“I had a kid who wanted to die,” said Jamie Bruesehoff of her then 7-year-old child who tried to run into traffic to be hit by a car, then threatened to jump out of a second-story window in their home. “It was the most scary thing I have ever experienced,” she said.
The child, known as Rebekah, was assigned male at birth in 2008, but from the time she was young, felt she was a girl.
“She came out of the womb demanding that her voice be heard,” Bruesehoff told a lunch and learn meeting of the National Council of Jewish Women’s Essex County Section on Nov. 8 at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston. The forum, attended by 120 people, was titled “Free to Be He, She, They: Children and Gender Identity.”
Rebekah’s strong voice told Jamie and her husband, Christopher, a pastor at Holy Counselor Lutheran Church in Vernon, that she “didn’t fit into the boxes society was giving her about what a boy was meant to be.”
Rebekah had developed anxieties when she was grouped with boys in school, because most of her friends were girls. “She was becoming more anxious about being a boy dressed up in pink.” And when her daughter had to dress in special clothes for a choir recital or tap dance show “it was traumatizing” because she was being separated from her friends in places where she felt most comfortable.
But after Rebekah’s suicide attempts, “somewhere along the way she heard the word ‘transgender’ and learned what it meant, and a wave of relief washed over her,” said her mother. She did not discuss whether her daughter will undergo hormone treatments or gender reassignment surgery.
Today Rebekah is a “happy, healthy, thriving almost-11-year-old girl” who has become a speaker and advocate for transgender rights. She has even posted a video on YouTube headlined “I’m The Scary Transgender Person the Media Warned You About.”
She is one of .7 percent of the population, some 1.4 million Americans, who are estimated to be transgender. Approximately 63,000 live in New Jersey, according to the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy at UCLA Law School.
Her family has been occasionally threatened with violence and reported anonymously to child protection agencies for abuse by allowing her to live as a girl. Her parents worry about her future, “knowing what the political climate looks like.”
Bruesehoff is concerned about others in the trans community, such as single-parent and minority families, who lack the same level of communal support that her family receives. She said they face a great deal more hatred.
Her fears are grounded in newly-released statistics. The Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for the LGBT community, estimates that nationally 25 transgender people have been killed thus far in 2017, compared to 23 in 2016 and 21 in 2015.
Nicole Davis, a licensed clinical social worker and clinical associate with the Gender and Family Project in New York, said many parents have no idea about how to support their transgender child, or even are aware that their child is transgender. “I tell them ‘you’ll know because they will tell you.’”
She said parents should ask themselves whether their child’s self-identity is “persistent, consistent, insistent. If a child comes to you in this state, that is how you know.”
She advised parents to let their children “take the lead” in coming out as transgender to friends and family. “Do they want everybody to know?” she asked. “Some kids don’t want to do it that way.”
Aaron Potenza, an historian with two master’s degrees in American studies, is director of programs at Garden State Equality, a statewide organization working for LGBT rights.
He said a “fine-tuned machine on the right lost the battle” on marriage equality then decided to target transgender people.
That counterrevolution has led to “a spate of anti-transgender bathroom bills” and the Trump administration’s order to ban people who are transgender from military service. “We are at a place where I feel we want to say that the arc of history bends toward justice, but not always,” he said.
However, he told NJJN, he sees positive change in the future. “Some really conservative districts” are becoming more accepting of marriage equality. Even among evangelical Christians there is an uptick of acceptance. “Transgender [acceptance] is going to follow the same way,” he predicted.
He said that is a healthy thing. “When these kids’ gender identity is affirmed, they flourish and they do much better. I know it myself because I lived it.” Potenza was assigned female at birth but is a transgender man.
“As an elementary school kid, I had a lot of anxiety. I was really shy … I felt there was a lot of weirdness around my gender and people saw that,” he told the NCJW members. His “pretty progressive” parents allowed him to grow up in the 1980s as a “tomboy” who wanted to play with Matchbox cars and wear boy’s clothes. But still, he said, “my day-to-day existence was a struggle with gender.”
“Now I can just exist in the world,” he said. “I don’t have … that thing where someone doesn’t see me for who I am.”