Never underestimate the wisdom of a child.
From the time he was six years old, living as the girl he was assigned at birth, Hunter Keith had the sense that he was transgender. As he describes, it was in 5th grade, when he first heard the term transgender while watching a YouTube video, that everything made sense and snapped into place. “I knew from that point on, that was me.”
“When Hunter told us that he was transgender in 2013, I was clueless,” Roz shares in her blog Call Him Hunter. “The word transgender was unknown to me.” But at Hunter’s lead, Roz, Richard and Danielle were determined to learn all they could. In lockstep and loving support of their son in 2015, Roz and Richard created the nonprofit Stand with Trans, with the goal to provide the resources and tools to educate and empower trans youth and to support families through a national network of Ally Parents.
Confident and self-assured, loving and clear in his goals, proud to have found his true voice and to speak as his authentic self, Hunter has never had to look far for the support of his family and his circle of friends at Hillel Day School, Frankel Jewish Academy and Tamarack Camps. “As a community, we are becoming smarter about gender identity,” says Roz. She also is adamant that being transgender is not a “choice.” It’s not a “lifestyle.” It is a hard, complicated journey that no one would “choose” to take. The most important thing parents can do is to love their child. Unconditionally. And, to advocate for a transgender child in the same way you would for one with learning deficits, mobility challenges or other atypical need.”
Sharing the love, telling their story
Beyond the support and comforts of home, Hunter always had the benefit of two very smart, creative and media savvy parents – both marketing professionals, ready and able to organize, mobilize, advocate and speak out, not only for him, but for the trans community. “We’ve been partners, running our own marketing business (MindSeedCreative) for almost as long as we’ve been married,” says Richard. “We live together, we work together, and together we started Stand with Trans to fill what we found to be a critical need in the community. Seven years ago, once we wrapped our heads around what we needed for Hunter, it was heartbreaking to find that there were no support groups for us, no mental health practitioners for LGBTQ youth in our area, no guide to the road we were taking. We were truly alone.”
Powered by a website, a blog and social media, the Keiths took the leap to go public with their story. It took courage. Thanks to the story written by Ronelle Greer that appeared on the cover of The Detroit Jewish News in the summer of 2014, Hunter and his parents gained traction in connecting to resources and support across the country. As Founder and Executive Director of Stand with Trans, Roz continues to build awareness and support through a steady stream of interviews, podcasts, LGBTQ youth events and 20 ongoing support groups throughout Michigan. New groups recently have formed in San Francisco.
By sheer happenstance, Hunter’s portrait taken in the skate park at a Stand with Trans potluck picnic turned up as a full page in National Geographic as part of the January 2017 issue titled the “Gender Revolution.” As it turned out, Lynn Johnson, award-winning photojournalist who travels the world, was there to follow a story written by Robin Marantz Henig on the shifting landscape of gender identity. She was there to interview another family. But Hunter, a week and a half post-surgery, was there, too.
“I was 17, just 12 days after my top surgery, and it was the first time in my life that I was able to have my shirt off in public. I shouldn’t have been out of bed, I shouldn’t have had my scars in the sun, I shouldn’t have been skateboarding, but there I was. I was going to be out as soon as I could. It’s that freedom I finally had, just becoming my authentic self, in a body that reflected me. It was a very moving day for me.”
Gathered in their living room, looking at family pictures from past to present, Hunter, Roz and Richard settle cozily together on the couch. Their dog jumps in between for good measure as our interview turns into a two-hour chat. Hunter carries much of the conversation while his parents look on with affection and slight bemusement. “Wow, Hunter,” says Roz. “You sound like you’ve taken all my words and just packaged them. You don’t really need me here.” The look they exchange says everything: that they’ve come a long way together.
(Editor’s note: a story on the Keith family wouldn’t be complete without Danielle. Adding her comments via email, she writes: “Hunter being openly trans has allowed him to be his true authentic self, and for that I am forever happy for him. Since he’s come out as transgender, our relationship has improved for the better. We’re much closer and I understand him on a deeper level. I am so proud of my family’s initiative and advocacy on behalf of transgender youth in the LGBTQ community. My mom has educated and helped countless families accept, love and understand their transgender children.)
In their words: a conversation with the Roz, Richard and Hunter
myJewishDetroit: First, let’s get the language right. What does it mean to be transgender?
Hunter: Transgender is more an umbrella term for anyone whose brain – or that inner sense of being male or female – doesn’t match the biology of their body. That means they could be trans male, like I am; or trans female, which means they were assigned male at birth, but identify as female. Transgender also covers someone born male or female but identifies as both or neither one or the other; nowadays, they might typically use the plural pronoun they or some other gender-neutral gender pronoun.
Richard: Also, there’s the phenomenon of intersexuality, where a person has an aspect of both or ambiguous genitalia. And some of the horrendous things that happen in those circumstances is that parents find themselves making choices at birth about how a child is supposed to identify later in life.
Roz: Parents pressured to choose have a 50-50 chance of getting it right – or screwing it up. The decision is irreversible.
Hunter: And, fortunately, doctors are no longer allowed to pressure parents into “corrective” surgery that presumes one gender over another when the baby is born with ambiguous genitalia.
The more we learn about the brain, the more we understand that gender exists on a continuum. Everyone is on the spectrum. There are studies that show that brain structures differ from male to female. Transgender people have the brain structure similar to the way they identify as compared to what their body shows.
For me, it’s such a surreal experience. It’s really a situation of mismatched parts. It’s hard to comprehend and it sounds trippy, but I grew up with a mental image of who I was, but when I looked in the mirror, I would see someone completely different. When I was little, I knew something wasn’t right, but I didn’t have the words to verbalize how I felt.
Roz: Hunter once said to me something that has always stuck with me, “Mom, every time I looked in the mirror, it was a surprise.” So, I think about that.
Hunter: In many ways, it’s a lot easier than it was a few years ago. The word transgender wasn’t circulating in the media. But, still, even within the LGBTQ community today, there’s a lot of transphobia and ignorance surrounding who we are. We’re individuals just like everyone else, and everyone’s experience in transitioning is unique.
The definitions can be confusing, but the vocabulary and use of the words have gotten better. Three years ago, in high school, I had to explain what transgender was and clarify that the word is an adjective, not a noun. I’m not “a transgender” – I’m a person. In college, when I came out to my friends — they were like “oh, cool.”
Roz: FYI: When asked how we identify in the trans community, we’re proud to say we are trans allies who happen to have a son who is transgender. A lot of times in writing, you’ll see the term “trans advocate,” or “trans parent.” No, we’re not trans parents.
Richard: Part of our mission in Stand with Trans – especially on Roz’s end – is to educate people on the nomenclature and have it speak to this whole phenomenon that’s come about where more and more people are starting to talk openly about being transgender.
Let’s talk a bit about transition, itself: as a trans youth and as parents, what did you encounter at the start of your journey through the process?
Hunter: I had been doing research for two years before I told my parents. At 13, I was ready to go on hormones, absolutely certain I was ready to transition. Knowing my parents, I knew in my gut that it was going to be ok. Part of the reason I can be so open today is that I never had to grow up being scared of rejection.
Roz: Knowing Hunter, our first response was not shock. Everything all added up —all those signs. Our instincts as parents were to jump right in feet first to help our son be the best authentic version of himself. Hunter came out to me first, and when I told Richard, his initial reaction was to frame it up for another explanation and perhaps rationalize why this was not permanent. Hunter was still very young but I knew that we had to pay attention – that, in my heart, this wasn’t going away.
Richard: It didn’t worry me that Hunter was transgender. My first concern was about the journey, how challenging it would be and what the future might hold for him. There were so many unknowns in the equation.
Hunter: I remember your sharing that same uneasiness about what my life was going to look like. You hear these horror stories of kids thinking their families were going to be accepting and then finding themselves living on the street. Being transgender is so different from what people can understand, and there’s a distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation. Personally, I’m gay. I like guys. But a lot of gay guys don’t like trans men – and that makes relationships even more difficult. And it can make meeting new people dangerous, prone to violence.
But once I came out, all the love and support within my family, my group of friends and the community instilled confidence in me and a resilience that no one can take away. People who go out of their way to offend me, don’t really touch me. I can defend myself and can do it without blinking an eye.
Roz: That’s now . . . but back then, at the time when we all needed answers to a flood of questions, there was no one out there talking about transgender youth. And it certainly wasn’t on my radar. Hunter came out in February and it took nearly a year until we found anyone who could intelligently talk to us about therapy and medical transition. In Metro Detroit, we did an exhaustive search and came up with nothing: not one mental health professional trained in gender issues for adolescents; nothing by way of programs or support for transgender minors, and certainly no parent groups.
Thankfully, we ended up in just the right place, going to Boston when a family member connected us with Dr. Norman Spack, a specialist renowned for transgender medicine and his work with transgender adolescents.
At that first visit, we got the final confirmation we needed: there was no question in the doctor’s mind that Hunter was transgender, absolutely living and presenting as a male, and ready to start hormone therapy.
How did Hunter choose his name?
Hunter: I remember medical appointments being very anxiety provoking – getting my birth name called out in the waiting room, when I was presenting as male.
Roz: It was on that trip to Boston, shortly after Hunter was out publicly that we started using his name and the male pronouns.
Hunter: A lot of trans people really struggle with choosing a new name to represent then. We chose Hunter, because I was given the Hebrew name Hila, after my Uncle Harold. My Hebrew name is now Oz, meaning strength. To keep the H in my name, we decided on Hunter. A name we all agree fits well.
Roz: It was a family decision. Like all parents, we Googled baby names- starting with H’s. I loved that that Hunter included us in the process and came to us first. (So many choose some odd, random and out-of-the-box name as a statement and come home with a name the family doesn’t understand or want to own.)
As parents, looking back at Hunter’s early childhood, were there cues you think you might have missed?
Roz: In retrospect, sure. There were many things from the time Hunter was little — that perhaps, had I known what I know today, I might have picked up upon and thought, hey, maybe he is really a boy. He preferred playing with boys, he wanted Star War Legos, Bob the Builder and chose Disney heroes not heroines, he loved video games and his avatars were always male. But we always just let him be himself.
There was a time I recall: Hunter was six or seven, taking a bath. I was sitting with him, keeping him company, and he looked up at me and said, “I’m a boy.” And I said, “Okay, you want to be a boy?” And he said simply, “No. But I am a boy.” It didn’t occur to me until years later that was a message.
Putting aside the connections you may have “missed,” along the way, it sounds like you are well attuned to one another’s needs. Hunter described a moment earlier when it all clicked for him. Roz, can you share a moment or a conversation that had a similar impact on you?
Roz: I remember at the height of my frustration, making call after call in my search for professional help in navigating our journey with Hunter, when I finally got connected to another mom. She was about six months ahead of us in her son’s transition. We sat at Panera having coffee and I was just amazed with how on-board she was, doing all the right stuff for her son, choosing the name, getting him on track with the hormone therapy. At a point in the conversation, talking about our anxiety watching what our children were going through, she looked at me and said, “I would much rather have a live son, then a dead daughter.” That just struck me. She was my crystal ball into the future, and I saw clearly that what we’re doing was saving lives.
Hunter: It’s true: Everyone in the trans community knows someone who’s taken their own life. Rejection, the feeling of isolation, all takes a toll. Kids look first to their parents for acceptance, comfort and the affirmation of their families.
Roz: We can be empathetic and show compassion. We can be advocates and allies. But, it’s important to ask what your child needs. Each individual has their own journey, their own perspective and their unique identity.
Hunter: I remember after I had top surgery that you asked me is it weird to look down and not see anything there. And I said, no, it’s the most normal thing I’ve ever felt. It was weird before.
Roz: I was asking and seeing things from my own perspective as a woman and couldn’t see your perspective as a trans man.
Hunter: And for me, having that surgery was a weight off my shoulders.
Roz: Just those comments sum things up. It’s very hard to describe. To understand. I can never know what it’s like to be transgender. As individuals we can never fully know what’s it’s like to be another person.
Please share your thoughts; briefly, what would your message be to trans youth and their parents?
Hunter: As cliché as this sounds, trust what you know about your teen and yourself. Things will work out. Six years ago, I was scared. The stories I had seen on the news were never uplifting. Had I only known then what I know now: I want to give trans people assurance and encouragement that they’ll find their path to a full life.
Richard: Put your judgements and biases aside. When we started Stand With Trans we agreed to address each person as an individual with the realization that everyone goes through certain stages of the struggle differently. Our journey has been a learning experience, and like any worthwhile learning experience, it forces us to grow, both in knowledge and love.
Roz: Be open to possibilities. And never ever give up. And when your child says, “This is who I am,” believe them.
Hunter: Be true to yourself first. When people ask me, “How do you know you’re gay?” I answer, “How do you know you’re straight?” We just are who we are.
Roz: And have the courage to share your story. You never know how it will change a life. Our work will never be done, because every day trans people are coming out. So, we keep telling our story to show how important family support is. We started with one parent group four years ago, now we have 20 ongoing support groups in 11 different locations in Michigan. We started with Ally Moms, now we’re Ally Parents with members in almost every state. We’re not crisis counselors, we’re not therapists. We’re just “love at the other end of the phone.”
Which brings me to my mantra. . . the thing I say over and over. Love your child. Unconditionally. And never stop telling them how much.
The more we know: five facts about transgender kids
It’s unclear how many children identify as transgender. According to data from a 2014 government survey, about 1.3 million American adults identify as transgender. But it’s unclear how many children identify with a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. 80% feel unsafe in school due to gender.
Transitioning is a very personal process and can take years. The age that somebody understands themselves is quite variable. 73% believe they will be treated differently by medical professional due to gender identity expression.
58% report verbal harassment with long-term consequences. Studies show transgender children are more likely to be anxious and depressed, and whether or not they feel supported in their gender identity may play a role in their well-being.
Transgender children and teens have increased suicide risk and are more likely to attempt suicide than their peers, often due to bullying and transphobia in their communities. Attempted suicide rates were higher—46.5%—among transgender university and college students in a 2016 study of more than 6,000 transgender adults published in The Journal of Homosexuality.
An accepting environment helps Research tells us that transgender children fare better in communities that support them. Negative outcomes are not a given. Family and school support can make a difference.
Save the date:
Stand with Trans 5th Annual Empowerment Workshop
October 19, 2019
Advocate, celebrate, educate, connect. Stand with Trans to host an all-day event for trans youth, parents/caregivers of trans individuals and young gender expansive children. The workshop will be held at the Orchard United Methodist Church in Farmington Hills. For more information visit www.standwithtrans.org. Registration is required.