Susan Goldberg on how to have a conversation about transgender folks.
This was supposed to be a post on how I had a wise and coherent conversation with my children about transgender issues. It happened during Transgender Awareness Week, after all, and I am (at least some of the time) a (queer) parenting writer, so it seemed like a reasonable subject.
I was going to write about how we watched the Arcade Fire video “We Exist,” which features a young transgender woman, how I pulled out a recent issue of the New York Times magazine, which features three transgender men on its cover, all students at Wellesley University, an historically “women’s” college, now grappling with how to understand and acknowledge the increasing numbers of trans male and female students on its campus.
I was going to tell you about the nuanced and careful conversation we had, where they asked questions and I answered them and we all emerged slightly more enlightened after 10 or 15 minutes of pleasant chat.
But, here’s the thing: my sons are seven and 10. I don’t think they have ever in their lives had a serious, 10 or 15 minute, sit-down, nuanced, focused, and enlightened conversation about — well — anything, really. That’s not how they (or most of their peers) are wired. Our conversations are short, on-the-fly, interrupted and fragmented. We talk about everything from death to sex to divorce to what’s for dinner tonight in one-minute chunks, in the car, on the way to school, right before bed. We touch on a topic, and then — SQUIRREL! — someone gets distracted or spills milk or randomly changes the subject and we move on and then come back at some unpredetermined time.
And here’s the other thing: gender identity is something that — like death, sex, divorce, dinner — that we talk about constantly. It comes up, with kids: who gets to wear blue and who gets to wear pink and why the girls toys and the boys toys are in separate sections of the store, and what if a boy wants to wear a dress to school? My older son, Rowan, has hair flowing halfway down his back and is often (although less often these days) taken for a girl, and we have lots of conversations about what it means to assume before asking, about people’s biases, what it might be like to be born in a body that doesn’t feel like the right body for you. We talk about bullying, homophobia and transphobia at the dinner table, interspersed with conversations about soccer scores and birthday parties and please put your napkin on your lap.
But, in between soccer practice and piano practice and bedtimes and lunch-making and toothbrushing and the like, this morning I managed to pull out the New York Times magazine cover and showed it to the kids. “They don’t look like women,” commented Rowan. “They’re not,” I said. “They’re men who were born with girls’ bodies, but now they’ve made steps to live in the bodies that are right for them.”
“Yeah,” he said, before grabbing his backpack and heading out the door.
On the way to school, I tried to bring up the subject again. “Did you guys have any questions about transgender people?” It felt forced, as though I was a teacher in front of a classroom, doing sex ed with a bunch of squirmy sixth-graders.
“Nope,” said both kids, cheerily.
“You know that sometimes people can be bullied if they’re transgender or if they don’t look exactly like what people think a girl or a boy should look like?”
“Yes,” said Rowan, with a sigh and somewhat uncharacteristic patience. “Mom, we’ve talked about this before. Lots of times.”
Which, I guess, is the point. Yes, it’s Transgender Awareness Week, and that’s a great thing. But our conversations with our children about all the Big Topics (and all of the Little Topics, too) are never summed up during a single week. Like gender itself, those conversations are fluid, ongoing, dynamic, multifaceted. The important thing is to have them, and to keep having them.
Photo credit: SUSAN GOLDBERG
About the author: Susan is a writer, editor, essayist and blogger (Mama Non Grata), and coeditor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents and Our Unexpected Families (Insomniac Press, 2009). Her personal essays have been featured in numerous print and online magazines. She lives in Thunder Bay, Ontario, with her partner, their two sons, two cats, and approximately a trillion Pokémon cards.