A mother urgently trying to get her 23-year-old son to change his mind about undergoing gender reassignment surgery expressed palpable distress in the comments she made to Orly Vilnai for a recent Haaretz article, in which she argued that parents and siblings should be consulted before people are allowed to undergo a sex change.
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Indeed, pain and sense of crisis characterize many families with transgender children. Gender reassignment is a process experienced not only by the individual, but also by the surroundings: family, friends, workplace, school. This is a complex adjustment process in which the families have to participate, whether they want to or not, and they may feel coerced into having to deal with the issue.
As a psychotherapist with 20 years of experience in working with transgender people, I have met thousands of families that initially express anger, anxiety, confusion, resistance, withdrawal and denial, in a pattern similar to the characteristic stages of mourning. However, transgender children exist, and most families eventually accept them and even become involved in defending their rights. Transgender people like the one described in Vilnai’s article need parents who will stand by them, even when this demands extraordinary psychological strength and the ability to cope with an environment that is not accepting.
Parents must understand that their child is not a torch and a family is not a relay race. And the family has no more of a right to intervene in a gender reassignment surgery than parents have the right to demand that they be asked to give consent for any other medical procedure undergone by people who are legally considered adults.
To my regret, Vilnai’s article stressed only one side of this story, and totally obscured the full identity of the transgender person being discussed. The reference to her as “him” underscored the denial of the identity with which transgender people are grappling their whole lives. Both minors and adults in their 20s suffer from unbearable gender distress. But a different gender identity is not a psychiatric disorder, even though it is seen that way in many places in the world.
Since only one perspective was presented in the article, it contained mistaken and misleading information about hormonal treatment and about the world of transgender people. Hormonal treatment is the only treatment in existence that improves the psychological situation of transgender individuals and enables them to begin to lead authentic lives vis-à-vis themselves and society. And contrary to the depiction in the article, in Israel the transgender discourse is pluralistic in a way that is unparalleled.
There are many possibilities for transgender self-expression, and those who decide to undergo gender reassignment surgery do so after consideration and reflection. The percentage of those who regret doing so is very small.
It must be remembered that parents are a supremely important factor and have key significance in the sex change process. Their children need their support – not rejection or abandonment.
The writer is the director of the Israeli Center for Human Sexuality and Gender Identity and a lecturer at Tel Aviv University.