Hilary Berman said her transgender son, Xander Ruth, had a “very difficult” time in school, starting in the sixth grade.
“He was bullied in middle school,” she told NBC News. “He felt the school tolerated the bullying, and he didn’t share how hard it was to me until later.”
But while Ruth lacked support among many of his peers, he always had the backing of his family, according to Berman.
“We love our son and want to empower him,” Berman explained. “Our children look to us for approval and security, so I think it’s essential to nurture them and allow them to be who they are.”
Now 16, Xander Ruth is thriving in a public high school for the arts. In his spare time, he likes to practice kung fu, and he intends to continue his studies after graduation. “I want to go to college and study film,” he said.
Berman and Ruth, both of California, acknowledged that family and community support were instrumental in helping him make it through those tough middle school years.
Xander Ruth’s story is one of several included in the newly announced Advancing Acceptance campaign, a collaboration of the Biden Foundation, the Movement Advancement Project and Gender Spectrum. The campaign seeks to raise awareness about the importance of family acceptance for transgender and gender-nonconforming youth through video testimonials and a collection of resources for youth, their families and policymakers.
“It’s critical for families to know that their words and actions can make the difference between a happy, healthy, thriving child — or one at greatly elevated risk of depression, suicidal behavior and other harmful outcomes,” Ineke Mushovic, executive director of Movement Advancement Project, an LGBTQ think tank, told NBC News. “Too many families, and the lives of too many transgender children, have been devastated by parents who reject these children or try to force them to be someone they’re not.”
Research published in the journal Pediatrics found “lesbian, gay, and bisexual young adults who reported higher levels of family rejection during adolescence were 8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide.” The 2009 report also found these young adults were nearly six times more likely to report high levels of depression and more than three times more likely to use illegal drugs.
While the study published in Pediatrics did not include figures for transgender young adults, the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found 40 percent of trans adults reported having attempted suicide, and 92 percent of these individuals said they did so before the age of 25.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer youth are especially vulnerable to bullying and harassment in schools, according to the LGBTQ youth advocacy group GLSEN. The organization’s 2017 National School Climate Survey found over 87 percent of LGBTQ students reported experiencing verbal or physical harassment or assault at school. This type of victimization, according to the organization, can lead students to miss class, underperform academically and leave school early.
Family acceptance, on the other hand, has been positively associated with improved health outcomes, like higher self-esteem and lower rates of anxiety and depression.
“Research shows that trans kids with accepting families do better on all these health metrics,” Logan Casey, a political researcher with the Movement Advancement Project, told NBC News.
Emily Hecht-McGowan, director of LGBTQ equality for the nonprofit Biden Foundation, where former Vice President Joe Biden is an honorary co-chair, said the Advancing Acceptance initiative seeks to educate the public about the importance of family acceptance through personal stories.
“Some people don’t understand that some of what they are doing and saying are actually harmful to young people,” Hecht-McGowan said. “We want to educate people about how important it is and what good it does for LGBTQ young people when they are accepted.”
Hecht-McGowan also said family acceptance is particularly important in the current political environment. “With the climate we are in right now, LGBTQ youth in particular are feeling very vulnerable,” she said.
Hecht-McGowan and other LGBTQ advocates noted that the Obama administration advanced LGBTQ rights — including telling public schools that transgender students must be able to use the restroom that corresponds with their gender identity and allowing openly transgender troops to serve in the military — while the current administration has rolled back these hard-won LGBTQ advancements.
“I see my child hear and learn about them," Berman said of the administration’s transgender policies. "It just hurts me terribly because it hurts him."
Casey said family members, like Berman, “are often some of the best advocates for trans youth.” He hopes the Advancing Acceptance campaign inspires more family members not just to accept but also to advocate for LGBTQ young people, especially those who identify as trans and gender-nonconforming.
“We are experiencing a time in our political environment when we are finding it difficult to recognize each other’s humanity,” Casey said. “What I think this collaboration is trying to do is provide that sort of insight into the experiences of someone who is different from you, so you can try to reconnect with their humanity and we can all live in a community that is more supportive and accepting of difference.”