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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?
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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