Rural support group for parents of transgender kids looks to expand

Parents of transgender children who started a free support group on Nova Scotia's South Shore say the growth of the group shines a light on the need for more resources in rural areas of the province.

BriAnna Simons started meeting with three families out of her social work office in Chester about a year ago. They all had questions about raising gender-diverse kids, but with few resources outside of Halifax, they didn't know where to go for answers.

Now, about nine parents regularly attend the Thursday night meetings, which happen once a month.

Simons said it's a chance to talk candidly about the challenges of parenting transgender children, to connect with people who have similar experiences and to share practical advice.

"Each month, I'm having more people reaching out and connecting," Simons told CBC's Information Morning. "Because everybody is in different stages, it's been really helpful because some of the parents of older kids are talking about the experiences they're having and what they're going through."

Simons is now looking for people who will host the monthly group so it can travel to different rural communities and be more accessible. She said some people travel up to 45 minutes to attend the current meetings.

Simons's child was four years old when she identified as transgender. Now, at age six, she's thriving, said Simons, who credits the group with helping her create a supportive environment at home.

Simons started the Chester group with the help of Cyndi Sweeney, a gender diversity consultant who formed a similar support group in Bedford, N.S., in 2018. That group typically sees 15 parents every month, Sweeney said.

BriAnna Simon/Facebook

"Being a parent of a trans child, it becomes extremely difficult because there's a lot of isolation, and it seemed for us, every corner we turned around there was a new wall to climb or a code to try to decipher," said Sweeney, whose child began transitioning to a boy at age 10.

She said challenges for parents include getting access to health-care supports that have long wait lists and trying to navigate changing a child's legal name on personal documentation.

"That can be really difficult for families as well because there isn't one coherent way across Canada of doing that," she said. "So if your child is born in another province, it becomes very difficult."

Support groups also show parents that there's room for their children in a world that can make them feel invisible, she said.

Paul Palmeter/CBC

When it comes to education resources for kids, Sweeney said it's important that they're introduced early on in elementary school, rather than waiting until middle school.

That's why she's involved with an initiative this month to deliver books about gender diversity and resources for teachers to schools.

On Feb. 28, several schools in the province will host readings as part of the second annual Inclusive Classrooms Read Nova Scotia event.

"Unfortunately, there's so much confusion and misinformation around gender identity," she said.

"If we can incorporate education from primary upwards, we can effectively eliminate discrimination and prejudice before it is taught and evolved."