“My child came out to me as trans*. They asked me to start calling them by a different name and different gender pronouns. What should I do?”
Question submitted Anonymously
Answered by Liam Lowery
First of all, thank you for seeking out this resource. Bravo for looking this site up, or clicking the link your kid sent you. How you got here doesn’t matter—what does is that you want to support your child and get some help understanding their trans* identity.
When you hear something like that, especially from someone you’ve raised since birth, it’s natural to ask a lot of questions: Are you sure? Did I do something to cause this? Can’t we wait to make these changes?
You are clearly acting in your child’s best interest, asking questions you normally would about any choice they make. The best thing to do, though, is to listen to them.
Listen. Let that sink in for a moment. Really try to listen.
If you want to stop reading here, that’s fine. Really everything I say boils down to listening to your kid about their experiences.
For more background, though, stick with me. Listening is the best course of action is because, if you are like most parents, you may not have even heard the word transgender until your child said it. Unlike most other things your child will deal with in life—from driving to dating— you do not necessarily have relevant experience here. It is unlikely that you were transgender and came out too, back in the day. As such, this is not an area where you are the expert. In fact, your kid is the expert. So listen. Ask questions. Offer support. But above all else, trust them.
Since trans* is an umbrella term we use to include many experiences (people who want to transition from male to female, female to male, or anyone who identifies as both or neither), I can’t provide specific tips for embarking on the unique journey that each transition takes a family unit on – but I can offer more general guidance for how to approach your child’s transition, and your transition to being the parent of a transgender person.
Commonly, an early step is coming out to one’s parents and asking them to respect your identity. This is a toughie. For me, the only tougher thing was coming out to myself.
The way I wished I explained it initially was that I wasn’t just asking them to respect a decision I was making, like getting a tattoo or a dog. I wish I had explained that I was inviting them into the pain I had felt for years, and the new happiness I was experiencing through transitioning. I wish I had asked them to reimagine me, and join me on a journey towards getting to actualize the self I had been all my life.
At the time I was 17. Regardless of age, a child inviting their parent on this journey is a move towards a new kind of parenthood, wherein you are participating respectfully and challenging your own ideas about gender. You did such a good job raising your kid that they want to live a full, happy life. They are exhibiting bravery and self-awareness in a world that wants to push them into the ground. Rest assured, if you have raised someone life this, you have done an excellent job. Congratulations!
2. Tackling the Name/Pronoun Change.
Your child asks you to call them by a different name and use different gender pronouns when you refer to them (yes, this also means when they are not around). Many people will tell you this takes time and that it is alright to make mistakes. That’s true. You may struggle because you love the name you picked for your child, or because you have gotten so used to them being your son or daughter that you can’t imagine this changing. You are going to have to get over it. I say that with so much love. But it’s true. If it helps, every time you feel a twinge of pain calling them by their new name, remind yourself of how scary and sad it must have been to discover truth this about themself, and have to live with being called by their old name.
Though it was years ago, I still have the first letter where my mom called me Liam. For me, it was one of the moments of my life I will never forget, a time when I felt wholly supported. Give your child that gift, everyday.
3. Talking to Others.
Do exactly what your child asked, call them what they asked to be called, and if questioned by friends/family/coworkers about your child, do not be afraid to explain your child’s transition, no gory medical details, of course, just a friendly explanation of what it means to be transgender. Here is a script:
Coworker/Aunt/Neighbor: Hey Meghan! Is Charles enjoying school this year?
Parent: Yes, just thriving! Actually, (insert neighbor’s name here), I wanted to let you know that you will be seeing my daughter, Anna, over winter break—not Charles. Anna is transgender, and she is undergoing her gender transition. I couldn’t be more proud of her, and just wanted to let you know her name and preferred gender pronouns. Can’t wait to see you for (insert the holiday meal of your choice)!
Take it slow. Before saying a name or gender pronoun in a rush, try to really think about it. Though all changes take time, remember that every slip to a birthname or incorrect gender pronoun can feel like a slap in the face to your transgender child. Reintroduce yourself to your child, know it will take time to adjust, and that you may need time to grieve, but that none of this is your child’s fault. Do not make them feel guilty for inviting you to be part of their life. Remember that things could be much worse, given the high volumes of trans* suicides, especially among young people.
5. Seek support.
Attend a group for parents of trans* people, read books on parenting trans* kids, talk to supportive friends. Allow yourself to have a hard time, but don’t put guilt on your child for any extra work or thought you may have to put into everyday life. Remind yourself of how challenging being trans* can be, and practice empathy. Now is an opportunity to be a role model in respecting trans* identities.
5 ½. This is a question I hear a lot and want to address: What if this is a phase? In middle school, my kind went through a punk phase that lasted a week. In high school, it was playing the trumpet. Why should I challenge my perceptions about gender, talk to family and friends, and accept my child’s decision when they are so young and they have had other phases before? To this I would say: we live in a society where any potential cool-points to be gained by being trans* are far outweighed by transphobia and discrimination. By erring on the conservative side, you may think you are saving your child from ridicule and challenges. In fact, you are actively damaging your relationship. If they have come this far, they have already been straight into hell and back. Don’t send them there again by doubting their identity.
If after soul searching, your child has come to this conclusion, you should respect it or risk losing them forever, either through suicide or through leaving home at 18 and transitioning without your blessing. My family nearly lost me in both those ways, and the risk is very real.
But, hypothetically, let’s say it is all a phase. In two months they say, “Eh, I was wrong, what can you do?” The worst possible outcome of respecting your child’s decision to come out is that your family, friends, and coworkers will be more familiar with trans* issues, and respectful of trans* identities. That is a terrific worst outcome.
6. Familiarize yourself.
Learn about medical procedures/legal gender changes your child might pursue. This does not mean saying, “Did you see how dangerous this surgery is!? Do not get this surgery!” but more, “I see that this surgery does present some medical risks. Have you considered those? Do you have a physician in mind, and have you researched them? Can you tell me why the surgery is important to you?” Remember, this is a journey that you are part of, but not driving, so your butt can be kicked to the side of the road. The fact that your child is pursuing their trans* identity is a testament to your parenting skills, and illustrates that your child is mature enough to know themselves better than some people ever will. Congratulations, again.
I will say it again: when in doubt, listen. Listen to your child about their experience, and ask questions. When did they realize they were transgender? How did that feel? Ask them if there are any resources they’d like you to read, or anything they want to share with you.
Be grateful that you two have each other, and your child will be too.
Liam Lowery is a queer transgender man and law student, based in New York. His work focuses on transgender legal advocacy, and how race, class, ability and sexuality impact the transgender experience.
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