Coming out to your parents; a 101 for non-binary types

This is a slightly rehashed version of something I wrote yesterday to a genderqueer person who put out a call for help on Tumblr because zie had no idea how to come out to zir parents. I started writing, and…didn’t stop for a while. Hopefully this might come in handy to some trans* people out there looking to come out to their parents; who knows, cis people might learn something from reading it, too.

First off, well done for being brave enough to do this. It took me years to work up the courage to tell either of my parents that I was female-attracted, let alone trans*; that you’ve got the guts to be honest with them says good things about you. Secondly, don’t panic; all those scary situations you’ve got queuing up in your head in which your parents disown you or hate you or cast you out? They’re not going to happen.

The beginning: information loading

Before I came out to my parents, I started introducing them to information about trans* people, including non-binary people, just through conversations; they know I’ve got trans* friends so that was one way to bring it up but there are other conversations that you can use to educate them without letting them know it’s about you. Maybe there’s a documentary on telly, or a celebrity who’s trans*, or something similar that you could talk about. Without knowing what your relationship with your parents is like – whether you have that kind of conversation as a matter of course – I can’t be too specific but that’s a good starting point.

Make sure you get in the basic gender =/= sex, gender =/= binary, gender =/= sexuality information, explain about the gender spectrum, and maybe something about how trans* people feel in regards to dysphoria. I think I basically said “there’s not just men and women – there are people who are inbetween, or neither, or both, because it’s complicated.” I may have used the metaphor of paint mixing, I believe. Explaining this stuff to cis people is really hard because – of course – they’ll never be able to experience it (if I had a penny for every time a cis woman has said “but I don’t always feel like wearing skirts!”…) but with visual aids and coaxing they can generally get their heads around the idea, at least. Feed them information slowly, gradually, but regularly; building up this knowledge bank is the most useful thing you can do to begin with, I think. They’ll take in your information and give back misunderstandings and misconceptions, so follow their lead and correct them as they come up.

There are some pretty great internet resources you can use here. Even if you don’t quote from them verbatim (I’d advise not doing so, in some cases, so as not to be…overly combative at this stage) they have some really useful ways of looking at things. You might have already come across it, but Not Your Mom’s Trans 101 is one of the best places to start – it’s really handy in itself and also has useful link lists. If you’re struggling for ways to explain/phrase stuff (I know I was) this kind of resource is a good place to look; others include the FAQ pages of trans*/non-binary focused Tumblrs, which can be quite insightful.

Your turn

Once you think they’ve got a basic understanding of gender theory it’s probably time to tell them about you, specifically. Work out a time you can have A Conversation with both of them, preferably in neutral territory (the living room, maybe – not your bedroom, not their studies/rooms/similar), sit them down, tell them there’s something you need to talk to them about. I’d suggest telling them both at the same time, or very close to each other; I left about a year between my parents and the fact that my mother had had to keep it secret from my father caused some tension. I suggest telling them that you’ve something to say and asking them not to interrupt you until you’re done saying your piece.

I just told my da to sit down down and said “I’m not a girl”, which was…one way to start that conversation. There are others. Go with what you feel is the best summation of your gender – “I’m not a girl” works, or “I’m transgender”, or “My gender isn’t what you think it is”. Ask them to remember the stuff you told them about trans* people – it might help to print out one of the graphical representations of the gender spectrum for reference – and then relate that stuff to yourself in terms of social and body dysphoria, childhood experiences (if you had any; obviously the narrative of “I’ve always known” isn’t true for everyone – it isn’t for me, for instance).

I think it’s important that your initial explanation/coming out speech avoids the kind of thought traps that cis people often fall into; my da’s first response was basically “this is because you’re friends with trans* people”, because I’d said “I talked to some people and found out that there’s a name for this…” Try to pre-empt what you think their worries and misapprehensions will be by including all the information you can in your opening speech. When it comes down to it, however, this is your gender you’re talking about, so express it in the way that feels most natural to you. There’s a point where everyone else’s phrasings become subordinate to how you feel, and it’s this point. Don’t try to explain your gender to them using someone else’s model if you don’t feel like it fits; it might make things easier in the short term but you’ll only have to correct it later.

After the monologue

When you’re done with your speech, ask them for questions. This is the tricky bit (although I think working up the courage to do it in the first place is the hardest part; well done for being brave enough). They’re going to be concerned, first and foremost; for your wellbeing, for your happiness. Be calm, be collected (or as close to those things as you can manage). Help them to understand that yes, this makes your life harder, but that doesn’t make it a bad thing; it’s society that has a problem with non-binary people, not non-binary people who have the problem. Help them to understand that you have to be honest to yourself, to your gender, because the alternative is worse. If you’ve told friends who they know, tell them about how they reacted (I talked about how I came out to the friends they remembered from secondary school, how other people dealt with the knowledge); they’ll want to know they’re not alone in this, that their reactions are valid, that they’re not the only people who have to deal with this big scary new thing.

If you want to put your foot down about pronouns/names/similar, this is the time. I waited a few weeks with my da and he reacted badly (though that might be more to do with him) and it reinforced my suspicion that this really is the conversation in which to convey that information. I’m sure by now you know how binary people deal with non-binary pronouns (i.e. Not Well) but use whatever strategies you’ve developed with others on them (beyond just giving up and screaming, tempting as that may be, ohh boy). Remind them how unhappy being misgendered makes you, and how you need them to be supportive in this.

Moving forward

Give them time. It’s a big thing to find out, and they might need some time to deal with it. This won’t be the last conversation you have about this by a very long shot – it took me a year of conversations with my mother to feel like she really got it, and I don’t know how long my da’s going to take but I’ll keep trying – but it’s the one that’ll set the tone for the rest.

Have faith in them; they’re your parents, and they love you. Good luck.

    • Courtney
    • June 20th, 2011

    Hey thanks forthat I came out to my mom about me being a bi trans and she says that transgender is not real its something someone just made up. I wanted to thank you because that helped me come out has trans and gay my mom may not support me but at least i’m out now I dont have to pretend to be this other person.

    • Wow! Thank you, I’m happy to have provided some small assistance. Well done for coming out to your mum, that’s incredibly brave of you, and I hope you feel much freer having done so. I’m sorry she doesn’t understand! Don’t lose hope, though; even the most obtuse person can get used to the idea with time and encouragement. Good luck in the future!

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