HOPKINTON, Mass. (WPRI) – Ann Dragsbaek and her husband, Torin, are the parents to four children who live in a beautiful lakeside home in Hopkinton, Massachusetts.
A photo from a recent vacation shows them all staggered on a cruise ship staircase with smiles on their face. But, what it doesn’t show is that their youngest child, Luke, is transgender.
“When he was around six years old he asked me if he died, could he come back as a boy?” said Ann.
Even when she thinks back to a time when her youngest child was her daughter Skylar, Ann uses male pronouns – an important distinction in the transgender community.
At first, Ann said she and her husband thought the baby of their family was a tomboy – Skylar liked boys clothes, traditional boys toys, and sports. Ann admitted that, at that point in their lives, her family didn’t know anyone who was transgender, and didn’t even really know what transgender meant.
But, Ann did her research and quickly realized that Skylar was showing clear and consistent signs that he did not identify with his assigned gender.
“I just thought to myself that I would rather have a happy son than a dead daughter,” said Ann.
Dr. Michelle Forcier is a pediatrician at Hasbro Children’s Hospital who specializes in gender and sexual health; she said that the Dragsbaeks’ early support was crucial to Luke’s well-being.
“There’s solid data that suggests family acceptance is a critical critical factor in terms of kids doing well in terms of health outcomes,” said Forcier.
Forcier helped start a pair of programs for transgender patients – the first of its kind in Rhode Island – that now treats over 500 patients. She wants the Adolescent Health Care Center in Providence to become the first stop for families with kids who have gender questions or kids who are gender exploring. Forcier said the earlier she and her team can see them – the better.
Luke is one her patients, Forcier has been seeing him and his parents at the Adolescent Health Care Center in Providence for three years.
“I think that when it really hit home for the rest of my family was a couple weeks before his First Communion,” said Ann. “When he was seven, he came to me crying and he told me he was really afraid to receive First Communion and I said, ‘Why are you afraid?’” and he just said, ‘please don’t make me wear that dress.’”
So Ann bought him a suit instead of a dress.
“The first thing he said was, ‘Don’t I look handsome?’” said Ann. “Those were always the words he used to describe himself.”
Luke’s physical transition unfolded slowly over a few years; when he was 9 years old, he cut his hair short.
Shortly after that – a name change – Skylar announced that he would now be known as Luke.
“I was really upset when I had to be like a girl, but I absolutely loved it when I had to be like a boy because that’s what I wanted to be,” said Luke.
Ann said she didn’t feel like she lost a daughter, she felt like she gained a child.
“Parents who are rejecting of their kids because of their gender identity or sexual identity – those kids are at higher risk for depression, for self harm and suicidality,” said Forcier.
Ann found those same statistics and said they scared her.
“The cost of not listening to your kid, the cost of rejecting your kid, or the cost of saying ‘We’re not going to deal with this’ is actually really harmful,” said Forcier. “The cost far outweighs the benefit of listening and trying some of the therapies we might have to give kids the chance to figure things out.”
Ann said the rest of her family wasn’t on board at first – they thought this was a phase the baby of the family would grow out of – but they eventually started to accept their new reality.
“I think my husband had a harder time with it,” said Ann. “He gets emotional when he talks about it, because he just wants him to be happy and I think he thinks his [Luke’s] life is going to be harder because of it.”
Ann’s oldest son just graduated from high school and is still having a hard time with Luke’s transition, three years after it started.
“He still has a hard time, he doesn’t think it’s OK, he thinks it’s a choice,” said Luke.
When he was nine years old, Luke’s parents decided to put him on puberty blockers. “Puberty blockers are completely reversible, once you go off of them, puberty would just pick up right where it left off. So basically it gives you time,” said Ann. “For now, we’re just taking it one day at a time.”
Ann said they’ll start thinking about taking their finger off the pause button in a couple of years, when a boy would normally go through puberty. She said Luke will start taking testosterone when he’s fourteen or fifteen years old. Luke will turn twelve soon and said that he would rather start next year.
“He can’t wait,” said Ann. “He’s never wavered. He can’t wait to grow a mustache and a beard.”
Forcier said her transgender patients range in age from 4 to eighty years old and that it’s very uncommon for those who transition to regret doing so. But, occasionally, some will chose not to transition because of economic resources, because they’re afraid of social discrimination, or because of family issues.
Along with the emotional journey, transgender individuals and their families do have to consider the cost of exploring a transition. Counseling, medication, and, in some cases, surgery are not cheap, but Forcier said that the costs are becoming more reasonable.
“In 2016, Rhode Island followed other states in creating laws that basically said insurance companies can’t exclude transgender care,” said Forcier.
As the Dragsbaek family continues to move forward and grow, Ann said she wants to provide support for other families like hers.
“I know there are a lot of moms and dads who are quiet about it and they’re not sharing their story, which is fine, everybody’s journey is different,” said Ann. “I just want people to know that there are other people out there that are going through the same thing.”
Luke is finally comfortable in his own skin and working on building a support network outside of home. In the summer, he goes to Camp Aranu’tiq a summer camp for transgender kids in New Hampshire.
“It feels a lot different because when I was Skylar I was upset,” said Luke. “Now as I’m Luke, it feels a whole lot different now that I can be happy and not be scared.”