Q: Hi! I’m 16 and about a year ago came out as bisexual. My parents are fine with it, my issue is that I also identify as gender nonconforming/butch. I have attempted to explain this to my mom, but I don’t know how to make her understand that a woman doesn’t have to be feminine and can be masculine, and I can’t keep struggling to feel comfortable with most women’s clothing. If at all possible I would greatly appreciate if part of your answer is directed towards parents like my mom. Thanks for your help!
A: This world and all of its complicated, hidden structures of oppression, am I right??!
I came out as bisexual when I was seventeen and my mom was so not okay with any of it. Her issues were rooted primarily in religion, but she also had extremely narrow views of what the life (and appearance) of girls and boys should look like; she had been taught, as nearly all of us are, that women and men were to look and behave in particular ways that were markedly distinct from each other. Not only did she believe these to be foundational truths, but she had been surrounded by them for so long that it was impossible for her to see any of them as nuanced or complicated… even when speaking to her own daughter, whose very existence complicated them!
Before I talk to your mom, I want to talk to you just for a moment. I want to tell you that you should be proud of yourself for knowing who you are, knowing what makes you comfortable, and being strong enough in that knowledge to speak about it with your family. Those might seem like small things, or get clouded in the conflict you’re experiencing with your mom, but they are really big, really powerful pieces of who you are. Not everyone finds those truths about themselves by age 16, and many who do are still not confident enough to say, “This is what I need.” You have a powerful fight in your bones, and I can guarantee that that fight is going to inform so much of the years that lie ahead for you. So, in short: fuck yeah.
Now, for your mom:
Dear Mom of An Awesome 16-Year-Old,
Hi! My name is Kristin. I am 36 years old, and almost twenty years ago I came out to my mom as bisexual. My mom loves me more fiercely than I can even begin to fathom (although I think you know exactly how she feels), and she struggled for many years with certain parts of my identity. I challenged my mom. She challenged me. We are both different people today because of how our love for each other pushed us to understand things about the world that we wouldn’t have otherwise been able to see.
I know you didn’t ask for my résumé, but I have also spent the past ten years of my life working with young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people and their families through my work over at Everyone Is Gay and My Kid Is Gay, and I also co-authored the book This is A Book for Parents of Gay Kids (which has an extensive chapter on gender and expression!). As you might imagine, my personal experiences with my own identity and my family inspired this work to begin in the first place. Life is a crazy, complicated, beautiful thing.
Now, I don’t know you or your child very well, but I do know that you are both struggling to understand each other. You accept that your child is bisexual, which is amazing and will allow them to explore their sexuality in ways that I wasn’t able to in those early years. My mom was devastated when I came out as bisexual, and so I spent many years fighting her so hard on “who I was” that I didn’t have much time left to actually explore those feelings for myself.
In addition to identifying as bisexual, your child also identifies as gender non conforming/butch — and based on their question to us, it seems like this is the part that you are having a hard time accepting or understanding. You might have already been familiar with these terms before your child came out, or they might be brand new to you (I know that as a kid who grew up in the 90s, I didn’t have any experience with gender nonconforming, nonbinary, or even transgender identities until recent years), but whichever way you slice it, you are struggling to feel at peace with a part of your child’s identity, and a part of the way that they wish to express themselves.
It is beyond okay to have questions, and it is also very normal to feel that gut-pulling, automatic response of “NO” in the wake of learning something new, and something that might also be very foreign. We have all spent the better part of our lives learning from movies, TV shows, magazines, and even our own families that women are “supposed” to dress and act in particular ways, and that gender is only ever one of two things: “boy” or “girl.” The idea of “what a woman should be/do” has, of course, changed drastically through generations of people… and my hope is that we keep collectively getting closer to a place where being a woman doesn’t mean you “should” have to be or do anything at all, and being a person doesn’t mean that you must fit into only one of two, gendered boxes.
Throwing all of those larger, societal things aside for a moment, you also became the parent to a beautiful kid 16 years ago and have undoubtedly been imagining their future to look and feel a particular way. Once that picture is thrown into question, so many parents (my mom included) feel lost, confused, and overwhelmed. Your child, though, is sharing something incredibly important about themselves with you, which is because of how much they love you and want to remain connected to you. This means that it is up to you to work to form that new picture of their life — and this time with their input.
The first step in all of this is learning more about the terms that your child is using, and questioning your own hesitations around the way they want to dress or identify. A great place to start learning is over on My Kid Is Gay, where we have entire sections dedicated toward gender identity and gender expression, as well as a collected list of defined terminology!
There are endless reasons why, even after learning more about these terms and identities, you might still struggle with how your child identifies or dresses. It could be that those feelings are rooted in what society often tells us is true about gender (which you can start to unpack a bit in this video); maybe, as we talked about, you are sad to lose that original picture you once had; it’s possible that you wonder if your child is “sure enough” to make these kinds of declarations (you can read more about that here); it could be that you are concerned about their safety in a world that is less accepting of those who don’t conform to societal expectations. It might even be that you are accepting of your child’s sexuality, but feel overwhelmed with the idea that others might visibly read your child as gay.
You have a journey to go on — your very own coming-out process, in fact. You are the mom of a bisexual, gender nonconforming teenager, and it is okay to stumble a bit on that journey. It is critical, however, to allow your child the space to express themselves the way that they are most comfortable — even if you aren’t yet at a place where it makes you comfortable. Take a moment to imagine a world in which you had to dress in clothing every day that made you feel like you were not yourself, and apply that to feeling to better understand what your child is seeking. Let them know that you love them, and that even though you have questions and feelings that might overwhelm you, you are committed to making sure that you both keep talking, and keep getting closer to each other.
All my love,