By Steven Petrow
Originally published on Advocate.com September 12 2011 5:00 AM ET
Q: I’m a grandma who with two adult children, one of whom is trans. She was my son and is now my daughter. My other daughter has two younguns — 11 and 13 — and she doesn’t want them knowing anything about their new aunt. I think they need to know, if only because we’ll all be getting together for the holidays, and something needs to be said. I’m very proud of my “new” daughter and want to help her with her niece and nephew, but my other daughter insists I keep out of it until the kids are older. I can’t keep out of it — so what’s the best way to help? Oh, and is she now their aunt instead of their uncle?
A: Two snaps to you — first for sticking up for your trans daughter and second for standing up to your other one. You’re absolutely right when you say, “Something needs to be said.” It’s not as though your new daughter can join the family without some sort of introduction that makes note of her new gender identity and the name she’s chosen to go by.
For help with your question, I emailed Shannon Minter, legal director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights and a trans person himself. In his reply, he wrote, “Coming out as transgender to family members can be a terrifying experience. Every trans person longs for love and acceptance from their relatives, and having that support can make all the difference in the world.”
So for starters, you’re helping more than you realize just by taking the lead on accepting and loving your trans daughter for who she is. But your inclination to do more is a loving one, so I hope I can help.
Your question is, at its heart, about love, acceptance, and respect — and those are certainly in my mind the foundation of family. Your query also reminds me of all those other families with a gay or lesbian aunt, uncle, mom or dad in which someone didn’t want to tell the kids, either because they weren’t deemed old enough or, worse, because their parents thought being gay was somehow wrong.
There’s no set age when it’s best to explain what being trans means. Life happens, and you need to deal with it. What is important is that the message and language be tailored to a child’s age and maturity, so that they understand what they need to know without being confused by concepts they’re not ready for. In fact, I’d imagine that your niece and nephew already know something about gays and lesbians, and they’ve probably heard about trans people too. (Whether or not what they’ve heard is informed is another question.)
Start by talking with their mother (again), explaining (as she already well knows) that tweens and teens always have lots of questions about everything and that you can’t switch out their uncle for an aunt without a discussion. How much smarter is it that they look to those in their family for answers instead of to their peers — or worse, to transphobic or homophobic websites.
While there are some exceptions, young people generally have little trouble adjusting to a loved one’s transition. If your grandchildren do have difficulties, it’s perfectly OK to give them room to adjust, while insisting on polite and respectful behavior. If all goes well, they (and with any luck, their mother) can be an important source of support their aunt in her new identity.
As for your second question: Is she now their aunt or still their uncle? You might have noticed I referred to your daughter as an aunt throughout. And that’s because most trans people prefer that words change. But it’s a good idea to ask your trans daughter what she’d prefer to be called (if she hasn’t said already) and then set a good example for the rest of the family by resolving to be diligent about using the correct name, pronouns, and other gendered terms. Remember that your modeling of acceptance and support will have a positive effect on everyone else and be enormously valued by your new daughter. And rather than chastising when other family members fall short, a gentle reminder will often send a positive message without causing conflict.
And finally, this is a perfect example of a question that falls squarely into the wheelhouse of what I call LGBT manners. It’s not as though our manners are different, of course, but many of the situations and relationships in our lives and community just don’t turn up in traditional etiquette guides. I’d also place a side bet that poor ol’ Emily Post would roll over in her grave if she had to answer your query.
STEVEN PETROW is the author of Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners and can be found online at www.gaymanners.com. Got a question? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.