No matter at what age our children come forward with their truth about their gender identity, once we start affirming them and supporting a social transition, we eventually must have conversations with extended family. I have dedicated a whole chapter around this in Beyond Pronouns, focusing mainly on the need to let the child take the lead, the parent’s experience coming out to service providers, and especially how to protect the transgender person from microaggressions and outright transphobia.
Since writing the book, I have had some excellent conversations with grandparents of trans children about their experiences. It was pretty enlightening to hear their point of view. There is a unique quality of love felt by a grandparent, but it is love just the same. So let’s look at the nuance outside the binary of being a perfectly affirming grandparent and a transphobic one.
Many self-aware grandparents understand their place in the pecking order of decision-making with children in the family. Many a mother-in-law over history has been told to keep her opinions to herself. Because of that, grandparents have said to me that they feel lost and have no control when they are told about their grandchild dealing with gender dysphoria. I could relate to that loss of power as a parent myself. Still, at least I was in the doctor’s office and making therapy appointments and had some sense of participation and immediacy in the process. In contrast, grandparents often hear about it after the fact.
No room for grace
One grandmother told me she struggled with being told by her daughter how she was to feel when she learned that her grandchild was a trans girl. She was only to feel happy about the transition, not ask questions, and there was absolutely no room for occasional mistakes with chosen names or pronouns. Further, her daughter threatened to remove access to the grandchild if grandma couldn’t be completely affirming immediately. While I fully understand the want and need to protect transgender children from harm, this description didn’t sound very fair when I consider how I made my own mistakes early on in my son’s transition, and I am a fierce ally and advocate. Sometimes grandparents need to be seen for their humanity and given some grace.
No access to support
While extended family can easily read my book, the subtitle says specifically it’s for parents of trans children and most of the support groups out there are also focused on parents, even though we welcome all caregivers. Grandparents may not realize they are welcome to access those supports. Add to that the reality that grandparents come from a generation where gender diversity was never discussed or taught in schools. So they are coming at this completely in the dark. Further, they were mostly raised not to discuss this type of topic in polite company, and if the child has chosen to be stealth, they won’t be able to discuss the transition with friends. It is difficult to process a major life change alone.
Again, protecting trans children from painful rhetoric and microaggressions is very important. We also need to consider the perspective of grandparents who love their grandchildren and need more education and opportunities to practice using a chosen name and correct pronouns. That might look like sharing resources like an Understanding Gender webinar with the grandparent or going coffee alone as adults and having an open, loving conversation about the new terminology.
One last word for grandparents, I understand having a heart full of love and also feeling fear about something you don’t understand. Please learn as much as you can on your own from reputable sources such as Trevor Project, and be patient with your children as everyone is processing a significant change that can be stressful for everyone involved. You’ve got this. Just keep leading with love.
Download the ebook Defining Transgender here to stay in touch through my newsletter and don’t forget to grab your copy of Beyond Pronouns: The Essential Guide for Parents of Trans Children.