Transgender people have existed as long as humanity itself, but the last few years have seen a substantial shift in the way younger generations think about gender. Society is moving past the simple binaries of the 20th Century (e.g. male and female). The shift in the way these topics are discussed has provided many people with the tools to understand both themselves and others with more nuance. However, sorting one’s feelings on the subject can be confusing — not just for the individual, but for their family.
Many seniors want to understand and support their trans and/or nonbinary children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, but are not sure where to begin educating themselves. A quick Google search for “how do I talk to my grandkids about gender” reveals hundreds of hits… but most of them are about teaching gender to children, not providing resources for adults. Even most support groups are focused on parents or primary caregivers. Add to that the results of being raised in a generation where gender identity was never taught or discussed, and this can be a challenging subject for seniors to process.
HOW TO START
Before discussing gender with loved ones, experts suggest familiarizing oneself with the difference between gender and sex. Though often used interchangeably, these have different definitions: sex refers to the physiological traits that categorize someone’s role in the reproductive system – male, female, or intersex (containing both male and female chromosomes, reproductive organs, or both). Gender, however, refers to refers to the norms and roles constructed by society for that gender. For example, the term “tomboy” exists because of the societal norm that women should be demure and feminine.
Changes in a child’s gender expression do not necessarily mean that the child is transgender. It is human nature to explore and play with forms of self-expression, and many experiments with gender will be just that. However, children and teens experimenting with gender (sometimes referred to as “questioning”) deserve the space and support to do so safely. Cameron Van Fossen, executive director of Gender Spectrum, recommends that the family of gender-expansive children and teens should use these opportunities to examine their own biases. “How do you feel about boys who wear nail polish, and girls who want to shop in the boy’s department for clothes?” Van Fossen asks.
One of the easiest ways for loved ones to show support of a gender-expansive child or teen is to learn the terminology and use it correctly.
- Transgender is an umbrella term. It means someone experiences and expresses gender other than the one assigned to them at birth (i.e. being raised as a boy, but experiencing and expressing oneself as a girl).
- Gender non-conforming or nonbinary are identities under the transgender umbrella. These may mean that a person identifies as neither a man nor a woman, both a man and a woman, or a third gender. Some people use the terms genderqueer, genderfluid, genderless, or agender.
- Cisgender means your gender identity aligns with the one you were assigned at birth.
People who are brand new to conversations about gender may find that the learning curve to understanding this terminology is steeper than expected. However, using a person’s chosen name and correct pronouns is crucial to supporting them. If you’re unsure of which pronouns your loved one is now using, just ask.
Made a mistake? It happens! Your loved one(s) will likely be patient and forgiving, as long as it’s clear that you’re doing your best to show your support.
WHY IT MATTERS
While societal attitudes surrounding gender are changing rapidly, openly exploring one’s gender can lead to an increased risk of bullying or other forms of discrimination. As such, seniors may question why their loved ones would do so. One such reason? Gender dysphoria, a persistent distress with one’s physical sex characteristics and/or assigned gender.
Gender dysphoria is experienced by many, but not all, transgender people, and LGBTQ+ youth in general are at higher risk for depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. These risks are heightened when they feel rejected by family members or peers.
It’s important to note that being transgender is not a mental health disorder. And while not all gender expansive people experience gender dysphoria, those who do are at an increased risk of suicidal thinking and behavior. Transgender people face discrimination at much higher rates than their cisgender peers, but those who say their families are supportive are less likely to report suicide attempts or other forms of psychological distress.
Experts recommend checking in with open-ended questions to let loved ones know that they have your support. Statements such as “I’m here for you no matter what” and “You can always talk to me about anything that’s going on” are more effective forms of support than pointed questions that may be perceived as judgmental, like “Why are you dressed like that?” or “What’s wrong with your given name?” Other questions that demonstrate openness include: “What can I do to support you?” and “I’m interested in hearing more about this. Would you like to tell me about it?”
Even if what you’re saying seems obvious, assuring gender expansive loved ones of any age that they have your unconditional love and support is massively beneficial to their mental health. Try to reward their openness with positivity, rather than neutrality. For example, “Thank you for trusting me with that information,” communicates more support than “I don’t care how you identify,” even if both are coming from places of love.
TIPS AND TRICKS
Taking steps to make it clear that you are accepting of all gender identities may require some changes to your own speech and behavior. For example, you may make a real effort to use other people’s chosen pronouns, or take the time to consume media that represents a diverse group of people.
It’s also important to be prepared to advocate for your loved one if they experience discrimination due to their gender identity. Let others in your life know that you have a zero tolerance policy for disrespect regarding your gender expansive loved one(s). This demonstrates that the safety and well-being of your loved ones is of more importance to you than other people’s opinions and sets an expectation for how people around you ought to behave.
If people in your life have questions that you don’t know how to answer, Gender Inc. founder Debi Jackson recommends this response: “I don’t have all the answers, but I know [my relative] is happier. You don’t have to understand or approve, but treat [my relative] with the respect that you would want me to treat your family.”
It’s normal to experience a variety of feelings when your loved one is questioning their gender, some of which may be feelings of upset. These feelings are valid, but try to process them separately from the child or teen to avoid burdening them with additional feelings of guilt or shame.
To that end, it’s also good praxis not to publicly mourn your loved one. For example, someone with a relative who identifies as a transgender man may feel like they’ve lost a daughter/niece/granddaughter, but saying so in the presence of the person who is transitioning may trigger dysphoria or make them feel as though they must hide their truth to avoid causing you pain.
It’s helpful to remember that gender identities may continue to change and evolve over time. Things like chosen pronouns and names may not necessarily be fixed, but the goal should be to support your loved ones through as much exploration as they need to feel comfortable in themselves.
Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, the nonbinary executive director of GLSEN (The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) says families should know that it’s okay not to understand everything about gender and that they can ask for help or let their loved ones lead the conversation. Willingham-Jaggers suggests going into these conversations with a humility that reflects one’s level of understanding of the subject.
Author Lindz Amer agrees. “If you don’t know something, be honest about that with your kid. Let them know ‘Hey, I don’t have that lived experience. I don’t know everything. Let’s look it up online,” Amer says.
It’s possible to feel both love and fear when you are met with something you don’t understand about a loved one. Lead with love, and the rest will fall into place.
Want to learn more? Check out our Director of Marketing’s slide deck on gender expression and pronouns here.