I stood in silence next to my kitchen sink, my hands dripping water on to the floor, as my mother berated me for what I had just done. I tried to stay calm as she scoffed, swore, laughed, sighed and grew louder as my two children slept upstairs. Then, without warning, she walked away and closed the guest room door behind her. I found my husband, wrapped my arms around him and cried.
All I had done was gently correct her after she misgendered my child.
My husband and I are parents of two loud and lively kids. From the outside, you would never think there’s anything different about us. Our younger child is 16 months old, a fledgling toddler who crafts temper tantrums with panache. Our older child is a 7-year-old who’s like other first graders: they tell you very little about their school day when asked, they dislike making their bed, and they want nothing more than the freedom to play Minecraft for upward of 23 hours a day. But one thing does set my first grader apart from others: Our child, who I’ll call M, is not cisgender. M is nonbinary, also known as gender nonconforming, gender creative, genderqueer or gender diverse. M uses they/them pronouns and simply doesn’t identify as the sex assigned to them at birth.
From the beginning, as parents, my husband and I weren’t the blue-for-boys, pink-for-girls type. We let M dress in the clothing they gravitated toward and wear their hair in whichever style they liked. We made a point to shy away from anything overtly gendered, or from the notion that our child was only entitled to half the world’s opportunities. Still, we were happily raising our child as cisgender without thinking anything of it.
Roughly a year ago, when M was 6, they began referring to themselves as “a they,” but my husband and I didn’t read too much into it. We had equipped them with the language and basic knowledge around the gender spectrum. But kids are unpredictable, distractible and fickle about everything from their favorite food to their best friend, so upon hearing our child mention a couple of times that they wanted us to use these gender-neutral pronouns, we agreed somewhat coolly, with the intention of offering up a halfhearted attempt to see if they would notice. It felt like a reliable way to see if they really meant it or not.
It worked well enough, and M toyed between their original binary pronouns and their adopted neutral ones, so we stayed the course.
Months after that exchange, however, M came home from school distressed about how their teachers and classmates were referring to them. We realized it was time to have a serious talk with them.
As my husband and I talked about gender identity with M and asked them how they saw themselves and what they felt, they shared with us that they no longer identified with the gender we had always known them to be. “I just feel like a human being. Like a person. That’s all,” they insisted.
Children can and do know their gender identity, said Dr. Diane Ehrensaft, a psychologist and the mental health director of the Child and Adolescent Gender Center at University of California San Francisco’s Benioff Children’s Hospital.
“As long as we learn to listen to them rather than tell them who they are, we give them a leg up in having a healthy life.” Dr. Ehrensaft said.
Dr. Ehrensaft explained how parents of gender-nonconforming children and adolescents need to be troop leaders — listeners and facilitators rather than dictators — because the better a parent is at grasping and subsequently teaching gender literacy, the more successful their children will ultimately be.
With children, gender identification and expression can start in the toddler years, become nuanced in the early elementary years and continue to develop with age, said Coleen Williams, Psy.D., a psychologist with the Gender Multispecialty Service at Boston Children’s Hospital, which provides care to gender-diverse and transgender individuals and their families. People can explore their gender identity at any age, Dr. Williams added.
Statistics and research about nonbinary children is limited, however. Part of this could be that our society operates mostly within a binary system, which leaves little to no room for the representation of those who exist in the gender spectrum’s vast gray area, Dr. Williams said.
As time passed and we had more conversations with M, we watched them settle comfortably into their nonbinary gender identity. We asked them pointed questions, we listened to them as they did their best to explain what being gender nonconforming, or GNC, meant to them, and we respectfully relented when we saw that holding M’s gender identity under the microscope for too long only led to emotional upheaval. Simply speaking, we made our message clear: We told M we love them unequivocally, we’re here for them, that they are welcome to tell us or ask us anything, and that we would check in with them periodically to keep tabs on their mental health.
At M’s request, we enrolled them in a peer group at school for fellow GNC students, led by the school’s social work team, so M spends a portion of every week with those who understand them the best.
The Push to Restrict Rights for Young Transgender People
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A growing trend. Measures that could tranform the lives of young transgender people are at the center of heated political debate across America. Here is how some states are approaching the subject:
Utah. A day after the decision in Indiana, Gov. Spencer Cox, also a Republican, vetoed a similar bill that would have barred young transgender athletes from participating in girls’ sports. Republican legislators subsequently voted to override the veto and enacted the legislation.
Other states. Since 2019, lawmakers have introduced bills seeking to bar transgender youths from joining school sports teams consistent with their gender identities. They have become law in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia.
According to the American Psychological Association, mental health outcomes can improve in children whose gender identities are affirmed and supported.
“It’s normal and understandable if this is a difficult issue to reconcile, and for a lot of parents it is, but there are resources that can help parents, which will ultimately help the child,” said Amy Tishelman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and the director of clinical research in the Gender Multispecialty Service program at Boston Children’s Hospital.
She added that giving children the freedom to explore their gender identity is key to their well-being and resilience.
Supporting and advocating for transgender and gender-diverse people allows them the opportunity to develop a positive self-image, validate their own gender identity and adopt effective coping strategies in the face of aspersion or microaggressions, Dr. Ehrensaft said. Furthermore, she said, teaching gender literacy offers a hopeful path toward dispelling the negativity, bigotry, ignorance and hatred that so commonly exists for this community.
The clash that took place in my kitchen with my mother was not an isolated event. My husband and I bear the lion’s share of pushback from family members, the brunt of which comes from our respective matriarchs, both of whom expend remarkable amounts of mental energy to communicate that they don’t believe that M knows who they are. The amount of emotional labor we have expended to assert our firstborn’s autonomy is certainly more than I anticipated, but I’ll take a thousand more lashings if it ultimately grants M the opportunity to exist in peace, exactly as they are. It shouldn’t be a reach to ensure our child is treated with respect and kindness, regardless of gender.
At 7 years old, M has a solid grasp of their gender identity. And within the confines of our home, they know well that they are seen, heard, loved, and accepted. That, truly, is my privilege and my joy. But, as it goes, loving and supporting my nonbinary child for who they are is the easy part. What takes real work is persuading those closest to us that they ought to do the same.