YOUR 13-YEAROLD SON HAS JUST “HINTED” THAT HE’S GAY. YOUR 20-SOMETHING DAUGHTER HAS INTIMATE RELATIONSHIPS WITH BOTH MEN AND WOMEN. OR—IN AN ASTONISHING CONFESSION—YOUR HUSBAND OF 25 YEARS HAS REVEALED THAT HE HAS ALWAYS SECRETLY IDENTIFIED AS FEMALE.
While issues of nontraditional gender identification have been splashed over the news, what do you do when the abstract comes to your living room? How do you respond when it’s your family?
Over the years, I’ve counseled numerous individuals who have nontraditional gender identification. What follows are some ideas for how families can best support their loved one—what I call being an educated and supportive family. I also have some suggestions and resources for family members themselves.
For individuals with nontraditional gender identification, solidifying a gender identity can take anywhere from months to years. The process often interferes with other areas of their lives because it takes so much mental energy to process. A “true” identity is something so basic to wh,o you are, but if it’s been hidden or denied, confusion and depression can set in. Parents and spouses also have a long and winding—and potentially difficult—journey.
BEING A “WISE” FAMILY
Engage your family member with statements such as, “I’m here if you want to talk,” or “Would you like to take a walk or go out for a cup of coffee?” You might say, “I’ve noticed you’ve been spending a lot of time alone and I’m a bit worried.” Accept their reaction, whatever it might be. The timing of such a conversation must be on their terms, not yours.
You can be helpful by accepting feelings as real and true. It is OK to ask questions like, “How do you feel about this?” You can ask about where they are in the process of accepting their identity. What has been the response of other family and friends to their coming out? Was it the response they had hoped for?
Remember, even more important than having the right words and the right questions is making sure you simply listen.
USING THE RIGHT TERMS
It is also important not to make assumptions about someone’s sexual or gender identity. Understanding a few common definitions may be helpful.
NON-BINARY A person who does not define as male or female
PANSEXUAL A person who is attracted to the person and not the gender of the individual of romantic or sexual interest
TRANSGENDER A person who identifies as a different gender than their birth gender
QUEER Usually an all-encompassing term that includes sexual and/or gender differences
GENDER EXPANSIVE, NEUTRAL, DIVERSE, FLUID An individual may identify somewhere along the continuum of gender
Your child or sibling or other family member or a friend may identify as bi-sexual, non-binary, queer or pansexual, but until we ask, and understand what this means to them, we really don’t know.
NAMES AND PRONOUNS
Be curious and knowledgeable about preferred names and pronouns, and use the correct ones. A person with non-birth sex identification may want to use a different name than their birth name, or a particular pronoun when being referred to. On the other hand, this may not be of particular importance to them.
Teens and adults deserve to be called what they choose. This seemingly small step is not small to the person we are referring to—it represents their identity, and therefore can be important to their self-esteem and self-worth. Many family members struggle to change a speech pattern and an identity they have used for years. But if you can make these changes to support your loved one, they will feel empowered and validated by what you are doing for them. And this is critical!
ASKING FOR HELP
Many individuals are depressed before coming out, but once they have done so, over time things get better. One way to be helpful is to know when to ask for help. People who are transgender, nonbinary, or pansexual—together with their family members—may need assistance from trained professionals. When someone asks for counseling, acknowledge this as a sign of strength. If you choose to seek professional support, it should be clear that gender status is not a reason for treatment per se, but that “he” or “she” or “they” may need help coming to terms with their own identity and navigating our culture’s often negative reactions to it.
Also think about whether you should you reach out for help for yourself. The more comfortable you are, or can become, with your family members unique identity and sexual preferences, the more you will be able to support their struggles and triumphs.
Along with professionals and agencies, the Internet can be a great source of support both for your child and for you. Support in every state, and many U.S. cities, is available from Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gay (PFLAG) chapters (pflag.com). PFLAG is a national nonprofit organization for parents, family, friends and allies of LGBTQ people that offers support groups, speakers and socialization opportunities.
OTHER RESOURCES INCLUDE
The Trevor Project thetrevorproject.org help line for LGBTQ youth in crisis
National Center for Transgender Equality transequality.org social justice advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.
GLAAD glaad.org empowers LGBT people to tell their stories
Human Rights Campaign (HRC) hrc.org Resources for Parents provides resources that address many potential paths to parenthood as well as tools for issues facing LGBTQ-headed families or LGBTQ.
ANNE SLONIM RAFAL is the founder of the LGBTQ Resource Group in Falls Church, Virginia. The group is comprised of social workers, psychologists, and counselors who focus on working with the LGBTQ community in Northern Virginia. She can be reached at www.annerafal.com and by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.