FAQ About Transgender Parenting

FAQ About Transgender Parenting

Do children need certain kinds of gender-specific 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 just one parent or having two of the same gender doesn’t leave children any less well-adjusted than having one of either gender.

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 (masculine women or feminine men, for instance) have found that when traditional 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.

Isn’t a transgender parent’s transition sometimes very upsetting to a child?

Children tend to have fewer preconceived notions about gender than adults do. But it’s not uncommon for children to be upset in some way about a transgender parent’s transition. Studies have shown that preschool-age and adult children generally seem to adapt best to a parent’s transition, while adolescents tend to have the most trouble.

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 thing, as 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 of course made much worse when the nontransgender parent is openly hostile about the transition—although that is by no means always the situation.

It is important to remember that there are many events in the lives of parents and children that may cause difficult emotional responses, and the job of parents and families is to help children deal with them in a healthy way.

Are transgender parents likely to influence the gender identity or sexual orientation of their children?

No, there is no evidence of any greater tendency for kids of transgender parents to be transgender themselves, nor to be gay, lesbian or bisexual. A wide range of studies dating back to the ’70s have measured no such differences.

What is the best way to come out to my child?

We solicited some advice from trans parents and their children.

  • 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.”
Can courts change custody or visitation arrangements based purely on the fact that a parent is transgender?

Courts are generally allowed to base custody or visitation rulings only 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 for this reason.

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. Many of these cases 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 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—it does happen. Some courts have lacked understanding about the need for a transgender parent’s 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 and/or Lambda Legal’s Help Desk (toll-free at 866-542-8336 or at www.lambdalegal.org/help).

Can the validity of a marriage itself be questioned when a spouse who is a non-biological parent transitions—thereby “canceling out” parental rights?

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.

Is there anything special that transgender people should do when trying to foster or adopt a child?

Foster and adoption agencies put prospective parents through a rigorous series of interviews and investigations, and the process can be very invasive. None of this should be a barrier for transgender parents to win approval, however. Some states do explicitly ban gay and lesbian couples from adopting, but none specifically address prospective parents who are 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, Conn., and Green Chimneys, in New York City) openly pursue transgender parents, stressing in particular the need for more to come forward to foster LGBT children in order to serve as role models.

Are there legal steps I can take to protect my relationship with my children?

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.