How to help a trans teen when we're friends with his parents?
May 19, 2015 12:24 PM   Subscribe

We're friends with a family with a possibly trans teen, and the parents don't seem to be taking it seriously (e.g., not using his preferred pronoun). What, if anything, could we do to help?

My partner and I are friends with a family, mostly the parents, and one of their teens recently started going by a different name (let's say Tristan). The parents only use the new name when Tristan is present, and when I asked them about the name change, they mentioned that she requested to be called Tristan and use the pronoun "he". The parents consistently use "she", and consider Tristan to be a nickname, which they use around him, but not otherwise.

We usually see them as a family one every couple months; we've only met Tristan twice. We're also about to move a long distance away. While we haven't talked much about it directly, it sounds like they've struggled to parent Tristan for at least the past few years. It's possible that they're viewing this as just another "phase".

We'd like to help his parents maybe make a more informed choice about how seriously to take this. They're, of course, the ones with nearly two decades of experience with their child, but they are also fairly traditional and could easily not be familiar with the importance of accepting/respecting people's stated gender.

What should we say to them? Should we anything at all? (My partner is skeptical that we can help at all, and is concerned that we could make things worse for Tristan by making his parents feel defensive. We'd also rather not poison our relationship with the parents.)
Are there online/etc resources that we could point them towards that would help?

[we're in the middle of the US.]
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This article has a good line - "I can’t guarantee it’s not a phase- but to me, the risk of accepting a phase as a serious issue is much less than the risk of dismissing a serious issue as a phase."
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:28 PM on May 19, 2015 [12 favorites]

Also, I think it would help Tristan if you model the behavior that you'd want his parents to use. When mentioning him, use his name and pronouns.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:32 PM on May 19, 2015 [13 favorites]

I had a lot written before I re-read your question and got to this:

We're also about to move a long distance away.

It's not impossible to impose into a teen/parent life and get involved. Possibly even make things better, But it's a commitment.

I had not-my-parents get involved in trying to help me in a similar situation... and it was great... but it involved me moving in with them eventually and really really impacted thier relationship with my family.

Teens, especially queer teens, are constantly being bombarded by well meaning liberal people who want to give them a message of acceptance that thier parents don't, but those people aren't often in a position to really DO anything. I'd be supportive if you organically get the chance, but anything more than that might cause more harm than good as you don't plan on being around.
posted by French Fry at 12:54 PM on May 19, 2015 [18 favorites]

Their inability to switch names & pronouns might merely be habit: possibly it is a failure to accept the change, but don't attribute everything to disapproval rather than the simple habit of years! (One of my nieces decided to start going by a new name; I'm better at it now, but I'll admit that it still takes me a definite, conscious act to call her by Newname rather than Oldname.)
posted by easily confused at 1:00 PM on May 19, 2015 [6 favorites]

What do your own children think (assuming your kids are the same age as your friend's child)? Maybe your kids could reach out or something?

As parents yourselves you probably realize how tricky a situation this is - even the most reasonable people can react defensively if they think "outsiders" are overstepping their bounds, and this could have disastrous, life-long repercussions for the child (a teenager) here.

However, maybe your kids can reach out and just be a friend. That's all anyone really wants, to be accepted without labels.
posted by Nevin at 1:02 PM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Use Tristan's preferred pronouns when speaking to him and about him to people who are not his parents or others in authority who are not on his side. When you speak to his parents and other people not on his side, use his name in place of a pronoun. ("It was really nice to see Tristan on Saturday, but Tristan forgot Tristan's hat in the car.") It's the least-disruptive compromise you can make on the pronoun issue. Teenagers do that thing where they act like they don't care, but actually do and are listening and trying to analyze and interpret everything you say and its exact inflection and every nanosecond of pause in your voice, so this is way more important than you may think. It would be ideal to just ignore his parents and stick with "he," but you want to stay friends with them, so this is the best you can do.

If/when they start pressuring you to switch back to "she" when Tristan is not in the room, just stick with "I'm sorry, I'm just not comfortable with that."
posted by blnkfrnk at 2:33 PM on May 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

But why not use Tristan's preferred pronoun when speaking with his parents as well? Show them it's not that hard to do!

Are they in a city that has a PFLAG branch? Some PFLAGs have support groups for family members of people who are trans (e.g., the TransParent Project in NYC).
posted by merejane at 3:05 PM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Like French Fry, I am concerned that you're about to move a long way away. Then there is the information that you only see the family every couple of months, and that you've only met Tristan twice. You may think you know what's going on with this family, but be careful about making assumptions. Do you really want to leave town in a holier-than-thou blaze of glory with poor Tristan left behind to pick up the pieces? Is this really about Tristan, or being able to feel like you did the right thing?
posted by Shoggoth at 3:46 PM on May 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

I mean this as gently as possible, but I think any action you take would be about more your need to "perform acceptance" (to steal a phrase from Dysk in MeTa) than about making concrete positive change from Tristan. Using a preferred name in front of your kid when other people are around and telling other people your kid is trans is pretty far along the road to acceptance when it comes to parents, especially when we're talking about older teenagers/adults (I'm assuming 17+ from "nearly twenty years"). It's past the "we're pretending it's a phase" stage or the "if we ignore it really hard, it'll go away' stage. (Of course, I only have two parents, plus a quasi-stepparent, who went for the "be shitty" option. Perhaps others will disagree.)

All that said, you have a name and pronoun preference, respect it. I think it's also reasonable to be prepared to support Tristan and/or his parents if the subject comes up. There will be regional variation, but PFLAG has a decent reputation on trans issues. Transfamily Cleveland runs the main forum/mailing list for parents of trans people (click on 'Boards' at the top of the page), which, as far as I know, is still active despite being a Yahoo group.
posted by hoyland at 3:53 PM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm trans, and not so long ago I was pretty militant that if somebody transitions, everybody should use the preferred pronoun immediately. And I still feel like that's how it should work.

But recently my longtime girlfriend's niece came out as trans, male identifying. I've known this kid since he was a baby (he's in his late teens now) and I found myself struggling with the pronouns and with my perception of the kid's gender. Now, again, I'm trans myself, and it's been a struggle for me to adjust the perception I've had watching this kid grow up for nearly 20 years. Part of me feels like we're indulging a whim or a phase, even though if anybody should know that's bullshit, I should. I think of that kid, and I see a toddler girl in a little pink dress at a wedding, a pretty, horse-obsessed tween with hair down past her shoulders. I can only imagine what that's like for parents who never saw the transition coming. Suddenly your daughter's not your daughter anymore.

If they are using male pronouns when the kid's around, that's probably enough for now. When you talk to the parents always refer to the kid as a he, even when he's not around. They'll quickly figure out where you stand. If they ever ask why you feel that way, tell them. Otherwise, let them sort out their feelings behind closed doors.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:45 PM on May 19, 2015 [20 favorites]

I'm with Ursula Hitler: I think they're still adjusting/getting used to the idea. It's not going to be easy switching names and genders of your kid after a decade plus, even if it's the thing you are told you have to do.

You're not going to be around in the kid's life, so I honestly don't think there is much you can do. They'll eventually get used to the idea.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:50 PM on May 19, 2015

I don't know if there is a way to slyly suggest they watch Louis Theroux's documentary, Transgender Kids, but it is really well done and very compassionate. It also largely features supportive parents, which is heartening, and might give them a new perspective on the ways to parent a transgender child.
posted by thebots at 10:37 PM on May 19, 2015

« Older The night never questions the stars when they...   |   Pocket Projectors: latest and greatest Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.