I get asked a lot of questions about my trans son, by friends and strangers alike. Mostly because I’m visible and willing to share. Partly because people are curious. I never mind answering questions, being open to educating people, sharing my knowledge, building allies wherever and however I can. But I sometimes forget how little people outside of the community know and understand about trans people.
And how offensive and invasive some questions can be.
The only way to become a more educated and better ally is by asking, but a quick do’s and don’ts guide will help any well-meaning person avoid some common pitfalls.
The Do's and Don'ts of being an Ally to Parents of Trans Kids
DON’T use the terms “born a boy or born a girl”. My child is a boy. He was born a boy, always was a boy, still is a boy. Because we assign gender based on genitals, we believed he was a girl. But the truth is, not at any point in his life, was he ever a girl. He also doesn’t have a girl’s body. He is a boy, therefore he has a boy’s body. And adding “biological” in front of any gender only makes it worse. Biology is not binary either, except for fisson, which happens to be a form of asexual reproduction. When we start to see gender as more than our physical make-up, we can understand how complex and unique each of our identities truly is.
DO use the terms “assigned male or assigned female at birth”, instead. These acknowledge that a trans person was assigned a gender based on physical characteristics, and that the gender they were assigned doesn’t match the gender they identify as.
DON’T ask if my child was assigned female or assigned male at birth. I understand curiosity, and the misguided belief that knowing that information will make a better ally. It doesn’t. And the truth is, asking me what gender my child was assigned at birth is really asking me what genitals he has. When did it become okay to ask about children’s genitals?
DO ask how my child is handling his transition, school, life in general or any and all of the above. Much like I might ask how a child is doing in math or what sports they play. This shows concern for his present condition, it shows support for what we’re going through, and it gives me a chance to share some of our struggles and successes.
DON’T ask what my child’s birth name is. The birth name, or dead name of a trans person is an incredibly private thing, and a very triggering thing. It’s offensive and invasive, like asking what medications they’re on or if they have any diseases. Boundaries! I’m not going to answer and I’m not going to feel rude or badly for not answering. I know people I meet are curious, and sometimes, that curiosity is well-intended. They’re trying to learn more and be a better ally. For those that fall into this category, I will firmly but politely say, this is not something that we share. For those that don’t, mind your own damn business.
DO ask how we chose the name we did. Who doesn’t love telling the story of their child’s naming? And for parents of trans kids, it’s even more special, because oftentimes, we worked together with our children, to come up with a meaningful name. In our case, our child wanted to be named after his favorite cartoon character, but my husband put his foot down. “No child of mine will be named after a cartoon character!” he vowed. “How about after your favorite author?” I retorted, to which he agreed. It just so happened that the nickname for his favorite author is the name of my son’s favorite cartoon character.
DON’T ask me if I’m worried this is “just a phase”. We all go through phases. I ratted my bangs and swooned over NKOTB and wore Z. Cavaricci pants and thought I was the bomb. Thank goodness that was a phase! But I also started a journal in first grade, started writing poetry by second, and joined the church choir so I could sing all the time. All not phases, especially the singing all the time. My son being trans is most definitely not a phase. Not at two, not at six, and not today at the age of nine. By asking me that question, it not only invalidates and judges my decision, as a parent, to support my son, but also my son’s gender identity. And while we’re at it, DON’T ask if I’m worried he’ll change his mind, for all of the above reasons, and more. He never made his mind up to be trans in the first place, this is how he was born. And as he grows and matures, if he learns new things about himself and his identity, about his place in the world and how he fills it, that don’t match who and what he is now, I will still support him. I’m not worried in the least, because life is not a straight line from point A to point B.
DO ask for resources to learn more about trans and gender expansive people. Please, I have a business card listing lots of them. Not only will they answer all questions and more, but they’ll also help to avoid a lot of unintentional bias, discrimination, and yes, transphobia.
DON'T talk about someone pre-transition in the wrong gender. I love when people make connections with me, and share stories about trans relatives or co-workers or a friend’s child. But they almost always use the wrong gender, when speaking about them pre-transition. “He transitioned to a girl, when he was fifteen” or “No one ever knew he was a girl until he told all of us.” And when I politely confirm that she really does identify as female now and that we should use female pronouns, they immediately get defensive. “Well that was before, when he was a he or she was a he er…ugh!” or “I have such a hard time remembering, it’s so confusing”. I don’t care. When someone transitions, they didn’t change, from one to the other. THEY WERE ALWAYS THE OTHER, they just hadn’t let people know publicly. So out of respect, use their correct pronouns, no matter the context of when they transitioned.
DO respect pronouns. Always. No matter what. No excuses like, it’s too confusing or it’s too hard to remember. “I keep forgetting!” That’s my favorite. Every time a trans person is misgendered, they feel emotional and psychological pain and are put at risk of being exposed, if they’re not out and visible. It’s nonconsensual outing. It is an act of violence. If it’s too hard to remember a couple pronouns and make a deliberate effort to do so, imagine how hard it is to be trans in our world. And yes, slipping up, making a mistake now and again will happen. When it does, acknowledge the mistake, apologize, and correct it. And if it isn’t clear what pronouns a person uses, ask!
DON’T be afraid to be an ally and to speak up in support of trans and gender expansive people. The trans community wants support and they will help guide anyone through all of the do’s and don’ts of being a good ally. You’ll make mistakes, guaranteed. You’ll get called out for it, I promise. And you’ll do better and be better, next time.
DO offer your support and ask how you can help. Any time you see me. Every time you can. We can never have too many allies.
Most importantly of all, healthy, well-meaning curiosity will never be discouraged.
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Read Portrait of a Transgender Child to learn more about my son.
Read my latest post here: Texas passing a 'bathroom bill' that targets trans students is only the beginning
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