Unsupportive grandparents of a transgender child
January 15, 2015 12:46 PM   Subscribe

My oldest child, age 12, has recently come out as transgender. We are trying to show her our unconditional support, but her grandparents are unlikely to be as supportive. Suggestions for coping? Difficulty: Asian and Catholic.

My oldest child, age 12 and AMAB, came out to us a few months ago as possibly trans. She has been attending the LGBT youth support group, we have had several sessions with the local therapist knowledgeable about youth with gender identity issues, and have a reference to a pediatric endocrinologist with an eye towards her starting blockers once puberty starts. My spouse and I are trying our best to show unconditional support. That's not my question.

I'm Asian; my parents are both professionals who came over to the US in the 60's. (They are in their 70's now.) My parents rejoiced when they "won" the grandparent race among their peers, and with a son (sic), no less. My oldest child is the clear favorite in the grandparents' eyes (oldest son (sic) of the oldest child, you see). My parents are also very religious and are very active in the Catholic church.

They live several hours away and we only see them a few times a year.

My parents have been grudgingly accepting of another trans family member, but it wasn't pretty at first and they continue to fall far short of unconditional support. They were downright hostile at first, and my daughter saw all of that first-hand and has certainly internalized all of that. She's internalized all of that so badly that she doesn't want to come out to her younger siblings out of a fear that they wouldn't be able to keep a secret from Grandma and Grandpa, combined with the realization that Grandma just wouldn't take it well. And that breaks my heart.

My daughter doesn't want to transition socially. Yet. So we have some time. But not being out to the younger siblings means that she's doing a lot of hiding, especially with regards to clothing choices, and I'm afraid that it's setting her up for even worse internalized fears and shame. I want her to be comfortable knowing that her parents support her in her transition (or, if she chooses not to, that, too).

I feel unable to cut my parents out of our lives altogether, and not just because I'm a dutiful Asian child. But also because I'm sensing that cutting off contact might not be the best result for my other kids.

I am very interested in seeing how you all think we might be able to thread this needle.

Anon email: throwaway9vz2wk@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (22 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I think that you might want to reach out to trans family member, if you're close at all with him/her, who will have a better read on your overall extended family and some of the cultural issues.
Also is there a PFLAG group in your area? It might not be a perfect match, but may be helpful to you all.

As the sibling of a child, now adult, that struggled with gender identity issues, as well as a human on this planet, I thank you for being so supportive of your oldest and wish you all well.
posted by k8t at 12:55 PM on January 15, 2015 [20 favorites]

I feel unable to cut my parents out of our lives altogether, and not just because I'm a dutiful Asian child. But also because I'm sensing that cutting off contact might not be the best result for my other kids.

That's a reasonable position to take. I think if I were in this situation I would tell them the facts, lay out very explicitly exactly what is expected of them, and be really clear that if they do not at least behave as though they are 100% supportive they will no longer be speaking to their grandchildren.

But I tend to be pretty severe about cutting people out of my life when needed, so this may not work for you.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:58 PM on January 15, 2015 [16 favorites]

I feel unable to cut my parents out of our lives altogether, and not just because I'm a dutiful Asian child. But also because I'm sensing that cutting off contact might not be the best result for my other kids.

You CAN do it! This is one of those questions where the OP already knows the right thing to do: cut your parents out (for now anyway**) so that your oldest kid truly knows that you fully and completely have her back, and so that she can begin to be her authentic self in your home at long last.

Your first loyalty right now should be to your oldest child, who needs 110% of your support right now.

** I hear you that this seems hard. But your younger kids will be absolutely fine not seeing your parents "a few times a year" anymore. Far better that they are able to get to know and accept their eldest sister! It's not like they have some super close bond with your parents anyway, if they did, you'd have been seeing them more often than you do. And the decision to step away from your relationship with your parents does not need to be permanent, by the way. But deep down you already know it's what needs to happen now.
posted by hush at 1:01 PM on January 15, 2015 [12 favorites]

I think you should consider that having your parents in your kids' lives means that you are hurting all of your children by exposing them to transphobic bigotry. This has already hurt your children. Giving your parents a chance to behave well is reasonable, but allowing them to expose your children to hatred is not good parenting.
posted by medusa at 1:03 PM on January 15, 2015 [28 favorites]

Emphasize to your parents that your child loves them very much, and their acceptance would mean a great deal. If your mother and father know that they can see your kids only if they will be supportive, they'll be a lot more likely to behave as you want them to -- and feelings can follow actions.
posted by wryly at 1:08 PM on January 15, 2015 [4 favorites]

be really clear that if they do not at least behave as though they are 100% supportive they will no longer be speaking to their grandchildren.
A generation or two ago, my 12-year-old self was in an interracial relationship (well, a kiddie flirtation, really, at that point) of which my mom's father very vocally disapproved, and she pretty much gave him that speech--you don't have to approve, but you will act like it, or you won't be seeing your grandkids. It worked.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:15 PM on January 15, 2015 [33 favorites]

I confess that I know nothing about the real feelings of either your daughter or your parents -- my life is completely different. That said, here's an idea:

Maybe you could start laying groundwork by emphasizing, with your parents, qualities of their grandchild that they love outside of being a first-born son.

In fact, since focusing on what a person/child does instead of what they are is supposed to be healthier and encourage success, it could be helpful for any child to have these personal qualities emphasized, and to feel that they are loved for these qualities instead of just for how they are born.
posted by amtho at 1:16 PM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think the only thing that really helps with something like this is time. My very catholic, very conservative parents freaked out when I dated a black guy in high school but came around. They freaked out about their first great-grand child being born out of a one night stand, but they came around. It just took time. And it took people not cutting them out of their lives, but also not taking any crap.

I would also use this as a conversation point for your kids. My children are only 1 and 5, and we have already had several conversations about how their grandparents believe different things than their parents (espeically about gay marriage for instance), but that doesn't mean we don't love grandma and grandpa. Because we can love people we disagree with, and love people who are wrong. Then make it clear that if the grandparents are hurtful towards the kid, you support the kid and she never has to deal with them again if she doesn't want to.

If it were me, I would tell your parents (not let the daughter do it). Explain what is going on. Explain that there's been therapy, that you're supportive, that you understand that they probably don't understand, and that it isn't important that they understand. Tell them you will give them time to absorb it and that you hope they'll think about it before they react, and that you'll give them an opportunity to treat your daughter with love and respect (if not agreement) and if they can't do that, then tough on them.

I know that it my case, it just isn't going to work to ask my 80+ year old parents to change their beliefs about certain things. But with time and kindness shown to them, they've managed to come around in their behaviors, because sometimes love does eventually conquer all.

Good luck. I hope they do better than you expect. Your daughter is lucky to have you.
posted by dpx.mfx at 1:20 PM on January 15, 2015 [23 favorites]

Give your parents a chance. They might surprise you. Ask for your child's permission to discuss this with them alone. Your child doesn't need to be part of the process, it might make it easier for your parents as well.

The Catholic church is moving more towards acceptance and hopefully your parents love for their grandchild will win out over any ingrained discomfort or enmity towards LGBT folks, and with the Church being more tolerant, let's hope they take the religious teachings to heart.

If your child gives you permission, tell your parents very matter of factly. Be prepared for dismay and uncomfortable conversation (hence we don't have children present.) But be firm, "We are in full support and will do whatever we need to so that our child can live a 100% authentic life. We love and believe in her. She is scared to death that you will reject her, she loves you so much. She would do anything if she could conform to the sex she was born into but ultimately she has to be who she is. We are getting her all the medical help we can and we are behind her 100%. We would love to have you continue to be in our lives and we know this is very hard for you. We're grateful that the world is so much more welcoming than it used to be, and we realize that there is still such a long road for her. Will you support her and love her, just as you've always done?"

Hopefully, as disappointed and upset as you expect them to be, their love will win out. If it doesn't it's okay to tell your parents, "unless you can be supportive and loving to all of our family members we can't associate with you anymore. I would hate to lose you because we all love you so much. Can you please find it in your hearts to be a part of our family?"

I wish you well. Your daughter is so lucky to have a family that is supportive and encouraging. Hopefully this can be navigated and her grandparents will prove to be the fine people you know them to be.

Nthing get a hold of the Trans family member. Sometimes it is so helpful to know that you're not blazing the trail.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:22 PM on January 15, 2015 [16 favorites]

Previous reply of mine with a long list of resources.

One of the things it lists is Mom, I need to be a girl, a free online book. It is the only thing I have personally seen which talks about a mostly undramatic, mostly supported transition, with a lot less drama than what seems typical. The father had some trouble accepting it. The parents had divorced long before, so he was not living with them at the time.

If it were me, I think I would start by trying to maybe get this into the hands of the grandparents (assuming they haven't seen it yet) in the guise of helping them come to terms with the other trans family member.

I also would look into helping her dress in a gender neutral fashion to try to reduce the amount of friction here between her identity and her desire to keep her privacy. I also would make sure to frame it that way: Her desire to keep her privacy, which is totally legitimate. I would talk to her about "yeah, you aren't required to tell anyone this if you don't want to" and frame it as much as possible about her choice to not deal with the drama. I mean, I would try really hard to frame this in an empowering manner that takes a lot of the social conflict out of it and makes it easier for her to say "yeah, I just don't want the drama right now" rather than making her feel like she has to live in fear of the social response.

That might take some substantial work from your end. But an example that might help is to talk about how we all pee and poop and it isn't a secret that we do that, but the general social expectation is that we do so behind closed doors and not with the entire family watching. Sex is also something everyone knows that, for example, married couples do, but the rest of us mostly don't want to see it or hear the details. So choosing to not wear something on your sleeve doesn't mean it is something you should feel shame over. It doesn't mean you should feel it is a bad thing. We are entitled to privacy and this is a private matter and she can divulge the information in a time and in a fashion that makes her comfortable and, as her parents, you will help her figure out the best way to do that for her comfort and for the comfort of people she cares about and wants to retain a relationship with, as she sees fit. But if some people have a hard time accepting it, being concerned about their feelings is mostly a matter of courtesy.

So I would likely spend a good bit of time talking to her about her comfort levels and her motivations and what she wants out of this and how to cope constructively with the problem space of social friction -- that social friction is a problem to be dealt with, the way we grab an umbrella when it rains, and it isn't some proof of moral failing on her part or something like that. Yes, it's a legitimate problem. But the amount of shame and so on that it can make people feel is really unnecessary here. It's not like she killed someone for giggles.

I have reason to believe that helping her feel really comfortable will help her get better social acceptance, but I am having trouble finding a good way to explain what I mean. It's something I know works surprisingly well, but I still struggle with adequately communicating and articulating it.
posted by Michele in California at 1:24 PM on January 15, 2015 [5 favorites]

Op, you wrote, my oldest child, age 12 and AMAB, came out to us a few months ago as possibly trans. (emphasis added) You say your child also doesn't want to come out to their younger siblings yet. But you also say that you have (apparently firm) plans to block male puberty and you refer to your child with female pronouns.

Is your child still questioning and exploring, or is the question settled? That will make a big difference in how, when, and even whether you communicate with your parents.
posted by alms at 1:45 PM on January 15, 2015 [6 favorites]

Mod note: From the OP:
Our daughter, on her own, chose a female name and asked us to start using female pronouns at home when her younger siblings weren't around. The specialist we're seeing indicated that she meets the criteria for puberty suppression. She's certain enough, and the experienced medical professional agrees, that it makes sense for her to move forward with the endo.

I would also add that it's unfair to characterize the grandparents now as transphobes. They are grudgingly supportive of the other family member, who transitioned as an adult. The grandparents are making an effort at pronouns now, and that is what it is. But not the unconditional support I'd hope for. It just seems unfair to even talk about cutting things off in the context of them giving "grudging support."
posted by mathowie (staff) at 2:31 PM on January 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

The grandparents are making an effort at pronouns now, and that is what it is. But not the unconditional support I'd hope for. It just seems unfair to even talk about cutting things off in the context of them giving "grudging support."

That is very encouraging. When your daughter comes out, she may tip the scale to acceptance. It may tick a box that perhaps trans runs in your family and they may start to see that sometimes this happens and it's corrected medically, just like an other medical issue.

Best of luck to you.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:49 PM on January 15, 2015 [4 favorites]

As someone with a similar family to you, boy, count your lucky stars that you have a previous transition in the family! That is still so rare and it's wonderful that your daughter has an older relative who an get where she's coming from. I think if you haven't already you need to facilitate an email-pen-pal relationship there.
posted by town of cats at 2:51 PM on January 15, 2015 [5 favorites]

They are grudgingly supportive of the other family member, who transitioned as an adult. The grandparents are making an effort at pronouns now, and that is what it is. But not the unconditional support I'd hope for.

Their relation to the other family member may also be different. I would look at the grudging support of the other family member as encouraging, not discouraging - that is still pretty big! And it's entirely possible that when it's their first grandchild, who is still a minor, they would try very hard not to be hurtful, even if they are privately disappointed.

I want to Nth the idea of starting by transitioning their joy in grandchild away from "oldest son of oldest son, carrier of the family line" to "Cool kid, funny, maybe wants to be an artist and builds robotic dinosaurs" or whatever.
posted by corb at 3:32 PM on January 15, 2015 [4 favorites]

They are grudgingly supportive of the other family member, who transitioned as an adult. The grandparents are making an effort at pronouns now

That's good to hear. Can you continue to work on their trans acceptance, acting (ostensibly, but also sincerely) on behalf of Other Family Member? Give your grandparents lots of positive reinforcement, Shamu-style. But maybe also not Shamu, because you may also at times need to give them informational resources or tell them that a certain behavior is Not Cool.

Along the way, you can share with your daughter as much information as you think she is ready to hear about how her grandparents are changing and how you are helping them to change. You can also share this information with your daughter's younger siblings.
posted by feral_goldfish at 4:18 PM on January 15, 2015

I agree, not 100% related but I am black/white and my grandparents were white and racists. My mom chose to still have them in our life and it was very painful. I think you really say something to your daughter, if you wind up distancing yourself from them because they do not accept her. And, I would be honest and up front with them about this, if you want to be in our lives you have to get on board-not tolerant but accept her. Also, there are some really great films and books out there, as I am sure you know! I am also curious as to what the therapists says and maybe bring them into a therapy session with just them and you ,and or/your partner. You are doing a great job! You daughter is lucky to have you!!!
posted by momtips at 6:05 PM on January 15, 2015

Just chiming in to share a link and give you major kudos for supporting your daughter so much and so soon!
posted by smorgasbord at 6:26 PM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

You sound like AWESOME parents.

I'd say, talk to your parents about it, without your child present, and let them know what's happening. As others have said, they may really surprise you. See how they respond.

If their reaction is at all hostile let them know you have zero tolerance policy for transphobia. If they want to maintain contact with their grandchild, they have to get over that crap. They can argue about this stuff with you, if they must, but they cannot cause your child grief. Your child faces enough hurdles without dealing with intolerant nonsense from members of her own family.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 10:45 PM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Let your kid know in very clear language that she can tell you exactly how she feels about any and all interactions with her grandparents.

I grew up with some really unacceptable behavior from my grandmother and for thirty years I've felt like every minute I've had to put up with her it was to take the burden off my parents, because if I did things she disliked it would mean constant harassment of my parents by her. (No matter what I've done, she has always found something to dislike.) Last summer my dad told me enough was enough, he was completely done with her and I should please stop worrying about my interactions (or lack thereof) and how they would backlash onto him; that it wasn't my responsibility. My response has been to neatly cut her out of my life, do not respond, and it has been wonderful. But as a kid, while I felt like I could tell my parents the terrible things she did and said to me, I never once felt like saying something would make it stop. So for the most part, I said nothing, until I was in my mid-twenties.

I think your parents deserve a solid chance, maybe a few chances with some education thrown in because this is a very old issue with very new (and massively better) ways of fixing it. But your loyalty is first to your daughter, and she might not understand fully what that means. It's clear by your words here that if she were to need them to not be a part of her life, you would make that happen, and that's commendable, but it's not clear that she knows that, or that she can criticize them to you. Just knowing that might give her the confidence to handle a lot of the friction that will be inevitable if your parents give it a bumbling but good-faith try.

(Tangentially, if she does have some clothes that make her feel like herself, could you plan a special day together with just her? You could plan a special day for each of your kids, make it a thing, so everyone gets individual parental attention. But this is one way for her to dip a toe into presenting how she wants to be out in public, just without any other family around, and a way for you to make sure your other kids feel special in their own ways. It turns out a friend of mine in high school did this with her mom. They went to museums dressed up all cute. She transitioned (very low-drama) first year of college.)
posted by Mizu at 5:59 AM on January 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

You can't change the world. You can help your children to be strong enough to live in it. Your daughter is on a very hard road and all you really can do is support her and love her. Work with her therapist on role playing exercises on how to deal with people who react how people react. The world is not a kind place. Let your daughter know that you don't care what other people say or think (even your own parents). If she has one person in the world who is on her side no matter what then, that is more than most people get. I don't see the point in coming out in a big way. Gradually easing into something with very little drama works well for most things. She can dress how she wants and, when someone comments, you or she can say, that is how she likes to dress. It doesn't have to be a statement. I know, I don't sound pc but I have a child who has an anxiety disorder. I don't go around making a big deal out of it. When it kicks in and she behaves in a manner that does not fit in with how the world wants her to be, I calmly say that this is how she is and I support her. She has enough other aspects to her personality that her differences don't have to be the main focus. Surely your daughter does as well.
posted by myselfasme at 6:06 AM on January 16, 2015

OP, I'm afraid I can't answer your question. If I knew how to deal with grudginly supporting grandparents then I would know how to deal with my grudgingly supportive parents. But I don't, and it kills me every time they say they support me but then say they can't call me by my name, and make a huge effort not to use gendered words (a huge feat in Spanish). So believe me, I can relate very well to what your daughter is probably feeling. Thank you, thank you, thank you for not being like my parents. Thank you for being there for her. Thank you for standing up against your own parents for her, that must be really really difficult and stressing.

What I can't tell you is that grudging support can be even harder on the trans person than open, clear, unapologetic transphobia. If they were transphobic at least it would be easier to tell them to go fuck themselves, but because they are just a bit supportive you feel you have to put up with them when they come to her with some bullshit. You don't have to cut them off, after all they are your parents, but make it clear to your daughter that, if at some point she feels they are more toxic than supportive, SHE can cut them off from her life, at least temporarily until she feels she can face then or that they may have learned how to be more supportive.

I second the idea of having a safe haven until she's ready to transition. It can help relieve some of the stress and depression from the gender dysphoria.

A big, big hug to you and your daughter. I really hope your parents come through.
posted by Promethea at 2:28 PM on January 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

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