It was almost two years ago that my daughter, then three years old, met the wonderful person who is now her "other" mom. I'd brought her along for my first date with a cute, young man, explaining to him that I was a package deal and that he'd need to get to know my daughter if he wanted to know me. Before we parted ways, he whispered to me, "I want to kiss you good-bye, but I don't want to confuse your daughter." I pulled him aside and we shared our first, secret kiss. I quietly remarked, "You kiss like a woman," and would have immediately regretted the comment it if it weren't for the fact that he smiled, as if flattered, when I said it. A few weeks later, my budding love-interest filled me in on a big secret: "he" didn't identify as a "he" at all, and, as a transgender woman, was beginning the process of transitioning to look more like the woman she saw herself as.
The first thing I thought was, "I have no idea how I'm going to explain this to my daughter." After all, it had only been a few days since I'd explained to her the basic biological differences between boys and girls. How could I let my three year old know that Mommy's boyfriend was actually Mommy's girlfriend, and that she'd be changing her appearance to reflect that? It gave me enough pause that I considered ending our brand-new relationship right then and there. But love will make you do crazy things, and those crazy things often turn out wonderful… and I'm pleased to say that my soon-to-be-wife, who my daughter accepts as "kind of like a daddy and a mommy at the same time" is acknowledged and loved within my little family for the wonderful woman she is.
How did we get to this point? Talking to kids about transgenderism isn't easy, but I feel like my family did it right. Here are five simple tips that, should you need to broach this topic with your own child, can help you navigate the potentially confusing topic of transgenderism.
1. Don't make it a big deal.
If your child has a friend or relative who is transgender, your instinct might be to sit her down for one of those serious talks and have a deep, detailed discussion. This isn't necessary and really might do more harm than good. Kids take things in stride when you introduce new or possibly confusing topics nonchalantly, instead of making a huge ordeal out of them. Keep the conversation casual and friendly, not formal and intimidating.
2. Explain that some people's bodies and brains don't match up.
You don't have to go into the actual detailed definitions of gender and sex, but it's important to clarify that how a person looks (or how a person was born) may not match how that person feels or presents. Before you bring up the person you're talking about, you might tell your kiddo, "Remember how I told you that boys have penises and girls have vaginas? That's true almost all of the time, but there are some people who feel like girls when they were born with boy-bodies, or feel like girls when they were born with boy-bodies." Listen to any feedback your child has and answer any questions that may arise, factually and respectfully.
3. Teach respect for gender identity.
This is easier than most parents expect. After all, if your kid has known Uncle Jake for 10 years, what is he going to do when he's suddenly asked to call his "uncle" Aunt Jackie? It's really not as hard as you or your child might think. Just explain, "Even though Aunt Jackie is still the exact same person, she feels sad about the fact that she looks like a man right now, and she feels sad when people call her Jake. I need you to be respectful of Aunt Jackie by calling her by the name she wants and talking about her as if she is a girl, because she doesn't feel like a man and it's not fair to call her one." Of course, model this by consistently using correct names and pronouns around your child. Remind your kiddo that it's okay to slip up every now and then (accidental use of "old" name or pronoun is, unfortunately, something that trans people encounter often), but make sure your child is making an effort to be respectful. Your kid will adjust more easily than you might think.
4. Explain transitioning in kid-friendly terms.
No, your child doesn't need to know about everything that transitioning (or a "sex-change") entails, but, if your child knows someone who is transgender, she deserves to have some idea of what's going to happen to her loved one. One simple way to explain it might be, "Since Aunt Jackie looks like a man right now and that makes her sad, she has to take medicine that will make her look more like a lady. She might not look like a man at all anymore pretty soon, but she'll still be the same person inside." Your kids (especially tweens and teens) might have questions about surgical treatments, but it's best to avoid discussing these with kids. The details of surgery, and whether or not a trans person will have it, is unnecessary and violates that person's privacy unless that person is freely sharing the information. You might simply say that you don't know if Aunt Jackie is having surgery because her private parts aren't anyone else's business, but you can add that it would be nice to send her cards or flowers if she has to be in the hospital at some point.
5. Offer reassurance and real answers.
Learning about transgenderism can be confusing and intimidating even for adults, but kids may be especially befuddled by the concept. Kids have naturally open minds and most have no problem accepting it, but others might have a lot of questions (How does a person know if she's transgender? If there are transgender women, are there also transgender men? How do those medicines work?) or be confused and worried (Are these treatments dangerous? Does this mean I might grow up to be the opposite sex, even though I don't want to? Are people going to make fun of me for having a transgender friend or relative?) To all of these concerns, it's best to have simple, easy, and reassuring answers ready. Nothing about this conversation, or the experience of knowing a transgender person, has to be stressful. Keep an open mind and a compassionate voice and you'll find that this seemingly difficult conversation is far easier than you might expect.