How a Midwestern family raised their transgender daughter: 'Love led us'

Alexander Kacala
·5 min read

For a grandparent who grew up in a time when being gay was taboo and the word "transgender" wasn't even on the radar, having a transgender grandchild can be a leaning experience, to say the least.

For 80-year-old Shirley, the most important thing is love.

"I've known Leena since the day she was born and have taken care of her since she was two months old so I've seen lots of changes,” Shirley told TODAY Parents. "And in my generation, you didn't even say the word gay. So I had no idea what transgender meant. So this was something I had to completely learn all about. But I knew that no matter what sex she wanted to be, she was my grandchild and I would love her.”

HBO MAX
HBO MAX

Now 19, Leena is one of the subjects in “Transhood,” a new HBO MAX documentary that profiles four transgender children and their families in the Kansas City area. Leena's family requested that their last names be withheld to protect their privacy.

“Like being a teenager is just hard enough on its own,” Leena says during one scene. “Going through puberty as someone you’re not is a little harder.”

For Transgender Awareness Week, TODAY Parents talked with Leena’s family about raising their transgender daughter, what they want people to learn from their story and how they deal with haters.

'Love led us'

Leena’s mom Cathy said her daughter, who was born male, began articulating that she wanted to dress as a girl when she was about 3 years old.

“Leena just expressed herself much more feminine when she was younger, and we kind of just rolled with it and thought it could be a phase,” she told TODAY Parents. “But over the years, we realized it wasn't.”

“I honestly thought that we just had a flamboyant gay boy,” she added. “And as the years went on, we started to realize that there was something else involved.”

Around the age of 11 Leena began expressing herself as transgender, her mom said — but not without some pushback from her parents. “We just were not sure what the right way to go about it was,” Cathy said. “It was Leena who recognized that she was transgender."

HBO Max
HBO Max

The documentary began shooting when Leena was was around 15. Her father Mike is a masculine, seemingly conservative, blue-collar type guy's guy, and his acceptance of his transgender daughter is obvious from the beginning of the doc. But he said he went through a denial phase.

“I had no knowledge of what it meant to be transgender,” Mike told TODAY. “I just thought I was gonna have a gay son and it was hard for me to put my finger on it. I tried to play football, ride dirt bikes, shoot BB guns but none of that stuff she cared for. And so yes, it did take a little longer for me.”

“There are always going to be haters because people can be in the dark where they don't know anything about it."

Some of the documentary’s sweetest moments come during scenes featuring Leena’s family. From her dad taking her bathing suit shopping to a nail salon trip with her grandmother, Leena’s bond with her family seems unbreakable.

HBO Max
HBO Max

Unfortunately, this kind of unconditional love is more uncommon than not. According to a 2018 report from the Human Rights Campaign, over half of transgender or gender-expansive youth say they have been mocked by their family for their identity, and three in four hear their family make negative remarks about LGBTQ people. Forty percent of all homeless youth are LGBTQ.

“Mike and I had no idea how to navigate this,” Cathy said. “Love led us. I mean, it's the love for our kid that just led us in the direction... listening to her.”

"Everybody's just got their own walk”

According to GLAAD, only 20% of Americans say they personally know someone who is transgender.

“We're really not trying to change people's minds” Leena said. “We just want them to understand our journey and respect us enough to allow us to do our own thing. You don't have to like us. We just want you to respect us.”

Courtesy HBO
Courtesy HBO

“There are always going to be haters, because people can be in the dark where they don't know anything about it,” Mike sid. “We were completely in the dark about it, too, before this all happened. I think people perceive being transgender as something evil only because they don't know what's going on.”

“It’s still children and feelings, and there’s still gotta be that love, and there’s still gotta be the rules,” he added. "Is it difficult to be different? Absolutely, it is, I ain't gonna lie at all, but still the bottom line is you tell your kid, 'Hey, hit the dishes. Clean your room.'"

“Every single family that goes through this has a different experience,” Cathy said. “What I have realized, and where my mind goes is that you just got to walk your walk. If it's your family, your dynamic, your child, you make the decisions based on your gut — not what anybody else's opinions are. And if you really listen to your kid, it's so simple to see. Everybody's just got their own walk.”

Grandmom Shirley hopes that people watch their story and it makes them “more accepting" of others.

“The good Lord puts all the kinds of people on this Earth, and we have to learn to accept them and live with them and love them.”