Parenting is probably the toughest job there is. What’s also tough, but much less talked about is seeing a child in another family be rejected for who they are. Unfortunately for many transgender children this is their reality.
What do you do when that child is your child’s friend? Can you help? Do you ignore it because it’s not your business? Will support offend the parents? Depending on what issues are prominent, as well as the age of the child(ren), there are several options available to you.
Firstly, it’s important to understand some basic facts about gender.
WHEN DOES GENDER IDENTITY DEVELOP IN A CHILD?
One of the arguments often raised against trans kids is that children are too young to know about their gender identity. When people say this, they unconsciously link gender to sexual development. This is not correct.
A child’s gender identity begins around 2 or 3 years and is locked in around age 4. Most transgender children first experience gender dysphoria between 3 and 7 years with greater numbers by age 13. Furthermore, just because a trans child hasn’t voiced dysphoria, doesn’t mean they’re not experiencing it. Many transgender adults talk about knowing as a child they were trans but didn’t feel safe to share with anyone or do anything about it until well into adulthood.
It is also critical to highlight that you should never assume that a child knows they are trans or even if they have come ‘out’ to you, that their own parents know. The following guidance only relates to situations where children have voiced that they are transgender.
WHAT DOES SUPPORT LOOK LIKE AND HOW DO I GO ABOUT IT?
We all know that it’s a social ‘no no’ to comment on another person’s parenting. You never know the full story, there’s great risk of causing offence and emotions get triggered easily when your opinion hasn’t been asked for.
Unsurprisingly, there is no one golden answer. Support is about understanding the nuanced pinch points. What are their stressors? What are their parents’ stressors, and where do they clash with their child’s needs? Each situation has its own unique context, but there is a path through that means you’re supporting practically, sensitively and discreetly as needed.
Interactions with the other parents:
- Don’t judge without knowing their story
Every parent reacts differently to their child being transgender. Some support from day one, others don’t cope well initially but with time become affirming parents, whilst others never accept their transgender child. When you first meet the family, you will not know where they are at in their journey. It’s important to allow the parents space to process what is this means as parents, for their child and the family generally.
- Moderate your words for heightened emotions
When parents are non-affirming, emotions are often heightened. It’s wise to communicate more astutely. Yes, you want to be trans affirming, but offering an overtly positive opinion may trigger an emotional reaction that severs your connection. More subtle verbal affirmations will help maintain the opportunity for you to positively influence in the future. For example, “Sunita [your child] loves having Mimi as a friend. They both get on so well” or “It’s been so lovely to see Mimi recently.”
- Don’t focus on the child’s gender
Behave how you would for any of your child’s friends. Ask the parents over for a BBQ, offer to carpool, arrange sleep overs, suggest a picnic in the park etc. Apart from these activities being fun, your behaviour normalises being trans. Essentially, all that is happening is that your child has a new friend and you’re being a parent.
Interactions with the transgender child:
- Making your home a safe space
This is probably the most important action you can take when supporting a transgender child whose parents are not trans-affirming. For younger children being friendly, kind and welcoming is all they need. They know by your behaviour that you accept them. The same applies for teenagers, but a conversation is also a great way to emphasis the point. For example, “I want you to know you are always welcome in our home.” A trans kid knows what this really means, and it creates an opening for future conversations. Having a safe adult to talk to can be life changing.
- Talking about pronouns
A great way to show that you’re an ally is to introduce yourself with your pronouns. “Hi, I’m Mariam. My pronouns are she/her”. This is EVERYTHING but doesn’t require the child to do the same if they feel unsafe. With their own pronouns, be aware that many non-affirming parents vehemently oppose their child using different pronouns. In the UK, Australia, Austria and many other countries, schoolteachers are not allowed to use ‘they’ pronouns for students under 16 years without their parents’ permission. While teachers are accountable to professional teaching standards, it highlights the complexity of navigating allyship and the wellbeing of trans teens’ in the context of parental rights.
So, do you not ask trans teens for their pronouns then? Not exactly. It’s more nuanced. Start with, ‘how do your parents feel about pronouns?’. Just the fact that you’ve asked may enough for them. Keep in mind that they know best about what’s safe and what’s not within their family. Depending on what they next say, you may choose to further ask, “how should I refer to you when you’re with your parents?” and “when you’re in our home?”. Ultimately, however, you are not the child’s parents. You need to know your rights and expect that parental kickback may come because of these conversations.
- Offer relief from a stressful home
Give them respite from a stressful home, by arrange play dates and socialising away from their home. Let the kids know in advance too! This will help reduce anxiety about weekends at home or worrying about several weeks of school holidays.
Interactions with your child:
- Share in their excitement
Be excited by their new friend in the same way you would for any friend. Matching their level of excitement is really affirming for your relationship and also for their new friendship.
- Share your intentions of allyship
Explaining to your teenager your desire to support their friend can help prevent things getting lost in translation. When working in international schools, teenagers have shared concerns with me about their parents asking questions about their friends’ sexuality and gender. They assumed their parents were anti LGBTQ+. It never dawned on them that they might ask (no matter how awkwardly) so they could be a great ally to their friends. Be clear with your intentions, “Kasia, I’d really like to let Erin know that our home is a safe space for them. Would that be okay with you?”. Talking to your teenager like this makes them feel valued and lets them know unambiguously that you are LGBTQ+ affirming.
- Open for talking anytime
Let your child know that they can talk to you anytime about anything. An older child is likely to be their friend’s primary support and may need an outlet to discuss through any issues.
And if you’re worrying about making a mistake, don’t be. If it happens, just apologise and move on. When it comes to trans youth, the statistics show that the greater mistake is not trying at all. Trans youth need our support more than ever right now.
“Becoming ourselves is a collective journey.”– Alok Vaid-Menon
Beyond the Gender Binary