How to Explain What "Transgender" Means
Talking to Your Child About Gender Identity
As transgender peoples’ stories become more common in the news and popular media, your kids may have questions that you aren’t sure how to answer. Rena (pseudonym), local mother to a transgender child, advises parents, “Start having these conversations because it’s what’s going on in the world.”
In honor of the International Transgender Day of Visibility on March 31, we offer tips for starting the conversation with a basis in respect and inclusivity.
To begin, you will need to understand the difference between “gender” and “sex.” Philadelphia health educator and LGBT advocate Angel Hardy explains, “Biological sex is about the body you’re born in, while gender is the person you identify as.” “Transgender” describes a person whose gender identity does not align with his or her biological sex. See the sidebar for additional definitions.
1. Educate yourself. Before you talk to your child, do a self-inventory. Unpack what you know (or think you know) about transgender individuals. Seek out books by transgender people to learn about their lives and experiences.
Jenny Betz, director of education and youth programming for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, recommends checking out the American Library Association’s Booklist, which has an LGBT-specific section.
Janet Mock’s autobiography, Redefining Realness: A Trans Girl’s Coming of Age can be a great place to start for parents and older readers. For younger kids, try the picture book I Am Jazz, co-written by transgender 16-year-old Jazz Jennings. GLSEN also offers a Safe Space Kit for teachers who want to create more respectful classrooms.
2. Stick to themes of respect and inclusiveness. As an LGBT parent, Jenny Betz says, “We’re always looking for teachable moments. We say there are all kinds of ways families look, and they’re all valid.” Talking about how she and her partner speak to their child about these issues, she notes, “We make sure we’re always talking about kindness and addressing internal biases.”
3. Let your child lead the conversation. Rena’s child came out as transgender in high school: “My child kept bringing gender up — by writing a poem about trans rights, asking a lot of questions — and we’d talk. Eventually, my child felt safe coming out to me.”
Rachelle Lee Smith, author of the LGBT photography book SpeakingOUT, puts it bluntly: “Pay attention to your kid. Ask him questions. It might be weird and awkward, but you’re the adult, and you have to do it.”
4. Use positive media. Introduce media with inclusive themes, like the popular cartoon Steven Universe or Smith’s book. Don’t leave your child alone with a book or TV show. Engage with your child about what she sees and hears.
“Talk about what’s going on in the media. Incorporate what kids understand,” says Hardy. Learning to ask questions and treat others with respect are important traits for kids to develop, and it’s never too early to teach them to your child.
5. Remember that you’re teaching your child how to interact with others. As children grow into adults, they’ll meet people with varied identities, values and lifestyles. Teaching kids about differences early on will help them grow into adults who respect others. “The result,” says Betz, “could be someone who is kind and respectful or someone who is fearful of difference.”
Beth Boyle is a freelance writer. She can be reached on Twitter @bethanneboyle.