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The Teen Panel: Engendering Compassion Through Authenticity

Christina Malecka, MA, LMHC, is a Seattle psychotherapist working with people who experience themselves as outsiders to the dominant culture: creative artists, performers, activists, LGBTQ, trans*, and gender-nonconforming folks, and anyone else who feels “other” due to cultural or family bias. In her practice she sees trans* kids, teens, and their families as well as trans* adults.

CMaleckaThe Gender Odyssey Family conference provides a rich combination of cutting-edge information along with validation and support for providers to the trans* community. All of this is invaluable, but the most moving experience I had at the conference was experiential rather than informational.

In my psychotherapy practice I work with trans* kids and teens and find that generally, these kids do well as long as they have family support. Mental health problems are more likely to emerge when kids feel shamed by family, are not allowed to express their gender identity, or sense that their parents are in deep distress over their gender expression. For this reason, I find working with trans* children and youth much less challenging than working with anxious parents.

I have a lot of compassion for these parents who are suddenly thrust into a whole new world of worry for their kids. Even for parents who embrace the opportunity to learn about trans* issues and explore their own problematic relationship with the gender binary, there is fear—fear that their child will be misunderstood or ostracized; fear that their child will be bullied or even killed. The reality of transphobic violence and bias in our culture is a frightening one—especially when we imagine this reality for our beloved children. This is why I recommend that every parent I work with attend the Teen Panel at the Gender Odyssey Family conference.

When I attended the panel two years ago, my first impression was of delight for the diverse group of brilliant trans* teens that convened for the panel. As each participant told their story, I was deeply moved by the courage and vulnerability panelists showed as they shared the initial anxiety about their gender identity, pain of parent rejection, fear that no one would love them, and struggle for peer acceptance. Teens also shared the joy of affirming and living their gender, the relief of finding family acceptance and support, the thrill of first love, and the delight of finding peers who understood them. You know a conference panel is good when it makes you cry. By the time each teen had told their story, there was not a dry eye in the house.

There were many parents of young trans* children in the audience who were still struggling with their children’s gender identity. The emotional intensity deepened as they started to engage with the teen panel and ask questions: will my child be loved? find acceptance? stay safe? The most powerful moment was when one panel participant walked into the audience to sit next to a parent expressing fear for their child, sat down next to them, took their hand, and offered them comfort and assurance that they were doing the right thing by supporting their child’s gender expression. I was sitting next to an acquaintance—an older trans woman who came out and transitioned in middle age. She sat next to me sobbing from both grief that she missed the opportunity for so much support and acceptance in her youth, and joy that trans* kids have come so far. We were both crying so hard that I finally sacrificed my scarf so we could wipe off our faces and pull ourselves together.

We weren’t crying out of sadness, fear, or pity. We were crying because this panel provided a deeply authentic and human experience that no informational workshop, book, or website can deliver. Transformation happens when we take the risk of truly touching each other in this way.

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