You Need Help Helping Your Parents: Cis People Teaching Cis Parents To Be Trans Allies

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Q:

Can anyone give me advice for talking to my mother about trans issues? I personally am not trans, so I feel awkward being put in a position to try to speak for a community that I am not part of. My mother is a self-proclaimed liberal, and when it comes to gay rights or women’s rights, she really does walk the talk. She certainly has been very supportive of me in terms of my sexuality my whole life. But anytime transgender issues come up, it turns out she is incredibly closed minded about that particular issue. She’ll say things like, “I just don’t understand transgender people.” To which I just end up responding, “Transgender people don’t owe you an explanation of their lives.”

With Caitlyn Jenner coming out as trans, the conversation has come up again between the two of us. She sent me the “What Makes a Woman?” article by Elinor Burkett in the New York Times with the caption, “this is part of what I have been thinking in regard to Caitlyn Jenner.”

This article is off-base to me. Are there any resources that you all can suggest for me to point my mother to so that I can bring her out of the dark ages with this particular issue?

A:

Never underestimate the power of the New York Times to screw with our liberal families’ ideas about gender, amirite?

Really, though – this is an important question, and I’m glad you asked it! I think so hard about how I, as a cis person, can help my family of cis people be better trans allies. It can be hard, because being allies is about letting go of the desire to want to make it about us, the allies, but it’s still a deeply personal process, because it can mean letting go of ideas that are deeply entwined in how we see the world, and that can feel uncomfortable. Our culture doesn’t endorse discomfort as a positive thing. But in cases of allyship, it really can be.

These conversations with family members are also hard because our relationships with our families are inevitably fraught by one thing or another. When we have discussions about politics, there are guaranteed to be undercurrents that have absolutely nothing to do with the political issues at hand, but that have everything to do with how we navigate the simultaneous tension and softness of familial love. And I think this is true of family no matter what that family looks like or how it was made.

So, I’m going to link some articles at the end of this that help break down why that Times piece is way off base, but first I’m going to more generally address your question of how you, as a cis person, can talk to your mom, another cis person, about trans issues. I’m going to start with an extended metaphor about a road.

Imagine a road. It’s a trans allyship road, moving towards the best form of allyship anyone could ever fucking imagine. (This is a flawed metaphor. There isn’t actually a singular road to allyship, and there are many ways to practice allyship and also a lot of ways to do it wrong, and it’s inevitable that the road is infinite and impossible to reach the end of, but stick with me for a second.) Picture the different places where you and your mother are on this road, imagining you further along on the road from where your mother is. Do you see it?

You’re right that transgender people don’t owe your mother explanations of their lives. It’s important to remind her of this. But I also worry that if that’s your only conversation with her, then all that happens is that you feel self-righteous, and she feels peeved, which shuts off any opportunity for her to learn or grow when it comes to trans issues. That doesn’t make you a better ally or help her become one. When you tell her that trans people don’t owe her any explanations, you’re basically leaving her on the road without a map or a car, crossing your fingers, and hoping she finds you. There are other people who could help her, but she doesn’t know who they are, and she’s not guaranteed to find them. She has to figure it out on her own, and maybe she’ll walk towards you, but it’s also possible she’ll walk backwards or veer off course entirely.

What you need to do is turn yourself around, put a pin in the place where you are, and walk back to go meet her where she’s at. Don’t badger her for not being further along. Figure out where she’s coming from and what is informing her ideas (which you already have at least some idea about). Then try to show her the way — patiently and calmly. I am going to venture a guess that you had to learn about trans issues and trans allyship yourself at one point. I’m guessing you have more to learn. Help her learn what you learned. See what you can learn together. She’s not going to get to the point where you are overnight, but it will be a start.

(To be clear: This is not to say that a trans person trying to explain these same things to a cis person in their life should have to be patient and understanding. Trans people absolutely have the right to be less-than-patient or even angry with cis people who are being ignorant or oppressive about trans issues.)

I’m on this road with my family, too. I’ve had similar experiences with my dad, and we got into it when I interviewed him and my grandmother last year. One thing he said to me was, “It seems like sometimes there are questions that are off-limits [about trans issues], so it makes people uncomfortable because they don’t want to do the wrong thing, because there’s a whole new set of social norms that people aren’t ready for. Sometimes it’s stressful.”

And like, on the one hand, who cares if my dad is stressed out? It’s also stressful, I’m pretty sure, to meet the cis parents of your cis friends. But my dad’s not going to make anything easier for trans people he meets if my reaction is, “Who cares if you’re stressed?” It’s going to be way more helpful for everyone if I can meet my dad where he’s at and bring him further along, and if you can meet your mom where she’s at and bring her further along. That’s how they become better equipped to be allies. It will potentially be messy; it will potentially be very hard. But remember that the point is to help your mother get on the same page; not to attack her for her ideas, or to take her down to demonstrate how great of an ally you are. I encourage you to do the work.

There are already several responses to that Burkett piece in the New York Times. I’ll direct you towards some responses, including what Mey had to say in her piece about what we here at Autostraddle are going to say about Caitlyn Jenner. Mari’s piece, Please Stop Saying That Trans Women Were “Born Boys” is a great resource because it explains what the media gets wrong in telling trans women’s stories, but it’s especially great because it explains why it’s wrong and also why they continue to do it wrong, which makes it harder for anyone to make excuses for Burkett. I also like this piece by Katie McDonough on Salon, because it dismantles Burkett’s piece just for making an argument badly, and sometimes when you’re dealing with family members more in line with the second wave, it can be super effective to discredit someone on their rhetoric before you break down their messed up trans politics.

You can do a few different things with these pieces. One thing that might be enough is for you to read them, so you can get ideas for how to articulate why Burkett’s argument doesn’t hold. You also might send some of these back to your mom.

But sending your mom articles is not as simple as it might seem. I do think it’s a good idea. It helps her learn in her own space, without her feeling like you’re breathing over her shoulder, waiting for it to click. It also gives you the opportunity to send her work from trans people, which is a way for her to learn and hear from trans people without making a trans person feel like they owe your mother an explanation of their life. BUT at the same time, if you do send your mom articles, I really recommend you also accompany it with some personal commentary. I’ve talked about trans issues at length with my family, but sending reading assignments without context tends to be one of the less effective ways of bringing them in the loop. One of the reasons why the Burkett piece has gone viral is because it has a very personal tie-in. Meet your mother at that level. Tell her why it’s important to you that she let go of whatever hangup she has about trans-ness. You might not identify as trans, but this is still about your community, your friends, and maybe even your future partners.

A few months ago, when the Times was talking a lot about “they” pronouns, I got into it with my grandfather, a retired English teacher and Times devotee. He framed the discussion as an intellectual debate about grammatical rules and semantics.

Thankfully, this happened via email, so I was able to gather my thoughts to respond, and ultimately what I told him is that I don’t see this as up for debate. I wrote, “I am trying to share knowledge with you about something that affects the very survival of members of my community, including friends I love deeply, former partners, and possibly future friends or partners, who you will almost certainly meet. In fact, you already have.” Can you try a similar approach with your mother? This DOES NOT mean outing your trans friends to her or otherwise tokenizing trans people in your life. What it DOES mean is thinking about how can you show her that her trying to understand trans experience is about fostering a safe and supportive world for people you love.

I know you can bring your mother further along the metaphorical road to trans allyship. It will take time. It will take a lot of patience. It will be worth it.


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Maddie has written 100 articles for us.

56 Comments

  1. Dear anonymous are you me because THIS IS SUCH A REAL ISSUE IM HAVING WITH MY LIBERAL FAMILY and my grandma sent me that times article and then we got in a huge fight about it because I get mad when I know I’m right but the other person won’t listen to me. Anyway this was a topical advice column!

  2. Good luck questioner but, in my experience, that particular group your mom belongs to is one of the most potentially intransigent (not an intentional pun) in terms of trans issues… even more so than many religious fundamentalists. I would personally stay away from using terms like “privilege, cisgender, and transmisogyny” all of which make a second wave types extremely defensive (normally, I could care less about but this is your mom). As a trans person, I’ve also, sadly, frequently had to learn when to eject people with toxic attitudes from my life and, somewhere in the back of my mind, keep a place for them in case they evolve. Many have some never will. I make a point of explaining in blunt terms why I won’t be having contact with them and that it’s a non-negotiable. I also make it clear there is a option for an open path in future but it’s not going to be a replay of the prior nonsense and disrespect. It puts it squarely in their camp to move forward or remained mired where they are.

  3. Never underestimate the power of the New York Times to screw with our liberal families’ ideas about gender, amirite?

    Didn’t realize this was a thing, so I hadn’t made a connection between some of the conversations I have had with my dad about gender and the fact that he regularly reads the New York Times. Thank you for this insight.

    Also, just thank you in general for this advice. It’s a helpful way to think about things and probably a topic a lot of us appreciate help with.

    • Ha yes! I mean, I think this is something that happens with liberal media in general, and I think it’s really important for us to think about how the kind of media we consume affects how we see the world. The NYT is a super established, very respected, and widely trusted news source, and so people like the writer’s family and my family and your family read things like the Burkett piece and assume it’s an appropriate way to engage with the issues. It can be really hard to contest.

      I’m really glad you found this helpful!

    • It’s not just the NY Times… The New Yorker, Slate, Wall Street Journal, Grantland, The Guardian, Atlantic… all have had transphobic pieces in the past couple of years (along with some good articles as well). The Burkett hit piece (together with an incredibly transphobic op ed which appeared a couple of weeks ago in the TImes) have shown up next to some excellent pieces on trans people. I don’t think this has to with ‘presenting both sides’ on a subject and certainly not objective journalism as much as different editors promoting profoundly different spins or agendas on the same subject.

  4. I have a similar situation going on in my family and really appreciate the advice shared here! Something that has also helped in my case: slow, constant exposure. Like a steady rain drop can leave an impact on a rock.

    My aunt is a pretty staunch second-wave type. Even though our big connecting point has always been our mutual queerness and feminism, the generation gap has caused weariness between us. She’s a supporter of MichFest and generally breaks my heart on these types of issues. She’s also a lover of Audre Lorde and last year she asked me for some feminist summer reading recommendations for her vacation- I mailed her a copy of Janet Mock’s “Redefining Realness” with an inscription that as far as I was concerned Janet Mock and Laverne Cox were some of the most public black feminist theorists right now. She didn’t change all of her opinions overnight, but it opened an important door. Last week when everyone was celebrating gay marriage, she posted on social media about how the success of marriage didn’t free trans folks from violence, housing, or medical discrimination. So change is possible.

    With my mom, who is politically similar to my aunt in a lot of ways, but less of a “reader” and more of a “tv watcher”, it’s been helpful to send her links to MSNBC news shows and similar who have made a point to have trans commentators talk about trans issues (Mellissa Harris Perry’s weekend show has been particularly good about this). This last season of Orange is the New Black really deeply effected her. Its been a slower process than with my aunt, but I see her trying.

    I think I’m giving these two examples as a supplement to Ali’s already excellent advice. I think that as cis people allies talking to our cis parents/elders, we have to be patient and pull them along- because it is not the work of our trans friends, families, partners to reach out and “explain themselves” (NEVER), but we can help fill that gap in understanding.

    In my limited experience, sending them pieces or getting them to watch media where trans people are FRONT AND CENTER telling their own stories has been super helpful. It helps put a real face on issues that I think for a lot of cis people, unfortunately, still feel “abstract” or “far away”. I’m not trans. But I can explain to my loved ones why trans liberation is key to my own liberation- and then I can get the hell out of the way and let trans folk talk for themselves.

  5. This is a great article/response, the meeting them where they are and leading them along (if they will be led) thing is so great! I’m really lucky my parents are open to learning and growing it’s been a long road (17 years) but they’ve willingly walked it. Yes in the past I’ve had to explain why I’m allowed to call myself a dyke and they’re not, etc for different words, and why it’s a good thing that cis straight people made pride Facebook pictures because visible allyship is important…there may have been some barely concealed aggro towards one unit wrt this last one. They are working with someone who is transitioning and is currently using their birth name and assigned at birth pronouns and keep asking me, a cis soft butch dyke, questions about the whole situation because they don’t want to offend but want to understand. Bless their hearts but I barely know this person and their circumstances, everything I know about trans issues is what I read here or stuff from queer theory books I read for uni, so I spend a lot of time referring my parental units to autostraddle articles and repeating that gender and sexuality are not the same thing and that everyone’s experiences of life are different and equally valid. Thanks for the resources and this article. I hope it helps the original questioner.

  6. Once again, I’m glad to serve as the poster boy for slightly stressed out 50-somethings trying to get a handle on trans, cis and other gender-based issues. Madeline – nice article! I’m very happy to have you lead me down the road to understanding.

  7. I think a good strategy is to show your parents (or whoever) video interviews of trans people, because a) it lets trans people tell their stories in their own words, and b) it’s more personal than an article. An article can feel too abstract and intellectual (though there is certainly beautiful, poignant, personal writing on this topic), but with a video, it’s like you’re meeting them — suddenly they’re not just words on a page but a human with a face you can see and a voice you can hear. And it can help people realize that sometimes it’s not necessary to “understand” trans people as an intellectual exercise — it’s first and foremost necessary to see them as just people, telling their hard-earned truths and also, sometimes, walking the dog and paying the electric bill and spending too much time on Netflix (or insert run-of-the-mill activity here, of course many trans people do not have the privilege of affording Netflix).

  8. Thank you for this, Maddie! I still struggle daily, as a trans person, to explain these kinds of things to my mom and dad and other family. For me personally, it’s hard for me to give information in a constructive way for the both of us, because the issue is so personal to me that I get really emotional and defensive sometimes. I realize that I have every right to be upset when someone isn’t hearing me the way I want them to, but as a sensitive person, this means that I get upset at almost EVERYTHING that my parents don’t understand, and it gets really exhausting for me. I struggle to come from a point of view that is sturdy and straight forward. Half the time whatever I’m trying to say turns into me finishing with, “It’s just, you know, it’s like… I don’t know..” and that’s the end of it. I think this is going to be a really great resource for, you know, like.. words.. for me to use. Sometimes I can’t word w/ my parents, ya know.

    • i’m so happy this is going to be a useful resource for you, charlie! i think it must be so frustrating and exhausting to constantly be teaching, especially when it comes to parents. sending lots of supportive vibes <3

  9. I so needed this tonight, and probably more than this. I am probably introducing my trans lady sweetheart to my conservative Christian (but evolving kinda?) family in a matter of weeks and I’m so nervous about navigating this. It’s not like they’re all accepting of my queerness even, but I love them and they me and they’re important to me. It’s actually my siblings I’m more worried about, especially as they have kids too.

    • wishing you and your sweetheart all the best!

      i wonder if people have good resources for talking to kids about trans identity and gender in general? this is something that continues to be something i’m not very good at, because kids have such specific ways of seeing the world. though i think it’s often true that kids can be the most accepting!

    • Good luck, Robin! When I first introduced my liberal parents, it was just as my girlfriend. It wasn’t until we had been together for some months and were planning to get married, finance her srs surgery, and think about trying to make a baby with her stored gametes and mine, that I asked my now wife if it was okay to share her history with my parents so they could be a resource. I don’t think it went as I well as I had hoped. Yeah they use the right name and pronouns, but when we were getting married my mom said she would tell people that we were getting married in our home state (where at the time same-sex marriage was not legal), thus outing my wife without her approval. I tried explaining to my mom and my wife tried as well. Ultimately my mother was not there when we got legally married, which made me sad, especially since my dad who is a judge officiated and my brother on short notice agreed to be a witness. He sort of knew what was going on though it was not something I had discussed with him.

      So this article is helpful in trying to understand where my mom might be coming from. My wife and I did sit down and talk with her before trying to conceive as I needed her help with my business while I was at doctor’s appointments. She did agree to let my wife and I handle discussions with any future kids we may have(thought at this point may not- iui didn’t work and ivf is expensive).

      Still I feel more distant with my mom as she disregarded my wife’s explicit requests and concerns for her personal safety and fears surrounding being outed.

      I do know that my dad said it was helpful to first know my wife for a while as my girlfriend before later learning about her trans* history. So mostly I just want to say good luck Robin!

      • I missed these replies! It went well! !! My family loved her, she loved them! There was one weird moment when my nephew told me that she was a boy but my brother in law (who’s actually not been that great to me in the not distant past about my sexuality) stepped in and told him not to contradict me and made reference to an earlier conversation. I’d love more pointers about how to talk with kids about it. … kids can be way more accepting and open, but you know, I can’t really control how they may be talking to him about gender identity etc but they are making an effort to be respectful. And anyway my nephew was in her lap and talking her ear off within a few minutes of meeting her, and I got texts from family after about how lovely and sweet she is and she thought they were great too. So, all in all, a mostly really great first meeting.

  10. OPRAH.

    No, seriously, that’s what helped my mum. She and I had this surprisingly fruitful conversation about queer and trans folk a few years ago and when I asked her how she suddenly got so good about it she told me she learned it all from Oprah’s show (she is a major fan).

    I know Oprah’s done an interview with Janet Mock recently, try that!

    • OPRAH!

      that interview with Janet Mock is really, really good. I think she did a wonderful job asking really honest questions and opening herself to learn about trans issues. I really recommend it both for the knowledge Janet shares and the way Oprah models learning.

      • There’s an issue with a viewer learning from the Janet Mock/Oprah interview, especially for someone who isn’t particularly positive towards trans people (but not a hater either). Yes, it’s a good interview. Oprah treats Janet Mock with a lot more respect than she has in prior trans-themed interviews where Oprah basically tells the person being interviewed what their experience was and flashes big ‘before’ pictures up behind the interviewee (Oprah: ‘so were you were a young child when you felt you were born in the wrong body?’ …guest: ‘uh-huh’). The problem is, a lot of cis people who are having T.A.P…. trans acceptance problems, can accept having Janet Mock going to the women’s room because “she’s believable… I’ll let her slide.” But it doesn’t really make them any more compassionate towards trans women who look like their idea of a trans person (“a man in a dress”). And that’s a problem. It creates a tiered system of who is acceptable and who isn’t and that’s not a step forward. That’s always existed in the trans community’s relationship with the cis world. So, by all means, share your love for Janet Mock with mom or whoever and see what they say, but don’t require Oprah to do the trans heavy-lifting.

  11. Thank you for this. To be honest, there were some parts of Burkett’s piece that I agreed with upon my first read, particularly the notion that trans men are taking up space in women’s spaces (where I 100% agree that trans women should be welcome, btw!) I felt weird that I agreed with Burkett in some ways, because obviously a lot of her article was problematic, reductive, and transphobic. The Salon article that you linked to was really helpful and I think I will pass it along to some friends who are stuck in the second wave. Jenner said something about wanting to keep nail polish on until it chipped off, now that she identifies and presents as a woman. In response, my queer cis guy friend mentioned that in the past couple of years when he has worn nail polish, there has been an increase in people asking him if he’s transitioning or identifies as a woman, as if that’s the only way his wearing nail polish would be acceptable. I want a world where trans women are able to live safely and wear nail polish safely, and a world where cis guys and people of all genders can do the same. Anyway, thank you for this. I am doing my best to learn more and become a better trans ally, especially to trans women since most of my trans friends are FTM or non-binary. I think I can relate to Maddie’s dad in being a little bit stressed out in conversations where I am so nervous about saying the wrong thing and offending trans friends. Thank you, AS for being an excellent resource and safe spaces. I look forward to continue learning and Redefining Realness is on deck in my feminist book club!

    • Thank you for saying this! I think it’s really vulnerable and important to talk about the ways in which allyship is imperfect and an evolution. Thanks for reading, and enjoy Redefining Realness!

  12. I’ve seen my mom make huge progress in the past few years, so it is possible! She’s an amazing person, and she certiantly never hated trans people, but she used to be very much a second wave feminist. She would make ignorant comments like “It’s sad that they feel like they have to mutilate their bodies” and other well-meaning but hurtful remarks.

    I think one of the biggest things that helped her was knowing that my sister and I both have trans friends that we care about deeply. When you know actual trans people, even if it’s just through someone else, it’s much harder to hold on to ignorant beliefs.

    Interestingly, helping my mom to educate herself about trans issues has had a more positive effect than I could ever have anticipated. Somewhat randomly, my 64 year old mother actually lives with a 20 something trans woman now. My mom previously lived alone in a four bedroom house and, a couple of years ago, decided to find a roommate. Having two queer daughters, it was important for her to advertise the room as LGBT friendly and thus she ended up with her current roommate. Her roommate’s family is not particularly supportive and I’m sure it’s helpful to have some support from a maternal figure.

    In addition, my mom is a therapist and has told me that she currently sees multiple trans clients. She is able to support them now in a way that she couldn’t have when she was still ignorant about transgender issues.

    If you can do so safely (I obviously don’t advise that anyone put their mental or physical health at risk to engage with bigots), keep talking to your friends and relatives about these kinds of issues – even changing one person’s mind can make a substantial difference in the world.

  13. Someone earlier kind of touched on this but I find that giving them the right kind of media can help get the message through. I like to read multiple intricate decent-length articles when I’m trying to educate myself on something. That doesn’t work for my mom at all. She doesn’t like to read things that are super long and academic sounding so I give her shorter articles with less technical jargon. She also does well with things that approach a topic from a humanistic angle rather than a compilation of facts and figures.

    • yes, this is a great point. i have definitely had moments where i’ve read a really long article or a book and said to all my family, “YOU MUST READ THIS OMG IT IS SO AMAZING AND MY MIND IS BENT INTO A WHOLE NEW SHAPE!” And then they glance at the book and they’re like, “meh,” and i am disappointed. but like, not everyone is going to be down if i’m trying to make their introduction to gender a very dense book about capitalist transition and witches. meet em where they’re at.

      PS this is that book

  14. Thank you for this article! I’m still struggling with how to talk about trans and other queer issues with my family without sounding like a condescending academic who thinks she has the ‘right’ politics – while everyone else has ‘bad politics’ – and alienating people I love further… but this advice helps.

  15. Thank you for this article!
    I really want my mum and her side of the family to meet my girlfriend but I am so, so worried that they might speak or behave in really difficult ways, not out of prejudice so much as complete and total ignorance? Your advice has given me a few ideas on how to work on bringing them to understand things a little better, though. :)

  16. Maybe I’m in a really ungenerous mood this morning, but I don’t really get the thing where people always have to “understand” someone else in order to recognize their need for legal rights etc., or even to be an ally. If this woman’s mom “just doesn’t understand” the trans experience, and isn’t likely to, then maybe instead of fretting about it and reading things like that misguided Times piece, she should get out of trans people’s way and let them do their work.

  17. THIS. SO MUCH THIS. I was literally Just having this conversation w/ my partner, after my (hella gay supportive) dad made several transphobic comments, and I didn’t know where the fuck to start. I’m like, “do I make him watch Transparent episodes (??)” ugh obviously knowing that isn’t even a complete solution. Thank you for the help and resources!!

  18. I’m really proud of the way that my hippy (but super straightworld-presenting) mum has not only been open, curious and actively excited to learn about transness (which struck her as the logical next step for feminism), but has actually taken it to heart, opening up and playing around with her ideas about gender in a way which I think has been quietly liberating for her. This is all thanks to me talking to her about my awesome trans friend Andi, who is a budding killer gender theorist and who was super patient, caring and generous in response to all my cisperson questions. My dad’s another story though – while my mum found the idea of transness liberating and exciting, my dad seemed quite threatened by it. There are some people for whom the gender binary does really important and entrenched work in their self-identity. My dad is actually quite feminine, but finds the idea of physical fluidity to be scary. The good thing about being able to talk to him about it in the abstract because I’m cis is that I don’t experience his self-defensive freaked-outness as a rejection of me. But this article reminds me that I need to keep gently pushing his boundaries on it so when he does actually come across a trans person he can be a bit calmer and more understanding, and be able to unleash his actually really strong empathy and good nature. He has potential, he just needs to understand (emotionally as well as intellectually).

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