Raising a transgender child in Las Vegas is filled with surprises, challenges and trials — but few resources and little help
Three years ago, when Michele Cusac’s daughter Alana came to her in her favorite Toy Story cowboy hat and claimed she was a boy, now and forever, Cusac thought it was a fanciful notion sprung from her 4-year-old child’s rich imagination.
“I didn’t know what we were facing,” she says. “I didn’t know we would be scrambling for information or how long it would take us to really understand what was happening.”
When her daughter later spied her father’s hair clippers with a glint in her brown eyes, her mother began to understand this was no passing phase.
“I quickly realized that, if I didn’t help him with that, he’d likely try to cut his own hair,” says Cusac, whose now 7-year-old daughter identifies as a boy. “I figured that it would always grow back if there was a change of heart. The change in her attitude (after the haircut) was immediate, from angry and sullen to all smiles.”
Alana seemed to blossom when her long hair, plaited into a braid for the occasion, was shorn close to her head. Cusac carried the braid in her purse for a year. “It was hard, as a mom, letting go of that little girl.”
Cusac bought some boy’s T-shirts and drawstring shorts with masculine themes for Alana, who asked to be called Alan. “(It) made him so happy. It was the first indication that my child was never really a girl to begin with.”
Cusac is not alone in her story. There are more than 20,000 transgender people in Las Vegas, according to Holly Reese, senior and transgender programs director for The Center, an LGBTQ support organization.
“That’s a substantial number in our community,” says Reese. “We are progressively trying to lead the way because it’s way past time.”
Former Olympian and reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner, who said publicly that he felt he was a girl since at least the age of 5 — and who appeared on the July cover of Vanity Fair — has brought the discussion of transgender issues to the forefront, from social media to daytime talk shows. Many local transgender community leaders and experts say youth transgender is the last frontier on this unfolding issue.
A refresher: Gender identity is defined as someone’s internal sense of being female, male or gender-non-binary, which means they don’t identify with either sex. Transgender has become an umbrella term for children who are persistent, consistent and insistent that they are not who they’ve been classified as biologically, and have yet to have any medical intervention.
If you think this is just an innocent phase of gender exploration or stubborn play-pretend that parents can persuade their children out of, think again. A recent study published in the journal Psychological Science found that transgender children are not confused about their gender or delayed in their understanding of who they are. The study by Stony Brook University in New York concluded that parental acceptance is the primary factor determining whether these children grow up to live happy, healthy, productive lives.
That’s heartening news — but it doesn’t make raising a trans child any less of a challenge, say local families of transgender children.
“I wish I had found some of the support groups I belong to now ages ago,” Cusac says, “to help answer some of these questions I had and ease the doubts that I was doing the right thing quicker.”
‘I’m a boy, I’m a boy’
It’s been a long, lonely journey for Cusac. With a scarcity of resources available for raising a transgender child, she largely improvised. Her daughter reached for cars and swords over teacups and dolls and refused anything pink. Cusac thought it was a cute quirk from a kid with a strong sense of self. At age 4, Alan began preschool. Within days, he made a point to have a sit-down with his parents.
“I’m a boy, I’m a boy, I’m a boy,” Alan says in a family video from 2012. Cusac made the video to record one of the first times Alan attempted to talk to his parents about how different he felt from the other children at school. In the video, he adamantly tells his parents he isn’t just pretending. “I’m not a cowboy, I’m a real boy.”
“I thought it was a funny role-play moment,” Cusac says. “But looking back on it now, I can see that determination to make us see something wasn’t right.” They continued to play along with their daughter’s adopted gender, thinking it was a stage. “Partly because of bad information, and partly based on numerous stories of really tomboyish girls who turned girly at puberty, we just decided to ride it out. Never did it seriously occur to us in those early days that this was potentially a permanent situation.” By the time Alan was in kindergarten, Cusac began to do some serious research. She found local resources were mainly geared toward kids 13 and older. “I pretty much stopped trying. At that point, I still didn’t really think we were dealing with a full-on gender identity crisis, so I didn’t pursue it as diligently as I might have.”
Like any mother, she navigated tantrums, negotiated bedtime and handwashing habits, but it was the little things outside her reach that came to loom large in their day-to-day struggle. For instance, her daughter insisted on using the boys’ bathroom, which didn’t sit well with the school administrators.
“We were already having issues with bathroom use at preschool, and I wanted to understand what options we had in primary school,” says Cusac, who would often pick up her distraught child from school. Alan was asked to use the nurse’s bathroom rather than the boys’ or girls’ bathrooms, to avoid any uncomfortable situations or possible legal issues. (In April, state assembly bill 375, also known as the “Bathroom Bill,” which would require transgender students to use school facilities corresponding to their biological sex, was shot down.) Today, Alan won’t use public restrooms and has anxiety attacks if he needs to use the women’s restroom with his mother. Cusac keeps a list of public places with unisex bathrooms. “Just because of this one issue, he hates to go anywhere.”
Most days, his gender identity is just a background issue, but some days he struggles. For example, birthdays require some vigilance to ensure classmates and playdate friends don’t buy him anything “girly.”
“You can’t blame someone (who doesn’t know) for buying girl gifts for a (child) they haven’t seen in a while,” Cusac says. Also, Alan is adamant about standing in line with the other boys for summer camp registration, a rite of passage that can be a proud moment for most parents. It makes Cusac anxious. “He wants to do Boy Scouts, summer camp with other boys, and I’m still researching what to do about that.”
They’re seemingly small issues that cast big shadows. “That’s when we hear things like if he gets boobs, he’ll cut them off. He says that he hates his body, that he wasn’t made right; and that he wishes he wasn’t alive.”
When asked, Alan is shy about discussing his gender. He is confused as to why it’s difficult for others to see him as a boy and wishes his outsides matched how he feels on the inside.
“Why was I made this way?” Alan has asked his mom. “I just want to rip off my skin until I’m not here anymore.”
‘We are finally talking’
The next five years will show significant progress in how transgender people are treated, says Tod Story, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada. “It’s a critical time in this process,” he says. “We are finally talking about transgender people and their families.” The next frontier: learning to talk about, understand and accept trans children. “There is clearly a lack of understanding of what it means to be transgender,” he says. “In order for these kids to thrive, there needs to be more education, advocacy and public policy that reflects the priority of transgender acceptance. We are making sure we have resources for families to help them come through this journey and be positive members of our community.”
But to parents raising trans children now, it can feel like those resources are a long time coming. And time is not always kind to children who are insistent at a young age that they identify with a different gender.
After more than five years attempting to explain his feelings and find a way to fit in at school, Kareyn Zimmermann’s 9-year-old son J. — whom Zimmermann calls her daughter — now comfortably identifies as a female.
“My daughter has always liked girl things, since she was about 2 years old,” Zimmermann says. “We thought it was just a phase and she would grow out of it.” As the family struggled to understand, Zimmermann’s mother saw a TV show about transgender children. “I didn’t want to believe it at first. I watched videos of other transgender kids and knew, that is my child, and she is transgender.”
Once Zimmermann understood there was a name for J.’s feelings, she researched online and reached out to therapists who specialize in transgender children. They slowly began to let J. shed the clothes that felt so foreign to her, mostly at home under the safe umbrella of accepting family and friends. She wore girl clothes at home on the weekends, boy clothes to school. This summer, J. moved to a new school in a different area of the valley and now identifies completely as a girl. “We are really starting to use she, her and daughter now that school just got out and she is a girl now.”
As a mother, Zimmermann is hopeful for her young child, but nervous. For good reason: More than half of transgender youth have contemplated suicide and one quarter have attempted to take their lives, according to The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization focused on LGBTQ youth. But, crucially, acceptance starts in the home — and in that sense, J. is off to a strong start.
“She is who she is and I cannot change her,” Zimmermann says. “I think her seeing that everyone around her accepted her for whom she is has helped her. I think just seeing that our daughter has been like this since she was little made all of our family realize that this is not something my child is choosing, or that she will ever grow out of it.”
It’s vital that parents are educated along with their children, says Dr. Asheesh Dewan, pediatric endocrinologist at Pediatric Endocrine and Diabetes Specialists. A pediatric endocrinologist is often one of the first medical professionals a transgender youth will see to discuss changing hormones as they enter puberty.
“The child is venturing forth into very adult areas, talking about the physical differences between the sexes,” he says. “Those who have parental support have a higher quality of life. We see that they are happier, not as depressed, while those that don’t have parental support have a lot more issues.”
About a dozen pre-pubescent trans children have seen Dewan for help and advice regarding puberty and the changes it brings to their bodies. He works with The Center and local family therapists to assist children and their families, but more help is needed.
“One thing about children you have to realize in terms of counseling is that their brains aren’t fully developed,” he says. “The part that is not developed is the part that does long-term thinking. They just think about right now, ‘I want this.’” Counseling helps them realize what the complications and long-term risks are for transitioning.
Meanwhile, as awareness grows, The Center is expanding its programs for transgender children. “We get one or two walk-ins (a week) of parents or family members who say, ‘My kid is telling me they are transgender,’” The Center’s Reese says. Reese has launched Pivot, a program to help children and parents understand what it means to be transgender and assist in the process. “If they find that support, community, education and counseling, families can grow stronger and vibrant and grow in a healthy way. The flip side is that if families go into denial or shaming, it can completely tear a family apart. That pivot point is where we want to be for that family.” Indeed, parents who arrive at The Center often show the scars of the emotional toll that the lack of support has taken on them and their children. “It seems like the parents have been through a war to get where they are now,” Reese says. “But we are finally having this conversation. This is going to save lives.”
One of the next steps is raising awareness not just among people, but systems — schools, workplaces, businesses. Jane Heenan, director of Gender Justice Nevada, which offers counseling for those transitioning and their families, is making that a priority. “We have experience meeting with the school representatives as a family’s advocate, helping to create plans to address things such as bathrooms and locker rooms, correct name and pronoun use, privacy issues, and safety,” Heenan says. Heenan is also pushing for the school district to adopt a system-wide policy to make accommodating trans students easier and more consistent.
It’s been a long journey for Cusac — but at least the road ahead looks a little less bumpy.
“In the last few months, we’ve found more local support. It’s not been easy, but I think it’s getting easier. We’re trying, and we know other people are trying to be more accepting. When you see these kids the way they want to be seen, as a boy or a girl, they are so happy. You know you are doing the right thing.”
Cusac and her son are hoping that he will be fully integrated as a boy in the coming school year, and that school administrators will be more accommodating than they have been.
“The few people we’ve met who didn’t know our little one beforehand have been supportive when told, but we haven’t reached a point where we’ve made an official announcement,” she says. Sure, some parents lapse into awkward silence or ask uncomfortable questions when Cusac tells them Alan is transgender, but she understands. “Until recently, I was one of them,” she says, “so I can’t fault them for asking the same questions.”