When you were born, your parent(s) probably had thousands of ideas about what your life would look like. Some of these ideas seem very basic, like your gender and what pronouns to use to refer to you. However, most parents don’t assume that their child could possibly be transgender. A lack of awareness and understanding place the onus on you, the child, to come out to your guardian(s), and to educate your families about your own experience.
Trans people are often made to feel that we aren’t normal, that we’re a burden, that changing pronouns and names is “too hard” for the people around us, that we aren’t deserving of basic respect or love. Talking to anyone about such a personal subject—especially one that has so many stigmas surrounding it—can be incredibly hard, and guardians can be the most difficult people to start and maintain a dialogue with. Our families are often scared of change, of losing us, of the stereotypes they’ve grown up with, and sometimes confuse their visions for who they hope we’ll become with who we actually are. While we struggle with identity and our place in the world, our guardians struggle with their own fears and emotions, and the urgency of these topics may leave us full of anxiety, sadness, confusion. We might even want to avoid conversation (and these emotions) at all costs. I understand that, having been through it myself, so I’ve come up with a short list of ways to share your experience with and/or educate your parents about your identity and transgender issues in general.
A general note before we jump in: If, during any part of your conversations, things take a turn for the negative, remember that you are not the problem. There is absolutely nothing wrong with you. If you need to tune out your parent’s emotional reaction in order to remember and feel that, that is OK. Often, when I’ve come out to family and close friends, they’ve made my feelings, my identity, and my transition about themselves. They’ve felt angry, hurt, betrayed, and even deceived, but your feelings and your identity are not about other people, and you do not need to change yourself for the comfort of other people—not even the people who raised you. You have the right to your own identity, and you got this!
- When I figured out that I was transgender at 20, I sent my mom a coming-out email from the distance of a university several states away. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get the words out during a face-to-face conversation, or even a phone conversation—the subject was too personal, too raw, too scary, especially since I rarely talk to my mom about my feelings. In this case, though, I knew I would need her help and support (I was still depending on her for housing whenever I came home during holiday and summer breaks), and even though we don’t do a lot of feelings-talk, we are still pretty close: Being trans is not something that I could hide from her, nor is it something that I wanted to hide from her, so I had to work up the courage to contact her in the way that felt most comfortable for me—aka, over the internet. In the email, I explained some of my feelings, such as the dysphoria I felt as a child that I repressed when I felt pressured to fit in with girls during my teenage years. I also provided definitions for words like “transgender” and listed examples of pronouns so she could have a better grasp of what I was talking about. I included resources like a video of a trans person conducting an interview with his mother, talked about potential steps I wanted to take in my transition (starting with changing my name), and reassured her that I was taking my time figuring myself out. I ended the email with, “It’s a long road and we’ll see what happens.”
Personally, it was easier for me to be open, clear, and patient with my mom via email rather than in person. Writing gave me more time for reflection and allowed me to be more concise and less reactive to her potential questions and thoughts. A similar approach, even if you live with your parents, is to become pen pals with them. Write them a letter, decorate it if you want, and leave it in your mailbox. Have them check the mail and request that they write you a letter in return instead of immediately reacting to what you wrote. Heads up: They may need more time than you expect to process your letter and return a response.
- If you prefer a more direct approach and want to have an in-person conversation, think back on other serious conversations you’ve had with your parents, and when/how/under what circumstances they occurred. Were you in the car? (I am always wary of broaching conversations in the car, because I worry about how people’s emotional states affect their driving, but some people have great talks that way.) Were you sitting in your room in dim lighting just before bedtime? Was there a family meeting in the dining room? Were you hanging out by a lake after a game of catch? Think about the circumstances under which your guardians feel most approachable, most relaxed, most open and receptive—or at least less busy than usual—and try to initiate conversation at one of those times.
- Toward the beginning of my transition, my mom and I watched many helpful videos, like the kind I mentioned in my letter, together. We sat on one of our beds and paused the videos every time my mom had a question, or every time I wanted to relay my own experience about the topic at hand. These videos were such a great conversation facilitator because they allowed me to broach subjects by pushing the “play” button instead of bringing them up myself. When the pressure of starting the conversation had been lifted, I became more comfortable diving deeper into whatever we were talking about (and it really helped to have someone on the screen validating my feelings).There are so many trans people who have documented their experiences on YouTube, and it was incredibly useful for both my mom and me to see trans people living their lives and talking about everyday things, like going shopping and going to school. There are videos by trans people that cover topics like hormones, terminology, activism, community—everything under the sun. Pick a topic that you want your loved one to better understand and start watching there. Gather together on the couch with popcorn, watch from separate rooms and reconvene to discuss, or even watch while video-chatting each other.
- If you are interested in a more creative project, scour the internet for articles and blogs written by trans people (hint: there are some on this very website). Print out your favorite pieces and make your own book or informational pamphlet to give your parent(s). Whether you use entire articles or just cut and paste snippets, your parent(s) will have the opportunity to see the time, thought, and dedication you put into both this project and general introspection. Optional: researching the authors and emailing them if they seem open to discussion/answering questions/providing resources.
- Does your parent have a hobby, an interest, or a job that you know very little about and are interested in (or can fake being interested in)? Spend a day learning together. Ask them to teach you something they are passionate about, and in return, teach them about anything trans-related that you want them to know. Create a lesson plan with props/materials (such as index cards, a chalkboard, a PowerPoint presentation), or just spend some time talking to them about what is important to you. Make this a compromise by setting a time limit: The amount of time they spend teaching you is also the amount of time they must spend listening and learning as well.
- Therapy (family or individual) can be really beneficial in facilitating conversation with your specific set of parents if you have a knowledgeable and respectful doctor. If you do not know how to find one, contact the nearest LGBTQ resource center and they should have a list of local trans-friendly therapists. To find an LGBTQ center near you, a Google search of your city + “LGBT center” is your best bet. If you feel comfortable contacting your doctor or asking a health practitioner whom you know socially or through your family, they should be able to provide you resources on finding a therapist, an LGBTQ center, and/or LGBTQ-related services/groups. Important note: If you are not out yet and you are a minor, be aware that doctor-patient confidentiality may not stand, and there is a possibility of being outed against your will before you’re ready.
- If there is an LGBTQ center in or near your area and your parents are willing to take you there, schedule a trip! Check out their website beforehand to see what meetings or support groups they are holding and when they occur. There are often events for trans youth, for parents of trans folks, and for parents AND trans youth, in addition to community get-togethers and general activities (potlucks, movie nights, field trips).
As always, safety is your number-one priority. If you are unable to come out and/or talk to your parent(s) about being transgender, that is OK—your identity and your feelings are always valid, no matter who knows (or doesn’t know) about them. Many of the activities on this list can be done on your own (researching, reading, writing, checking out an LGBTQ center, individual therapy), and the internet is a great resource for finding people like yourself to talk to. When all else fails, community is key, and Tumblr is a great starting point for building community when you have nowhere or no one else to turn to.
If you are able to start one of the above conversations, or talk to your parents in any type of way, know that everything is a process, and it may take some time for them to understand and to adjust their language and behavior. But you’re making yourself heard, and that’s so important and valuable in and of itself. Remember: You deserve to be loved and respected, and you deserve to be gendered correctly! I am wishing you lots of luck and love. So much of this is scary, but you’re gonna be OK. ♦