11 Oct Sarah and Keith’s story: For someone else to say, ‘I know exactly how you feel’ … is really helpful
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“More recently, there’s been a huge rise in demand for support for parents of trans children.”
Continuing the Back on Track Teens mini-series exploration into gender and sexual identity, this week we talk to Fflag trustees Sarah and Keith.
Keith: “Many of our resources are for parents and families [but] our most popular download is ‘how do I tell my parents’, so help is sought from across the community.”
What is Fflag?
Fflag is a national voluntary organisation and charity dedicated to supporting parents/caregivers and their children who identify as LGBTQ+. The charity was started as a helpline by founder Rose Robertson in the 1960s and evolved into an organisation which campaigns for issues like equal rights, equal age of consent, lifting the ban on being gay in the military, and the abolishment of Section 28.
Today, Fflag offers peer-to-peer support in the form of local face-to-face groups and national Zoom meetings. The website offers a huge range of resources including downloadable booklets specific to sexuality and gender identity, how-to guides, and a collection of real-life interview stories.
“It was about five years ago when my child, who was then 19, had gone off to university [in] London. I thought everything was going pretty well, they seemed happy [but when] they came back at Christmas, something was really wrong. I didn’t know what it was, and they didn’t want to talk about it. On Christmas Day they said to me ‘I might not go back to university’ …I sensed that it was more than not getting on with the course and…I was really worried. [It was] about six weeks before they broke the news to me.
It was obviously really difficult for them, they explained that over a number of years they’d been coming to terms with the realisation that they were trans and having been alone in London, spending so much time on their own, they’d been kind of forced to face up to this. They’d broken the news to their girlfriend and just wanted to come home and tell me. I was hugely shocked and hadn’t seen this coming. I mean, they’ve always been sensitive, quite quiet … but never for one minute did I contemplate the idea that they might be trans.”
Sarah explained that had absolutely no understanding of what ‘trans’ meant. She had never encountered a person who was trans (that she was aware of) and although all she wanted to do was support her child, she just didn’t know what to do or how to go about it.
This is when Sarah discovered Fflag, through searching for advice online. Fflag’s website promoted gender identity family support days running in Cornwall by a charity called The Intercom Trust.
“Initially I didn’t want to go. I felt this was private and didn’t want to talk to anyone else. I’m so glad [my husband] persuaded me. Going into the room, meeting other people and sharing a little bit about how you felt and for someone else to say, ‘I know exactly how you feel’, for them to understand and not to judge you … is really helpful.”
Sarah says that one of the biggest feelings for her was guilt when she realised that her child had clearly been struggling for four or five years yet she’d had no idea. Looking back over the experience as a family now, Sarah says it’s been really positive.
She explains that for a lot of parents, initially there’s a ‘bit of wobble’ period but with the right support in place (for parents and their children) it can all work out OK for some families.
Positive use of pronouns and language
Sarah talks about getting used to using the pronouns ‘they’ and ‘their’ and how this may still change as her child is developing their identity.
“History and language changes and it is just politeness [to use pronouns]. It’s difficult when talking about the past. It can be easy to slip up because of a memory, but I don’t make a big deal out of it. You just say sorry and move on.”
Sarah uses the example of telling someone her name is Sarah and if they call her Susan, it makes her feel uncomfortable. Everyone makes mistakes, so the best thing to do is say sorry and get it right next time. As Sarah points out, it comes down to respect.
She explains that we, as a society, have plenty of socially acceptable instances of when people changing their names. Some people have nicknames that are distinct from their given names, and others might change their last name when they get married. Using people’s correct pronouns (even if they’ve recently changed) and being fluid in their use is just another instance we need to get used to.
“It’s strange for parents [because] you’re used to choosing your child’s name and you might have invested quite a lot in that choice, there may be family history or [other] reasons. It’s just different for the child to be making a choice but I think you do have to go with it – whatever they’re comfortable with.”
Keith got involved with Fflag after his son came out as gay. His journey started almost 20 years ago one September with a trip to New York for his son, Ross’s 18th birthday. Keith remembers it being a great adventure although not all was ‘hunky dory’.
“I remember saying to my wife on a phone call home one night ‘I don’t know what it is, but I feel I’m losing him’. It wasn’t until the following May when he came out to my wife [when] she posed the question and said, ‘so are you gay?’ and he said yes.
It didn’t come totally out of the blue but nevertheless, when these things happen, it’s still a shock to the system. There will be challenges but as parents, we’ve got to be proud and stand up for our children.”
Keith explains how his wife researched online, trying to find local support. She called a well-known helpline and the respondent merely said, ‘that’s dreadful’ to which my wife said, ‘no it’s not, but I need to know a bit more’.
Keith and his wife found attending a local group very supportive. Being able to talk to other people who weren’t judgmental and had been through a similar journey was very helpful for them.
He explains that it’s hard for children to come out, but quite often they have been planning it for some time, such as choosing the right moment to speak openly, who to talk to, and where. For parents and families, this may be the first time they’ve ever seriously considered the existence of LGBTQ+ identities in relation to their own personal lives and they may have no idea how the conversation will unfold.
“Kids are like ‘that’s it, job done’ but the parents are left reeling. They need to find more support.”
Sarah agrees, explaining it’s important to understand that quite often, parents or care-givers aren’t distressed because being LGBTQ+ is a problem; it’s often more about struggling with not knowing how to offer the right support. She says that support groups are wonderful for helping people by sharing experiences and offering advice.
Sarah and Keith theorise that the reason some people born before the mid-80s might not have a lot of knowledge about LGBTQ+ identities is because of Section 28. This piece of profoundly harmful legislation, introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1988, prevented any school from ‘promoting the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’.
Sarah: “[Then, people] were deliberately misinformed and grew up in an era where LGBTQ+ was a bit worrying in the media. That information stays in the back of the brain even if it’s not what you believe. People need information.”
What are some of the biggest challenges parents may face?
Keith explains that it was a priority to make sure his son knew he wasn’t on his own and that his parents were there to support him if he talked to them.
Keith: “My worry was depression, bullying and aggression. We know [now that] Ross suffered bullying at school but [we] didn’t know at the time. I also worried about him going to work. One of Ross’s peers committed suicide and I didn’t want Ross to go through that, so I reminded him as often as I could that we were there for him.”
Sarah says that she didn’t have the vocabulary to be able to discuss things comfortably with her child and that her biggest challenge was her extended family.
Sarah: “I wanted to tell my parents and siblings because I needed the support. [With my parents] I had to do that on the phone because of distance. I was nervous and made a real mess of it. I got upset and cried and because of that, my parents reacted very negatively. They said, it was ‘a phase’ – [they] didn’t accept it at all and said it was [just my child] showing off’.
On reflection, Sarah feels that she may have contributed to the negative response that her parents had. Because she was upset, Sarah says, they had an emotional reaction to her being upset, which meant that they had a far more adverse reaction to their grandchild coming out than they might have otherwise.
On sharing the news with her brothers, Sarah says that one seemed to react calmly and “was OK” but later in the conversation, he asked her “not to bring them around the house if they dressed as a woman” because he didn’t want his daughter to be confused. Sarah’s other brother, who was religious, said they would need to ask their vicar if it was OK to still associate with them as a family.
On a positive note, Sarah’s mother contacted her after about a year and said, ‘we love you and we love our grandchild, and we are there for you.’
Sarah: “People are going to struggle and sometimes they may say things that are difficult. Christmas, big family events and getting together [is difficult]. You must give it time. Sometimes people worry and it’s absolutely fine. It’s not always the older generations – sometimes they accept it straight away.”
Keith recounts the experience of telling his mother, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s and her response was, ‘Well there’s none of that on my side of the family.’ Keith’s response was simple: ‘Well, there is now.’
He says that the rest of the family were all accepting and he wonders if his daughter, Ross’s sister, already knew. Keith explains that it’s not uncommon for a young person to come to their friends of friends of their parent’s first because they may find it more comfortable telling people outside of the immediate family unit – and that’s OK too.
What resources are out there to help people learn more?
Keith says face-to-face support is important, whether in person or online, because you are with people in a safe space who understand what you’re going through.
Sarah suggests visiting the Proud Trust website, which has an excellent search facility to find LGBTQ+ youth groups in the local area, and Transwiki – a search engine provided by the Gender Identity Research & Education Society – to search for support by area and by type, such as youth groups, parents and families.
Sarah: “I really liked My Genderation by Fox Fisher and Lewis Hancox, who make films about other transgender people.”
Sarah explains that the films follow the lives of trans people but that it’s more about what they do to live a happy and fulfilled life. The films cover hobbies and professions such as skateboarding, being an artist or singer. She also recommends transgender blogger, Jamie Raines, who talks about his transition, life, parents and relationships.
Sarah: “To feel that this is unremarkable, normal and part of life: you need to see it.”
What advice would Sarah and Keith offer to parents?
Keith explains that many parents will feel as though they’ve let their child down because they missed something or haven’t realised. But this is not unique and Keith explains that it’s natural and OK to feel low and shocked initially. He says the best thing to do is to find and talk to people going through the same experiences.
Keith: “It is a life change. Parents automatically pick a future path. [When] you get the news and the future is torn up, you get confused because you don’t know what the future will be. Don’t worry, it will be fine. You are not the first and will not be the last. We have a three-year-old granddaughter now and we see ‘everything’ in the future.”
Sarah has similar advice, saying that she used to believe in ‘boxes that people fit into’. Now she knows that these boxes are bad for everybody, not just for people in the LGBTQ+ community.
Sarah: “Lots of things can get better and that’s the thing about equality, it’s not just about making things better for minority groups, it is about making things better for everybody. Apply that mindset to other things and question your thinking. Nobody else can tell you who you are inside. So, if someone is thoughtful enough, brave enough and articulate enough to say that, then they deserve respect.”
What have Sarah and Keith learned from being involved with Fflag?
Sarah attends many Pride events to raise awareness of Fflag and show the community that parents can be supportive allies.
Sarah: “I had this uncertainty about whether I should be there [at first], like I was stepping into a space that wasn’t really for me. The first one I went to was in Exeter and we marched together with ‘proud parent’ flags, t-shirts and banners.”
Sarah fondly remembers a young girl asking for a selfie with her, saying she was a bit bemused at the time because there were a lot more exciting people to be photographed with.
Sarah: “She took this picture and said, ‘I’m going to text this now to my mum and show her that some parents still support their children’ and that was a real blow to the guts. I realised immediately, ‘this is why we’re here’, we’re being visible, showing very clearly that [many] parents are out there supporting their children. [If] young people who perhaps haven’t come out yet, are questioning or wondering about what to do, if they see parents there openly supporting and championing their children then hopefully that gives them a bit of confidence, a bit of hope, that if they want to break the news to their parents it probably will be OK – and it if isn’t, please send your parents to Fflag.”
Keith works on the helpline with Fflag and agrees.
Keith: “This battle isn’t won. Yes, things are getting a lot better but there is still some way to go, and ‘love all’ is how we should all be.”
Listen to Sarah and Keith's story
Choose the life you want to lead
If you are a parent or caregiver reading this blog post and you have questions, please consider seeking out resources highlighted in this article, reading the other articles and listening to the Back on Track Teens gender and sexual identity podcast series.
You can reach out to Fflag using the following details:
- Web: Fflag.org.uk
- Tel: 0300 6880368
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mixed emotions of guilt and uncertainty are normal for parents to experience upon hearing their child identify in a way that challenges their beliefs. Any change takes time and being there for each other, keeping an open line of communication with your child, and finding suitable support groups will make things easier for everyone involved to feel comfortable, safe and loved.
To conclude, here’s one final point raised by Sarah… Being able to gain positive family support is the biggest single contributor to maintaining the mental health of LGBTQ+ people – another great reason why charities such as Fflag need to be there.
Thanks for reading…
Creating the gender and sexual identity mini-series has been an incredible experience for the Back on Track Teens team.
- I encourage you to go ahead and download our free eBook, which brings the interviews together with a huge collection of information, resources and inspiration.
- Subscribe to the Spark to Your Success podcast here.
- Access insightful stories, helpful exercises and more resources on our blog.
- Refer to the Back on Track Teens LGBTQ+ glossary here.
- Order ‘The Spark to Your Success – Helping Teens Build Resilience’ here.
- Order ‘The Spark to Your Success – Mindset Magic for Teens’ here.
Are you a parent or caregiver of a young person who may be experiencing challenges around gender and/or sexual identity? Book a session with TeeJay Dowe
Work at a school or organisation and want to know more? Book an awareness training session
*The blog articles capture real stories and the topic of conversation is frank. Its purpose is to elevate the voices of people within the LGBTQ+ community, answer questions, provide resources, and offer support.