There are a couple interesting things going on on twitter lately. There’s the hashtag #ididnotreport, where women (and men, and members of other genders) describe circumstances of rape or sexual assault that they did not report to police or authorities, and why. It’s a very, very chilling look at the intense social pressures that enable rape and sexual assault, and burden its victims with guilt and shame, and pressure them into silence.
Then there’s @NiceGuyBrianG, an apologist for rape and general non-consensual sexual acts, who has mocked and derided the #ididnotreport trend.
But beneath this, there’s been seething a subtler little trend that speaks volumes about where we still are as a culture in regards to homophobia and attitudes towards sexual variance, and the degree of violent (and frankly incomprehensible) hatred that is still openly stated towards homosexuality.
Recently, another hashtag, #ToMyUnbornChild has been trending, where people speak messages to their future children. And an alarmingly large number of these messages are along the lines of “If you’re gay, I’ll beat the shit out of you / kill you / disown you / etc.”
Yes. People are taking the opportunity to make their feelings towards their future children not as a chance to talk about offering them a better world, or treating them with love, or trying to suggest some scrap of wisdom they’ve managed to eke out of our confusing and strange world, but instead as a chance to iterate that they are so frightened, disgusted or hateful of homosexuality that they’ll threaten a child who does not yet exist, their child, with rejection, violence or death if they should end up happening to be gay.
And sadly, it should go without saying that this is not only a hypothetical put forward by some hateful twitter-users who have no idea what love for a child actually means. It is a staggeringly, heart-breakingly common story for queer people to have to choose between their families and their integrity, being able to be open about who they are. Those awful feelings of love for a child being conditional on their conformity to arbitrary cultural standards of sexuality and gender do not always go away when they finally look that child in the eyes or hold them in their arms. Far too often, they still hold that child and while thinking “I love you so much…” are still holding, somewhere in the back of their minds, “…as long as you’re straight, cis and meet my expectations.”
What this horrible little twitter trend has got me thinking about, though, is the number of e-mails (and sometimes comments) I’ve gotten with parents or would-be parents asking me for advice on how to go about dealing with the possibility (either concrete and suggested by present circumstances, or simply an abstract, as it always is) that their children may be gay or transgender. How do you assign a gender? Should you? How do you make sure your child receives the message that it’s okay to explore their gender (or later, sexual orientation)? How do you do this while not having them be bullied or alienated by other kids? How do you protect them from the gender-normative messages of society as a whole? And if they do begin presenting as transgender, how do we deal with that? What is the best strategy to take, and what will give them the best shot at happiness? How do we deal with all the people around us who will see any act of support for gender non-normativity in a child as “abuse”? Etc.
These parents, unlike the would-be practitioners of homophobic infanticide of #ToMyUnbornChild, are already getting it right. They’ve already accomplished the most important thing: putting the child’s happiness first, and thinking through and asking about how to ensure that happiness, and not letting these possibilities (or realities) compromise their love and support for their children.
I am not a parent. In all likelihood, I never will be. And to be honest, I’m not even all that fond of small children, and I haven’t spent much time with them. I’m the absolute farthest thing from an expert on parenting you could ever possibly find. So this post should be interpreted in light of that. However, I know what it’s like to grow up faking your gender, and I know how much pain can come from that. I’ve experienced what it’s like when parents get it wrong (the look of disappointment and mild disgust on my father’s face when I initially tried coming out at 14) and I’ve experienced what it’s like when parents get it right (the support and acceptance I I received from my mother and my father when I came out again at 26, while finally transitioning). And I’ve heard hundreds of stories from other trans people about all the horrible ways a child can be treated by a parent over something that should matter so little to their love.
So this is going to be my awkward, fumbling, probably totally stupid in several ways attempt at trying to answer those questions parents may have, about how to accommodate the possibility of a transgender / gender variant child, and how to go about the whole “gender assignment” thing.
Transgenderism id very, very rare. In the extreme majority of cases, assigning a gender based on external sexual characteristics will work out just fine. It’s on this basis that I don’t think we need to outright do away with the entire system of gender assignment. However, there’s absolutely no way to be certain, and in the case that a gender assignment is incongruent with gender identity, the consequences can be pretty rough, and increase in accordance with how strongly that gender assignment is enforced.
But it is entirely possible to mitigate those consequences, and permit your child, whatever their gender identity, to end up feeling happy, secure and confident in themselves, despite you having to (initially) put an M or F on their birth certificate.
One of the most important things you can do is make sure that M or F isn’t written in stone, and give your child the space to explore. While it’s okay to refer to them by gendered pronouns or terms, take the time every now and then to talk to them about it. Make sure they know they don’t HAVE to play with dolls or HAVE to play with trucks. Encourage them to consider other types of play, or clothing, or playmates. Ask them if they’d enjoy trying something else. Ask them what they WANT to wear, if they could choose from any part of the store. And don’t just do this once, and forget about it. Make this part of how you raise them, always letting them know it’s okay to think about this stuff, and consider their options.
Also, when you talk to them about what gender is, and about things like the differences between boys and girls, or where babies come from, or whatever, don’t over-essentialize and force heteronormative and cisnormative narratives. Don’t imply that sex is only something that ever happens between mommies and daddies who are married. Don’t imply that boys have a penis and girls have a vagina. Don’t imply that gender is something determined by fate over which we have no control. Don’t imply it’s binary. Make sure they’re aware that this is something they can define for themselves.
When they start getting a bit older, and a bit more capable of exploring identity for themselves, say 5 or 6-ish, you can begin having conversations with them about gender. You can ask them things like whether they want to be a boy or a girl or if they maybe don’t want to be either. You can ask them how they feel about their assigned sex, and their playmates, and the kinds of toys and clothes they’ve been assigned. You can talk to them about whether they might enjoy being a girl instead, or a boy instead, or even make little games of it, like asking if they’d like to “be a girl for a day” or “be a boy today”. Talk to them about what kind of name they might like instead of the one they were given. Let them try different names on and see how they fit. You can also use make-believe games as a way to encourage exploration of gender, and thinking about what gender means, like encouraging your son to play as the princess or your daughter to play as the knight. Even if your children end up cisgender and straight, these kinds of games can end up providing them a very valuable education into gender roles and what those mean, and a stronger sense of empathy for other genders.
And again, an important element of this is to keep it up. Don’t just do it once and expect that answers everything. Our understanding of our gender has to develop over time, and gradually be put together from bits and pieces. If you ask someone once what their gender is, they may just agree with their assigned sex because they think that’s what they’re “supposed” to say, or because they haven’t gotten to the point of understanding their feelings about it. So you have to make this an aspect of how you raise your children in general, something that you do often, in order for it to have meaning and for them to feel secure and unashamed in exploring it. You also should be open to fluidity. Don’t expect them to give you one definitive answer that will never ever change. Let them be a girl one day and a boy the next. And then a girl again a couple weeks later. And then a boy again. And then both for awhile. That may be what provides them the process they need.
That may sound like a whole lot of work, but it really isn’t. It’s just adding one small extra tidbit into all the other things you encourage a child to explore and learn and understand. Just as you give them a chance to learn about bugs and dinosaurs or astronomy and chemistry or hockey and basketball or dress-up and drawing or writing stories and designing games, and those all provide them a way to explore their interests and their passions, adding gender into that, and encouraging them to be curious and open-minded about, and discover for themselves, who they want to be, that’s not any dramatically big extra project.
And making up for that is the fact that most of the most important work you can do is in what you DON’T do. You know, like you DON’T pressure your son to join the kids hockey team, you DON’T force your daughter to enter a beauty pageant, you DON’T act disappointed and frustrated when they stray from gender roles. And you spare yourself a lot of pain and emotional stress when you let go of that baggage, wanting them to be “normal”. When you let go of the insistence that you children fit into strict gender roles, that’s one less thing you don’t have to worry about, or be sad or disappointed about, or frustrated about, or work to “fix”, or have fights about (“no, you may NOT wear make-up! You’re a boy! Stop arguing about it! Go to your room!”), or allow to get between you and your happiness and joy in your children. You let go of your desire for that imaginary Child That “Should” Have Been, and it makes it that much easier to just find a peaceful and simple joy and pride in the child you actually have, whoever they may be.
By pulling away those pressures and coercions to get your child to fit into their assigned gender, and by not only allowing but actively encouraging exploration of gender, and offering lessons to counter the hostile and shaming messages of a cisnormative culture (which is also, incidentally, an important message for any child: to not trust the messages they get from advertisements and the culture as a whole, to think critically about them, and NEVER let those messages make them feel ashamed of who they are), you’ll be able to foster a child’s sense of confidence in their gender so that when difficult or important decisions about that need to be made, you can trust your child’s understanding.
Gender variance in a young child, 10 or under, is not something that needs to be worried about too much. Simply allowing them to explore and express themselves is pretty much all you need to do. It may just be a phase, it may not, but that’s not really something to worry about too much. Don’t shame them, let them have space to work through that, and que sera, sera. However, when you reach the point of immediate pre-adolescence, that’s when things get a bit more serious, and important decisions come into play.
If your child is persisting in a transgender identification at the cusp of adolescence, at that point, it’s very unlikely to “just be a phase”, and it probably is serious. The important thing here is to be very supportive of your child. Things are NOT going to be easy for them, but having you on their side will make things a thousand times easier than they otherwise would be, as will not forcing them through an undesired puberty. You should contact whatever resources and support networks for trans youth are in your area, as well as resources for parents of trans youth to help you through this (because it won’t be easy for you either… whenever someone transitions, their families and loved ones transition with them). You should seek the assistance of both an experienced and trans-friendly psychiatrist and physician. Do EXTENSIVE research into their background, and talk to the local trans community about their reputation. Ideally, seek out and talk to trans people who saw these doctors and get their input and recommendation (or lack thereof) first, as well as accounts of their experiences. If possible, do a bit of compare / contrast. If you are unable to have much choice in terms of who you see, at the very least learn a bit about the warning signs and red flags associated with cissexist doctors and “gatekeeping” (you can talk to your trans community and support networks, or trans-advocates, about this… I’ve mentioned some of this on occasion, but I should probably do a full post sometime) and ditch the doctor if they begin demonstrating cisnormative bias.
While finding these doctors, you should begin a serious conversation with your child about the benefits and risks of lupron. Lupron is a medication that simply delays puberty (in both sexes) and prevents the irreversible changes associated with it, thus effectively preserving your child’s choice in the matter until they’re old enough to consent to transition and more irreversible treatments like estradiol or testosterone therapy. I’ve got a post about this here. You should also talk to them about the option of taking on a new name and presenting as a different gender at school, or perhaps simply “part-timing” at home or in safe spaces. Your child should also have access to trans-friendly counseling so as to help cope with the stresses and social anxieties (and likely bullying) that will come along with being trans. If at all possible, as said, try to find a group for queer or trans youth where they can meet and hang-out with other queer/trans kids in a safe, supportive environment, and make some friends.
And about that bullying… yeah, that’s probably going to happen. There’s not much you can do to stop it. If it gets really really bad, you might consider the option of homeschooling, but still… that’s a decision you’d have to work out. The thing is, though, you can’t make someone stop being trans (or gay). Trying to prevent them from transitioning, or being out, or force them to be “normal”, is just going to make things even harder and more unhappy for them. There’s a slim chance that might help spare them from bullying at school, but you’ve only replaced it with bullying from their family. You can’t protect them from the intolerance of the world, all you can do is be supportive of who they are and offer them love and security at home.
Altogether though, really the most important thing you can possibly offer a child, whether cis or trans or intersex, straight or gay or bi or pansexual or asexual, is genuinely unconditional love. That is the absolutely central thing. As long as that is your priority, that that love is based on who your child is rather than who you want your child to be or imagine them to be or wishes they were, that you make sure they know your love is unconditional (don’t just tell them that you love them no matter what, demonstrate it), and that you give them space to explore themselves in accordance with the space in which your love would still be offered, then you are doing a good job. Encourage them to find whoever they are, and whatever they wish out of life, and let them know no matter that ends up being, you are there for them and will stand behind it.
It can be tricky. Every single moment of our lives contains a thousand tiny ways that someone can send us a message of disapproval or limitation, imply what we should not do and what we should do. A parent can end up coercing a child into a particular gender role and suggesting they should be ashamed of behaviours x, y and z without even realizing they’re sending that message. Like the looks of disapproval I always read on my dad’s face. He probably didn’t mean to be sending them, but I definitely picked up on them and internalized them into a metric shit-ton of shame and self-loathing. But as long as you make the other messages stronger, and engage in ACTIVE encouragement of exploration, ACTIVE demonstration of unconditional love and acceptance, then they will internalize that into a similar shit-ton of confidence and self-acceptance. Which is exactly what every child, regardless of sex, orientation or gender, needs in order to be healthy and happy.
Sure, assign a gender. But encourage exploration. Have open dialogue. If they define a trans identity, pursue trans-friendly supports and resources and talk about lupron. Accept that things might be tough, so that you don’t make them tougher. Love unconditionally. Demonstrate it and make sure they know it.
I hope in whatever little way this can help a few parents navigate this stuff, and help a few kids feel a bit more loved and accepted. I know it’s hard and confusing, as a conceptual thing. But the reality of just loving and accepting your child, and exploring, expressing and constructing their identity together, is much easier and much less exhausting than the alternative of trying to force them into something. Give them the space to find it themselves.