By Derek P. Siegel, Ph.D. Candidate, Sociology, UMass Amherst
Since the beginning of 2023, 49 U.S. state legislatures have introduced over 500 anti-trans bills. While mainstream media increasingly cover violence and legislative attacks against trans people, many scholars and activists worry that focusing just on violence and discrimination fails to capture the full experience of being trans.
Drawing on the success of movements like the Black Joy Project, which uses art to promote Black healing and community-building, trans activists are challenging one-dimensional depictions of their community by highlighting the unique joys of being transgender.
My research on trans parents affirms the reality of trans joy. From 2019 to 2021, I interviewed 54 transgender women – both current and prospective parents – from diverse racial and class backgrounds across the country. I found that while many have navigated discrimination in their parenting journeys, they also have fulfilling parent-child relationships, often with the support of partners, families of origin and their communities.
Scholars and community members use the term gender euphoria to describe a “joyful feeling of rightness in one’s gender/sex.” It diverges from the diagnosis of gender dysphoria, or a sense of conflict between assigned sex and gender identity typically associated with feelings of distress and discomfort.
While gender dysphoria reflects some trans people’s experiences, physicians have historically used this concept to restrict access to gender-affirming care. For example, doctors may prescribe hormones only to people who obtain a letter from a therapist attesting that they fit a narrow understanding of transness that includes expressing hatred for their body.
Gender euphoria celebrates feeling comfortable with who you are and how you are perceived by the world. Some people transition with a specific set of goals, while others discover new sources of joy and new facets of their identity over time.
Many of the trans women I interviewed expressed their gender euphoria in relation to their role as mothers. A Black trans woman in her 20s, whom I will call Gloria, experiences joy in being recognized as a mother. “I love being called Mom. That’s the greatest thing,” she told me. “I love waking up every morning to see [my child’s] beautiful face. It keeps me motivated.”
Other people experience euphoria in how they express their gender. Naomi, a white trans woman in her 40s, experienced her first spark of gender euphoria at the nail salon.
“It was the only gender-affirming thing I could express [at the time],” she said. “When the nail tech took the polish off and I saw how long my fingernails had gotten, my heart skipped a beat.”
For many trans people, transitioning opens up a new set of possibilities. When I asked Adriana, a trans Latina in her 30s, what it was like to come out as trans, she told me, “I’ve never been happier. The happiest day of my life was when my daughter was born, and the second happiest day of my life was when I [started transitioning].”
Family and community connections
While some trans people do experience rejection from their families of origin, that is not true for the majority of the community. In a 2015 national survey of over 27,700 trans adults, the U.S. Trans Survey, 60% of respondents reported having families who are supportive of their trans identity.
Liza, a white trans woman in her 20s, has a close relationship with her brothers.
“We are still a little triad. Yes, things change, but ultimately, I’m the same person just using a different name,” she said. “I can see myself as part of this family going forward. There’s no break. I’m not breaking anything by coming out.”
Trans women also form chosen families with friends, co-workers and other community members. Relationships with other trans people can have particularly positive effects on identity development and overall well-being, including emotional resilience, self-acceptance and a sense of connection.
Jane, a Black trans woman in her 20s, has a tight-knit group of first-time parents she can call “whenever [she’s] freaking out,” no matter the scope of the emergency. While she laments her father’s lack of support, Jane’s friends are always there for her. “[T]hey come to visit, they bond with my son, [and] we get to spend time together like a big family, you know?”
Trans community care
In addition to caring for their biological and adopted children, the trans women I interviewed felt a responsibility to take care of their community.
Sometimes this care manifested as parent-child relationships, in which respondents provide financial or emotional support to LGBTQ+ youth. Maggie, a white woman in her 50s, didn’t know she was a parental figure for her “queer kids” until they tagged her on Instagram to celebrate Mother’s Day.
“Someone might go, ‘Hey, can I stay on your sofa tonight? I’m having a hard time.’ Well, yeah, of course,” she said. “Or they might hang around the shop [I work at], and only later it dawns on me, ‘Oh, this was the only place they could come and get affirmed and not feel weird.’”
Many also provide care outside their family units. Whitney, a Black trans woman in her 20s, reaches out to and tells local teachers they can refer parents of trans kids to her if they have any questions about how to support their children on their gender journeys or if their kids need someone to talk to.
Respondents like Whitney, who began questioning her gender identity in her early teens, also mentor trans women who are older than they. “Why not,” she told me, “if I have relevant experiences and can help make their lives easier?”
Miriam, a white trans woman in her 60s, agreed that she has a lot to learn from younger trans people. “A lot of my community today, people who I count as family and my beloveds, are not of my generation,” she said. ‘Beloveds’ is the term she uses to describe her platonic loved ones.
“I learn a lot from my beloveds in their 20s and 30s, who don’t have the same baggage I [dealt with] about how I could be and who I could be.”
Anti-trans hate as a self-fulfilling prophecy
Anti-trans politicians deploy a variety of tactics to stigmatize transgender communities, from describing gender-affirming care as mutilation to falsely accusing trans people of predatory behavior.
While these politicians claim to be protecting children by restricting access to gender-affirming care, a 2021 Trevor Project survey found that recent political events have harmed the mental health of 94% of LGTBQ youth in the U.S. A study based on data from the 2015 U.S. Trans Survey found that harassment based on gender identity at school also harms transgender youths, resulting in higher rates of suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts.
In contrast, research has shown that starting hormone replacement therapy reduces the risk of suicide by 73% for trans youth, among other mental health benefits. Another study found that trans people who start hormones as adolescents report lower levels of binge drinking, drug use and suicidality than those who desired gender-affirming hormones but could not access them.
For Adriana, who described beginning transition as the second happiest day of her life, after the day her daughter was born, fear of rejection kept her in denial of her trans identity. She used alcohol and made “reckless decisions” to cope with her gender dysphoria. Transitioning, meanwhile, brought her closer to her daughter.
“I was never myself around her, not completely, which my daughter noticed,” she said. “We’ve always been close, but now that I’m genuinely happy with myself, we’re even closer.”
Amid efforts to criminalize drag shows and ban LGBTQ topics from public schools, highlighting the joy of trans motherhood directly rejects myths that portray trans women as “groomers” or otherwise dangerous to children. Extensive research shows that having a transgender parent does not affect children’s gender identity, sexual orientation or other developmental markers. Yet trans people experience discrimination in both adoption and custody disputes based on these pervasive myths.
Trans motherhood showcases the resilience of trans people who work diligently to take care of each other, even when they are failed by their communities and other institutions. Maria, an Indigenous Latina trans woman in her 30s, finds beauty in serving as a mother for the young queer and trans activists she works with.
“I find it an honor that someone holds you in such high esteem that they want to call you their mom. … Because motherhood is a beautiful thing,” she said. “I think it’s a beautiful thing to help them in their journey to become the best versions of themselves.”
Soloveva Anastasiia and Monkey Business Images (via Shutterstock)