As the mother of a transgender child, she is a fierce advocate for transgender rights.
This is part of a story series about the lives of transgender people. Read the introduction here.
Every parent hopes for a happy, fulfilling future for their children. Maybe they dream about what career they might pursue, or what their wedding day will be like. If their children face challenges, loving parents are there to support them with whatever they need to thrive.
When a child comes out as transgender, it means parents must reshape some of their dreams. That was true for Coleen Young and her husband, David, when their daughter, Heather, told them she felt uncomfortable with the male gender she’d been assigned at birth. But they never stopped loving their child just as they always had: unconditionally.
Heather didn’t come out until about three years ago, when she was 26 years old. But Coleen and David recognized that their child was struggling with something early on.
When she was 7 or 8 years old, we caught her cross-dressing. She’d done the typical dress-up things, but it didn’t seem like anything unusual. But the fact that she started doing it in secret told us something else was going on.
My husband and I thought maybe she was gay and tried to take her to a gender therapist. She wasn’t ready, so we gave her some space. But we weren’t comfortable seeing her in feminine apparel. We told her it would be okay to dress that way, but only in her bedroom. I wish now we would have handled that differently. But you can’t go back.
Wanting only what was best for their child, Coleen and David did everything they could to be supportive of Heather, who has significant health issues. Managing these health conditions consumed a lot of Heather’s energy, Coleen says, so when Heather went to counseling she didn’t spend much time in her sessions talking about her gender or sexual identity.
When she was in high school, Heather told her parents she was bisexual. “We tried to get her to talk about it, but she held back,” Coleen says.
Heather simply wasn’t ready, even though her parents were completely accepting. In fact, before Heather came out as transgender, Coleen ran the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) for Wayland Union Schools in Wayland, Mich., where they live.
“It was my way of letting Heather know we were totally okay with it,” Coleen says. “It was our way of saying, ‘You figure this out and let us know.’”
Even after Heather started college, Coleen says she was “fighting in her mind the whole time” about her gender identity. But at age 26, she finally recognized her truth and told her parents she was transgender. Coleen admits that, at first, it was difficult to hear.
I did a lot of crying and went through a lot of the emotions transgender parents go through initially — of feeling that you’re losing a child, which we weren’t.
We also faced the normal struggles of a name change, pronoun changes, that type of thing. It took about nine months to get the pronoun and name changes, and we still goof up sometimes.
The family attended some counseling sessions together, and Coleen had a few sessions of her own with Heather’s counselor. Coleen read everything she could get her hands on about transgender issues and joined a trans parents’ group she attends to this day.
“I did everything I could to learn and understand,” Coleen says. “I still read daily, and being part of the Transgender Advocacy Project gave me the chance to learn from other transgender people and allies.”
As a mother, Coleen worries about her daughter’s safety. After all, the threat of violence against transgender people is very real, especially in states like Michigan that don’t have statewide non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people.
“I’m a parent,” Coleen says. “Every time she goes out I worry she’ll be outed and run into those transphobic people that could do harm to her.”
Coleen’s protective nature, as both a mother and a retired teacher, has long motivated her to create safe spaces for LGBTQ youth. She was part of the faith community that helped pass a non-discrimination ordinance in Wayland in 2015 — the first such ordinance in Allegan County.
When the ordinance was brought before the City Council, opponents presented the typical misinformation about public bathrooms. Coleen had already spoken with Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBT Project, who armed her with facts.
“I explained to the City Manager that I knew seven or eight people in this small town who were transgender, and I’d been in a public restroom with a trans friend,” she says. “I told them that transgender people using the bathroom isn’t something new.”
With the Wayland ordinance successfully passed, Coleen is now working to get similar ordinances passed in all the other small towns in the county. She is also working on LGBTQ advocacy through her church.
“I belong to an affirming church,” she says, “but something I’ll never understand is how people can let religion stand in the way of loving their child.”
In addition, Coleen works with a school GSA to help educate others in the community, the same way she educated herself.
If you haven’t been around trans people it can be hard to understand. So I’d urge anyone who doesn’t understand to talk to transgender people. Let them tell their story. Even if you don’t understand or agree, they still deserve the respect any other individual deserves.
I’d also encourage schools to learn how they should treat transgender people. There weren’t any transgender students at my school when I was teaching, and just a few years later almost every high school has students coming out as transgender. As long as they have some support at the high school, that seems to help so much.
Recognizing that schools need assistance in creating affirming environments for LGBTQ students, and many schools have asked for it, Michigan’s State Board of Education has issued draft guidance to make schools safer and more supportive for students. The guidance is facing opposition — including the introduction of a discriminatory “bathroom bill” similar to the widely criticized law passed in North Carolina that’s already resulted in boycotts — even though it’s simply about preventing harassment and discrimination.
Guidelines like these are especially important because not every transgender person has the kind of affirming family that Heather does, including grandparents whose response to her coming out was, “Whether I understand or not, I support you.”
Today, Heather presents as female even though she feels gender fluid, according to Coleen. In general, gender fluid people don’t consistently identify as male or female.
Whatever her future may hold, Heather knows she has her parents’ support. Like any loving parent, they just want her to be happy.
“Trans people are successful with their transition and make it if they have supportive parents,” Coleen says. “The 40 percent rate of trans people who have attempted suicide breaks my heart. It’s so important for parents to support their kids. It does so much to make their kids happy and successful.”
Read all the stories in this series HERE.
[Photo courtesy of Coleen Young.]