Alexis is an articulate and happy 12-year-old Ottawa girl. But she wasn’t always this way. For a long time, she suffered from seemingly inexplicable depression and anxiety.
And when she came out as transgender to her family in February 2014, her dad Mark says, “The pieces came together.”
Alexis says she was afraid to tell them, “but when I did, they gave me all the support I needed and still do.”
“They don’t care who I am, they just let me be whoever I want to be.”
Alexis has benefited from the unwavering love and support of her close-knit family – parents Mark and Amanda and brothers Aerik, 18, and Jackson, 8.
“Now I just feel like I have a sister … like a lot of people,” says Jackson.
And Mark says of his daughter, “she’s very much a Daddy’s girl … but she always has been.”
Amanda has chronicled parts of Alexis’ experience on her blog, The Maven of Mayhem and when she revealed online that her child was transgender, she told those who couldn’t accept Alexis on her terms to “please exit our lives.”
Amanda admitted that when Alexis came out, she didn’t know much about what being transgender meant.
She has since sought out information, professional advice and support, and has become an advocate in every aspect, speaking out in support of Bill C-279, the transgender rights bill, being passed “swiftly and without amendment.”
But the need for support, education and awareness doesn’t end within the home of the transgender youth, she says — extended family, friends, schools, and society all have a role to play in ensuring they feel accepted and safe.
Sebastien Pangallo is a social worker at the CHEO Diversity Clinic, where a multidisciplinary team offers information, comprehensive assessment and treatment (which can include hormonal interventions) to children, youth and their families when there are questions regarding gender identity.
At this clinic, Alexis has been receiving a variety of supports – including hormones to stop puberty.
Pangallo says it’s vital that children live in an “open, nurturing, caring, supportive, and creative environment” where they can be who they are. He says if home is a safe space, a child or youth will feel comfortable coming out to family or bringing home an LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and/or questioning) friend.
Though Alexis has supportive friends, after coming out, she experienced bullying at school, which led, in part, to her being temporarily homeschooled.
And bullying of any kind doesn’t sit well with Lynn Marsh, 44, of Perth. A married mother of two, she says she has always “preached acceptance of everyone.”
Having created this baseline of empathy in her children, when she told them that a young member of their family had come out as transgendered, they accepted him, and didn’t think twice about it.
March says she found their reaction refreshing, as some older family members struggled with the concept.
Experts say proactively having discussions with your children raises their awareness and provides the opportunity to show them your own acceptance.
Pangallo says when it comes to bullying, “sometimes they just don’t understand” the concept of being transgender, and education can help.
Still, he says bullying is unacceptable, and especially given these young people are at high risk for depression, anxiety and suicide.
Laurie Rektor, director of community programs at Family Services Ottawa, says you can show a gender-creative child or transgender youth you care by honouring any name or pronoun change and making sure you “follow their lead” when talking about it, but letting them know you’re there for them.
Rektor also highlighted the support FSO provides through their LGBTTQ+ Around the Rainbow community-based program, which provides a full range of education, counselling and support services to support the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, two-spirit, queer and questioning communities and allies.
It was at an Around the Rainbow event that Alexis had the opportunity, not long after coming out, to meet her best friend, a transgender boy who understands what she’s going through.
FSO also provides free community development, education and workshops on LGBTTQ+ individuals and families. They adjust the training to fit the needs of the organization, social service agency or school.
Alexis’s school situation has recently changed. The principal of their middle school reached out to the family and offered to meet with them. Amanda describes her as “wonderfully educated in trans issues. She’s passionate about inclusion and making sure everyone feels safe.”
This middle school has LGBTQ “safe space” stickers on the doors, staff use the proper pronouns and transgender terminology, and there are male, female and all-gender washrooms and change rooms available.
And a year has made a big difference in Alexis’s life. She jumped at the chance to return to school, despite the fact that her former tormentors are there.
With the support of family, friends, and local resources such as the CHEO Diversity Clinic, FSO, and the #OK2BME drop-in at the Kanata Haven Youth Centre, which she describes as a place where everyone “instantly accepts you” – she’s stronger than ever.
And Pangallo says his work is “very rewarding” because of the children and teens he meets. “They can teach us so much about society and about how to be a great person.
“They are trailblazers who are building the foundation for a better future for all the transgender kids to follow them.”
Read more about Alexis and her family at www.themavenofmayhem.com
Photo: Amanda Jetté Knox