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Time for a Reckoning - Trans Kids Change Parents' Gender Concepts

“Prior to my kiddo coming out as non-binary, I thought that I had a really good handle on things like gender and gender fluidity and trans issues and acceptance. And, boy, did I have a whole lot to learn!”

You Be You. I'll Be Me Swag
Display from recent book launch and PRIDE event celebrating gender-creative kids.

When I ask parents of trans, nonbinary and gender-expansive kids how raising their kid has impacted their concept of gender, their answers universally represent how raising a gender-diverse kid monumentally changed their gender concepts. Like the one quoted above, parents nearly unanimously identify the expanded perspective they have as a result of seeing the world through their kids’ eyes.  

Echoing the reaction of many parents to my interview question about what impact raising their kid has had on their thoughts about gender, one mom gushed, “Oh my gosh. It's changed everything. I like to think that even without my kids identifying the way they do, or even before I knew that they identified that way, I'd like to think that I was still an ally … But it's made me think so much more about how fluid gender is and how ridiculous binary is for everybody, no matter how you identify.”  One father stated, “I would say I didn't really know the concept of non-binary before [our kid] came out and said it. I thought I understood it earlier, but I didn't really understand it until [they] came out.” 

Many parents also noted how raising their gender-diverse kid raised their consciousness of gender as a social construct. For example, “Now I understand [the times] when [our son] used to say things like jewelry or clothes don't have a gender. I now understand it. Color doesn't have a gender … When anything is put in a binary, I question it, at least internally. It stands out to me as perpetuating the social construct. It didn't affect me before … [Being trans or nonbinary] wasn't in my life before. And now that it's part of my life, it makes total sense that everything has been described within this social construct.”

Many moms and dads also emphasize the honor they experience raising a kid who challenges this social construct. As one parent put it, “I have a front-row seat to a child who self-identified as trans when she was still in single digits.” Along the same lines, another parent stated, “So my kiddo being non-binary literally brings home this idea of gender is not as simple [as] I once thought it was, or that I'd like to think it is. And [the concept of gender] is really complicated even for people who identify as the gender that they were [assigned at birth.]”  Another mom indicated, “My husband and I, of course it took time for us to get to this place where we feel very grateful because it has deepened our own understanding and helped us to realize how we have just been kind of going along all of our lives with society's expectations and family expectations.”

Other parents emphasize the role their children have played in educating them, “I think they teach us. I mean, in general, I feel like the children teach you everything as you go. They really are the directors of their own story. And we just learn and follow and accept where they're taking it.” Put another way, “It's interesting because on one hand maybe [we are] more aware of different concepts [because of our son]; but on the flip side, I don't think he fits the mold of any concept that's in a book. If someone doesn't know him, and we're having a conversation, I describe him like there's no label. … He's just X … I don't think that things fit cleanly into definitions. [It might make it easier] to discuss some things [if there were] familiar terms that people can get on common ground with. But at the end of the day, they're pretty flawed.” 

One mom shared how her child explained their own concept of gender, “[My kid] drew a rectangle for me and said, ‘Imagine these corners representing pronouns and male [and] female. You can be … more on the male side or over on the female side.’’ Having gender depicted in this way, revealed ideas: “I [had] never in my life ever thought about [or] known about. And I said, ‘Okay, on this [grid], where are you?’ … And they pointed sort of in between… somewhere swimming around in that quadrant. And I was like, ‘I don't even know what that means.’… It's definitely impacted my trying to understand.”

Parents also indicate how their conceptualization of their own gender and gender expression have become more fluid. For example, one parent expressed: “Trans is not a one-size-fits-all identity either. It's made me really think about how fluid and non-binary we all are.” Another mom shared, “I would say [my child] has opened my eyes to it and given [gender diversity] more permission for me and made me wish there was more permission for that when I was a kid … I'll say to [them], ‘I very much didn't like being boxed in by what a female was.’ And even more so as I've grown up and been a business woman, I've always been very [reactive to the] messages that come to me as to what I should be like and how I should act.” 

Other parents shared how raising their kids shed new light on the formation of their own concepts of gender, as well as their ongoing evolution. For example, one mom shared: “Even though right now I consider myself cis female,  there are parts of me that are not a hundred percent cisgender. I remember being about five years old and asking my dad what things were like when he was a little girl and my mom, what things were like when she was a little boy. Because, I thought, you are born a little girl and you grow up to be a … a man and you're born a little boy and you grow up to be a big girl. And my parents were just like, no, honey, that's not how that works. You're born a girl and you stay a girl.” 

When I asked another mom to tell me her own identities she replied, “That is a question … I have not been asked before, [not] ever in my entire life. I had to stop and think, ‘Has anyone ever asked me that?’ I had this weird moment of, ‘What am I?’ And that is a reflection on a lot of things. It's sort of this sudden burst in my mind of ‘Wow!’ It shows a lot about how I've grown up in my generation and all that I've had to learn with regard to identity.”

The general impression I’ve gained from talking with a dozen parents over the past 10 months is that raising a gender-expansive kid forces a reconsideration of one’s own gender consciousness. These cis moms and dads are all reckoning with social constructs of gender, as well as with their own binary concepts of gender. This includes me.

When my own kiddo came out 3 years ago, I had been clinically supporting gender-diverse clients of all ages for 7 years. I would like to believe that before my kid came out, I was humble enough to know my blindspots. Turns out, I needed a reckoning too. My experiences as a clinician could only help me part of the way in the murkier, emotional water of parenting a gender-expansive kid. 

To meet my kid where they need me to be, I am continuing to learn, continuing to wrestle with my internalized ideas of femininity and masculinity, and loving the front-row seat to their own development. I’d like to paraphrase one parent’s comment that raising a gender-expansive kid makes empathy mandatory versus optional. My previous ideas about gender weren’t wrong so much as they were a product of the worlds in which I’d lived. The worlds I live in now are more expansive, more diverse, and less predetermined largely because they have to be. My current concept of gender, as well as those of parents I’ve interviewed, reflects those changes and perhaps, most importantly, isn’t set in stone. Seems like we all have more to learn.


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