Supporting queer youth: a father’s perspective
By Clara How, Jun 10, 2021
Trigger warning: This story contains mentions of depression and mental illness.
It is an unquestionable fact that our children are the future. It would be hard pressed to find anyone who would disagree that they should be nurtured and cared for to achieve their goals. This is especially true for children who are vulnerable, and who need additional support.
Last year, 68 per cent of queer youth were reported to have symptoms of generalised anxiety disorder, and 40 per cent seriously contemplated attempting suicide, according to a survey conducted in the United States by non-profit organisation The Trevor Project*. We might not have the numbers to reflect the situation in Singapore, but these figures are indicative of an all-encompassing problem — the challenges that our queer youth face, and the stress that is placed upon their mental health.
For this Pride Month, we speak to a parent, members of a support group, and hear from queer youths themselves about why it is so important that we pay attention to this group of young people, and how we can help.
Today, we speak to John*, a single parent to his transgender teenager, Christopher*. For John, his priority has always been clear: that Christopher’s mental health and wellbeing comes first. He tells us about the struggles he has faced as a parent, how Christopher’s coming out aligns with his religious and personal beliefs, and his ongoing conversations with Christopher’s school. Above all, he speaks about the power of family.
*Names have been changed and details omitted to protect the privacy of Christopher and his family. Christopher has consented to the publication of this article.
10 or so years ago, a colleague of mine asked, “As a Christian, would you mind if your child was queer?”
I replied that my view was that homosexuality was a sin, but there was nothing wrong with a man loving another man, or a woman loving another woman. I believed there was a distinction between having a loving relationship, and having a sexual relationship. Plus, my children were very young — their being in a sexual relationship was far from my mind.
Now, as a single parent who is on a journey alongside his transgender child, my answer is not as straightforward. It’s still a struggle that Christopher and I pray about, but ultimately I know that as a parent, I need to be the rock for my two children.
My experience with Christopher coming out isn’t quite what people would think. Christopher isn’t the sort to sit me down and say, “Dad, I have to tell you something.”
I had been picking up on little observations and interactions that we had over the last two years, so by the time we acknowledged it, I already knew that he is transgender. For example, he had changed his pronouns on social media, which he knows I have access to, and he made the decision to cut his hair short. Christopher had always had long hair, and this dramatic change was his way of getting comfortable with who he was.
When we finally started talking about his gender identity, Christopher shared that he knew something was different since Primary Four, but never understood what. Only until Secondary Two, when reading about other teenagers’ experiences on social media, could he identify with the same feelings and sensations.
It was difficult for me to reconcile what he was saying with what I had experienced. But when I heard how he had gone through a very dark period of body dysphoria which caused tremendous stress and anxiety every day, I took a step back. Instead of challenging him, or asking more questions, I told myself that I had to walk with him, and learn from him as I go. He is my child, and I will accept him, no matter what.
Even before we begin the discussion about how we can support queer youth, I would like to emphasise the need for everyone to feel included, especially those who are different.
It has always been my life philosophy to endeavour to be accepting and open, and recognise that every individual is their own person. If I can live my life the way I feel I should, then others should too.
Christopher is my first child, and as a first-time parent, everything was a learning experience. He has always taken a long time to fall asleep on his own, and I remember pushing him in his pram around the block, or taking him for drives to help him fall asleep. Even today, he falls asleep more easily in the car.
He is a quiet child, and is on the Autism Spectrum. The way his brain processes information, emotional cues and signs, is very different from the average person.
I remember teaching him to ride a bike, reading to him every night, and how we would make up silly songs together. Christopher is also musically inclined, and has always been able to hear sounds, notes and distinguish them.
Today, our father-son relationship is as complex as when it was a father-daughter relationship.
Prior to his coming out, my focus was on Christopher’s mental health, as he was undergoing therapy for adjustment disorder and depression. Christopher has been seeing a therapist for several years, and we have open and frequent dialogue with the school about his health. There was a period of time where Christopher was not in a good place, and the school became very concerned. We agreed that I would send him to school and pick him up, to make sure that he was always safe.
In hindsight, I now see that his mental health was related to his gender dysphoria. So when Christopher came out, my priority was already to ensure his mental wellbeing. Whether or not he had short or long hair, or had a male or female name paled in comparison to the health of my child.
It also helped that before Christopher came out, I was in a good place psychologically, having undergone therapy some time before in the wake of my divorce. During my initial sessions, my therapist had asked who I shared my burdens with. My answer was that I never shared. There were moments where I felt like I could not go on, and self-love and self-care were distant concepts. She said something that struck me, and remains with me today.
“You are the driver of the car that is ferrying your children,” she told me. “If you don’t drive safely and maintain the car, it won’t just be you who will be hurt if the car crashes.”
That was when I realised that despite all my challenges, I had to be in good physical and mental health so that I could manage everything. I began to attend regular therapy sessions, commit to exercising and took time out for myself. I went to workshops and seminars to learn about self-love, and how to avoid caregiver’s burnout.
To some people, therapy seems like a waste of money. But if not for therapy, I would not be able to carry this conversation today, or be the support that Christopher needs.
Christopher has shown me that as a parent and an adult, we cannot always take the superior ground. There are still so many things that we can learn, and I saw this as one opportunity to educate myself.
We are extremely fortunate that the school has been so active in risk management. I have even gotten calls from staff in the middle of the night, because they had seen something on Christopher’s social media that was a cause for concern and wanted me to check on him. It is a tough job — the school has so many students, and teachers and counsellors have their own lives. I feel for them, when they have students who are struggling.
I believe that there needs to be an alignment between parents and teachers about what needs to be done for the benefit of the child. Christopher’s school and I have always been perfectly aligned: his health comes first. It is so important to address unseen psychological challenges, and not just look at superficial issues, such as a child fidgeting or having a short attention span.
I worry about the kids who aren't as privileged as us, who might not receive the support Christopher has, or get access to therapy. What are we doing to help them?
I don’t know the extent in which school staff are being trained to manage students at risk, but I do believe that there are enough students with challenges that warrant a more open conversation about resources and support.
I appreciate that it was the school who initiated a conversation with me about Christopher’s name. They had noticed that he used a different name in one of his assignments, and had asked teachers to address him by his chosen name instead of his deadname (the name issued at birth and changed as part of gender transition).
I shared that having to wear a skirt and being called by his deadname causes him anxiety. When I went to school decades ago, we all had Chinese and dialect names, and teachers gave us English names. It didn’t make sense that even with my parental consent, students can only be addressed by their statutory name.
However, while no one has shown me an official policy and I cannot speak for other schools, my understanding is that staff have to adhere to the name stated on the child’s identity card.
The teachers tried their best to find solutions, such as avoiding calling his name during lectures, and choosing to go up to him to catch his attention when asking him a question. But this just isn’t sustainable. I’ve suggested using Christopher’s Chinese name, but he has also given himself a new name and wasn’t comfortable with that idea.
We are exploring possibilities about changing Christopher’s name on his identity card through the execution of a deed poll, which is a legal document that declares you have renounced your name and taken a new one. However, given the complicated relationship between Christopher and his mother, she has refused to agree to this execution.
We are trying to find a solution, but in the meantime, having to write his deadname on every single assignment is so painful for him.
All I can say is that I applaud the school’s efforts, and as a government school, they have done as much as they can within the boundaries. I know that they are also constrained by generational beliefs and our society, and possibly even stakeholders.
As for writing to Ministers or the government, this is not an approach that I prefer. I have friends in the education sector, and my understanding is that the way towards change is not through direct confrontation, but through soft lobbying and constant dialogue. Laws can’t be changed overnight, so I tell Christopher that we should be practical, and progress slowly together.
If I could wave a magic wand, it would be for society to cast aside prejudices, because there is so much positivity that can be learned from differences. This change in mindset is critical, because even if the Ministry were to immediately put in new measures, if children and parents are not willing to internalise and digest new information, it is not going to help.
Our children can start feeling dysphoria and anxiety from their pre-teenage years. We need to understand that it is not a lifestyle choice or a preference for them to be queer.
As the public, the first step we can take is to be educated and informed, and be careful about what we read. We shouldn’t blindly listen or read from a particular group or news source, because there is always an agenda. What we should do is to read and understand as many different viewpoints that are out there, and only then take an informed view.
As for transgender youth, and in fact, any youth who are vulnerable and face prejudice, they need to be on their own journey. There is no right or wrong way for them to live their lives, so the only support we can do is to accompany them as they learn about themselves. This way, they can make informed decisions, because they are secure in being supported.
Over the years, I’ve had to make many personal adjustments to the way I live my life. I used to be someone who is very much a planner. But now I realise that life is not linear, and every day is so different. I have to celebrate little victories, and put my trust in God.
I take each day as it comes, and focus on keeping my child safe and happy. That’s all that matters, because there will not be a ‘10 years later’ when the present is at stake.
I know that many parents think about marriage and companionship for their children, and I did as well. But family lines do die out, and it is my hope that Christopher and his sibling can build a lifelong familial bond. These are the most permanent relations that one can have.
It’s constantly a roller coaster for us, and the sudden changes in routine because of the pandemic have been very challenging. One day I can see him deal with suicidal tendencies, and the other I watch him soar in elation over an unexpected achievement. I’m still working on regulating myself, because these emotional crashes can come at any time, and I don’t always know how to handle them. I’m learning how to step out, clear my head, and see what I can do.
But there are also plenty of positive moments. Six months ago, he was missing school. These days, when he does well for a test, we are in seventh heaven.
While I try not to get too anxious about the future, I still plan what I can. When you have a child who struggles with mental health and is transgender, you have to consider what happens when you are old and unable to help them.
Christopher worries about managing finances in the future, because he had overheard an unsubstantiated concern that his transitioning would make him uninsurable and the health care costs would be insurmountable. It sent him into a downward spiral, especially since he intends to embark on a career in music, which might not be as traditionally financially secure.
I know that Christopher will not have a typical path in life, so I plan to equip him with the life skills to be independent. I reassured him that I would teach him how to manage his finances, and we went to open a bank account together so he could deposit the money he received from red packets. The whole process felt like a milestone for him.
As the cliche goes, every crisis brings opportunities, and this has brought our family closer. I know that other families might experience the opposite effect, especially when it comes to judgment from extended or older family members, so I am grateful for what I have.
My extended family has always been close, and they have seen and accepted the change in Christopher over time. One of my immediate relatives is a doctor, and she has been a pillar of support in providing rational and scientific advice. I explained the psychological challenges to them, and they have shown so much support. This year, on the same day that the school holidays began, my siblings initiated a group dinner at my home. As a single parent, these gestures make me feel very loved. They make me feel like I’m doing the right things for my children.
Of course many things are my own burden to carry, but it takes a village to raise and nurture a child, and for a child who requires more attention, it takes a community.
It is a very complex family dynamic to have a child who is vulnerable. I’m not a specialist or expert of any kind in this area, and things are definitely still a work in progress. By sharing my experiences, I hope that others know that they are not alone out there. And if others can learn from me, perhaps their learning curve won’t be as steep as mine.
*The Trevor Project is an American non-profit organisation that provides crisis intervention and support to LGBTQIA+ people under the age of 25. More than 40,000 people, aged 13 to 24, took part in the survey, which was conducted between December 2019 and March 2020.
The Dayre team reached out to the Ministry of Education for comment on the following issues: what support is provided for queer students who face discrimination or experience gender dysphoria, and whether it is true that staff can only refer to students by their statutory names and assigned gender.
The Ministry has clarified their stance with the following Parliamentary replies made by former Education Minister Lawrence Wong:
We thank the Ministry for their response.
A non-exhaustive list of several organisations and communities that support the queer communities in Singapore include:
My name is Clara, and you can find me at @clarahow on the Dayre app. On my account, I share about my mental health struggles, and my journey in therapy. The kindness of people and their inspiring stories move me.
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