This article originally appeared on Next Avenue.
Gender is much more complex than most of us were taught.
Transgender people have existed for as long as people have existed. But due to stigma, poor treatment, lack of knowing others like themselves and fear of rejection, many transgender people have chosen not to come out earlier in life — or at all.
Transgender people face patterns of mistreatment and discrimination at alarmingly high rates when looking at the most basic elements of life: finding a job, having a place to live, accessing medical care and enjoying the support of family and community, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality, which conducted the largest survey (27,715 respondents nationwide) of transgender experiences in the United States in 2015.
But respondents who said that their families were supportive were less likely to report homelessness, suicide attempts or serious psychological distress.
All this is to say: For transgender people, no matter when someone comes out, knowing they are accepted and supported by friends and family is critical to their health and well-being.
You might not be able to change peoples’ opinions, but you can set expectations for how people are to behave around, and speak to or about, your child or grandchild.
Here’s some advice on how to best nurture, support and validate a transgender or gender-questioning child, grandchild or loved one in your life:
Use Your Words to Show Love and Support
For younger children and teenagers, support might be more about encouraging them to explore different clothing, hairstyles or activities without judgment or negativity. Adult children will be free to make those choices on their own and instead could greatly benefit from emotional support and vocal validation.
Don’t underestimate the power of words — even if what you’re saying seems obvious. Assuring your child or grandchild, no matter their age, that they have your unconditional love and support can go a long way.
“Let them know how proud you are, and keep showering them with love and support. They need this because being transgender comes with people trying to tear you down, so they need all that love to lift them back up,” says Kylie Michaels, a 36-year-old transgender woman in Alexandria, Va.
While your first instinct might be to say that there’s no judgment from you or that you don’t care either way, try a positive, rather than a neutral, response.
“It takes courage in today’s world to come out to another person,” says Debi Jackson, parent of a transgender child, founder of Gender Inc and a transgender youth advocate in Kansas City, Mo. “We need to respond and not act indifferent. It has to be a positive response: ‘Thank you for telling me. I’m so glad you trusted me with that information.’”
Ask Questions to Show You Care
Understanding the nuances of someone’s gender-variant experience takes time, and that’s OK. The key is asking thoughtfully and letting your child or grandchild lead the conversation.
Jackson likes the phrase, “Tell me more.” It puts the onus on the transgender person to share as much or as little as they’d like about what they’re feeling or thinking.
Other recommended questions:
- What can I do to support you?
- Is there anything I can do to make things easier?
- I’m interested in hearing what this has been like for you. Would you like to tell me about it?
“Make sure you are clearly being supportive and not making it about you,” Jackson says.
Gray Quale, a 22-year-old transmasculine nonbinary person (which, to Quale, means he doesn’t identify as a man or a woman but has a masculine presentation) in St. Paul, Minn., suggests asking a simple “How are you doing today?” But be prepared to hear if the person is struggling or not having a good day.
Learn the Terminology
First, understand the difference between two words that are often used interchangeably: sex and gender.
Sex refers to the designation of a person at birth as either “male” or “female” based on biological and physiological characteristics.
Gender refers to the socially-constructed characteristics, roles and norms of women and men.
Transgender means you experience and express gender that does not match the one you were assigned at birth.
Gender non-conforming is an identity under the transgender umbrella that means a person identifies as neither a man nor a woman. Some people use the terms gender non-binary, genderqueer, genderfluid, genderless or agender to mean similar or different things.
Cisgender means your gender identity aligns with the one you were assigned at birth.
Gender dysphoria refers to a persistent distress with one’s physical sex characteristics or assigned sex. Gender dysphoria is experienced by many, but not all, transgender people.
These are just some, but definitely not all, concepts and terms related to transgender experiences. The ways people identify are innumerable, and not all transgender people define certain terms the same.
Use the Correct Name and Pronouns
People who are newly familiar with transgender people may have a steeper learning curve than others when it comes to terminology and pronouns. But using a person’s chosen name and correct pronouns is crucial to supporting them. If you’re unsure of which pronouns someone is using (he/him, she/her, they/them, sometimes others), just respectfully ask.
“With my parents being older, the most validating thing they have done is correct themselves on pronouns,” Michaels says. “When a brain is wired for so long, it is harder to erase old habits, but it makes me feel good that they are able to correct themselves, even if it is not perfect.”
Mistakes happen. Your child or grandchild will likely be forgiving and patient, as long as it’s clear that you’re practicing and trying your best to get it right.
“Don’t react defensively when someone says they want to change their name,” Quale says. “Don’t ask why they’re changing their name, if they hate their other name now or what was wrong with the old name.”
Do Not Verbally Mourn the Child
“When your kid [or grandkid] comes out, it’s going to feel like you’ve lost a kid,” Quale says. “My parents feel like they’ve lost their daughter, and it will always be hard for them to accept that, but what is helpful is to not grieve publicly.”
Quale says hearing parents or grandparents vocalize this grieving makes the transition harder for the transgender person — “like you have to hide the transition because you don’t want to cause your parents pain.”
Jackson says to rewrite the story in your own head in your own private space, not aloud.
“You’re letting go of one version of that person and welcoming a newer, happier, healthier version of that person,” says Michaels.
Do Not Encourage Silence or Secrecy
Transgender people are a vulnerable population, and our instincts can be to shield our loved ones from what might hurt them.
“Your fear takes over. You’re thinking, ‘I don’t want that to happen to my kid.’ But fear is what will keep you away from doing the right thing,” says DeShanna Neal, a parent of a transgender child and a member of the National Center for Transgender Equality’s Families for Trans Equality Network. “Don’t say, ‘Are you sure about this? It seems like [being transgender] is a trend.’ That’s what fear will make you do.”
To protect a loved one from what might harm them, your gut might tell you to keep the person’s gender identity a secret.
“My family didn’t want me to get hurt, but that can be a really invalidating to hear,” says Quale. “Keeping it ‘in the family’ is telling people to not create support groups. You could say, ‘Talk to people who you trust about this.’”
Require Respect From Others in Your Life
Have zero tolerance for disrespect or negative comments regarding your child or grandchild. You might not be able to change peoples’ opinions, but you can set expectations for how people are to behave around, and speak to or about, your child or grandchild.
If people in your life have questions that you don’t know how to answer, Jackson advises responding this way: “I don’t have all the answers, but I know my [grandchild/child] is happier. Treat my [grandchild/child] with the respect that you would want me to treat your family. You don’t have to understand or even approve, but it’s not about you approving.”
Remember: Your child or grandchild’s well-being is more important than others’ comfort.
Grace Birnstengel is a writer and editor for Next Avenue, currently leading an editorial initiative on age-friendly health care — what it means and how people can identify and access care that meets their unique needs. Her other areas of focus include LGBTQ issues, mental health, the arts and ageism. Grace holds a bachelor of arts in journalism and gender, women and sexuality studies from the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities. You can find her Next Avenue work here.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.