Courtesy Fletcher Family
January 07, 2015 07:00 PM

Julia Fletcher vividly remembers the day her child, Elliot, came out as transgender. “It was August 21, 2013,” she says. “It was the second day of his senior year of high school. He was 17.”

Elliot had been designated a female at birth, but identified as male. And on that August day in 2013, he told his family that he wanted to begin living as a boy.

Despite the enormity of the announcement, the family wasn’t surprised. “We had said goodbye to the concept of a little girl in her Christmas dress long before,” says Julia. “So by the time he came out to us, we had gone past the idea of a bridal dress and walking down the aisle. This was a confirmation of what we already knew.”

Adds Elliot’s dad, John DeMita: “He really expressed this early on. He dressed and behaved in a traditional boy way, even when he was quite young. So when he came out to us, in spite of our unfamiliarity, it was an affirmation of a reality we had been living with for his entire life. ”

As the transgender community processes the suicide of Leelah Alcorn – and discusses the role of Leelah’s parents – Elliot says that his parents handled things correctly. “We talked about it a lot,” he says. “They were really willing to help.”

Not that there weren’t a few tears along the way. “Parents talk about grieving or mourning the kid that you’re losing,” says Julia Fletcher. “That happened for a couple of weeks. I had little crying jags. But then I thought, ‘Wait a second. I’m not losing my kid. He’s the same kid that he’s been all along.’ No kid turns out like parents think they will. You might want your child to be musical, and he may be good at sports. As parents, I think we have a tendency to make it all about us: what we want, what we expect. It shouldn’t be that way.”

For Elliot, high school was difficult, even in a city like Los Angeles. Bullies could be brutal, and people didn’t always understand how he acted. The difficulty led to two suicide attempts. “It was hard,” Elliot says now. “But it would have been worse without my family.”

Panic and Paperwork

As the announcement sunk in, John and Julia still had a lot to process. “My initial reaction was panic, to be honest,” says Julia. “After our conversation, I left his room and called a friend who had gone through a similar situation. That was very helpful. I joined a support group at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, which helped me grapple with a new name and pronoun.

“Changing the name we called Elliot was actually not that hard,” says Julia. (The family declined to disclose Elliot’s birth name.) “But changing the pronouns, now that was hard! Just referring to Elliot as ‘him’ and ‘he’ took some practice. But it was so important that we worked very hard on making that change.”

But changing the pronouns on legal documents was an equally difficult process. “It became a full-time job,” says Julia. “Name change. Documents. Insurance. What’s covered by insurance and what’s not? We went to court last May to get a name and gender change. That was a very big step.”

The Next Steps

Shortly after coming out, Elliot expressed a desire to make some changes. “He wanted top surgery right away,” says Julia, explaining that Elliot wanted to have excess breast tissue removed. “That was the first thing.”

The family also had to explain the changes to family and friends. “We’ve had surprising reactions from people,” says John. “It’s been unpredictable. Some people who we thought would be supportive have not been. People we thought would have a negative reaction have been affirming.”

Elliot also has had some surprising reactions. “I went off to college expecting there to be zero ignorance, and I was very, very wrong,” he says. “People will say inappropriate things and ask inappropriate questions. Some of them are simple curiosity, and they don’t realize that they’re being offensive. But then there are some people who are trying to be mean. You learn to tell the difference.”

And what are the questions one should never ask? “Never ask about their genitalia,” says Elliot. “Don’t ask how we have sex. And don’t ask what our ‘real name’ or ‘real looks’ are. As I get to know people, I’ll probably tell them more about myself – but those are very blunt questions for someone you hardly know.”

Lessons Learned

Studies show that transgender teens are far more likely to commit suicide if they don’t have parental support. “It may take some time, but parents need to support their children,” says Johanna Olson, Medical Director for the Center of Trans Youth Health and Development at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “When parents listen and let their child be heard, they may be saving their child’s life.”

Now that the family has come through on the other side, what lessons have they learned?

“Communication is key,” says Julia, an actress. “Listening is so important. You have to follow your kid’s lead. That doesn’t mean indulging them, but listening to them. Transition isn’t just about the kid; it’s about the entire family – and it has taught me a lot about being my authentic self, as well.

Adds John, a college professor: “Parents fundamentally want their children to be happy, healthy and safe. Understanding what that means for your child means a lot more listening than talking. It involves inevitably letting go of what you thought should be your child’s best path. We wanted nothing more than for Elliot to find the true key to happiness. To deny him that was the last thing we would ever want to do.”

For more about the DeMita Fletcher family – and the tragic suicide of Leelah Alcorn – pick up the new issue of PEOPLE magazine, on newsstands Friday.

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