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IssuesGender Affirmation: Parenting a Nonbinary Child

Gender Affirmation: Parenting a Nonbinary Child

My child identifies as non-binary. They use they/them pronouns and have a host of friends who do, too. They have broken free of the ping-pong of manhood and womanhood. People now openly identify as transgender, agender, nonbinary, and many other genders, leaving behind the identity their parents assigned them at birth for other, more authentic shores—or turning their back on gender altogether. A cultural revolution is in full swing, and it’s allowing our children freer expression of their true identities.

That freedom often comes with a cost. Each step trans and nonbinary kids take closer to aligning with their true identity is fraught with the potential for deep anxiety. It can be hard to reject cisgender culture—the culture of those of us whose self-perception matches our sex—even if moving towards their true sense of self is the right thing to do. These kinds of changes require deep self-reflection and, ideally, support from friends and family that many trans and nonbinary children don’t receive.

Related: Dear son: Wear your rainbow shirt with pride

Our child chose to have their breasts removed so their body would mirror their true self. As their parent, it was a nail-biter sitting on the sidelines as they contemplated having a bi-lateral mastectomy. I kept hoping they’d change their mind. They did not. Instead, they worked part-time jobs to earn money to pay for the surgery, researched surgeons, and performed sit ups and push-ups that would increase the chances of a positive outcome of their surgery.

Their desire to rid themselves of their breasts wasn’t a sudden right or left turn. For their eighteenth birthday we went online together to pick out chest binders, a type of undergarment used by people with breasts who want to have a more masculine look. I accepted their desire for the binders without much thought beyond wanting to show my support by shopping with them. Besides, it’s always fun to shop with your kid, right? Seriously, my real goal in shopping with them was to keep our communication lines loose and open.

A year or two before binder shopping, they told us they were gay. That news was hardly a surprise. I’d guessed that might be the case when they were nine. It was a small thing: I saw a picture of them with their arm slung over a girl friend’s shoulder, and something in their stance made me think, maybe stereotypically, “Oh. Maybe they’re gay.” No problem.

But then we were introduced to gender dysphoria, that very particular feeling transgender and nonbinary people get when they’re hyper-aware of having a body that doesn’t match their self-perception (introduced by the American Psychiatric Association in 2013). Upon reflection, our child’s gender dysphoria first appeared when they were a toddler, when they refused to wear anything pink. At age three they announced in their gravelly voice: “I’m not the kind of girl to wear dresses.” Not long after that they started referring to themselves as “he.”

My response to what I perceived as their “gender confusion” was to conclude that we’d been reading too many male-dominated stories and needed to read more books with female protagonists. (Ha!) In all the flurry of raising two kids, moving households, getting meals on the table and kids to bed, I didn’t seriously investigate why they referred to themselves as “he.” Yet there it was. From their earliest days they questioned their assigned gender.

After the pronouns and the binding came top surgery, which felt decidedly more radical to me. I knew I couldn’t put my foot down. I couldn’t just say, “No, you cannot do that.” They weren’t three. I did, however, encourage them to wait at least until the end of the semester. But they stonewalled my salvos and scheduled the surgery for mid-semester.

Related: How to support your LGBTQ+ children: Parent resources for understanding, advocacy and communication

I tried to take solace in the fact that having a double mastectomy might save them grief in the future—breast cancer runs in my mother’s side of the family. I also had observed colleagues who’d transitioned to opposite genders who seemed more settled afterwards. Finally, I thought, “It is their body; if this surgery will help make them feel more comfortable with themselves and the world, so be it.”

While other college students scheduled spring breaks in Florida or Cancun, mindlessly lolling on a white sandy beach, our student scheduled their top surgery.

Like any parent would be, I was scared for them. But once they made their plans I did my best to simply be with them. So we drove them to Cleveland, rented a hotel room, took them to the clinic, joked with them during pre-op jitters, and, after the surgery, learned how to assist with the healing process. During the operation, the surgeon transformed our child’s decidedly bosomy chest into that of a boy’s.

The surgeon assured us: “They’re young, they’ll heal quickly.” And they did. They were able to complete that semester, and then felt good enough, in all respects, to drive cross country and live in San Francisco for a year. My sense is they wanted time to fully integrate their newly shaped body without other competing commitments or curious acquaintances. Eventually they returned to college and graduated with high honors this May. The best news: though their gender journey is complex, they are thriving.

We are so proud of them for listening to themself, for trusting themself to take such an enormous step that ultimately made them feel bigger and braver and more fully themself. Oh, yes: and for graduating college, too.

Rearing children is a huge responsibility that comes with a wholly inadequate user manual. Raising a child who ventures beyond the narrow confines of heterosexuality or binary gender can be especially fraught, and even more so when the parent has very few trusted allies on whom to rely. Like any parent, I worried about my child. I wanted to choose what they did in order to “protect” them. Yet in the end, it was my child who helped me understand just to follow their lead and accept that they innately understood where they were headed. We love our child, and celebrate them in all their magnificence.

A version of this post was published June 22, 2021. It has been updated.

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