Parenting forces us to look at ourselves both past and present, including our own current life choices, as well as the parenting we received. Oftentimes when parenting a child, we are faced with learning not only new skills but also new ways of thinking. Who among current parents of tweens and teens hasn’t struggled with “new math,” or managing social media? What’s more, our generation, is wrestling with how to expand our ideas about identity and belonging, most specifically, our concept of gender.
Again and again, in interviews with the parents of gender diverse tweens and teens they have emphasized their role in fostering empathy, understanding and respect not only as values for their children to uphold, but to be stewards of these values themselves. They want to create a world that honors and celebrates their children and they understand the critical role they play in achieving these goals. However, as cis, white women, who are either Gen X or Millenials, they experienced binary conceptualizations of gender in their own early childhood and adolescence. While throughout their lives heteronormativity became more regularly challenged in popular media, not to mention national politics, gender expression did not enter the vernacular until very recently.
With this in mind, I first asked parents why they decided to participate in my interview project. The answers replicated similar themes. For example, JS, mom of a transfemme tween shared, “I brought this human into the world, and so I see it as my job to make sure that they are successful and they are their own person, and that they are putting more good into the world than bad.”
Fellow social worker AH stated about herself and her wife: “[As] both foster and adopted parents, and then also as parents of a transgender child we just think we have a perspective that a lot of people don't have, and we are happy to share it.”
JC, a principal of school in Denver, CO, remarked: “We're a K through eight school …. And a school for kids with chronic illnesses. We've got about 60 kids right now, primarily from low income families, [and] black and brown students. I think particularly in this population, this kind of research is also important because … being a trans person can be really taboo [within this] population. So we have to be really intentional about how we're helping kids understand LGBTQ issues. And, it’s really important for me to raise my kids to be anti-racist, anti-bias, and to put good out into the world and know what's important. And what's important is not always …. to be very high achieving and goal oriented and money and things like that. And ... I do want my child to be goal oriented, but I want it to be more based on, you know, passion. Like, what do you want to do? What do you love? What can you put out there that's good in the world?”
As parents of trans kids, these parents can be stewards of acceptance and understanding but, in many cases, they first must work to dismantle their existing ideas of gender; ideas that were developed in early childhood. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “most children develop the ability to label gender groups and to use gender labels in their speech between 18 and 24 months.” The consequences of this ability include: “increased play with strongly stereotyped toys,” as well as stereotypical concepts of girls and boys. “From preschool through fourth/fifth grade: girls are seen as nice, wearing dresses, and liking dolls, and boys are seen as having short hair, playing active games, and being rough.”
Recent academic research illuminates the lag between expressions of gender and our common and scientific understandings. From the International Journal of Transgenderism: “Within academic literature, ….[t]he unique experience of those identifying outside of the binary is only just starting to become the subject of in-depth research. More than half the total number of publications ever printed on transgender issues have been published since 2010 (Matsuno & Budge, 2017), yet a relatively low number focus on (or even include) gender identities that are not binary. With the number of people identifying outside the binary increasing rapidly, there is an urgent need to expand research in this area (Practical Androgyny, 2018)."
Additionally, our professional and societal institutions are increasingly aware of the need to expand our conceptualization of gender. For example, in 2011, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education revised its non-discrimination statute to include gender identity. “This guidance is intended to help school and district administrators take steps to create a culture in which transgender and gender nonconforming students feel safe, supported, and fully included, and to meet each school's obligation to provide equal educational opportunities for all students, in compliance with [existing laws] and the state regulations.”
As a therapist who specializes in supporting gender diverse youth and their parents, I sense that we are at the cusp of reckoning with what many have held (or continue to hold) as unalterable truths about male and female. In my role of cis parent of an enby teen, I am developing a deeper appreciation for my various privileges, including gender. Additionally, my understanding of my kids’ and my clients’ gender experiences expands because of an ongoing uncovering of my own biases and ignorance.
What are the ripple effects of this personal-meets-political process? For one, I took on this interview project to expand not only my understanding of trans youth and their families, but to give voice to their experiences. I share a desire to move society forward with those I interviewed.
For example, the mom of a 13yo, TS explains: “I remember initially feeling with L … when I was first hearing about pronouns changing and kids changing their names, … I pictured L as this, like this dot, and … all these dots are running away from the pack. And then the pack comes to catch up. And I'm like, oh, I wonder if this is what progress is, right? … And I remember thinking …this is what evolution is and this is what progress is, and this is what making people more loving would possibly be. And, I was like, oh, I get to have a kid that is not just sticking with the norm. … If you get to have a kid that is [saying], ‘I don't wanna be like this.’ …We all want progress, but the only way we get it is if people start moving us in that direction.”
For her 17yo trans son, AH, suggest that gender diversity is a sacred space: “I found this to be true of many trans folks I've worked with, which I don't know what to make of this, but they had like a kind of like a straight line to a god or a higher power… They really got [the sense], God's not upset.”
And CK, mom of a now 20yo daughter, emphasize that their child’s progress in their individual gender journey resulted in better well-being: “And now that … [my daughter has] come out and she's living who she is. Yeah. She is not on any medications. She seems like the happiest that she has been. At first it was like, gosh, you know, this is a hard life for her. …You wish that your kids didn't have to struggle so much in life. And I know that this isn't gonna be an easy path but I realize it's her path.”
Poet, activist, and speaker, Alok Vaid-Menon, presented their own role in this revolution of thought in a July 2021 episode of the Man Enough podcast. “Rather than telling cisgender people how to help trans people, Vaid-Menon said they reframe the conversation to ask cisgender people if they're ready to heal from the ways the gender binary has affected them. ‘And I don't think the majority of people are ready to heal, and that's why they repress us as trans and gender-variant people — because they've done this violence to themselves first. They've repressed their own femininity. They've repressed their own gender nonconformity. They've repressed their own ambivalence. They've repressed their own creativity. So I guess I would rephrase your question to be, 'Can you help me get free?' not, 'Can you help me help you?’"
Chase Strangio, Deputy Director for Transgender Justice for the ACLU LGBTQ & HIV Project, who is trans, wrote about his legal work against transphobic legislation: “My heart — and the heart of every transgender advocate fighting this fight — is heavy with the weight of the dehumanization and needless harm trans people like us are experiencing nationwide. But I also know that every out trans person has embraced the unknown in the name of living free from shame or the vice of other people’s expectations. By virtue of being a living, breathing trans person, each of us has chosen hope over despair. Regardless of any court, we will always exist in joyful defiance of efforts to limit who we are and who we can be.”
Any and all of us can take steps to further our understanding of ourselves and of gender diversity. Here are some things you can do to build your understanding of the social constructs related to gender and how they are changing:
Look for side entrances to talk about gender expression with your tween and teen. Some examples: discuss a character in a book, movie or show, respond to and explore obvious stereotyping in advertising, or reflect on something you (or your kid) experienced as a micro aggression.
Read, listen to, or watch content created by members of the trans community.
Normalize gender diversity by practicing stating your pronouns rather than allowing others to assume them. Additionally, ask for someone’s pronouns rather than assuming them based on their name, clothing, voice or other stereotypical gender marker.
Join a support community.
Talk to a therapist with expertise in gender identity and/or trans youth.