Let me let you in on a little secret. Writing Beyond Pronouns wasn’t nearly as hard as deciding to write it, deciding to sign a publishing contract, and deciding to promote it. Ask any close friend, my coaches (yes, more than one) and my therapists (also more than one) how much I waffled in my decision and feared a public backlash. Ironically, I never feared transphobic haters, but more the transgender community and other fellow parents of trans kids. So, I wasn’t at all surprised when I was called out this week. The more I learn about society and diversity, the more obvious it becomes that I am not coming out of this experience without a few emotional bruises.
How it happened
At the beginning of March, my wonderful publicist nominated me to be highlighted on an Instagram account that celebrates a different local woman every day and then gives them a shoutout on the radio. A few weeks later, the page owner reached out to me asking if I accept the nomination and to please send some pictures and a write-up, which I did. The message went unread for several days, only to have her let me know on March 31st that even though they’d already posted a woman that morning, she’d like to highlight me that afternoon in recognition of Transgender Day of Visibility. I immediately had a sick feeling in my gut. And not because I was an add-on or I wasn’t going to be spoken about on the radio. I immediately texted a friend and said, “watch me eat shit for not being a transgender person getting attention on TDOV.” And sure enough, someone wrote a vaguebook post within two days: “Saw a lot of Cis folx get celebrated and speak on the Trans Day of Visibility…”
My response was pretty direct. “I know I was celebrated as an ally, and not by my own design for it to happen on that day either. I would never willingly take the place of a transgender person. But as an ally 24/7/365, I will take every opportunity to highlight the need to support parents so that trans children get supported because it saves lives. In the end, we all want the same thing, equity, human rights, safety and happiness for the trans community.” It was clear from the response that followed that this person knew exactly what I was referring to and that their initial comment was partly about me.
Being an Ally
There have been questions that have plagued me since I chose to be an ally and use my voice for my son and the wider transgender community. How do people want me to show up as an ally? And the subtext to that question has always been: How do any of us make a statement or take a stand without being railroaded by people on the same side of the issue? In the end, it is me, my name and image getting called out with the potential of being “cancelled.” And for what? Some ally purity test for myself and the person who highlighted me? All this to create a standard of perfection to which no ally can ever measure up.
Perfectionism is a misogynistic, colonial, white supremacy expectation. There is nothing perfect when it comes to diversity; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Diversity is a beautiful mess of unexpectedness and variety. It’s not about getting everything right, right away. I hear from so many potential allies that they avoid topics of diversity for fear of being wrong. “If I can’t say something right then I won’t say anything at all.” But when we create a world where people can’t mess up and learn from their mistakes how will anyone learn anything about diversity. Case in point, I once shared a post using the language “our indigenous people,” and a wonderful friend privately corrected my possessive language. There are always ways to improve our vocabulary and learn how to be more accommodating, accepting, and empowering to diverse populations in our ever-changing world. I suggest that we do this by calling people in with gentle lessons instead of calling them out and shaming them publicly.
Instead of calling out my cis privilege, maybe the trans community can use it for good? I have tremendous privilege as a middle-class, able-bodied, educated, cisgender, hetero-presenting, white woman. I aim to use my privilege to elevate the voices of others every day. Helpers, advocates, and allies who have privilege can use it to lessen the exhausting emotional load that transgender people carry when having to educate others while advocating for their personal power and rights. Just this past month, one of the calls to action at a workshop on overcoming anti-trans discourse in Canada was for parents of trans children to do some of the heavy lifting of advocating for transgender people. Despite the cost of vulnerability to public attacks and comments about my fitness as a parent and threats to having my children removed for supporting my son’s transition, I am answering that call.
In the end, I know my place. I am not a trans person, and I never speak from the transgender perspective. I speak from the parent’s perspective and share my child’s experience with my child’s permission. I know that the work I do and the words I share are helping many families, which is what is most important.
If you haven’t already, please sign-up for my newsletter here to stay up to date on all my announcements about my upcoming book Beyond Pronouns: The Essential Guide for Parents of Trans Children.
Every generation has its own lingo. I grew up in the eighties with terms like rad and hang ten and gag me with a spoon. Today my teens use words like simping and poggers and I have no clue what they’re talking about. But finding out your child or a friend is gender diverse might require a little more understanding as to what they’re really saying when they say, “Jordan is a non-binary demi-boy and uses they/them pronouns.”
Here are some definitions of gender diversity terminology to help you not only know what the kids are talking about but also to be inclusive of all the people in your life, at home, at school or at work.
Gender and gender diversity: Gender is a social construct that defines how girls and boys, women and men are meant to be in their culture. It defines the behaviours, characteristics and roles associated with each gender. Gender diversity is an umbrella term for anyone who does not identify and therefore take-on the roles of the sex or gender they were assigned at birth.
Gender expression: gender expression is how people like to dress, style their hair, speak, and move their bodies. This can vary from one moment to the next and doesn’t have to be permanent.
Biological sex: Someone’s sex is determined by several things including chromosomes, hormones and reproductive organs. Sex is the biological and physiological characteristics of females, males and intersex people (see below for the definition of intersex). Outside of a medical setting, we rarely need to know the biological sex of the people we interact with and rely on their gender expression instead.
Transgender: Transgender people have a gender identity or gender expression that differs from the sex and subsequent gender they were assigned at birth. Transgender, often abbreviated as “trans,” is also an umbrella term. Transgender is an adjective, not a verb. Therefore, someone is not “transgendered” just like someone is not “latinoed” or “gayed.” Because transgender is an adjective, we also refer to someone as a transgender person not as “a transgender.” “Transsexual” is an old term that you sometimes still see in medical texts and refers to someone who has had gender-affirming surgery. But, it is extremely important to note that a transgender person doesn’t need to have surgery or be on hormones to be transgender.
Cisgender: cisgender means identifying with the sex and gender one was assigned at birth.
Non-binary: This term refers to a spectrum of gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine—meaning identities that are outside the gender binary of male and female. Non-binary identities can fall under the transgender umbrella since many non-binary people identify with a gender that is different from their assigned sex. Other terms for non-binary are enby from the abbreviation NB, genderqueer, gender fluid, gender-expansive, gender creative, gender non-conforming, and agender.
Assigned Female (or Male) at Birth; AFAB AMAB: Sex assignment (sometimes known as gender assignment) is the discernment of an infant’s sex at birth. In most births, a relative, midwife, nurse, or physician inspects the genitalia when the baby is delivered, and sex is assigned without the expectation of ambiguity. An assignment may also be done before birth through prenatal sex discernment, with ultrasound, for example.
Intersex: is a term used for people who were born with reproductive or sexual anatomy of both male and female categorization.
Demiboy: Someone who identifies partly as a boy, but also as non-binary. Usually preferring he and they pronouns.
Demigirl: Similarly, this would be someone who identifies partly as a girl, but also as non-binary. Usually preferring she and they pronouns.
I hope these terms help you understand some conversations in your circles. Using the right terminology is a great way to show respect for those around you without excluding or “othering” them.
If you haven’t already, please sign-up for my newsletter here to stay up to date on all my announcements about my upcoming book Beyond Pronouns: The Essential Guide for Parents of Trans Children.
Would you look at this beautiful cover design for Beyond Pronouns? I absolutely love it and can’t wait to hold a copy in my hands. (Just in case the photoshopping fooled you, this image is a mock-up.)
Full disclosure, I was very nervous about what my cover would look like in the end. I have heard horror stories of authors having little to no control over what the marketing department at traditional publishers chooses. After all, they know what sells books, and despite what our moms told us, people do judge a book by its cover. But the team at Jessica Kingsley Publishers did a fabulous job. When they asked if I had something in mind for the cover, I said I would love a typographic cover, and I offered them a mood board with some colours and styles. And voila!
About the Title
Another interesting note would be on the title of the book. I had my heart set on Beyond Pronouns for a very long time. I initially started writing a memoir and used that title for it as well. When I changed narrative directions, I kept the title. To me, using a different pronoun for my son was the least I could do. It wasn’t always easy. I slipped up a whole bunch. But in the end, when I look back on this entire journey, addressing Mitchell as he instead of she was only the start.
The subtitle was suggested by the publisher’s marketing department and editorial director. Thank goodness! My first attempt was very long and wordy, “what to do in the first 100 days after your child comes out as transgender.”
Right now, the pre-order links are starting to show up all over the internet and will continue to do so over the next few weeks. I currently only see Beyond Pronouns on Barns and Noble, but it will be available anywhere books are sold. Note that the release date isn’t until June 21, 2022, but pre-orders are crucial to attract the attention of bookstores, the media, and marketing. So don’t wait! If you see the pre-order link go ahead and purchase a copy for yourself and all your friends.
Don’t forget to sign-up for my newsletter here to stay up-to-date on all my announcements about Beyond Pronouns including my speaking and book tour details and free webinars.
I have four children. If I have learned anything from raising all of them, it’s that there is very little I can control in their lives. Of course, I try to instill my values–a sense of civic duty, service to others, being kind. But the reality is that they are their own human beings. They gravitate towards certain hobbies and music, they become friends with people they get along with, and fall in love with who they fall in love with. I would be deluding myself if I thought I could control any part of that.
But when my son came out as transgender, I wanted control. I wanted to prevent the pain of others judging him. I wanted to protect him from bullying. I wanted to avoid complications of a lifetime of medications and surgeries. It wasn’t because I didn’t love him. I absolutely love my child. But when faced with uncertainty, like many trauma survivors, I cling to control.
Is that something you can identify with? Wanting to control your environment and outcomes? Striving for the image of perfection?
Getting Curious with our Trans Kids
What my child needed from me was curiosity. He needed me to listen to his thoughts and feelings. I needed to ask open-ended questions and dance with all the options and possibilities. Instead of jumping down the rabbit hole of all the medical and psychological interventions and outcomes, all I needed to do was ask my child these questions:
- “What pronouns would you like me to use?”
- “What are the first few steps we need to take as a family?”
- “Who if anyone would you like us to tell?”
- Most importantly, “What can I do to support you in feeling completely yourself?”
The world is a much different and much more colorful place when we approach it from the space of curiosity instead of control. Because, in the end, what we can control is actually much less than we imagine, but we can control our response. I suggest you respond with curiosity.
Need help navigating the changes in your family since your child came out as transgender? Reach out for a free 30-minute discovery call to see if we would be a good fit for mentoring.
“It’s too late for the doctor to see you now. She has another meeting to go to. But we do feel bad that you came all this way.” The nurse said in her gentle tone carrying the slightest hint of accusation for being late. Or maybe I just imagined it. “We were going to discuss starting Testosterone for Mitchell. That is what you want isn’t it, Mitchell?”
“Yes!” He replied and lit up with the biggest smile possible.
“Your therapist made a very strong case for you and your level of maturity.” The nurse continued to explain that she scheduled a new date and time to meet with the doctor and immediately after she would go through the injection training with us. She gave us a pile of reading material with a consent form to study over the next three weeks.
Mitchell’s feet barely touched the ground in the parking garage on our way back to the car. I felt like I was trudging through molasses. I had a smile on my face, I said all the right encouraging words, but deep down inside I carried the weight of responsibility. I was about to consent to permanently altering my child’s body.
The Truth of our Children
Mitchell was assigned female at birth. The third of my four children. From the birth of all my children, I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility for their happiness and wellbeing. I’m sure all mothers do as well. After turning ten, my third child’s happiness was difficult to achieve. Anxiety, social awkwardness, isolation, and depression loomed large for years. I did everything you could imagine to alleviate my child’s pain. I consulted every specialist and sat through hours of psychological testing yet nothing emerged. No diagnosis. No magic pill. My child was just deeply unhappy. As a mother, I felt like I failed.
And then Mitchell finally came forward with his truth.
When he told us he was transgender, and that becoming a boy on the outside to match his identity on the inside would make him happy, I booked another therapist appointment. Ashamedly, I didn’t want that to be the answer. Society at large was not nice to transgender people. There had been states trying to pass laws around what restrooms a transgender person could use. This was not a magic pill solution. This was not something I can kiss and make better.
Because he was insistent, consistent, and persistent, our whole family chose to be affirming. We changed his name and pronouns, his wardrobe, and his room from pink to blue. But his body dysmorphia remained. It was time to involve the medical professionals who started him on hormone blockers. The blockers helped immensely and gave us a few years with our happy sunny child. But for the last six months before starting testosterone, the clouds of body dysmorphia gathered over Mitchell while he watched all the other boys in his class have their voices drop and bodies change. He started to need much more frequent therapy sessions to cope with feelings of hopelessness which precipitated the decision to start cross hormones.
Responsibility and Agency
A friend of mine once told me that when she discussed our family with her brother, he said that I should be in jail for child abuse for allowing my son to transition. I had read similar comments on social media, but it bore an extra sting to hear it from the mouth of someone I knew. Until the nurse made the appointment to start testosterone, Mitchell’s whole transition was reversible. Once you stop hormone blockers, puberty resumes. I could paint his room pink again. We could buy a new dress. That was my out card. I wasn’t responsible for a permanent change, only responsible for making my child happy.
The plan to start testosterone filled me with fear because I felt like I would soon be responsible for altering my child. As if my husband, the doctor, the psychiatrist, the therapist, and most importantly, my son didn’t have a part to play in this decision.
To alleviate the unbearable weight of responsibility on my chest, I sat alone on my couch and played the what-if game. I asked myself, “What if he was born with a congenital birth defect? Would I agree to lifelong medication and surgery?” You bet I would! In a heartbeat. So how was this any different? He was born with the wrong endocrine glands secreting the wrong hormone for his brain. The doctors are giving him the right hormone. Just like a diabetic is given insulin. It’s not that radical when I think of it that way.
In the beginning, my problem was that I thought to be transgender had an element of choice. Not necessarily that my son was choosing to be a boy instead of a girl, but that we had a choice in terms of how fast or slow he transitioned and a choice to “just dress like a boy” vs. medical intervention. It took me living with him through his body dysmorphia to realize that this was not a choice I got to make for my son. We must ask ourselves, at what point does a child have ownership of their own body or life.
The whole experience of parenting is the struggle to choose when to let our children be independent. At what age do we let them cross the street without holding our hand? When do we let them take the bus on their own? When do we let them drive alone? Add to that self-governing in medical decisions. At what age are you comfortable with your child seeing their doctor without you in the room? It may feel like never, but there are rules about when they can legally ask you to leave.
When it came to my son having autonomy in the medical decision to start testosterone, I had to remind myself that he was making those decisions with a medical doctor—a doctor who is using guidelines provided by scientific studies and supported by the World Health Organization definitions and UCSF protocols. My friend’s brother may call it child abuse, but that is an opinion based on his beliefs and feelings, it is not based on science.
I can’t say that I have completely given up my own belief that I am responsible for my children’s happiness and wellbeing, but I am getting better at handing that responsibility over to them. Mitchell is quite clear who he is and what he needs. How many adults can make those claims? By his example, I am spending more time focusing my responsibility on being a good mother by championing for Mitchell and other trans youth and living free from judgments.
It is no secret that we live in divided times. No matter what topic comes up, there is usually a very stark delineation between good and bad, right and wrong, us and them. You see it everywhere from Apple and Android to political parties. Sadly, you also see it within our own LGBTQ community. While you may think that you are standing up for the oppressed when you are shaming our allies—those who are truly trying to learn about our community and empower it—you are just creating a greater divide.
Why Allies matter
I am not one to ascribe to the idea that minority groups like the LGBTQ are victims and do not have the ability to stand up for what they want. You don’t need allies because you are poor, weak and helpless. That being said, we are still fighting for basic human rights in many places and there is strength in numbers when it comes to voting at the ballot box or with our dollars as consumers. We never want to be so ugly and mean about someone using the term “transgendered”* that we alienate someone who wanted to support us. We also need to return to the beginner’s mind every once in a while and realize that most of our terminology is “industry jargon” to a layperson. Every time you add another letter to the ever-expanding LGBT2SQQIAAP+ acronym you are putting up a barrier for the ally who wants to connect with you and understand you. Diversity and inclusion are wonderful. Let’s include well-meaning, humble cishet** friends. After all, they were just born that way.
I don’t know what to say, I don’t want to offend anyone.
I hear this comment regularly. Most often it’s from friends and acquaintances who know I have a transgender child and are struggling to use the right terminology so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings. They don’t know what pronouns to use, or to refer to him as my son. I can tell that these people are trying. I can tell they are genuine. I go out of my way to make it clear that before my son came out three years ago, I also didn’t know what to say. I am only a few steps ahead on the path and happy to share what I know without making it sound like they are idiots for not knowing what AFAB stands for (that’s assigned female at birth which is the most appropriate way to refer to my transgender son before he came out).
What Allies need to know
Pronouns are tricky and can be a new concept to our older generations, but this is where you can make a huge difference in being a Super Ally: don’t assume someone’s gender by what they wear and how they style their hair. Ask, “What are your preferred pronouns?” BAM! It’s that easy! And, don’t be shocked if someone who presents as a woman or a man asks to be referred to as they/them and identifies as non-binary.
It’s also important for allies to understand why some people are less generous than others when it comes to forgiving your ignorance and slip-up. It may be your only mistake that day, but the person you inadvertently offended may have had that same thing said to them 40 times before you uttered the words. Mistakes and micro-aggressions accumulate. Also, people are all in a different place in terms of their coming out journey. Jody might be a super cool trans woman who lets a misgendering roll off her back while Jack is facing discrimination with his parents at home and financial insecurity with his job and the last thing he has energy for is to explain to a stranger the difference between transgender and transvestite. It’s not easy for an ally to know who is in the best frame of mind to help educate them to be a better ally. This is something, like pronouns, that you need to ask about upfront and be forgiving if it’s not the best time to ask.
It’s hard to hate up close
This is a quote I heard Michelle Obama say and it has become my anthem as an advocate for the LGBTQ community. I share our journey with my heart on my sleeve to bring people closer, to create a connection, and to spread love. Those of us who are in positions of privilege and not in the throws of struggling with acceptance, if we can all drop the divisiveness and assume good intentions from the people reaching out across the divide, we all win. Dare to be nice.
*As an aside, transgender is not a verb. For example, someone is not gayed or latinoed. By saying someone is transgendered, you are implying that it is something happening to the trans person instead of acknowledging that it is who they are. This slip of the tongue can be quite innocent but reaches back to the old thoughts that LGBTQ is a lifestyle choice.
**Cishet is the short form for Cisgender-Heterosexual. Cisgender means you identify with the gender you were assigned at birth (usually by looking at the sex of your external genitals) and heterosexual means you are attracted to the opposite sex.