It has been difficult to decide how to approach this piece. What do I want to share about being a parent of a nonbinary child? What things are most important to me for others to hear? How do I talk about my parts of this journey, when most of it is my child’s story, not mine? What message do I want to send to those who are in the beginning of this journey? What message do I want to send those who aren’t parenting a nonbinary child but are learning more about gender? These are some of the questions that were rolling around my mind as I was writing. First and foremost, I got my child’s permission to share pieces of their journey as was necessary to write this. That was the easy part.
What message do I want to send to those of you reading this? I hope that I can provide an idea of what it looks like to deconstruct your ideas of gender and to create a gender expansive worldview. I also hope that anyone reading this who may be afraid that they will make mistakes with their children will be comforted that perfection is not required to support your child. I want those who are afraid for their children’s wellbeing and safety to find hope and peace. I want you to know that as long as you continue to do the work of learning and growing, you are doing the right thing for your child and doing everything in your power to keep them safe. I don’t want to convey a negative picture of my part of this journey, but there were some hard times in it. I want to let people know about the joy, but the joy is even greater because of the hard times.
My child began to let us know they did not fit into a binary system of gender when they were a toddler. Children generally began to develop an understanding of gender, including their own gender, during toddlerhood. My second-born told us they were a boy when their hair was down and a girl when their hair was in pigtails or a ponytail. Likewise, they were a boy in pants and a girl in dresses. We simply told them, “okay,” and went about our day. I knew that this was developmentally normal and wanted to be sure that if they were to end up being trans or gender fluid, that they would not have felt shame from us about it. I initially felt some discomfort with their fluid gender expression/identity at this age, despite wanting to be supportive. I still had what I now know to be bigoted thoughts. Mostly, though, I was afraid people would reject my kid because they weren’t “normal.” It was new and new can be really uncomfortable for people. The most difficult thing, for me, was when my family of origin would argue with my toddler about their gender. I wanted them to know that I am in their corner and will always stand up for them, which meant speaking up. My family is very conservative and I had a difficult time expressing myself to them. At this time all I said was, “they were batman yesterday. Stop arguing with a toddler.” In the back of my mind I hoped that they would outgrow the exploration stage. They were young enough that I hoped it was just part of their learning what gender is. I still feel some guilt over this, but through reflection and work I have learned that this hope was based on a fear for their safety and emotional wellbeing. I was afraid they would be rejected. I did not want to lose my family of origin because I love them. I knew, however, that if it came to protecting my child from people who wouldn’t accept them I would lose my relationship with anyone in order to do that.
Eventually, my kiddo began to only perform the gender they were mistakenly assigned at birth. I don’t doubt that this was largely due to them being able to pick up my hesitations and fears even though I worked at not saying or doing anything that would tell them there was anything wrong with their exploration of gender. I was relieved because it meant not losing our extended family relationships.
When my little one was around 7, I had a friend who came out as nonbinary. At the time I confused it with gender fluidity and asked some questions that now make me cringe thinking back. Since my husband and I had decided years prior that we would make sure our kids were raised knowing about LGBTQIA+ identities, and with them normalized, I began to teach my kids what I was learning about nonbinary gender. My second-born was fascinated. They had so many questions. Eventually, the questions began to be more personal. “Would my grandparents still love me if I was nonbinary? Would my aunts and uncles?” I let them know that our extended family would still feel love for them and I did not think anyone would be mean to them, but that I did not think my family of origin would be accepting or supportive. My husband’s family of origin would likely be accepting but with mine, the best we could really hope for would be that they wouldn’t be mean about it or argue with us about it.
They decided to try using they/them pronouns at home for a week, to see how it felt. During that week, they had a lot more questions about specific family members and why they may or may not be supportive. During this time I was internally so worried that this was the direction their gender would go while doing my best to show excitement for their journey. I was still worried about losing relationships and people judging me as a parent, but I was more worried at this point about my child being hurt by these people. I knew deep down that this was what felt right to my kid simply from watching them during that week and that, even if they weren’t ready to be out yet we were heading toward losing family and the hurt that would cause.
At age 10, my kid came to me one day and casually said, “I’ve decided I don’t care what anyone thinks. I am nonbinary and I want to be out to everyone. My pronouns are they/them.” Inside, I thought “oh shit. Here we go. There’s going to be a lot of pain involved in this.” I wish that wasn’t my first thought. I wish my first thought had been joy at the fact my child is so self assured and confident that they don’t care who doesn’t approve. I felt that, too, but it wasn’t my first thought.
Unfortunately, my predictions about my family were correct and it has been 10 months since we have spoken. They were not mean about my kiddo’s gender but they refused to use their correct pronoun and to stop misgendering them. After gently and kindly correcting them and explaining the suicide rates of unsupported trans kids, I told them they could either do the bare minimum of not misgendering or using any pronouns for my kiddo if they couldn’t bring themselves to use singular they or they could stop contacting us. They made their choice. It was hard for all of us. Balancing the feelings of my other three children and myself as we grieved while centering the child who was most rejected was often difficult. My 7-year-old asked why my now 11-year-old wouldn’t just pretend to be another gender when we are around my family of origin. They explained that it feels better to be themself without people they love than it feels to have the people they love but not be themself. I explained that his sibling was not the reason his grandparents and aunts and uncles are no longer in his life. His grandparents and aunts and uncles are the reason. There is something wrong with them, not with his older sibling.
At the same time as we were losing my family, we were being flooded with support from my husband’s side of the family and our friends. We have an amazing, large chosen family that has been by us as we grieved and as we felt the joys of this journey. My other kids have been so supportive of their sibling. Even my toddler understands that she has one brother, one sister, and one sibling. She refers to my second-born as her “bi-non-berry” and it is the cutest thing ever. She knows that we can’t tell someone’s gender by looking at them, we ask their pronouns. She knows that body parts don’t determine gender. She understands gender through an expansive lens better than most adults.
I am so incredibly proud of them for knowing themself so fully. I am still learning to trust myself as much as they do now and I am 35. Watching their face light up as we began using their correct pronoun, watching them blossom into who they truly are without performing a role that was mistakenly assigned to them, and seeing the joy of their gender euphoria has been so worth the pain of losing family relationships. Nothing could compare to seeing my child thriving. As I have walked this journey with my child, I have deconstructed my ideas of gender. I went from struggling to think of people as their actual gender rather than their assigned gender, but wanting to respect and support them to fully viewing people as the gender they inform me they are. I have become a better friend, a better ally, and a better person in general because of my child who is brave enough and sure enough to live as their authentic self. I have also learned to accept myself better through watching them. I’ve learned to love who I am. I realized that I am bisexual and have embraced that about myself. I am back in school to get a BA in Psychology and then I intend to get a Masters in Social Work so I can work with families with LGBTQIA+ kids as a counselor and educator. It all started when I chose to put my child’s need for support over my socialized ideas and my fears for them. I could not have hoped for a better life for us than this authentic life full of love and joy.
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