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Tracey Wilson, in a 2014 photo when she was 11, has thrived with the support of her mother Michelle. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)
Tracey Wilson, in a 2014 photo when she was 11, has thrived with the support of her mother Michelle. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)

Adult support key in nurturing well-being of transgender youth, study finds Add to ...

Even at eight years old, Tracey Wilson had no doubt in her mind that she was a girl. But at that time, she was still known as Trey and the idea of talking to her parents about her gender identity was worrisome.

“I didn’t go full-out at first because I thought it might scare them,” she said. “So I told them I wasn’t a boy and I wasn’t a girl. I wanted to go easy on them.”

But it turned out Michelle and Garfield Wilson had prepared themselves for that moment, having noticed their child’s gender non-conforming behaviour years earlier. Despite initially having disagreed on how to proceed, the two embraced Tracey wholly.

“Right then and there, my mom took me to the store and I got my first girl shirt, I got my first tights, I got my first necklace, my first headband,” Tracey recalled in an interview on Wednesday.

Now an articulate 12-year-old who speaks eloquently on trans issues, Tracey credits her parents’ unwavering support for helping her through her transition. This kind of support is highlighted in a new, national study out of the University of British Columbia as being one of the chief contributors to positive mental health and well-being in trans youth.

Those who had supportive adults both inside and outside the family were four times more likely to report good or excellent mental health and were four times less likely to have considered suicide, the study found. As well, those with a supportive adult in the family are much less likely to self-harm.

The report, called Being Safe, Being Me, drew from the responses of 923 trans youths between the ages of 14 and 25, from every province and territory except Yukon and Nunavut. It is believed to be the largest and most comprehensive survey of its kind on trans-youth health in Canada.

Ms. Wilson, Tracey’s mother, said she is grateful for the report, which also underscores the risks that trans youth face with respect to sexual harassment, discrimination and exposure to violence. It found that 70 per cent of respondents had experienced sexual harassment, more than one-third had been physically threatened or injured in the past year and nearly half of older youths reported various types of cyberbullying.

Two-thirds of respondents reported discrimination because of their gender identity and about half due to their physical appearance.

“It reiterates to me … the risk that trans youth face,” Ms. Wilson said. “This is a really real issue and it needs to be addressed and taken seriously.”

Elizabeth Saewyc, a UBC nursing professor and the study’s principal investigator, said that while the high levels of reported harassment and discrimination are “sobering,” it is reassuring to see the impact of protective factors such as family supports and connectedness to schools.

“Those who had someone in the family they could turn to did much better, even if they were experiencing violence elsewhere; those who felt teachers cared about them were twice as likely to report good or excellent mental health,” Prof. Saewyc said. “That really suggests to me that we do know the things we can do to help improve their health.”

(Tracey made headlines last year when she persuaded the Archdiocese of Vancouver to challenge the teachings of the church and accommodate elementary students’ gender expression, supporting her right, for example, not to use the boys’ bathroom. That made it the first Catholic school district in Canada to develop such a policy.)

Morgane Oger, chair of the Trans Alliance Society and a spokeswoman for the B.C. Safer Schools Coalition, said the study paints a clearer picture of the trans landscape today than smaller and dated surveys of years past.

“What’s great about this is, as we all know, the formative years are when you’re young, so these [respondents] reflect more recent formative years,” Ms. Oger said. “It’s a better snapshot of what’s going on now and what’s coming down the pipeline, lets say, in the next five years. The youth are more indicative of a trans-positive society that’s accustomed to LGBTQ people around them.”

Catherine Jenkins, treasurer at PFLAG Vancouver, an LGBTQ support group, said it was good to see a comprehensive Canadian study on trans youth bolstered with numbers.

“It’s great that the trans community has these statistics and has these numbers for themselves to … go to their families and tell them, ‘Look, if you don’t want to deal with this then this is what could happen,’” she said.

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