Pediatrician Sharon Dunski Vermont always thought she had two daughters.
She pictured them wearing white dresses at their weddings and then giving her grandchildren.
“That was my dream for my children,” said Vermont, 48, who belongs to Congregation Shaare Emeth.
But a few years ago, one of Vermont’s daughters came out as transgender.
“I learned that I had a son,” Vermont said. “It was really sort of a period of loss and grief, almost like a death,” she said.
Vermont has adjusted to life with her son Sage, 17.
“It’s hard to even remember that he ever lived as anything but a boy,” she said.
But Vermont knows that the transition process isn’t always easy for transgender teenage children and their parents. After accompanying Sage as he transitioned, she realized that as a pediatrician, she was in a unique position. Not only could she answer questions from parents whose children had also recently come out as transgender, but she could act as an advocate in the medical world for the transgender community.
“Once we were doing well, I felt like I should pay the community back, because the people and support groups that helped us were so incredible,” Vermont said.
After Sage came out, Vermont announced on Facebook that her child was transitioning. She saw that as easier than calling people and letting them know his new name and pronoun. Eventually, she started receiving calls and emails.
“Can you talk to my friend or relative because they are going through something you went through?” recalls Vermont, who is a board member and medical adviser for the support group TransParent.
A local parent, Sarah, who did not want her real name used, connected with Vermont through a gynecologist whom Sarah’s transgender son was seeing. Like Vermont, Sarah is Jewish and had seen her child only as a girl but now realizes that there were signs.
“She was a tomboy,” Sarah said. “I would say, ‘Let’s go shopping for a purse.’ ” Her daughter would tell her that she didn’t want a purse.
After her son came out, the gynecologist suggested that Sarah contact Vermont. Sarah’s son, 17, is transitioning and has started to receive testosterone shots and will soon have his name legally changed.
“Each stage that we are going through, [Vermont] will tell us what her experiences were, and since she’s a pediatrician, she has a lot more resources for doctors and places to go than I would ever imagine,” Sarah said.
In addition to talking with parents, Vermont also has helped fellow physicians who often received no training in medical school on treating transgender patients. She has helped her hospital – which she did not want to identify – in its efforts to improve care for transgender patients. Later this month, she will speak to about 200 primary-care physicians about transgender health care.
“It’s not that most physicians don’t want to help these patients,” she said. “It’s just that they don’t know how.”
The most common question Vermont hears is: “How do I know that I can really believe this kid that they are transgender?”
To that Vermont says: “People know who they are. And if they are telling you who they are, then you need to believe them.”
People may experiment with their sexuality and who they date, but they generally don’t experiment with their gender, she says.
Acceptance by family and medical professionals is crucial. Forty-one percent of transgender people in the United States have attempted suicide, according to a 2014 study by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute. But according to other studies, that number is significantly lower when transgender children and teens are supported by their friends and family.
Vermont testified in the Missouri Senate against a proposed bathroom bill that would require transgender students to use the bathroom that corresponds with the gender on their birth certificates. During the hearing in February, state Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, compared a child choosing a gender identity with a child wanting to be a dog or spaceship.
“I’m hoping that after my testimony, I can answer those earlier questions about why my child should not be allowed to transition to a dog,” Vermont said.
She listed a number of studies and tried to dispel the idea that gender dysphoria is a mental illness. She also explained that allowing transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender birth identity puts others at risk. HOW ???
“When I pretended to be a princess or your son pretends to be a dog, we are not distressed over the fact that we aren’t being a princess or dog, we are not depressed or anxious,” Vermont said. “We’re not talking about cutting off parts of our body because we’re not a dog or a princess.
“Children who are transgender, their parents do not just allow them to transition on a whim, without a lot of thought. Usually, these children have been talking for months or even years about the fact that they know themselves to be this gender.”
The Missouri Senate has not voted on the measure. Despite such legislative proposals, Vermont feels that much progress has been made in society.
“People now feel a lot more comfortable talking about their gender and who they are,” she said.
And she has found has plenty of support in the Jewish community.
“Shaare Emeth has been 100 percent supportive of my son. They treat him as a boy,” Vermont said. “They came out and told us that our family is welcome to participate in the congregation in any way that we want.”
While there are parts of the Orthodox Jewish community that have not openly accepted members of the LGBT community, Vermont says her Orthodox friends and relatives have been “extremely supportive.”
And her son Sage is also doing well and preparing for college.
Although Vermont says she initially had a period of grief when Sage came out, Sage said that his mother has been supportive from the beginning and that he is grateful that she has helped him get the surgeries and medical treatment he needs.
“She is a wonderful lady,” he said.
DR. SHARON DUNSKI VERMONT
Family: Husband, Laird, and children, Sage and Jordyn.
Fun Fact: A few years ago, on vacation, she visited the town of Sharon, Vt.