Family acceptance is still a major issue for many transgender people. Your support could make all the difference to a young trans, nonbinary, or gender-questioning person in your life.
We strive to share insights based on diverse experiences without stigma or shame. This is a powerful voice.
Trans visibility has never been higher than it is today. Yet trans people, in particular trans children and youth, are also facing severe, renewed efforts to criminalize and suppress their identities and regulate their bodies.
A record 82 anti-transgender bills have appeared in the U.S. state legislature in 2021 alone. These bills seek to create bans and restrictions surrounding trans people’s access to bathrooms, athletics, and healthcare, among other arenas.
Many of these proposed bills — and the hateful rhetoric surrounding them — are based on inaccurate information and use negative, fear-baiting stereotypes around trans people.
At such a high-stakes moment for trans rights, the participation of families and other allies continues to be of tantamount importance. Keeping trans youth and their families together, and fostering a healthy dynamic between them, is one of the most dire imperatives of contemporary trans activism.
I came out as a trans boy in 2011, when national visibility around trans and nonbinary identities was still very low, and no one in my life had ever hear the word “transgender.”
Living in an all-girls dorm at my boarding high school, I grappled with my gender identity and dysphoria in relative isolation, with no trans role models or resources tailored for me.
For years after my coming out, my mother, Mary, a creative writing professor, and I faced semi-estrangement and conflict; she was filled with anger, grief, and confusion, and struggled to comprehend the perceived loss of her “only daughter.”
While I began to find a support network of friends, educators, and healthcare professionals, my mom found little available for her as a conflicted parent.
After nearly 5 years of hard conversations and healing, we wrote a book incorporating both our perspectives in the hopes of beginning to bridge that divide, sharing our story in hopes it might help other families.
Many — though not all — parents initially experience the same anger, grief, and confusion around their child coming out as trans that my mother did.
This article aims to guide family and friends of trans people through key terms and definitions, and supply gold-standard resources.
Rather than become overwhelmed or discouraged by new terms and concepts, instead consider the ways transness and engagement with gender identity exemplify the complexity and variety of human identity.
Both families of trans youth and young trans people themselves stand to remember: You are not alone, and we are rooting for you!
What is gender identity?
Gender identity is someone’s personal, internal sense of their own gender. Gender identity is not necessarily tied to one’s sex, which refers to genitalia, reproductive organs, hormones, chromosomes, and other biological factors.
The gender binary refers to the practice of sorting bodies into male or female. While the vast majority of people have been raised and socially conditioned to attach the genders of “man” and “woman” to specific body types, gender is in fact a diverse spectrum including both biological and environmental factors.
There are myriad cool words to describe these nuanced variations and identities, of which transgender is merely one.
And while gender identity refers to how we see ourselves, sexual orientation refers to who we are attracted to. One’s gender identity does not dictate one’s sexual identity, or vice versa.
What is gender dysphoria?
Gender dysphoria has a long, fraught history as a diagnosis for transgender people. In its most recent iteration, the term refers to someone’s “strong and persistent” identification with a gender different from the one assigned to them at birth.
Trans children may display gender dysphoria when they say things like “I wish I was a boy/girl” and “I was born in the wrong body.” Gender dysphoria can manifest as dissatisfaction or distress regarding a specific body part or characteristic (like one’s chest, genitalia, voice, hair) as well as one’s name and pronouns.
What does ‘transgender’ and ‘nonbinary’ mean?
“Transgender” refers to people who identify with a gender other than the one assigned to them at birth. “Cisgender” or “cis” refers to people who do identify with the gender assigned to them at birth.
Nonbinary is another increasingly common term. It indicates that a person’s gender does not fall neatly within the gender binary’s rigid “male” or “female” categories. While some nonbinary people are transgender, others are not.
Terminology surrounding gender and sexual identity evolves rapidly as we continue to seek the best possible way to assign simple words and labels to complex human realities and experiences.
In recent years, “transgender” has come to replace the word “transsexual,” which many people perceive as outdated, negatively associated with pathologizing gender identity, and centering surgical treatment.
However, some older trans folks in particular still identify with and use “transsexual” for themselves — so context is key.
Many people who are transgender, myself included, prefer to just say “trans.” When describing particular trans identities, the gender word that comes after “trans” is the person’s gender. Trans men are men and trans women are women.
Trans people are not a monolithic group. The extent and nature of the challenges individual trans people face, in addition to being defined by time and place, depend on a variety of interconnected identities and experiences.
The theoretical framework of intersectionality seeks to acknowledge these myriad connections and understand the material impact they have on people’s lives. Activism and allyship won’t be fully effective unless each engages the diversity of transness and trans people.
Recent data from UCLA’s Williams Institute estimates there are around 1.4 million trans adults in the United States, with younger people (ages 18 to 24) more likely to be trans than older generations.
The pioneering U.S. Transgender Survey (USTS) found that trans people are at inordinate risk of:
- sexual harassment and assault
- substance use
- psychological distress
- suicide (40% or trans people reported attempting suicide compared with 4.6% non-trans people)
Compared with the demographics of the overall U.S. population, trans folks are also more ethnically and racially diverse. According to the Williams Institute, transgender people in the United States are less likely to be white and more likely to be Black, Latino, or another race and ethnicity.
Accordingly, trans people of color must contend with the ever-dueling dangers of racism and transphobia.
The USTS found that while all trans people were more than twice as likely to be impoverished and unemployed compared with the general U.S. population, trans people of color were respectively three and four times more likely to be so.
Black and undocumented respondents, as well as those with disabilities, also reported significantly higher rates of violence and psychological distress.
Racism and transphobia also significantly affect Black trans people’s healthcare experiences, limiting their access to, and trust in, life-affirming and even lifesaving medical treatment.
Appreciate their trust
If someone has recently come out to you as trans, or as questioning their gender identity, take a moment to appreciate the trust that has been placed in you.
Coming out can be one of the most intense and scary moments of someone’s life. Even if you cannot fully understand or accept what is happening, letting your loved one know you’re grateful they confided in you sets a constructive, respectful tone for whatever comes next.
As Stephanie Brill and Lisa Kenney write in their popular handbook “The Transgender Teen“:
“More than anything else, your goal as a parent of a transgender, nonbinary, or questioning teen is to reassure your child that you love them and to keep the communication between you open.”
Everyone’s timeline to understanding and accepting a trans or gender-nonconforming child is different.
Some parents, guardians, and friends come around to acceptance immediately, or within days, weeks, or months. But others can take longer.
Personally, while my mother and I were no longer in an acute stage of conflict after 2 years, it took nearly 5 years before our relationship was truly repaired.
When we wrote a book about our experiences, some readers criticized my mother’s portions, frustrated at what they perceived to be her close-mindedness and lack of support for me. Yet anger, confusion, and sadness in parents of trans children is very common.
The USTS found that:
- 8% of trans people reported being kicked out of their homes for being transgender
- 18% of trans people lacked family support
- 22% of trans people defined their family as being neither supportive nor unsupportive
Allies simply cannot wish this complex reality away; only by naming and working through the problem of family acceptance can we provide trans youth the support they need and turn the tides.
Don’t try to change them
You can’t change or invalidate someone else’s gender identity because you don’t like it.
Consider your own gender identity, which you may or may not have ever thought about. If someone tried to force you to live in a different gender, how would you feel?
If you’re a parent, ask yourself:
- Why am I angry/sad/scared at the prospect of my child being trans?
- Is there anything more important than having a relationship with my child?
- Is there anything more important than that child being happy, healthy, and fulfilled in life?
Take care of yourself, but be respectful
When someone comes out to you as trans, it’s OK to validate and make space for your own emotions. For some families, a child’s gender transition can destabilize parents’ sense of control or vision for their child’s life. Still, aim to use the appropriate outlet for your stress.
A variety of approaches — in addition to educating yourself on these topics — are available to adults working through confusion or opposition to someone’s gender exploration.
If able and willing, consider reaching out to a therapist to help you work through your feelings, rather than overburden your loved one.
Staying temporarily with family and friends may also provide opportunities for parents and children to literally “take a break” from each other and defuse tension.
In my experience, some parents also benefit from diary or letter writing to organize their thoughts, vent negative emotions, and keep track of progress.
Try to be the best ally you can be
As challenges to the safety and autonomy of trans youth proliferate, more parents are also making themselves visible and sharing their own journeys. Such stories (a few examples below) can help parents and potential allies feel less alone and provide encouragement.
Do your research and use your resources
It’s OK to have questions, but parents must understand their child is not an expert in parent-child conflict or all trans people.
- peer-reviewed studies and books
- content from experts and organizations who work with trans youth and families
- testimony from trans people and their loved ones
The list at the end of this article includes links to prominent organizations and nonprofits with a long history of advocating for and working with LGBTQIA+ people.
Respect their decisions about medical options
Understand that not all trans people want or undertake medical options, and surgical and hormone treatment, especially for youth, is heavily regulated.
While gender affirming surgery and hormone treatment are hot topics in any news roundtable about trans kids, these are by no means of interest to all trans youth or trans people at large.
In fact, most gender exploration begins with “social transitioning”: the processes by which a person experiments with and adjusts their identity labels and aesthetics in hopes of better aligning with their authentic self, and receiving the social validation they need.
Oftentimes, this means trying out a new name, new pronouns, different clothes, hairstyles, makeup, accessories, etc.
Don’t presume to know what someone wants or needs to be comfortable in their own body — let them take the lead.
What NOT to say
- “Let’s pretend we never talked about this.”
- “It’s probably just a phase.”
- “Wait until you’re older.”
- “Life will be much harder for you.”
- “Surgeries and hormones are dangerous.”
These are all common responses to someone coming out as trans or discussing gender exploration. Note how they’re all presumptive, dismissive, or controlling. In a word, they’re hurtful.
We hope the tips and resources here can help parents and guardians constructively navigate the questions, concerns, and emotions stirred in the way of a loved one’s coming out, with the ultimate goal being open communication and commitment to a shared journey of growth and adaptation.
Book resources and other reading materials
The following resources, written by experts and educators, deal specifically with issues surrounding trans youth and families.
These books can help validate emotions, answer questions, and provide guidance. They incorporate the perspectives of clinicians, doctors, scholars, trans people, and their families:
- “The Gender Creative Child: Pathways for Nurturing and Supporting Children Who Live Outside Gender Boxes” by Diane Ehrensaft, PhD, with foreword by Norman Spack, MD
- “The Gender Quest Workbook: A Guide for Teens and Young Adults Exploring Gender Identity” by Rylan Jay Testa, PhD, and Deborah Coolhart, PhD
- “Our Trans Loved Ones: Questions and Answers for Parents, Families, and Friends of People Who Are Transgender and Gender Expansive” resource publication by PFLAG
- “Raising the Transgender Child: A Complete Guide for Parents, Families, and Caregivers” by Michele Angello, PhD, and Ali Bowman
- “Trans-Kin: A Guide for Family and Friends of Transgender People” edited by Eleanor A. Hubbard, PhD, and Cameron T. Whitley
- “The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals” and “The Transgender Teen” by Stephanie A. Brill
- “Transgender Children and Youth: Cultivating Pride and Joy with Families in Transition” by Elijah C. Nealy, PhD
- “Where’s MY Book? A Guide for Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Youth, Their Parents, & Everyone Else” by Linda Gromko, MD
LGBTQIA+ organizations and their resources
The major organizations and nonprofits listed here have extensive resources for both gender-questioning, trans, and nonbinary people as well as content tailored for families and friends.
You can find everything from introductory information to hotlines, recommended reading, and potential support groups.
- Resources on Gender-Expansive Children and Youth
- Transgender Children & Youth: Understanding the Basics
- A Guide to Being an Ally to Transgender and Nonbinary Youth
- Trans and Gender Identity 101
- TrevorLifeline and TrevorChat for LGBTQIA+ people in crisis
As various high-stakes legal and ideological battles continue to be waged against trans bodies and identities, particularly against children and youth, it’s more important than ever to show up for the trans and nonbinary people in our lives.
Luckily, thanks in part to the internet, it’s never been easier to get educated on issues surrounding gender identity.
Parents’ difficulties with fully understanding, accepting, and supporting their trans children and loved ones continues to be a central issue of trans activism and outreach.
By spreading resources and support to families of trans kids, we can begin to curb homelessness, psychological distress, and other attendant risks for transgender people as they navigate coming out and beyond.
A family’s process of learning about gender identity, engaging with a loved one’s gender exploration, and accepting a trans child are complex, intense journeys with much variation.
But neither parents nor children are alone — a plethora of online and in-person resources are here for you.
Ultimately, by focusing on open communication, taking the responsibility to self-educate, challenging oneself to be open-minded, seeking support systems (for all parties), and always returning to emphasize love first is when communities, families, and individuals can stay together and thrive together.
Donald Collins, MA, is a writer and trans educator based in Los Angeles. His articles and essays have appeared in VICE, Salon, and Bitch magazine, among others. He is the co-author of the award-winning 2017 memoir “At the Broken Places: A Mother and Trans Son Pick Up the Pieces.” He’s particularly interested in the experiences of queer and marginalized people in healthcare systems, trans youth, and America’s chronic illness epidemic. You can find his website here.