Supporting My Non-Binary Child in a Gender Binary World

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To be honest, I don’t remember how our journey started. I know that Kiddo was in third-grade when they first began referring to themself as feeling like a girl inside. I know that was the year that we made some older mentor-type friends who are transgender and genderqueer. I know that suddenly I had questions about how to support my child. I also know that I had no idea where to start.

I can’t talk to all parent experiences. I can talk to mine. Every journey is different. Below, I use “you” to the extent that you want to use this as a guideline for how to support your kid. Use what works. Don’t use what won’t work. Find your own path to follow but know you’re not alone.

Why Is This Post Anonymous?

No, I’m not ashamed of my kid. In fact, I’m pretty damn proud of them. However, Kiddo is fairly private about their gender identity for a lot of reasons, most of which you’ll be able to figure out as you read the rest of this.

It’s not my place to make this story about me—or to publicly “out” my kid. It’s my place, however, to share our journey and give other parents a starting point for their own journey.

Why Is This About Nonbinary Not Transgender?

Our experience is one rooted in a nonbinary identity. I can’t talk to what it means to raise and support a transgender child. I can’t talk about body dysphoria.

Moreover, the thing I learned across my parenting journey is this: the resources for nonbinary kids are far more limited in a lot of ways. “She’s just a tomboy” or “he’s just not athletic” all seem to focus on keeping children within the gender binary even when that’s not how they feel.

Being nonbinary is different from being transgender. In society, people can better understand transgender (understand, not support) because a person is still either male or female. But, nonbinary falls into a hard-to-grasp gray area. People’s gray matter doesn’t gray area well. People like good and evil, not morally flexible. People prefer male and female, not something in between.

For a lot of people, how your child presents will be how they define your child. My kid presents as male. People just say, “it’s a phase” or “he’s just sensitive.”

That isn’t how my kid feels about themself. However, society has a hard time with this and tries to assign the gender anyway.

Nonbinary identity is different from transgender. My kid can “pass” as male. My kid is ok with that. In fact, because my kid doesn’t want to create more problems for themself, they don’t want people to know. They won’t be active in pride this year. They won’t be part of a community because nonbinary isn’t male or female, trans or gay. It’s in that gray area.

For us parents of nonbinary kids, we have a different journey, a different fight. Even within the LGBTQ+ community, nonbinary binary folks find their voices silenced. As a parent, that can often make it more difficult to support our kids.

It’s Not About You

The first thing to understand is: this is not about you. Our society pressures parents into believing that our kids reflect on our parenting. We make decisions, sometimes, based on how others view us through our kids’ behaviors. The kid hitting others on the playground? Bad parenting. The kid throwing a tantrum in the restaurant? Bad parenting. The kid failing school? Bad parenting.

Nothing—and let me repeat this again—nothing about your child’s gender identity is about you.

Your child’s gender identity is about them.

You’d take a bullet to protect your child from a murderer because you put their life and safety first. You need to do the same thing for your child when it comes to gender identity.

In this day and age, being trans or nonbinary can be life or death.  In September 2018, the Human Rights Campaign shared disturbing suicide statistics for trans and gender nonbinary youth:

More than half of transgender male teens who participated in the survey reported attempting suicide in their lifetime, while 29.9 percent of transgender female teens said they attempted suicide. Among non-binary youth, 41.8 percent of respondents stated that they had attempted suicide at some point in their lives.

If you would stand between your child and a person with a gun, then you need to stand with your child to support them against a world that makes them feel the kind of despair that leads to suicide.

As parents, we need to put aside our own feelings to support our children if we want to save their lives.

Talk to and Listen to People Who Have Lived the Experience

I was lucky. I have my GeekFamilyNetwork and started talking to GeekDad Jules who pointed me to his “Gender Identity and Associated Gender Language” post. He explained his journey and what would have helped him as he found his identity. He explained the importance of supporting Kiddo and ensuring that Kiddo felt comfortable at home.

I started talking to my trans and genderqueer friends. I talked to the parents of my trans friends. I listened to them when they told me about how it felt to come out. I listened to them when they told me how they struggled to readjust their perspectives on their children. I talked to them and listened to them so that I could learn from them.

Talk to Your Child About Pronouns

Newly educated, I had the conversation with Kiddo about pronouns. At 7, Kiddo only knew that there were two pronouns—he and she. Kiddo, however, didn’t feel like either really described how they felt about themself. Yes, they were definitely boy in some respects, but they also felt like a girl in some respects.

We talked about why they felt they were a boy—athleticism and penis came up as two obvious ones. We talked about why the felt they were a girl—kindness and aesthetics came up as their response.

While some of these qualities of their nonbinary identity may be social structures (athleticism as masculine and kindness as feminine), they insisted that they felt both ways.

We discussed the concept of using gender-neutral pronouns. Kiddo decided that they wanted to use “they.”

And that night, my husband and I started using they. It was as simple as that. Is it a change? Yes. Do we forget sometimes? Yes (although more on that next). Do we always apologize when we mess up? Yes.

Ask Your Child What They Want

Every kid is different. Kiddo was really excited when they first started using “they.”  However, despite our best efforts, we live in a binary gender conforming area. As the months went on, Kiddo became less comfortable talking publicly about their identity.

Kids didn’t get it. Teachers didn’t know how to explain it and support it. They tried, but, well, it’s a failure in our society that we don’t give teachers the appropriate words to explain these things to the littlers.

So, at home, Kiddo wanted “they,” but in public, they wanted “he.”

So, that’s what we did. Yes, it makes it harder for us. We want to support our kid, but we don’t want to disrespect them. This code-switching is one of the reasons we mess up the pronoun at home. However, it’s not about us. It’s about respecting Kiddo and supporting them so that they feel safe.

Touch Base With Your Child Regularly

Kids don’t always want to talk to us. When I ask Kiddo “what did you do at school today,” I often get “nothing” as a response.

On the flip side of that, when we’re cuddling at night, I get long drawn out descriptions of what happened. When we’re in the car, I get the deep conversations. When we’re playing catch in the yard, Kiddo regales me with a variety of information that never comes out when I ask pointed questions.

Find those moments where you know your kid is receptive, and talk to them. I’m not trying to invalidate my kid’s feelings when I ask, “do you still want us to use ‘they’?” I’m working to make sure that I’m respecting their wishes. Maybe, one day, Kiddo will want “she” instead. Maybe Kiddo is just afraid to say that out loud right now.  I ask these questions because I want to know, hear, listen, and support.

You know what? We’re three years into the journey at this point, and Kiddo still wants to be “they.” It’s not a “phase.” It’s not an “exploration.” It’s not “emulating their older mentor friends.” It’s who my kid is, and I’m pretty damn proud of them for it.

Spend the Money, It’s Worth It

When Kiddo first started exploring their gender, I remember going to Ulta, the makeup store. I had Kiddo with me, and Kiddo wanted mascara. Now, first, let me note: this child has eyelashes to die for. I’m not kidding. On certain occasions, I’ve had the thought, “It’s so unfair. I deserve those eyelashes.” Kiddo looks like they’re wearing mascara even without mascara.

So, when my 8-year-old asked for mascara, I was torn. Why? Well, not even the 8-year-old girls at school wore mascara. Let me tell you, the Ulta staff in the store were incredibly supportive and seemed annoyed at my “no” until I pointed out it wasn’t a gender-conforming but an age thing.

However, I started letting Kiddo buy makeup. Well, ok, I bought it for them. Do they ever use it? Not really. They’ve experimented a few times at home, but they refuse to wear it outside. They’re afraid to wear it in the house because someone might see them through the windows.

But, when we’re in Sephora together, and Kiddo looks at a lip gloss or lipstick or eyeshadow, do I spend the money even though I know that $12 lip gloss is going to go untouched? Every. Damn. Time. Why? Because that $12 to me may be outrageous and a wasteful, but that lipgloss represents more than makeup. It represents supporting my kid’s identity.

When Kiddo decided they wanted their ears pierced? We drove straight to the piercer. (Yes, real piercer, no not mall store, yes, we were safe about it.) Why? Because that is what my child wanted to do to represent their identity.

In the months since, I stopped counting the number of times Kiddo said they love having their ears pierced because they can show off who they are. I’ve gone to Hot Topic to buy sparkly skulls or earring sets I think Kiddo will like.

Every single time they have a choice, they choose the most feminine ones possible. If this is how they’re comfortable representing their gender? Then that money is worth every penny.

Talk to Your School – With Your Kid’s Permission

Let me be clear about this one: you need to talk to your child before you talk to your school. Everything starts with your kid’s permission. The first rule of supporting your nonbinary kid is to listen to your kid. Don’t do anything that makes your kid uncomfortable. If your kid doesn’t want the school to know, then don’t talk to the school.

Your kid may not be comfortable speaking up for themself. That’s ok. I’m normally a person who preaches teaching my kid self-advocacy. When we have parent-teacher meetings, I drag Kiddo with me. When we have 504 meetings, I make Kiddo go to them. Kiddo needs to be involved and learn to advocate for themself.

But this is different. Not all adults are going to be supportive. Not all adults are going to understand. It’s hard enough for kids to admit to their parents that they are nonbinary. Placing the stress of talking to other adults—trusted or not—about it can be too much stress for them.

We started with the teacher during the year that Kiddo started referring to themself with gender-neutral pronouns. The teacher didn’t always understand it but tried to support Kiddo. We always tell the teachers at the start of the new school year that in private conversations, Kiddo prefers “they,“ while in classroom situations, Kiddo prefers “he.” Is it difficult for the teachers? Sometimes. Is that worth fighting for? Yes, because Kiddo knows that we will always make sure they feel comfortable.

But What If My Kid Doesn’t Want People to Know and Gets Bullied?

We’ve had this happen also. Kiddo had someone call them, pejoratively, a “girl” in school. Kiddo was upset.

We went to the principal and asked for support. The situation ended up being dealt with as, “people can like whatever they want.” That’s an ok response. As the parent of a nonbinary child, I know that’s not a perfect response. The approach normalized the binary, ignoring the nonbinary.

We’re lucky; we have a responsive principal. I expressed my frustration that this could have been an excellent teaching moment saying, “some kids don’t feel the same way about their gender than others.” The principal admitted that a mistake had been made.

Even for kids who don’t want their identities public, we can navigate that and help our kids. We can give our administrators and teachers the language that helps our kids. A good response? “Well, people can like whatever they want to like. Boys can like makeup, and girls can like sports. Besides, we need to be respectful because we never know how someone feels about being a boy or girl, so we need to be sensitive when we say things.” We can address these things, as parents, without “outing” our children.

Talk to Your Families – If You Can

This is a toughie. We have a partially supportive family and a partially not-interested-in-this-at-all family.

One set of grandparents doesn’t even know. We never told them. They don’t really have a lot of interest in Kiddo, and the conversation isn’t really worth having. Why? Well, Kiddo is already uncomfortable. The contact is limited since the family lives far away. Truthfully, they probably wouldn’t do anything anyway.

One set of grandparents is strongly interactive but rooted in a gender-normative world. They’re receptive to Kiddo’s identity. They, generally, mean well. However, they don’t use the right pronouns. We talk to them, remind them, and pester them. But they’re old. This isn’t an excuse, per se. It’s just the reality.

However, we also talk to Kiddo about whether they care. So far, they say they don’t. They love their grandparents. They don’t feel excluded, and, in fact, this set of grandparents support their earring-wearing self. Their actions, in some respects, speak more loudly than their words.

When It Is About You

I know, right? The first rule of supporting your kid is that “it isn’t about you.”

But then, there are the times when it is. Supporting your nonbinary kid is your journey as well. As families, we are interconnected. Our child’s journey, when we support them, is our own journey. Our journey as parents may lead to personal realizations. (Yes, I’m pretty much nonbinary myself, which has been a realization arising from this journey.)

The times when your child’s journey is about you, however, isn’t about your identity. It’s about your journey as a parent. The times when this journey is about you are the times when you realize the impact you’ve had on your child’s sense of self, about whether you’re doing your best job as a parent. These times have nothing to do with how outsiders view your parenting as bad or good but how your child views your parenting as bad or good.

It’s about you when your 10-year-old stops before getting in the car, turns, hugs you, and says, “thank you for always supporting me” because you went out of your way to buy them a pair of music note earrings so they can represent their identity in public, at a concert, in an understated way.

Then, you know what? It is about you. It’s about you doing what you needed to do for your kid. And then, maybe, you done did ok, parent.

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