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‘This is really just the beginning’

Posted: July 7th, 2017 | Featured, News, Profiles | No Comments

Local organization offering resources at a time when transgender awareness is on the rise

By Dave Fidlin

As she looks in the virtual rear-view mirror today, Kathie Moehlig says there has been significant progress in the supporting and understanding the transgender community in a relatively short period of time.

“But we still have such a long way to go,” said Moehlig, who just two years ago founded San Diego-based TransFamily Support Services. “This is really just the beginning of trans visibility and awareness.”

In the organization’s brief life, Moehlig said TransFamily, which also has a six-member executive board, has offered support services to about 250 families so far, and the list continues to climb with each passing day.

For Moehlig, championing transgender persons’ rights has become a cause that hits very close to home. Her 16-year-old adopted son, Sam, was born biologically as a girl and has taken steps toward gender reassignment surgery.

As he hit puberty at age 9, Moehlig said her son felt trapped and had contemplated suicide.

Moehlig said that she and her husband, Ron Moehlig, began to seriously consider gender reassignment surgery for Sam, in the last five years, but the couple faced headwinds as they sought out resources. Undaunted, the Moehligs pressed on and sought out any available avenues they could, to help their son live a comfortable and happy life.

Their search eventually led them to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA). Three years ago, Sam, now 16, began taking testosterone injections and had his breasts surgically removed.

(l to r) The Moehlig family; Jacqueline, Sam, Kathie and Ron (Courtesy Kathie Moehlig)

Without realizing it at the time, Moehlig said the trials and triumphs her family faced in finding adequate care for Sam planted the seeds for the future.

“Word got out and people started saying, ‘Go talk to Kathie,’” Moehlig said. “I started doing [what the nonprofit now offers] at a very unofficial level.”

After realizing the vitality and importance of such a service, Moehlig established TransFamily Support Services in 2015, and TransFamily has been growing at a rapid clip in the years since its inception.

The organization, funded largely through donations and grants, offers a range of services to families, including family coaching, assistance with health care and insurance issues, and navigating through legal complexities.

“Navigation through the journey,” its website says as it welcomes visitors. Also on the website is the organization’s mission statement, which reads, “Connecting transgender youth and their families to a strong and educated support system will do more than improve our community — it will save lives.”

On a broader scale, TransFamily also works to raise awareness about the transgender community to society. According to their website, there are nearly 1.5 million people in the U.S. who identify as transgender.

“I believe folks behave and do things that could be considered unkind … because they’re not educated,” Moehlig said. “There’s a lack of understanding. We want to open the doors and break down those barriers.”

Caitlyn Jenner has put a celebrity face on the transgender community, but Moehlig said she believes more work lies ahead, particularly since such issues as restroom usage continue to be debated.

Despite all the recent progress, Moehlig points to a series of statistics related to transgender youth that serve as a foundation for TransFamily and its existence.

When it comes to bullying, for instance, 82 percent of transgender youth have reported feeling unsafe at school, Moehlig said. Nearly half — 48 percent — of transgender persons lack adequate medical care.

There’s also the sobering statistic of suicide. Large numbers of transgender youth battle anxiety and depression — just as Sam did, Moehlig said — and 47 percent make an attempt to end their lives.

Johanna Olson-Kennedy, a doctor specializing in adolescent and young adult medicine at CHLA, worked with Sam during his gender reassignment surgery. Olson-Kennedy said the suicide rate alone gives her pause.

“There’s an astounding rate of suicide attempts among transgender youth,” Olson-Kennedy said in a statement. “This is a serious public health implication.”

When TransFamily was first established as an organization, Moehlig said she anticipated devoting about 20 hours per week. In reality, however, she said she puts in about 50 hours each week because of the magnitude of the needs crossing her desk.

One of TransFamily’s more recent areas of focus has been insurance coverage for transgender youth and other members within the community.

“Insurance coverage laws are different by state,” Moehlig said. “We’re very fortunate in California, but that’s not the case across the country.”

Although TransFamily started as a largely San Diego-centric organization, Moehlig said its focus has broadened as families in different areas of the U.S. have reached out.

“We work all around the country because, quite frankly, the needs are there,” she said. “There’s so much that still has to be done.”

For more details on TransFamily Support Services, including testimonials, resources, donor information and a video on Sam’s personal journey, visit transfamilysos.org.

—Dave Fidlin is a freelance journalist with a special affinity for San Diego and its people. Contact him at dave.fidlin@thinkpost.net.

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