Talking to Your Kids about Transgender Identity
There’s been a lot in the media recently about trans people, and odds are, your kids are listening. Whether this coverage is about transitioning (think Chelsea Manning) or celebrities (think Chaz Bono), our kids are growing up in a world where often they’re ahead of our own learning curve. Chances are, maybe they even know a trans child (who’s either stealth in this identity, or out as trans) who has socially transitioned at school. Precluding that your child may even be trans themselves (let’s save that for another time), today’s Ms. Fit parents need to know how to talk about these issues with our families.
Here’s a basic primer for terms and etiquette you need to know, now.
What is transgender?
Transgender is an umbrella term which describes a wide category of people. Most people who describe themselves as trans feel that their gender identity does not align with the biological sex they were assigned at birth.
Who might identify this way? An 11-year-old child who was born female (natal girl) but who has never identified as female, has always stated that he is a boy, and now lives as male after transitioning socially with support from family. Or a 60-year-old woman who was born male, lived as a man for many years, fathered children as a man, and decided at age 45 to medically transition to female.
What is gender identity?
For anyone’s understanding, this is a good starting point. A great way to explain this to a child is to state that gender is the way a person prefers to express living in the world. Gender is who we perceive ourselves to be, internally, culturally, and socially, as a male or female. It is not about the biological sex we were assigned at birth. With some folks, gender matches up with biology. A term used when this happens is cisgender. For example, a child assigned a female sex at birth who feels she is a girl and is comfortable growing up to be a woman would be cisgender. When natal sex and gender identity do not align, a person may be transgender.
Is this the same thing as sexual orientation?
No, although this one confuses a lot of people. Sexual orientation can be fluid or fixed, but it means how we identify, if we do want to identify, in terms of sexual attraction. It’s about who we are attracted to physically and emotionally. A person’s sexual orientation is separate from their gender identity.
How should I react if I find out a child my kid knows is trans?
You should be accepting, of course! It’s likely that the family involved has been coping with this issue for a really long time. You need not weigh in with your opinion or offer advice. The decision to support a child’s transition, whether it is social or medical, is a huge one. You can set a good example for your kid by being non-judgmental, curious, open-minded about what you don’t know, and kind. Just treat the trans kid like you would any other kid. Likely, they won’t want to be singled out for special attention or discuss this with you. Just let them be a kid! And always call them by their chosen name, and use the correct pronoun—the pronoun the child uses.
How do I talk about this with my own child?
With basic, clear terms, a non-judgmental attitude, in developmentally appropriate language, as you would discuss any other issue with your child. But do your own research first, and don’t “out” any trans children or adults without their consent.
How do people transition?
Transition means something different to every trans person. Sometimes trans people wish to take hormones, such as “cross-hormones” to better present as they gender they wish to be. These days, a common medical protocol is for trans youth, even for kids as young as 11, to take “hormone blockers.” These blockers suppress puberty until a youth and their family fully figure out the young person’s true gender identity. Blockers are safe and reversible if stopped, and have been used worldwide for many years.
Other times, trans people will have SRS, or sexual reassignment surgeries, to better align their physical appearance with their identity. However, surgeries are expensive and invasive. Not every trans person wants to have surgeries, or to “pass” as one sex or another. Surgery does not make someone any more or less of a trans person.
Can I ask a trans person or child about surgeries they have had, or may want?
No, it is never ok to do so, although many people are tempted since they don’t know any better. But think of it this way: you wouldn’t want anyone to ask you about what’s between your legs, how your sex organs function, or how you use them. You’d likely feel more strongly about not discussing your child’s genitalia with anyone. Similarly, trans adults or youth do not owe anyone that information. It’s just not anyone’s business, and it’s rude.
I’m not sure I understand this, or agree with this, as a feminist.
That’s ok. We don’t all agree about a lot of things in life. However, people’s beliefs and decisions about themselves and their family should be respected, even if these decisions are different than ones you would make.
What is important here is that trans children, like gay and lesbian children, can grow up safely. When they are belittled, shamed, shunned, or cast out from their families, LGBT kids are likely to become homeless, at high risk for substance abuse and for being victimized, develop more mental illness, and have a very high risk for suicide. (Check the extensive research done by the Family Acceptance Project for the statistics on this one.)
As parents, our job is to love and support our children, to accept who they tell us they are, and make their lives safer. The world has changed, society’s views of LGBT people have changed, and our beliefs about ourselves as women have changed too. The majority of trans people just want to live their lives in a safe, healthy, and happy manner, surrounded by people who love and accept them for who they are. This is no different than anyone else.
How can I learn more?
While it’s tempting to ask a trans person, or the family of a trans child, it’s not their job to educate you. It’s exhausting for any person to continually have to educate others about identity, whether this be race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation…well, you get the picture. If you want to learn more, here are some resources you can check out on your own:
The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals by Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper
Shameless plug for a book I co-wrote. A classic!
Transgender 101: A Simple Guide to a Complex Issue by Nicholas Teich
Transitions of the Heart: Stories of Love, Struggle and Acceptance by Mothers of Transgender and Gender Variant Children edited by Rachel Pepper
Shameless plug number two! But trust me: these stories will make you cry, in a good way.
Websites and Organizations: