Parents and caregivers of transgender and non-binary children face very unique challenges. Here are a few things you should never say to them.
The other day I had a verbal confrontation with a stranger at the playground. My daughter was running and jumping and playing like children do at community playgrounds. She wore her favorite pink cotton shorts with her "be a role model" tee. Her pink and green basketball high tops squeaked as she juked and spun around playing tag with her siblings. I was zoning out enjoying the sun until the comment landed: "Is that your kid," the stranger pointed to my daughter.
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"Yup," I replied.
"Hmm... that is a boy dressed as a girl," the stranger said.
My heart sank. "She is a girl," I replied without making eye contact. The woman continued, "I can see a penis outline through the shorts. That is clearly a boy." I squared my body toward her and looked her in the eyes. "I find it curious that you are so determined to stare at the genital anatomy of a young child... do you make a habit of being intensely interested in children's genitals." She rolled her eyes scoffed and quickly gathered her children and left. Good riddance.
This confrontation would seem completely absurd and out of place... unless you are a parent or caregiver of a transgender or gender non-binary young person. We are inundated with all sorts of intrusive and harmful "curiosities" and advice from friends, family, and complete strangers alike. The thing is, often folks don't take a moment to pause and consider if their curiosity might cause harm. If you are cisgender, meaning your sense of identity and gender corresponds to your sex assigned at birth, you might be socialized to see the world in the binary. It might not come naturally to consider how parents might feel to be interrogated about very personal aspects of their child's identity.
Before you ask these questions, let me explain why they're not appropriate:
What if your kid is actually gay, not transgender?
Why this is inappropriate to ask: Gender identity is not the same as sexual identity. There are transgender and non-binary young people who are gay and there are cisgender young people who are gay. One's gender identity does not determine their sexual preference.
What are their genitals, though?
Why this is inappropriate to ask: If someone asked this question of a cisgender child, one might consider them predatory and/or highly inappropriate. It's never appropriate to ask a stranger about their children's genitals. We know, through extensive scientific data, that the genitals you are born with do not equal gender. Your sex chromosomes can also differ from your genitals and your gender. Confused? That is okay. If you have questions on this you can speak to a doctor or do research about gender identity online, but it's never appropriate to ask a parent about their child's genitals.
Was your child sexually abused?
Why this is inappropriate to ask: This question is dangerous because it assumes that a child is transgender as a result of trauma. While transgender and non-binary children can be victims of sexual abuse, they are not transgender or non-binary because of sexual abuse any more than a cisgender child is cisgender because of sexual abuse.
Why would you make permanent changes to your child's body?
Why this is inappropriate to ask: Parents and caregivers are continually making choices for their children that change the child's body on a permanent biological level. This includes the food and medication we give them. Parents of transgender children, like every other parent, should not feel like we owe anyone, beyond our children and their doctors, an explanation for these decisions. Gender dysphoria, a condition where the emotional and physical experience of an individual does not align with their sex assignment, is very real. This condition can cause severe mental health issues and physical consequences, including but not limited to self-harm and suicide. Some of the medical interventions available to transgender children can help solve for this often dangerous experience.
A parent's decision to allow a child to make physical changes might be life-saving and was made after intense consideration. Asking this question assumes that the parents and medical professionals did not weigh the risks and rewards of the steps taken. The best question you can ask in this scenario is "how can I support you, I bet that decision was difficult."
So you lost your daughter/son?
Why this is inappropriate to ask: This may seem like an empathetic question, but it isn't a topic parents want to discuss with strangers, especially around their kids. For parents and caregivers, their child's wellbeing is the priority and it is vitally important to remember it is far more of a loss to be forced to live in a gender that never belonged to you in the first place.
Some parents and caregivers of transgender and non-binary young people do report feeling a sense of loss. These adults may feel a sense of isolation, social ostracization, and prejudice as a result of having a child who falls outside of the binary, and they often choose to process through their feelings with therapists or close family and friends in private.
Don't they HAVE to have a gender?
Why this is inappropriate to ask: Who says? Gender is a social construct that has been manipulated and changed over centuries. The reality is that there are so many kinds of people in the world. Transgender, non-binary, and intersex people exist all around us. Their lives are complicated by being forced into a binary system that not only erases them, but judges them, punishes them, and provides few resources for their survival. Parents and caregivers of transgender and non-binary young people face incredible challenges that can be made easier by supporting them with unconditional acceptance and compassion.
What to say and do instead.
The best questions for close friends and family members to ask are questions that focus on the dignity and care of the transgender and/or non-binary child and their caregiver. Ask your loved ones how things are with school. Ask if there is specific support you can provide around transition (if they are choosing to transition). Ask them if they feel safe with you, and if not, how you can be a better ally to them. Don't be afraid to be vulnerable and explain that you don't understand their experience.
Community-based support is a key factor in a transgender or non-binary young person making it into adulthood healthy and well. If you're unsure if your questions are appropriate to ask, always choose compassion over morbid curiosity and judgment.