You Need Help: My Mom Supports My Bisexuality, but Not My Butchness

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,
Kristin


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Kristin is the co-director of A-Camp, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of Everyone Is Gay & My Kid Is Gay, author of This is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids, and co-host of Buffering the Vampire Slayer, a podcast about (you guessed it!) Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Kristin has written 27 articles for us.

25 Comments

  1. The problem is, you keep misgendering the girl for 7 paragraphs. She wrote “I don’t know how to make her understand that a woman doesn’t have to be feminine and can be masculine”. She calls herself a woman, but you insist on terms like “your child” and “they”. Which makes me think that YOU cannot comprehend that women can be masculine either. Oh, the irony. That’s so Autostraddle. Not into frilly dresses – must be a they. If it was me (and it pretty much was me a few years ago, since I am bisexual and not into feminine clothing), I would feel so erased reading this.

    • you are a beautiful, loved human being. i’m sorry for your pain, all of our pain at this but we cannot just outright attack/blame the people who are bending over backwards to make as safe a space for us as possible. NOT A SINGLE PERSON IS GOING TO GET IT RIGHT EVERY TIME. it seems extremely clear to me that AS is never trying to intentionally erase anybodies identity! i wish there wouldn’t be any more personal attacking against the writer’s of these articles ever. it is such a brave thing they do every single day! I am sorry you felt unseen. 🙁

    • Hi there!

      I actually made an extremely conscious choice to use they/your child, as I know people who ID as gender nonconforming women and who use they/them pronouns. Without being able to ask this person for their pronouns, I believed the best choice I could make was to go with the more neutral they/them. I am sorry to have offended you, personally, but my concern was much more with the 16-year-old who asked this question in the first place, and making sure I respected them as much as was possible given the information I had on hand.

      **EDIT** Also, I do want you to also know that I see you. I do not (nor have I ever) associate/d only frilly dresses with being a woman, and want you to know that in no way do I believe that your (or anyone’s) identity as a woman is any less valid based on outward appearance (or anything else for that matter). I realize you might not know me or my work past this post, and as such it is probably important for you to hear that. <3

    • What problem? I did not read Kristin’s response as misgendering or gender erasure at all. I read it as a more inclusive way to refer to the mother’s child. The young woman in question also said she identifies as “gender nonconforming/butch,” thus referring to her as “they” would be respecting her wishes to not identify with either of the binary pronouns.

      • the letter writer does say “My parents are fine with it, my issue is that I also identify as gender nonconforming/butch.”

        she then goes on to say “…I don’t know how to make her understand that a woman doesn’t have to be feminine and can be masculine,” implying that she thinks of herself as a woman

        • I agree that it’s likely someone who identifies as a woman uses she/her pronouns.

          However, there are people who identify as women who use neutral pronouns, too. Not everyone likes the way standard gendered pronouns work in English, where it’s basically impossible to talk about a person without gendering them. Just because someone identifies as having a gender doesn’t mean they always want that gender to be front and center.

          Also, this is an advice column, and advice columns are generally written in a way that’s both about the individual person having the problem and about the problem in general as it applies to anyone.

    • I did notice this and (as a bi, butch, genderqueer woman who typically uses “she/her” for herself but actually gives zero fucks about pronouns- he, she, they, all fine by me) had a similar gut reaction. It seems like the author could have e-mailed the questioner back and just, you know, asked for their pronouns.

      But my bigger concern is that I have a mother who has huge issues with my MOC gender presentation. She’s fine with the bi thing, she’s fine with my plans to marry another woman, but my butchness? That’s a bridge too far. We literally had an argument about my decision to wear a suit to my own wedding a week ago. If my mother were on the receiving end of this e-mail, as nice and as well-written as it is, the use of “they” to refer to me would, in all likelihood, cause her to immediately shut down and disregard most of the rest of what’s written. Or, possibly even worse, my mother might take that as gospel and then INSIST on using “they” to refer to me in the name of being “helpful,” even when I don’t personally use those pronouns. I think the author was well-intentioned, but the unilateral decision to apply they/them pronouns when a simple e-mail would have presumably clarified the pronouns of the person asking (unless people don’t include e-mail addresses with these inquiries? I don’t know) seems misguided to me. That said, this is an important issue and one that still affects grown-ass adults, so I’m glad an attempt was made to address it, even if I think some parts weren’t handled perfectly.

      Not all gender nonconforming, genderqueer and nonbinary people like or use “they.” Some of us do, which is totally cool, but some of us don’t, which is also cool. And particularly when I personally have had people (including a lot of other queer people!) level accusations of male privilege at me, or attempt to deny my very womanhood because I dress in a masculine way, applying all kinds of their own assumptions to my lived experience before they’ve even spoken to me, it does rub me the wrong way when people decide that their open mindedness means it’s okay for them to make unilateral assumptions about things like my gender identity and my pronouns. I spent a lot of freaking time figuring this stuff out for myself, and it can be really damaging when other people, particularly fellow queers, presume that they know better than me and just make decisions about how I “must” identify based on their (sometimes really flawed) understanding of gender nonconforming/non-binary people.

      • yeah, i would’ve been annoyed if i’d written in describing myself as a woman and someone just decided for themselves that my gender & pronouns should be something else bc i’m not particularly gender-conforming. like, that’s literally what cis straight people do – go “she’s not feminine, therefore she can’t possibly be a woman” – and the discourse is such that this behavior is now seen as progressive in lgbt circles.

  2. Woah Kristen’s advice is always just amazing!!

    I’m definitely bookmarking this to share with my parents if necessary when I finally get the guts to upgrade from “by the way I like girls” to “your daughter is a lesbian” because it so beautifully expresses things I know my mum is already struggling with but I don’t know how to resolve.

    Thank you Kristen <3

  3. I feel this. I’m a lesbian, but am not out to my family. I’ve always dressed my own way–not sure what to label it, I wear adult lady clothes for work, and then what my dad calls “longshoreman at leisure” clothes the rest of the time–and my mom has *always* tried to femme me up a bit.

    But! Good news! Last year, around when I turned 30, she stopped. I don’t know what made the difference. I don’t know what changed. But she has stopped giving me feminine clothes. She has stopped telling me I’d look better with makeup. She’s stopped chastising me for cutting all my hair off (it’s kind of like a cross between Ashlyn Harris’ new cut and Bryce Harper’s). I think it just takes time. It was super frustrating before that, and I feel your pain, letter-writer, but I’m very hopeful! This Internet stranger thinks it will get better!

    • I’m 34 and have also been having this problem ever since I gave up on trying to wear dresses and makeup and learn to love them (after a good fifteen years or so- no one can say I didn’t put in a solid effort!), cut my hair short and embraced my butchness. My mother harped and complained every step of the way, although she dialed it back significantly when we had a big set-to about it that ended with me in tears and her going very quiet when I told her that I’m really, really clear, actually, about what the straight, cis world thinks of people like me, so I don’t need her to point it out to me all the time.

      I don’t think she fully realized just how upsetting it was, and she has been a bit better since then, but even now, the issue will periodically come up, like when she said something like, “You’re not really going to wear a suit to your wedding, are you?” and I was like, “What else would I wear? Why would I want to spend thousands of dollars on a giant, frilly dress that I’d hate and feel completely awful in on the day I’m getting married?” I have found that drawing clear boundaries and enforcing them has helped- I politely but firmly advised her that she can either get on board and be respectful, or she can stay home from the wedding, because I’m not going to be made to feel like some kind of deviant freak at my own damn wedding. Being able to tell her to take it up with my fiancée, who quite likes the way I look and dress, has been helpful, as well.

  4. I can relate to this somewhat. I’m over 30, and I love my mom dearly and have a good relationship with her, but there are still things she just does not “get” and continues to give me grief about. She doesn’t care too much really about me being bi, as far as I can tell. I’ve had to expend a lot more time and energy trying to get her to understand why I’m married to the guy I married and why he’s a good partner. We’re sort of getting there, I guess, but I digress. She’s picked on me about my gender expression for such a long time, even though when I was little she was the one who happily bought clothes for me out of the “boys” section and yelled at the poor McD’s servers for asking if I wanted a “girl” or “boy” toy. I’ve asked her about it, and I’m not entirely sure what’s going on with it. Some of it seems to be that she just doesn’t like masculinity, period, some of it seems to be a class thing (my tomboyish attire has a “grungy” feel to it, to be sure, and we’re more or less an aspirational professional family), and some of it seems to be a genuine concern for my wellbeing born of a fear of nonconformity.

    tl:dr; Mom doesn’t give a fig about my sexuality and we don’t talk about it much anyhow. Mom constantly harps on me about what I wear and how I act, even into my 30s. I was particularly put out recently when she suggested I don’t know how to dress professionally. I would have been mad, except that she insisted that she needed to buy me a pantsuit, and then I just had to laugh my ass of and explain to her that pantsuits are not remotely a thing in my age group/professional world.

  5. You’re awesome, Kristin! I love your responses.

    My mom’s response was “You’re so inept at dating, you have to resort to this to get from guys? Or is this stunt just an attempt to get attention in general?” She and I don’t talk much.

  6. This idea of the parent having to come out is new to me. When I told my mom I was bi in terms I thought she’d understand, she questioned how I could know and then told me all the things she found weird about the relationship I was in at the time. I haven’t really broached that subject again (or touched the whole gender thing!) so I’ll read up on how the parent’s socially visible role changes when their kid (or late-20s offspring) comes out to them.

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