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This week (November 12-19) is transgender (the T in LGBTQ) awareness week and I want to talk about being allies to transgender individuals, in particular as a parent. My husband and I have been committed allies for a long time and when we had our children, we committed to being allies in our parenting. One of our reasons is that we don’t know our children’s sexual orientation or gender identity (none of us do when they are born) and I would never want my children to question if we would be their ally. If they don’t need me to be their ally, then I want to make sure that we are raising them to be part of the next generation of good allies. There are a lot of ways that this commitment impacts our parenting and one specific way is that we talk about gender identity with our kids. There can be some confusion about gender identity and an important part of being an ally (that will also help you with talking to your kids) is continuing to check your own understanding and education on the topic.  

There are some great resources out there to educate yourself (which I’ll link to at the end), but here is some intro information to start:

  • Sex, Gender Identity, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Expression are all different things and none of them determine any of the others. In the (probably over-simplified) simplest terms: Sex is assigned at birth based on the body that you are born with. Gender Identity is who you are. Sexual Orientation is who you are attracted to. And, Gender Expression is the outward expression of gender (more masculine vs more feminine), which is intertwined with cultural stereotypes about what is considered masculine and feminine.
  • Transgender means that your gender identity differs from your sex assigned at birth. Cisgender means that your gender identity and your sex assigned at birth are the same.  
  • It’s hard to pin down an exact number, but the most recent estimates are that at least 0.6% of the US adult population identifies as transgender.
  • Most kids begin to identify strongly with a gender around age 3. Identifying as a gender is less about what your child likes and more about who they are. For example, a child assigned female at birth that loves stereotypical “boy things” probably isn’t transgender (at least not based on that information alone). A child assigned male at birth that consistently says things like, “Did you know that I’m a girl?” or “I’m a girl, but people can’t tell.” very well could be.

Whether we talk about it or not, our kids are picking up on sex and gender all the time. Most toddlers can recognize parts of their body that relate to their sex and they are also starting to recognize their gender. Society often talks about these as if they were the same thing, so our kids might not realize that sex and gender are separate and don’t have to be the same. This is an area where we, as parents, can help our children have a better understanding by being deliberate with how we talk about all of this.

My kids are little (ages 2 and 5), so a big part of this (at their current ages) is using language that they can understand. To try to keep this in toddler vocabulary, we talk about girls and boys (gender identity) and also girl bodies and boy bodies (sex assigned at birth). We tell our kids that usually a girl is born in a girl body and a boy is born in a boy body, but not always. Sometimes a girl is born in a boy body or a boy is born in a girl body. I do want to acknowledge that it’s not always binary like this, but this is the level they can currently understand and we’re trying to set a foundation that we can build on as they get older.

You don’t usually have to go out of your way to come up with opportunities to talk about it all like this. If your kids are like mine, they ask a million questions every day and these topics are bound to come up. For example, if I get a question like, “Do all boys have a penis?” My answer would be, “All boy bodies have a penis. Sometimes a girl can be born in a boy body, so she might have one too. And, sometimes a boy is born in a girl body, so he might not.” Or, if my child said, “I have a vagina because I’m a girl.” I would clarify, “Well, you have a vagina because you have a girl body.” If you have this distinction in mind as you face all of their questions and comments, I am sure that you will find opportunities to talk about this with your children. 

I think people worry that this will confuse our kids. It really doesn’t! My kids have never once looked at me in confusion when I answer this way. They don’t really have an expectation for my answer, so telling them this is no more shocking or confusing than if I simply answered “yes” or “no.” I do think that omitting this information now, could set them up for confusion later. We don’t do our kids any favors by avoiding these topics. Also, if your child does happen to be transgender, acknowledging what they might be starting to notice and supporting them is incredibly important – potentially life-saving. There are some devastating statistics related to suicide among transgender individuals. 41% of transgender individuals have reported attempting suicide. Individuals that experienced rejection from their family and friends had even higher attempted suicide rates of 57%. This is heartbreaking. Recent studies have shown, though, that transgender children that have socially transitioned in a loving and supportive home do not show higher rates of depression and have only slightly higher rates of anxiety relative to population averages. This suggests that family support may protect transgender children from mental health problems and risks of suicide that can otherwise be common.  

I hope you’ll make a commitment to actively parent as a transgender ally too – we can help make the world better for all of our children.

Here are some resources and references if you’d like to learn more or see the sources of the statistics that I referenced above.