A woman contacted me recently just hours after her teenage child came out to her as transgender.
“I’m super happy for him. And overwhelmed. And terrified of handling this badly,” she told me.
Since arriving in Portland, Oregon, I’ve been blessed to find a community that includes many trans and gender non-conforming (GNC) people. I count some of them among my closest friends. Being a naturally curious person, I’ve had many conversations with them about their identity and how they experience the world. Have I messed up at times and said hurtful things or asked inappropriate questions? Yes. Do my trans and GNC friends trust me to respect and support them? Also yes – partially because I’m willing to apologize when I mess up and learn from my errors.
So while I am not trans, I feel comfortable fielding this phone call from a mother who wants to support her child and is also terrified of messing up and causing irreparable damage.
Transgender people have always been among us – there is evidence of trans people back to the earliest days of recorded history. But while some early civilizations respected and venerated the trans people among them, more recent history has forced them into the shadows. Or worse.
It is only in the past five-ish years that trans people have come into popular awareness and have begun to gain some acceptance in western culture.
As the conversation about being transgender becomes more and more mainstream, more and more people will come out as trans – partially because they now have a language for what they’ve long felt, and partially because there is hope that they will be accepted for being who they have always truly been.
This is, I am sure, only the beginning of the phone calls I will receive from people whose loved ones have just come out and are wondering how to navigate that first conversation.
There’s a good chance that at least a few people reading this will have a child come out as trans in the coming years – and as you read this, you probably have no idea that it’s coming. So I offer this in hopes that having read it today, it will live in the back of your mind and become useful at the right moment.
Here are some of the things that I offered to this mother during our conversation:
→ Letting your child know that you love and accept them is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING. If that’s the only thing you say in that first conversation, you’re already ahead of the curve.
→ It’s also good to acknowledge that in the coming days/weeks/months/years you WILL MESS UP but it is never meant in spite or harm. Having this out in the open lets your child know that you recognize there will be bumps and it is safe to educate you when they occur.
→ Let your child know that you are open to them correcting you about things you don’t yet understand – you might be confused and your feelings might get hurt for a moment, but your love for them is greater than your need to be “right.”
→ It is NEVER okay to out a person as trans without their express permission – for reasons of both emotional and physical safety. If your child comes out to you privately, ask what name and pronouns they want used with other family and friends. They may want to stay under the radar for a while and just get comfortable with the idea of you knowing. If that’s the case, you’re going to have to be careful to not share with other family and friends.
On the other hand, they may want support in coming out to the rest of the family, in which case they’re probably looking to you to be a vocal ally. Or anything in between. Please don’t make assumptions about what they need – ask them what they need and then do your best to provide it (even if you don’t completely understand.)
→ It’s natural to wonder if your child is part of a community. However, because it is not okay to out anyone, it’s also not appropriate to ask your child to out their friends. Rather than asking, “Is Susie trans? Can you talk with her?” you might ask “Do you know any trans people you can talk with about what’s going on?” This leaves it up to your child to tell you as much or as little as they feel comfortable with.
→ If your child doesn’t want any other family or friends to know yet, you will be in the position of holding information that you can’t process within your regular family/friend support system. Yes, that is going to be hard. But that DOES NOT MEAN that you are alone. If you choose to see a therapist or counselor, make sure to find someone who identifies themselves as LGBTQ-friendly (or, even better, specifically trans-friendly). The therapist’s office is not a place you should have to advocate for the validity of your child’s identity. You need to work with a therapist who is already on board.
→ Your local chapter of PFLAG (https://www.pflag.org) is a great place to find companionship and support in your community.
→ If you prefer the anonymity of being online, here are some places to start:
Trans Youth Equality Foundation: http://www.transyouthequality.org
Human Rights Campaign: https://www.hrc.org/resources/transgender-children-and-youth-finding-support-for-you-and-your-family
National Center for Transgender Equality: https://transequality.org
There are also numerous support groups on Facebook for parents of trans youth.
→ These online resources will also be helpful for learning about being trans and the issues your child will probably face. As tempting as it will be to ask your child to explain all of this to you, they are already shouldering a tremendous load. They may not have the energy to educate you on what they’re going through. The more you can educate yourself, the easier it will be for your trans child to communicate with you about what’s going on for them.
→ Re-orienting your brain around a new name and pronoun for your child may be a little rocky. You WILL experience cognitive dissonance for a while. Chances are good that for every time you get it right, you will have several unconscious slip-ups. While some might shame you for that, I take a more pragmatic approach: your brain has had many years of calling someone by a certain name and pronoun. You need some time to unwind that sense memory.
Here’s an approach I love: the mother of a trans friend recently told me that she and her husband practice having conversations about “Linda” each night while watching TV. They consciously practice using their daughter’s correct name and pronouns in a relaxed space so they have a sense memory to draw on when they’re in a space with higher stakes. Over time, it gets easier and becomes automatic, but you’ll need to put in some work at the beginning.
→ Humans have a tendency to create pictures in our head about what the future will look like and get attached to those pictures. It’s okay to grieve the fact that you imagined a particular life for your child and that future now looks different. However it’s also important to know that your child is embracing a future that feels more REAL and WHOLE and HEALTHY for them. So while you grieve with your therapist or support group, do your best to jump into this new vision of life with your child to the best of your ability.
→ Finally, know that your child is likely to need you standing by their side as an ally and advocate now more than ever. The shit show of the current US Republican administration trying to define trans people’s existence into oblivion is outside the scope of this particular conversation between a mother and her newly-out child. But that is the world your child is stepping into, and they’re going to need your support – whether it’s advocating to correct misgendered paperwork when they’re in the hospital or marching in a parade you wouldn’t normally go to, your willingness to show your support in large and small ways will make a world of difference to your transgender child.
One more thing – if your child has already come out as trans and you wish you had responded differently (or you never brought it up again in the hopes that it would go away), telling your child RIGHT NOW that you love and accept them will do wonders. It’s never too late.
Please note – Because I am not transgender, it is really important for me to work with my trans friends to disseminate correct information to the cis-gender community that empowers the trans community. To that end, please know that this article has been vetted by a member of the trans community who offered corrections, additions, and adjustments. They have chosen to remain anonymous.
If someone you love comes out to you – as gay, gender queer, kinky, poly, or anything else that is unfamiliar to you – and you’d like to talk about it, email me at Leah@GoodGirlsTalkAboutSex.com.