FAQ About Transgender Parenting
It doesn’t matter what gender your parents are. Research shows that the most important influences on a child’s happiness and development are the quality of the child’s relationship with a parent or parents, the quality of parents’ relationship with each other or other adults and economic factors. Having a single parent or having two of the same gender doesn’t leave children any less well-adjusted than having parents who are a male and female couple.
A parent’s “gender conformity”—how well they conform to society’s expectations of gender roles—is also irrelevant for evaluating the “best interests of the child,” the standard that courts use to determine custody issues. Studies on gender-nonconforming parents (such as masculine women or feminine men, for instance) have found that when traditionally gendered mom and dad parenting roles are reversed or reshuffled—or even combined in the caretaking of a single parent—there is no adverse effect on the child.
Children tend to have fewer preconceived notions about gender than adults do. Experiences vary for children with a transgender parent who transitions. Studies have shown that preschool age and adult children generally adapt better to a parent’s transition, while adolescent children tend to face more challenges.
Extra factors come into play as well, however, such as the fact that it can be tricky finding someone to talk to who has gone through the same experience. There are a limited number of resources available to transgender parents and their families.
Also, when a married parent transitions, the change may cause some conflict in the marriage itself, a situation that is bound to affect the children. This is often made much worse if the cisgender parent is openly hostile about the transition—although that is by no means always the situation.
A recent national study found that 58% of transgender parents found their relationships with their children to be the same or better and 13% found that some things were better and some things were worse (National Transgender Discrimination Survey). There are many events in the lives of parents and children that may cause difficult emotional responses, and it is the job of parents and families to help children deal with them in a healthy way.
No, there is no evidence of any greater tendency for children of transgender parents to be transgender themselves, nor to be gay, lesbian or bisexual. A wide range of studies dating back to the 1970s have measured no such differences.
Courts are generally only allowed to base custody or visitation rulings on factors that directly affect the “best interests of the child.” If a transgender parent’s gender identity can’t be shown to hurt the child in some way, contact should not be limited, and other custody and visitation orders should not be changed because of a parent’s transition.
Many courts have upheld this principle and have treated transgender custody cases like any other child custody determination—by focusing on standard factors such as parental skills. Judges have quite properly recognized the capabilities of transgender parents. In Mayfield v. Mayfield, for instance, the court upheld a transgender parent’s shared parenting plan because there was no evidence in the record that the parent would not be a “fit, loving and capable parent.” Other times, courts considering a child’s “interests” have ruled against the transgender parent, seemingly using a proper standard. For instance, in In re Marriage of Magnuson, the court affirmed a ruling against a transgender parent by stating it had “properly considered the children’s needs in making a residential placement decision, not a parent’s transgender status, conforming to the principles in sexual [orientation] cases.” This is not to say transgender parents don’t lose access to their children based solely on their gender identity—unfortunately it does happen. Some courts have lacked understanding about a transgender parent’s need to transition.
For example, in Cisek v. Cisek, the court terminated a transgender parent’s visitation rights, holding that there was a risk of both mental and “social harm” to the children. The court asked whether the parent’s so-called “sex change” was “simply an indulgence of some fantasy.” An Ohio court imposed an indefinite moratorium on visitation based on the court’s belief that it would be emotionally confusing for the children to see “their father as a woman.”
The case law on this issue varies widely by state, however, so it’s always best to check with a local attorney or contact Lambda Legal’s Help Desk (toll-free at 866-542-8336 or at www.lambdalegal.org/help).
It all depends on which state you live in—and where you happen to travel. Families with a transgender mother or father may find “presumption of parentage” is not respected across one particular state line or another.
In Kantaras v. Kantaras, the wife of a transgender man, who had transitioned before they married, attacked the validity of their 10-year marriage and the transgender man’s status as a legal parent to the couple’s two children based solely on his transgender status. A Florida trial court issued a groundbreaking decision holding that Michael Kantaras was legally male, affirming the validity of the marriage and awarding him primary custody of the couple’s children. A year later, though, the Florida Court of Appeals reversed, voiding the marriage and sending the case back to the trial court to determine Michael Kantaras’ parental rights. He was eventually awarded shared custody of the children in an out-of-court settlement in spite of the court’s ruling to void his marriage.
The main takeaway is that transgender parents should not rely on marriage as a permanent connection to a child—and should file for adoption of any non-biological children as soon as possible. For more information, contact Lambda Legal’s Help Desk at 866-542-8336 or visit www.lambdalegal.org/help.
Foster and adoption agencies put prospective parents through a rigorous series of interviews and investigations, and the process can be very invasive. None of these should bar transgender parents from approval, however. Some states do explicitly ban gay and lesbian couples from adopting, but none specifically address prospective parents who are transgender. Only six states prohibit discrimination against foster and adoptive parent applicants based on gender identity in their laws or regulations, leaving transgender people in 44 states vulnerable to extra scrutiny or denial simply for being transgender. Placement of a child is up to a judge— although the process can also be sabotaged if an agency or individual staffer happens to have anti-transgender biases.
On the other hand, some agencies (such as True Colors in Hartford, Connecticut and Green Chimneys in New York City) actively seek out LGBT foster families for adolescent youth.
COMING OUT TO YOUR CHILDREN
TRANS PARENTS AND THEIR CHILDREN SHARE THEIR ADVICE
- Marlow White, 47: “Be willing to have a dialogue. Kids are resilient—they are our best supporters and advocates. Since I have transitioned my children have marched with and supported me.”
- LaAsha Nelson, 11 (White’s daughter): “[When my Pops told me] I didn’t really understand. When I got older and understood it still had no effect. [I would tell kids] not to worry, because even though their [parents’] bodies change, it doesn’t mean that they’re going to change. Love them the same.”
- Crystall Otway, 13 (White’s step-daughter): “Tell your child soon, as soon as possible. In my case, I had not been told my stepfather had transitioned, and it was because my mom wanted to ‘protect’ me. Honesty is the best policy.”
- Sophie Marnin, 10: “Just act normal when you’re telling your child.”
- Seth Marnin, 43 (Sophie’s father): “Trust your kid and your own love for your kid. At the end of the day, your kids want to know you love them.”
HOW TO PROTECT PARENT-CHILD RELATIONSHIPS
There is a lot that transgender parents can do to protect their families in advance from any efforts to limit child-parent access by a hostile family member, ex-partner or judge:
- Protect your legal relationship with your child, especially if you are not the biological parent. Go to court to legally adopt children who recognize you as a parent but aren’t blood relatives.
- Protect your marriage, if you have one, by executing a last will and testament for both you and your spouse; financial and medical powers of attorney designating each other; and a written agreement laying out each spouse’s rights and responsibilities regarding your children (and including an acknowledgement that one spouse is transgender). Even if your marriage appears entirely valid, if one or both of you is transgender, its legality may be challenged. Consider hiring an attorney to make sure you’re aware of jurisdictional variations and other issues. For more information, visit www.lambdalegal.org/take-the-power.
- Research clearly shows both gender and “gender conformity” are irrelevant to a child’s happiness and development; don’t hesitate to share this with anyone claiming that transgender people influence children negatively.
- Remember that kids are generally able to adapt much more easily to a parent’s transition if family relationships stay loving and supportive. To find out more, call Lambda Legal’s Help Desk at 866-542-8336 or visit www.lambdalegal.org/help.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact Lambda Legal at 212-809-8585, 120 Wall Street, 19th Floor, New York, NY 10005-3904. If you feel you have experienced discrimination, call our Help Desk toll-free at 866-542-8336 or go to www.lambdalegal.org/help.