If you are new to this column, I’ve just started a new series called TransParenting 101. If you want to catch up, you can read the introduction. My son and I have been on this journey together for about 3 years now. I used to be a minister, but I got better. Anyway, if your child has recently come out, I hope this is helpful. The first lesson I wish to address is pronoun usage, patience with yourself, and poise.
I once told a tale of pronouns and how misgendering affects my son. It centered around an unintentional incident by a waiter in a mexican restaurant. Unfortunately, there have been people, including relatives and former congregants, that deliberately misgender him. It hurts.
As a parent, this is going to be one of the first lessons you will have to master. It seems a simple matter, but it took me awhile. Most new parents that come to the parents support group I attend struggle with this in the early stages. After 14 years of using the pronouns she and her, it was not an overnight process to consistently master using he and him pronouns.
You are going to get it wrong a few times. When my son came out, the term used was preferred pronouns. The term now used is correct pronouns. I like that better. It helps set the stage for an important fact. We do not get to determine or decide someone else’s pronoun, name, or gender. Not even our own child.
Think about it for a moment, when we had an ultrasound and our child was born, we did not control or determine their sex (we did determine their gender, but that is a lesson for another day). When we talk to someone on the phone and ask them their name, we do not tell them they are incorrect. I have called someone by the wrong gender over the phone and when they correct me, I never once told them they are wrong. Our children are no different. This is new to us, but that is all right.
Anyway, when you get the pronoun wrong, it is all right. You are a human. As long as your child sees you trying, they will work with you. How do they see that you are trying? Correct yourself. Explain that this is new, but do so in such a way that you do not place parental guilt on your child. Phrases like, ‘this is hard for me’,’ I miss how it was’, etc could be hurtful. I promise you, that given enough time, you will hit the tipping point where the pronouns and names you used to use are no longer a construct you think in anymore. There was no magic moment for me and many other parents I talk to. I just one day realized that I no longer struggle. I hit unconscious competence.
Now, I want to give a special note to parents with children with the pronouns they, their, or them. There is a lie running about the internet that states that using these words as a singular pronoun is mucking about with the english language. If you believe this, your 4th grade grammar teacher may be shaking his, her, or their head in shame right now. That is not correct and that is not what we were taught in school. ‘This smartphone is theirs.’ ‘They are talking right now.’ These last two sentences are they and their used as grammatically correct singular pronouns. Lies like these are often deliberate and it amazes how easily we forget what we were taught for over a decade in school just because someone says something in social media. Please please please do not do that to your child.
Further, your child may use pronouns like ze, xe, hir, zir, hirs, zirs or some other variant. Even if this is a new term or idea for you, do not call it weird or silly or dumb. Some of these terms and words are new and some have etymologies that are likely older than you are. None of us want to diminish our child.
Finally, though there are likely volumes that can be said about this, your child may change pronouns and terminology regarding their gender identity. This is normal and not them “unable to make up their mind”. On some level they know who they are, they just have not found the right word for it. I was born in 1970. When I was my son’s age, I knew about gay people, lesbians, and bi. Trans was not something well understood and ideas like pan or fluid or asexual or any other such thing did not exist in our vocabulary. Many of us likely had classmates suffering. They knew they were not straight or cisgender, but they did not have the words or ideas to express what they were.
A simple example of this. I have a friend who has a child who is gender fluid. A year ago the child said, “Mom, I am not a boy, I am a girl.” She asked that her pronouns no longer be he him, but she her. A few months ago, the child said, “Mom, sometimes I am a girl, sometimes I am a boy, this is hard for me to explain, but please call me they or them.” They asked that their pronouns no longer be she or her, but they and them.
Often, people ask why we need “labels”. It is a nice ideology to hold to when you are white or cisgender or straight. Words matter. They do not define us, per se. But they help us not only explain, but understand ourselves.
I once heard a transgender actor tell me that when she was coming to grips with her gender identity and sexulaity, there were a few changes in her understanding. She said it was like knowing how you were sleeping was not comfortable, but you did not find the right sleeping position to get a good night’s rest. So if your child changes the correct pronouns and uses different terms for their gender identity (see how easily I worked in that singular pronoun?), they are not changing their mind or mixed up or making stuff up, they are on an expedition and we have the honor of taking this journey with them.
I am not going to tell you to be patient with your child. They are either trans, gender non conforming, or in some liminal space along the gender spectrum. They are doing nothing that requires patience, the only thing they require in regards to this is understanding and acceptance. This is about being patient with yourself.
You are going to make mistakes. You will get pronouns wrong. There will be struggles when they ask you to take down pictures that are harmful to them (something we will discuss more later). Many of us had ideas when we were young about how much better we would be at parenting than our parents. We also had ideas and expectations about how our child would grow and behave and be. We are not perfect and they are not beholden or obligated to our daydreams and expectations.
In the early stages especially, there will be times where you are frustrated with yourself. Give yourself a measure of grace and patience, even when your child does not. I do not understand what it is like to be triggered if someone gets my gender or name wrong. If I get it wrong, my child may react. Some of that reaction may be perfectly normal for the age and some of it may be because our words or actions led to a trigger. Regardless their reaction, be patient with yourself.
You may have to prepare yourself to have composure in a seemingly difficult time. All of us enter this with different families, beliefs, and geographic areas. Our equilibrium is thrown off by the unexpected. Balance is difficult at first.
The best way to maintain your poise is to have good self care. Your child needs you now more than ever before. The only way that is going to happen is if you are in a good head and heart space. I saw a therapist and we went through a mourning/grief process. At first I thought I was mourning the loss of a daughter. No. I was mourning the loss of expectations I had about his life and my role in it. This was a private process and it helped me maintain my poise.
During this time I also took time to do pleasurable things. I read a little more, took time to take walks, see movies, meditate, and rest. I was honest with myself and took care of myself.
Self education is important too. Like the example I gave about they/them/their pronouns, there is a lot of scary misinformation out there about trans people. Every book report and research paper we wrote in grade school, middle school, high school, and college or trade school taught us critical thinking skills. From our first field trip to the library where we learned the now forgotten card catalogue and dewey decimal system, we were learning how to research. You have it in you to sift the wheat from the chaff. Enlightenment of knowledge is what will dispel most of the fear. Reduced fear will lead to improved poise.
Link and Book and Video Resource
Link: PFLAG (Parents Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays: https://www.pflag.org/transgender I gave the link to PFLAGS Transgender and Gender Spectrum section. PFLAG has been around a long time. Over the last few years, they have not only ramped up in their trans programs, but are swiftly becoming a leading resource with chapters throughout the US. This is a link worth looking into.
Book: “Parrotfish” by Ellen Wittlinger. I will never be a professional book reviewer. But this one is probably my second favorite book in this subject matter. If you are not one who reads YA (young adult) fiction, you need to give this book a read. This book, through fiction, really helps us imagine, in brilliant fashion, what it might be like to be trans and be young. I love this book. The following is the description of the book from the Amazon link I gave:
The groundbreaking novel from critically acclaimed author Ellen Wittlinger that tells the story of a transgender teen’s search for identity and acceptance has now been updated to include current terminology and an updated list of resources.
Angela Katz-McNair never felt quite right as a girl. So she cuts her hair short, purchases some men’s clothes and chose a new name: Grady. While coming out as transgender feels right to Grady, he isn’t prepared for the reactions of his friends and family. Why can’t they accept that Grady is just being himself?
Grady’s life is miserable until he finds friends in unexpected places—the school geek, Sebastian, who tells Grady that there is a precedent for transgenders in the natural world, and Kita, a senior, who might just be Grady’s first love.
In a voice tinged with humor and sadness, Ellen Wittlinger explores Grady’s struggles—universal struggles any teen can relate to.
Video: TedX talk. “You’re Part of the Story” by Nicole Maines.
Young Nicole delivers a fabulous Ted Talk. She tells her story of her coming out and her transition and the role not only her family takes, but we all take. It is important to me that the trans youth voices are heard. In time, I will share great videos by other Trans Parents and experts in the field. Hear her story, hear her heart, and use her words to open your heart to your child.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: In the original publishing of this post I had two sentences that are adjusted. They were, “. . . your child may change pronouns and gender identity . . . ” and “…So if your child changes their gender identity . . .”
One of my adult transgender readers corrected me on these terms and showed how they could be misconstrued into something that at the least misrepresents the trans community, and at the worst, could be used against the trans community.
As an ally, I am constantly learning and am grateful to all my LGBTQIA guides and friends.