By Ronelle Grier
Photography by Anthony Lanzilote
Parental support in particular is essential to teens within gender and sexual minorities.
Today’s teens are under pressure like never before. Along with the age-old challenges of figuring out their identities, fitting in with peers and getting into college, social media has wreaked new havoc on their emotional well-being. Experts agree teens with strong family support have a better chance of developing into healthy, productive adults.
For teens who identify as transgender, nonbinary or other emerging sexual and gender minority categories, parental support takes on new importance. Parents are not simply important — they can make the difference between life and death.
Transgender teens face discrimination on many fronts. They are ostracized by their peers and made to feel uncomfortable at school or in their religious communities. Many experience anxiety and depression as a result. However, when they are shunned by their own parents, the consequences are often disastrous.
An alarming 57 percent of transgender teens without parental support have attempted suicide, says a study by Trans Student Educational Resources, a national nonprofit advocacy and education organization. In contrast, the attempted suicide rate for transgender teens with supportive families was 4 percent.
The study found more than half the teens, or 55 percent, without family support had no place to live. In addition, 75 percent suffered from depression, compared to 23 percent of those with parental support.
Parents who learn their child identifies with a sexual or gender minority often feel confused, unsure of how to navigate this new, unfamiliar world. Many feel alone and afraid. They may want to be supportive, but they don’t know how.
For these parents, “How to Raise a Diverse, Authentic Family while Living Jewishly,” can help. Workshops March 9, April 7 and May 7 (see box) are sponsored by the local organization Stand with Trans with a grant from the Jewish Women’s Foundation.
Azriel Reuven Apap, 17, who was assigned female at birth, started feeling uncomfortable when he began puberty.
“I did not like how my body was changing. I didn’t like my breasts,” Apap says. “I thought, ‘I’m not supposed to look like this.’”
Apap came out to his family and friends at 13. Although he had cut his hair short and occasionally passed as male, the strain of his situation took its toll.
“I was suicidal because I couldn’t live like that anymore,” he says. “I came out all at once to everyone everywhere. I knew there would be fallout. Parts of it weren’t as bad as I thought they were going to be; parts were way worse.”
In terms of family support, Apap is one of the lucky ones. His parents and siblings were immediately supportive, as were his friends.
“My friends were all amazing. They didn’t blink. They didn’t flinch. My
community is Modern Orthodox, so it was surprising,” he says, adding his siblings immediately picked up on the pronouns and nicknames. “My siblings are the best in the world.”
While his mother was “slightly worried about what people would think,” her main concern was Azriel’s mental health.
“She wished she had more resources so she wouldn’t have had to read the entire internet in one night,” Apap jokes. “I’ve never seen any parent handle this better than my parents did. They’re really great.”
Apap started the medical phase of his transition at 14, which has included hormone therapy and top surgery. While many teens wait longer to make those physical changes, Apap says his transition timeline was somewhat unusual because he began puberty early.
He changed his name legally to Azriel Reuven Apap.
Prior to coming out, Apap attended the Modern Orthodox-based Farber Hebrew Day School/Yeshivat Akiva. Although most of the staff and administration were supportive, it became clear the school was no longer a good fit once he began identifying as a male.
“Akiva was trying to think of ways to make it work, but it wasn’t going to — it was totally uncharted territory to them … davening and Jewish learning were gender-segregated,” he says. “We all realized it wasn’t going to work.”
His mother, Deb Kovsky, agreed.
“We were told he could come back if he wore a skirt, took the girls’ classes, used the girls’ restroom and sat on the girls’ side of the mechitzah (divider separating men and women in Orthodox services),” Kovsky says. “Basically, they said, ‘We’ll let your daughter come back, but not your son.’ It was the same with his summer camp.”
Head of School Rabbi Scot Berman says he could not address student matters publicly, but says, “Farber Hebrew Day School is committed to the principle of respecting human dignity. Every person is created in the image of God irrespective of their personal circumstances including their gender identity or sexual orientation.
“Working within the framework of Halakhah (Jewish law), the school is committed to serving all students interested in the education our school provides.”
After leaving Farber in eighth grade, Apap “hopped around a lot,” trying to find a comfortable, accepting place.
Today, he is a senior at Berkley High School, where he has friends and is active in the theater department, serving as student producer of the play The Curious Story of the Dog at Nighttime. Although he has not decided on a college yet, he plans to go somewhere he can major in acting, with a minor in film or Jewish studies.
“It does get better,” he says. “There’s definitely a lot going on, some of it horrible, but you will look back and think, ‘Thank God, I’m fine now.’”
Apap’s mother said things began to change noticeably after he returned from summer camp, a few days after his 13th birthday. First, he cut his “long, beautiful flowing hair.”
“He was refusing to wear skirts and was more depressed and miserable than usual,” she recalls. “Until then, I had no idea.”
When Apap came out to his family, Kovsky’s initial reaction was shock.
“To me, it came out of left field, not something I expected” she says. “My husband had no more idea than I did. I didn’t know anyone who was transgender. I didn’t really know what it meant. It was a total departure from where I thought we were.”
Deciding she needed to educate herself, Kovsky turned to the internet.
“I knew male and female,” she says. “I didn’t know about nonbinary; I didn’t know about gender as a spectrum. I decided to Google everything.”
Eventually, she found an online call-in support group for Orthodox parents of LGBTQ+ children.
“I thought I was the only such parent in the world,” she says. “I was terrified about what it would mean for my son, my family, my community. Would I still have a community? When your child comes out, parents have to come out, too.”
She was dismayed to learn some of the friends her children had known for years were no longer allowed to associate with Apap and his siblings.
“From a Jewish standpoint, it’s like saving a life,” she says. “Gender dysphoria (a mismatch between assigned birth gender and the one a person identifies with) is torture. The only medically recognized treatment for gender dysphoria is transition, but not everyone sees it that way.”
She was also unprepared for the medical issues associated with her son’s transition. Finding health care providers, such as endocrinologists, surgeons and therapists, who are transgender-friendly was challenging.
Kovsky found additional support and resources from advocacy organizations such as Stand with Trans and Ferndale-based Affirmations.
“This is not something to undertake on your own,” she says. “Talk to those who have trod the path before you. It will feel like you’re the first-ever parent of a transgender teen but, trust me, you’re not.” Kovsky is proud of her son for continuing to be part of the Orthodox community despite the challenges.
“He’s doing an amazing job integrating two identities that are tough to integrate,” she says.
Lee (not their real name), 15, identifies as nonbinary, the term for people who consider themselves neither male nor female. Born female, Lee uses the pronouns “they,” “them” and “their.” At 11, Lee knew they were different than other girls their age.
“I told my mom, ‘I don’t think I’m a girl or a boy, and I think I want to change my name’,” Lee says. “She was very supportive but, at my middle school, they weren’t as supportive.”
Lee started a group at school to promote equality for those in the LGBTQ+ community but eventually changed high schools because they felt unsafe.
“I realized I don’t really fit in public schools,” says Lee, who now attends a charter school focused on the arts. “It’s been really good; they’re really supportive.”
Like Apap, Lee feels fortunate to have an understanding family.
“I’m much happier because I know this is who I truly am. I don’t want to be like everyone else because that’s just boring and not who I am,” Lee says. “The discrimination is tiring, but now I’m in a safe place, it’s worth it.”
Lee wishes other people would be more respectful and place less importance on the issue of gender.
“We get asked so many questions, like what’s in your pants, things that should never be OK,” Lee says. “When people meet me, they identify me as the transgender kid. I wish they would just know me as Lee.”
Teens who identify as transgender or other sexual and gender minority categories have higher rates of anxiety and depression than cisgender (those who identify with their birth gender) and other LGBTQ+ individuals, according to licensed clinical psychologist Melissa Farrell, Psy.D.
“In a very real biological sense, transgender people have the brain of one gender born in the body of another,” said Farrell, who specializes in the treatment of LGBTQ+ youth at Great Lakes Psychology Group in Dearborn. “Since we can’t change the brain, our only recourse is to change the body.”
She believes families have a huge impact on whether vulnerable adolescents will create positive identities for themselves or develop shame about who they are. Teens who are made to feel they disappointed their families will carry those negative feelings into adulthood.
Ypsilanti-based psychotherapist Anthony J. Beasley, L.M.S.W., M.S.W., agrees that people not supported in their gender identity and expression face more difficult challenges. For many transgender and nonbinary individuals, acceptance, respect and safety are scarce.
“In school settings, they experience bullying and are often challenged with the issue of bathrooms and which ones they can use,” Beasley says.
Those who hide their gender or sexual identities also experience stress, especially when others make derogatory comments about gay or transgender people in front of them.
“People can either out themselves or stand idly by and let people say these horrible things,” Farrell says.
Situations such as the recent ban on transgender people in the military and the steadily rising murder rate of transgender people adds to the tension this population is already experiencing.
“There are national discussions about whether they (transgender people) should even be allowed in schools,” Farrell says. “All the media attention creates stress. We talk about cyberbullying — these kids are being cyberbullied by the news.”
Advice for Parents, Teens and Teachers
The therapists, parents and teens who provided input for this story offer these tips:
• Transgender kids can be born into any family. It has nothing to do with what a parent did or didn’t do. Parent from a place of love rather than guilt.
• There’s a very real chance that not accepting your child will result in losing them to suicide.
• Parental support makes all the difference. Teens need their parents, even when they say they don’t.
• Remember before your baby was born, and you said, “I don’t care if it’s a boy or a girl as long as it’s healthy.” You have to still mean that.
• It’s natural for parents to go through a grieving process for the child they thought they would have. They need to reach a place where they love and accept the child they have.
• Realize there is bullying going on when you’re not looking. Be extra-vigilant with this extremely vulnerable population.
• Put yourself in the students’ shoes.
• It is important to normalize life for these teens. Listen to them. Acknowledge them. Respect them.
• Find a supportive group, organization or community. For those in more isolated areas, make use of online support and therapy.
• Seek out the people who will absolutely support and affirm you for who you truly are. Believe in yourself and the gifts you were born with. Realize you are beautiful and valuable to this world as your true authentic self.
• Don’t stray away from yourself because of others. Be the original true you, no matter what.