Content warning: homophobia, transphobia.
Recently on social media I watched as former classmates of mine blasted parents who support their trans children; that is, parents who allow their children to transition and who actively support them through the process. These children, my fellow alumi assert, are ‘confused’… but the parents are even worse. These parents are neglectful, disgusting, not doing their job. Familiar as I am with anti-transgender rhetoric, it is always a bit of a shock to see these kinds of sentiments from people I care about, or people I had previously esteemed.
My partner and I are both cisgender. Our oldest child came out as trans in December 2016. At the time it seemed such a wild coincidence that I’d been focusing on the writings and works of trans activists in recent years. Of course, I will always wonder if this was in fact a “coincidence” – after all, as a Buddhist, self-education on social issues is an imperative and an avocation – or if I had been perceiving something about my child before they came out.
Most supportive cisgender parents in this position are bound to start wondering what they might have missed and therefore worry about how much damage they did. I am not immune to that inquiry or that sense of regret. It has to be said though that for the parent of a trans child, any difficulty we may experience cannot take center stage when it is our children – raised in families that are neglectful or hostile and within a society that is terrifyingly alienating and aggressive – who need to be given center stage in terms of support and care.
Trans activism and awareness has been a part of our culture for hundreds if not thousands of years; sadly, few people study this history or this body of work (which is, thankfully, always expanding and receiving more general notice). I am thankful for not only the ouevre, I am grateful for its large-scale availability in the age of the internet. I believe my partner and I would have done a great deal of inadvertent and “innocent” but nevertheless severe harm to our child, had we not a small foothold on trans rights issues.
Trans children, teens, and adults endure so much discrimination, abuse, neglect, and persecution. They experience elevated rates of social exclusion and danger, and these myriad pressures result in an elevated suicide rate. Given suicide statistics alone, I feel so much anger when I think about my classmates’ disparagement of my attempts to be a supportive parent. As adults it is our responsibility to do better by these children, and as parents we are either their first bedrock strength or their greatest serial abuser.
I cannot express myself more firmly on this matter.
So I am grateful for this body of trans activist work, because I was raised in ignorance. My early life was pre-internet, and trans issues were presented as, at best, a fringe subject. You might as well study the mating habits of the Atlas Moth! I was raised in a liberal home (for which I am grateful), and my teachers and extended family always claimed to be tolerant and loving to people from all walks of life. Yet anyone raised by Baby Boomer liberality will be familiar with the well-intentioned but corrupted ideas woven through this familial-political tapestry. Let’s take sexuality (rather than gender identity, for starters. In this socio-familial worldview gay people were welcome members of society – but they were also Othered and singled out in conversation at most opportunities: John became “my gay friend John” (while we never have “my straight friend Mary”). These same adults persisted in using the word “homosexual” as a noun, even after being told it is an offensive and outré descriptive. Gay individuals were easily tolerated or even loved (if you can call it that), but men who were too “sissy” were disparaged (in favor of the stoic, silent, suffering “straight-acting” gay man), and lesbians who were too “mannish” were looked at as both admirable (for their supposed toughness), and alien (for their difference). The existence of femme lesbians was ignored. Any other sexual identity was simply not named and therefore erased.
If my upbringing with regard to gay and lesbian individuals was relatively poor, you can appreciate how much worse it was for trans identities. The first words I heard describing trans persons – words I heard on the playground or in adult conversation – were (I know now today) offensive, silly, scary, and inaccurate. When adults in my life talked about trans individuals they parroted harmful, ugly views – while absolutely believing they were being tolerant and kind. For instance, one friend of the family that was discussed was a “man who became a woman”, alternately referred to as “she” and “he”. This story was repeated to me carefully and persistently through my childhood without malice, but also with an ill-formed and inadequate viewpoint. Today I know that this story, and the adherence to the framing of this story, is tainted with transphobia.
This corrupted education wasn’t just in the family, or on the school playground either. Examples of trans characters in film and television (especially in the B-movie horror films I loved to watch) were simply nightmarish. Trans men were almost non-existent in film and television, usually portrayed (if ever) as tragic loners or sociopaths. Trans women were psychotic, evil murderesses or duplicitous divas. Non-binary or genderqueer individuals were invisible, occasionally presented as exotic, weird, and affected. Today when I re-watch these films I flinch; but as a child, I simply internalized these portrayals. The messages were clear. Trans individuals were scary; they were Other. They were on the outskirts of society and they deserved to stay there. Even in very recent history, film and television works demonstrate we have a long way to go.
As a child and teen I don’t remember once being exposed to a healthier view of trans identities. I believe that could have helped me a great deal. It would have made an incredible difference if the adults in my life – family, adult friends, teachers – would have cited a person’s pronouns properly, dropped the “male-to-female” lexicon of transition (“used to be a man”/”used to be a woman”), disavowed the practice of deadnaming, and spoke out against toxic (or absent) media depictions of trans individuals. Helpful, too, if the adults in my life would have explained that a trans person can be straight, gay, bisexual, pansexual, or any other sexual identity under the sun. I got a crummy, harmful, malformed education on the topic and it’s a crime that so many still do.
Today’s world is a little safer and a little more welcoming for trans individuals. A little. Openly trans individuals are able to run for, and attain, public office. If you are cisgender and reading this, you probably know someone who is openly trans (remember, no one is required to be out as trans, either). In our experience, living in a semi-rural ex-logging town, we have had a great deal of support – more than I would have expected when our child first came out (although as my classmates’ behavior demonstrates, a lot of people are hostile and unsupportive – just not confrontational in person).
Sobering, too, is the fact it is also still a dangerous place for our trans brothers, sisters, and siblings. 2017 had the most yet recorded murders of trans women (mostly women of color). Reprehensible “bathroom bills” dog our legislature in attempts to pathologize, humiliate, exclude, and criminalize trans individuals. Old myths have experienced a rebranding: the “social contagion” theory is making news recently with a poorly-crafted study and the pseudo-scientific term “rapid onset gender dysphoria” (with attendant faux-legitimizing phraseology like “desisting”). Our American president continues to humiliate the trans members of our military; the influence of his powerful position in our country is grievous and cannot be overstated. Quite simply put, adults continue to wreak havoc for trans individuals – adults, teens and children – within the home, in our institutions and law, and in every possible public venue.
That said, I have a lot of hope. Many people are trying to do better. This is a heartening but often messy experience. As the parent of a trans teen, I am often approached in private by people with questions. Most demonstrate their concern, their desire to do better, and their ignorance (for instance if I describe someone as a “trans man” the other party in the conversation is often confused; this shows a profound unfamiliarity with the community and the educational resources available). Sometimes the questions I get are well-meaning but inappropriate: personal questions about my child’s body, sexual preferences or practices, and medical procedures. I am also approached by people who need support or who are confused, because they have questions about their own child.
And then there are those annoying moments – for instance, people who want to burden me with a pedantic insistence that we should not allow an individual to use “they”/”them” pronouns. The argument isn’t that annoying – but watching people press their point over and over and place their personal convenience over the dignity and respect we should afford all citizens, is. This is the sort of self-described “well-meaning and open-minded” person who really, is neither.
I take an active role, both to be supportive as a parent and to be informed as a member of society. I am a member of a few online support groups for parents and allies, and these have been helpful and instructive. I also support (financially and by signal-boosting online) groups that are trans-centered. I participate, if they welcome cisgender members in the fold. I continue to listen to podcasts, to read essays and books, and to offer support not only to my child but to my many friends in the community.
In the present lexicon, a cisgender person who makes the time to do what I have just detailed is often called an “ally”. I don’t mind the term “ally” but anyone who so identifies needs to remember to center the work and experience of trans activists and individuals, always. For an ally, this work is less about being “right” (or getting it “right”) or learning “the rules” (which are in a constant state of flux and discussion), and more about being willing to look deeper, and do the attendant work. I can definitively state that you have everything to gain by being willing to change, and showing that willingness by your actions. The ideas I was raised with about trans individuals were ugly, incorrect, harmful, and pathetic. I benefit tremendously from leaving them behind. My child, and all the world’s children, will as well.
When it comes to trans children and teens, any harm we do to them is inexcusable, and there is no justification for continuing our harmful behavior. It takes time to change, and we will make mistakes – I have made many myself – but to simply ignore the harm we perpetrate is inexcusable. This is most especially true when, as I say, there is so much education at hand. To that end, I charge each person reading here to seek out trans activists and authors. Learn to recognize transphobic language and behaviors, and shut them down. Accept rebuke, censure, and anger from trans individuals without defending yourself. Commit to making the world a more just, fair, and kind place.
For every ignorant classmate online – or any other person I see who thinks of my family as disgusting – there have been ten, twenty, thirty acquaintances who support and love us. They simply use my child’s proper pronoun and they continue to deepen their education. These individuals demonstrate that quiet, shining strength and ability to change for the better – an asset in the human race that is quietly beautiful indeed.
Transgender 101: A Simple Guide to a Complex Issue by Nicholas Teich
If you like my works on parenting, please sign up to receive notices about my upcoming zine: