transgender children, the instances of administration misunderstanding and student body intolerance are still high, as Britt notes, “Kids will be kids.” While Britt looked for new schools, they decided to postpone transition until after the school year, make a clean start somewhere fresh.
Lily began preparing herself and her family for her transition. At home she dressed and presented as a girl and was noticeably lighter. The family used female pronouns and her parents began to see her as their daughter. But when she left the house dressed as a boy, her parents saw Lily’s mood change, it was increasingly hard to keep pretending. Friends would wonder who this Lily person was that Brit would refer to. The “year in limbo” was taking its toll. “She was struggling. We just had to spend a lot more time taking care of her.” Life for all of them was becoming more tense.
“What are all my friends going to think?”- Eli Rubenstein
In the midst of that focus, Lily’s older brother Eli, a teenager himself, was feeling neglected, his world was also being turned upside-down. He started to act out, questioning the process, “’Why couldn’t she just wait until she was older? What are all my friends going to think?’” Their therapist assured Britt that this was age appropriate behavior but she was now navigating an increasingly complicated sibling dynamic in the house, and it was difficult to determine where the gender issues stopped and teen issues started.
Transforming Families is a support group for transgender children and their parents run out of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. This group became an invaluable resource for the family. “Surrounding yourself with other people who are going through this journey, that just made the biggest difference for us.” Through those sessions with therapists and other parents, Britt was able to learn to navigate a new parenting road, one where she could gain deeper understanding to the issues Lily was facing but also learn to draw clear lines and consistent expectations between parent and child regardless of the situation, or as Dr. Olson advises, “I tell the parents not to stop parenting their kids.”
During those early days of Lily’s transition, the support group was only for transgender children and their parents. With Eli also struggling at home, Britt helped to start a sibling component of that group. “We’re going through this as a family,” Britt said. Through talking with other siblings and meeting other transgender kids, Eli’s knowledge and understanding grew, “he saw that this was going to be okay after all.”
“I wish I would’ve been able to see that this would turn out exponentially better than I could ever imagine.” – Britt Rubenstein
Locking into a specific date for Lily’s transition brought them all an enormous sense of relief. After the end of the school year, Lily’s first day of transition would be at Camp Aranu’tiq, a summer camp for transgender and gender non-conforming youth. She would go for a week. After coming home from dropping Lily off, Britt sent out an email to their friends and colleagues informing them of their family’s news. “A letter is a great way to communicate because the way that some people may initially react is not necessarily where they’re going to end up as far as supporting your family.” The responses from friends came in immediately, with overwhelming understanding and support. Lily came back from camp the vibrant happy child they remembered. In the fall she started at a new charter school Britt had found that had experience with transgender kids and whose administration sought to create a welcoming environment for all of their students.
The next year, the Rubenstein’s celebrated Lily’s Bat-Mitzvah with their family and friends. “If I think back to all of the time that was spent really worrying,, “What if this happens? What if this happens?” I wish I would have been able to see that this would turn out exponentially better than I could ever imagine. I’m just super-proud of her and where we are.”