Same-sex parented families in Australia

CFCA Paper No. 18 – December 2013

Transgender parents

As Biblarz and Savci (2010) pointed out, transgender people undergo a change in their gender identification, which conceivably raises quite different issues for parent, child and family relationships than lesbian or gay sexuality. A need for recognition of the desired gender status as opposed to the gender nominated on original birth certificates is a key issue of concern to transgender people (see Couch et al., 2007; Hines, 2006). As Couch et al. (2007) pointed out, transitioning, or the act of masculinising or feminising one's body to bring it into line with the desired gender identity (often but not always through hormone treatment and/or gender reassignment surgery) is an important part of the transgender experience. This perhaps explains why exploration of the health and legal or social discrimination issues faced by transgender individuals, rather than their familial or parental relationships, predominate in the published literature.

It is clear that transgender parents face discrimination and lack of acceptance from family members, including their children, as a consequence of transitioning. Green (1998), who has interviewed numerous transgender parents over time at a gender reassignment clinic in London, commented that partners of transgender parents may feel such abandonment and hostility towards their ex-partner that they oppose them having any contact with children. In the TranZnation report (Couch et al., 2007), the largest study of the health and wellbeing of transgender Australians and New Zealanders ever undertaken, the 253 participants were not asked if they had children, or how parenting related to their health and wellbeing. However, comments about family relationships were contributed in "open" qualitative responses made about health and wellbeing. Participants reported being "sent to Coventry" by their spouses or ex-spouses and children due to inability to accept or understand the desire to transition. There were also instances where spouses or ex-spouses refused to allow them to have contact with young children. A few participants, notably those whose gender transitions took place later in life, reported that most of the discrimination they had experienced came from other family members, including adult children.

Hines (2006), in a qualitative study of the family and relationship practices of 30 transgender men and women in the UK, found that complex decisions about the timing of gender transitions are negotiated in a context that takes into account existing family commitments, partner relationships, and likely effects on children. When and how to tell children about the forthcoming gender transition were uppermost for the parents in the participant group. Hines saw parallels here with lesbian and gay parents who have conceived their children in prior heterosexual relationships and are faced with the prospect of how and when to "come out" to children. Divorce or partnership breakdown often results when transgender parents make the decision to transition, and this can lead to difficult parenting relationships, particularly if the child or children live with the other parent. Hines (2006) found that the transgender parents interviewed in her study also emphasised the importance of maintaining positive relationships with their children's other parent, and expressed the view that good relationships with ex-partners made it easier for their children to cope with the gender transition.

Hines (2006) also emphasised the importance participants placed on helping their children come to terms emotionally with the physical changes in their parents undergoing a gender transition. Strategies transgender parents described included being open and honest with children in response to their questions and concerns about the gender transition, and using first names or nicknames rather than insisting their children shift from calling them "mummy" to "daddy" or vice versa. Hines' participants' experiences indicated that children of parents who transition from female to male rather than from male to female may find it easier to adapt because their parent was already perceived as quite androgynous before the transition. Hines speculated this could relate to the greater cultural acceptance of female androgyny as opposed to male femininity.

Key messages: Transgender parents

  • Transgender parents face discrimination and lack of acceptance from family members, including their children, as a consequence of transitioning. This may include banishment by their spouses or ex-spouses and children due to inability to accept or understand the desire to transition, or situations in which ex-spouses refuse to allow them to have contact with young children.
  • How and when to tell children about the gender transition is a key theme in qualitative research with transgender parents.
  • Transgender parents who had children prior to their transition emphasised the importance of maintaining positive relationships with their children's other parent, and expressed the view that good relationships with ex-partners made it easier for their children to cope with the gender transition.