A few weeks ago, I spoke at a conference on gender, gender identity, and gender expression. While the focus of my presentation was inclusion in the workplace, conversations and questions eventually wandered over into family dynamics.
Then the question came up (as it often does) how do you convince parents, who think they are doing the right thing by rejecting their gender variant kids, that they aren’t?
Most parents I talk to have moved past the idea of gender-based toys and activities.
Having a daughter play with trucks and spatial development toys doesn’t raise an eyebrow any more than a son playing house with baby dolls.
Kids develop and explore on their own timeline, with toys that interest them for whatever reason. It’s when children are able to articulate a gender identity that varies from the one assigned at birth that some parents struggle. They may even attempt to “change” or influence the child’s identity or expression, either by shaming or eliminating options altogether.
One of the more difficult things for people to understand about supporting queer kids is that parental redirection, however well intended, is extremely damaging. This is true for everything from telling your son he can wear his favorite pink shoes - but only inside the house, because what the neighbors might think, to threatening your daughter with exclusion from the annual holiday letter for insisting on the use of “they, them, their” pronouns.
Here’s the deal, people - transgender and gender variant youth are typically not struggling with their identities; they are struggling to reconcile their identity and sense of self against everything the world has told them about being transgender or gender variant.
Parents who reject a child’s gender identity may believe their actions are somehow preventing what, they perceive to be, a dangerous and bleak future. Instead, this rejection conveys a message to the child that their sense of self is inherently wrong (or evil, or broken). It’s devastating and, unfortunately, can manifest later in the child’s life through self-harm, suicide, or other negative outcomes.
In Proctor and Gambles incredibly moving commercial, “The Talk”, parents across generations are shown as having difficult, but necessary, conversations with their kids about the reality of racism they’ll experience while navigating the world. Now imagine if the parent’s advice to their young child ended with, “and you should hide who you are from the world”. Or “and you’re going to burn in hell for it”. Or “no kid of mine is going to be a little (insert horrible pejorative term here)”. These are the messages given to transgender and gender variant kids through the pervasiveness of socially condoned rejection.
A colleague recently sent me an opinion piece written by a pastor in Spokane, Washington. This pastor, who may counsel hundreds of people over his career, advised parents that being transgender was not normal and should not be accepted. Without even a hint of irony, he then cites a statistic on the alarmingly higher rate of suicide attempts among transgender and gender variant individuals. He either fails to see, or refuses to see, the connection between systemic acceptance of social rejection and higher risk of negative outcome later in life.
By perpetuating “compassion, not acceptance”, this pastor put kids at risk of physical and emotional abuse; he also provides a faith-based façade behind which unsupportive parents can hide. Condoning (more precise, encouraging) parental rejection of their queer kids lays groundwork to destroy both families and lives.
So what can you do to support all the amazing transgender and gender variant kiddos in your life? Glad you asked….follow me.
One thing that consistently comes up in discussions around gender and sexual minority youth is this idea of being “the one”. For queer kids in non-supportive environments, having at least one safe, enthusiastically supportive adult in their lives can mitigate the risk of negative outcomes later. Because of the misconceptions and stigma associated with being transgender or gender variant, these kids especially need peers and adults in their lives who are accepting.
Here are a few tips to get you started….
Pronouns matter! Use the child’s preferred name and pronouns. If you forget (and you will) acknowledge it immediately and apologize. Most people find that it’s easier to remember pronouns in current expression and more difficult when recalling past events. Practice.
Don’t make every conversation about the child’s gender identity. Along the same lines, don’t assume everything they do is somehow related to their gender identity. Switching from pink hair to green might just be because seemed fun, and not an indicator of something more complicated.
Ask the child what they need. Too often, supportive adults will step into action and take steps the child might not be ready to handle. Find out how to be a resource and respect boundaries.
Educate yourself. There are phenomenal organizations and emerging research available.
Keep the lines of communication open and notice any sudden changes in behavior. Ask, and then listen.