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Helping Trans Kids Out of the Shadows
by Jacob Anderson-Minshall
2008-03-19

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'How does a 14-year-old shoot a 15-year-old in the back of the head because he's wearing high heels?' trans activist Jenn Burleton mused about the recent murder of southern California teen. 'More than any other source of childhood abuse, teasing, and bullying—femininity in male children kills.'

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Pictured: Jenn Burleton.

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Dedicated to preventing another causalty, the founder and executive director of TransActive Education & Advocacy ( transactiveonline.org ) , a Portland, Ore.-based organization, works with parents and schools to support transgender and gender-variant children.

'This work is not just for trans kids,' she insists. 'Because all children are victims of gender expression oppression.'

A lesbian-identified trans woman who recently celebrated her 25th anniversary with her partner, Burleton previously co-founded Trans Youth Family Allies ( TYFA—formerly Trans Youth Family Advocates ) a national organization providing support for trans kids and their families, where she served as the inaugural executive director and board president.

Once a trans teen herself, in the mid-1960s, the then-12-year-old Burleton became one of the first—albeit, unsanctioned—trans youth to begin hormone treatments—after she discovered Dr. Harry Benjamin's The Transsexual Phenomenon and began stealing her mother's Premarin.

'I had the benefit that my mom was an alcoholic,' she jokes. 'She was out of it so much she couldn't keep track of what was going on.'

Burleton's access to female hormones staved off a testosterone-fueled puberty, and led to her transitioning at eighteen through Vanderbilt University's gender identity clinic. Over the next several decades Burleton became a successful guitar playing, keyboardist singer-songwriter. Playing everything from rock to jazz and pop, she toured with some well-known musicians and recorded television audio and music soundtracks.

Still she acknowledges, 'I never lost the pain of not having had anyone support that child that I was. No matter how great the rest of my life was, I still felt the pain of the kid and what could have been.'

Eventually, that ache drove Burleton to advocate for today's trans kids, and she produced the short film Out Of The Shadows about trans and gender non-conforming children and youth. Since posted on YouTube in early 2007, it's been viewed over 300,000 times, translated into Portuguese and utilized as an educational tool.

'It's now my life's work to advocate on behalf of these children,' Burleton says, 'There's something that happens when you sit in a room with a seven year old trans kid who's getting to be themselves with the support of their parents. It happens to the little kid in you. It's what made me passionate about the work, but I also had some things I had to work through, because it was extremely emotional.'

In retrospect, Burleton believes that emotional baggage may have served as an unpleasant reminder of the psychological scars a transgender life can enflict.

'I've come to this conclusion: A lot of trans parents … are hoping … to cure their kids of being trans. By letting them be themselves when they're young, [ parents ] hope to raise a child that's so gender mainstreamed that the trans thing becomes a non issue.'

It's not that easy, Burleton contends. 'I cannot imagine any person having gone through this experience not, on some level—a completely functional level, not a debilitating level— [ being impacted by it ] . Cancer survivors don't forget they had cancer.'

Those parents who believe otherwise, Burleton maintains, are most likely to distance themselves from transgender adults; who they fear may not be well adjusted and who remind them that things might not turn out perfectly when the child grows up.

After her involvement with TYFA ended, Burleton launched TransActive Education & Advocacy, using everything she'd learned at TYFA but focusing on Portland and the Pacific Northwest. There TransActive goes to the schools proactively 'instead of waiting for the families to come to us.'

It's critical, Burleton argues, to have trans people in positions of power in these kinds of organizations. 'Trans people have a significant role to play in this—not only as role models for the kids but role models for the parents. Nobody can explain what these kids are going through like an adult survivor of being a trans child.'

Trans author Jacob Anderson-Minshall co-writes the Blind Eye mystery series with his wife.

© 2008 Jacob Anderson-Minshall


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