A reader writes: “I am a parent of a teenager who just last year, at the age of 17, shocked me with the announcement that she was transgender and would be starting the transition from FTM as soon as she turned 18.
“Up to that point, my husband and I had no idea her gender identity was in question. She was definitely a ‘tomboy’ (as was I most of my life), and never played with dolls, etc., but we never put two and two together. We did think she was a lesbian, however, but even that we were unsure about, because she had gone from one phase to another over the years (emo chick, athlete, etc.).
“So I am trying to find a place where I can be educated that will help me not only believe this, but accept it, embrace it, and eventually advocate for my child. I am having a very difficult time ‘transitioning’ my own mind to believe that my daughter of 17 years is not a female. I cannot get the word ‘him’ out of my mouth, and I cannot get myself to call her (him) by this new name.
“Does this make me a mean, closed-minded, unaccepting parent? I just tried to call my husband ‘babe’ or ‘honey’ the other day (something I’ve never done), and that felt so incredibly awkward coming out of my mouth. How in the world will I call my child ‘he’?
“I cannot seem to find good information on how to change myself, and my husband and my 12-year-old son’s mindset on the fact that ‘Jane’ is now ‘John.’ Not to mention, my husband is not at all willing to change the name. He does not even believe that this is happening. Knowing nothing at all about transgenderism and totally unwilling to educate himself at this, I am at a loss!”
Let’s get the most important thing out of the way right up front – you are not mean, closed-minded, or unaccepting. You wouldn’t be writing to me if you were. So stop beating yourself up about that, and let that one go.
Next, let’s put your husband on the back burner for a moment, because it’s not your job to make him accept his child. Don’t worry – we’ll come back to him later. Right now, we are going to focus on you, because how you deal with this will likely eventually influence how he does, and how your 12-year-old son does.
This is a big shock. I can’t imagine any parent not being shocked unless they truly saw signs of this for a child’s entire life. But as I’ve said before, not seeing signs really means nothing. Don’t go back looking for signs that might or might not have been there. This is what’s happening right now, so you have to deal with it in real time.
So let’s look at your questions. First, you want to know how you can you get to a place where you can believe this. Ask yourself, given that there were few to no indications of this, “What would make me believe it?” Would it help you to have a professional opinion? Is your child willing to see a therapist?
Most doctors, even in these changing times, still require a letter from a therapist in order to prescribe hormones. When your child says that he will be “starting transition,” it’s quite possible that he means he will be taking hormones. If this is the case, he will probably eventually need to see a therapist. If the therapist gives the go ahead for hormones, then you have your professional opinion.
You might even suggest to your child that you are willing to help him find (and pay for) a therapist now. That way, he can start looking at some possible options for his future.
What else might make you believe it? Would having a long conversation (or several) with your child about this help? Is he willing to do that? I don’t know what has taken place in the family since he came out to you, but if he sees your request for dialogue as an attempt to try to get him to change his mind, then he will probably be less willing to talk about it. If he sees your request as a way of attempting to support him, he might be far more open to it.
I think a lot of my readers are going to say, “Believe it because he says it’s so.” And I understand that position and welcome those comments. But I also understand that this isn’t always easy to do. You have to figure out what is going to make you believe it, and then see if that thing can eventually come to pass.
You also want to not only believe it, but to accept it, embrace it, and become an advocate for your child. This is an admirable position that I hope he can realize and appreciate. A lot of parents would not even get this far. The fact that you are already here says that you are accepting it in some ways, even as you are not quite sure that it’s real.
So what I would recommend is that you think this: “Here is what I need to believe this, and that hasn’t happened yet, but I accept the fact that my child believes this, and I accept the fact that he believes that this is what he needs to do. So whether or not I believe it at this moment, I accept what my child believes about himself, and I will support my child and embrace my child and advocate for my child right now because he is my child.” You don’t need another reason.
Now you are accepting your child – just the way he is. And because you accept him, regardless of what you believe, you will do your best to honor his wishes about what he will be called. So you start calling him John and you start using male pronouns. It will be forced. It won’t feel right. It will not come smoothly out of your mouth. It doesn’t matter right now.
Today when he gets home from school, say, “How was your day, John?” Force it. When it’s time to eat, yell up, “John, dinner’s ready.” Force it. Do it not because it’s comfortable for you, but because you accept your child unconditionally. If you have to tell yourself that you’re in a TV show or a movie and you’re playing a role, do that. Do whatever you have to do to make it come out of your mouth.
Not only will it get easier every time you do it, but it will strengthen the relationship between you and your child, so that when you want or need to talk, he will hopefully be more open to it. The name will come naturally before the pronoun does, and you will slip up – probably a lot. Apologize to John, forgive yourself, and move on.
What you might see is John blossoming right in front of you as you acknowledge his name and his pronouns. You might see huge changes in his demeanor and his mood. You might see him “coming alive” as John – and this, in turn, might help you believe it. “Fake it ’til you make it” can work in a lot of different contexts.
Your husband is in denial. There’s nothing you can really do about that except give him time. He might or he might not come around. Perhaps, if John is truly thriving with your recognition of him, your husband will see that and at least start to think about it.
I don’t think you should push him, and I hope that the two of you don’t end up arguing about this. You can just say to him, “I’m going to be using the name that John wants and the pronoun that he wants. It’s going to be difficult, but I think John’s comfort and my relationship with him is more important to me than the minor struggles I will have in doing this. I don’t want us to fight, and you need to do what is right for you. I’m just letting you know what I’m going to do.”
The difficulty is going to be with your 12-year-old, because he is going to get different messages from you and your husband with regard to this. But that’s a big reason why you and your husband should try not to fight over this. You can disagree privately, and your husband can do what he wants, but the two of you should discuss how your disagreements and your different messages will impact your 12-year-old.
It might not hurt for both of you to sit down with him and explain what’s going on and what your plans are. If your husband won’t do it, then you should do it anyway. I don’t know how close he and John are, but if John is also willing to talk to him, that would probably be helpful.
Regardless, you can explain to him why you are going to start using a different name and pronoun for his older sibling. You can explain to him that it’s a matter of respect, and that you know it will be difficult for him, but you hope that he will try it, too. He should not be punished for making mistakes or for saying that he is not going to do this. John can ultimately decide whether or not he is going to respond to anyone who uses an incorrect name and pronoun.
Again, I really can’t stress this enough, and I hope that your husband can see this, too – your 12-year-old should not be put in the middle of this. He should not be afraid that Dad will get mad if he calls his older sibling John, and that you will get mad if he doesn’t. He shouldn’t be made to feel as if he is “taking sides,” and neither one of you should feel that way, either. He shouldn’t be coached one way by you and another way by your husband.
You and your husband are the parents and the adults. No matter what disagreements happen between the two of you, you need to stay “neutral” with your 12-year-old, and you need to explain very calmly to him what is going on, why you are using a certain name and pronouns with John, and why your husband is not.
At 12, he’s old enough to take the information and decide for himself what he’s going to do. He’s not old enough to bear the burden of feeling as if he’s betraying one of his parents with his decision.
You might eventually want to start leaving some books, websites, or other literature out for your husband. Don’t force them on him. Just leave them out. Ask John if he has any favorite books or websites that he wishes his father would look at. Hopefully, your husband will eventually decide that he wants to, or needs to, educate himself.
If things get rough, I would also suggest family therapy. This could be helpful for everyone involved.
If you go to the right sidebar of this blog and click on the Family category in the Categories list, you might find some other posts that will be beneficial. Also, some helpful resources for both you and your husband might be TransYouth Family Allies and PFLAG. I wish you the best of luck.
Readers, it’s (finally) your turn!