A reader asks parenting blogger Barbara Meltz how to deal with telling her 8- and 12-year-old children that their aunt is transgender if they ask. In the letter-writer’s (very hurtful words):
My brother is married to a transgendered individual. “B” lives as a woman but is still, biologically/physically, a man. When people meet her, it’s often obvious to them that she is really a man. “B” has been with my brother for over 15 years now and both my daughters call her “aunt” and do not realize she is a man.
My oldest is 12 and my youngest is 8. I do not want to keep secrets from them … do I raise the transgendered issue? Do I wait for them to ask? They’re going to ask some day, I know and I don’t want them to feel like this is a deep dark secret (though my brother and his spouse do not discuss the issue — ever).
Click the link to see Meltz’s answer and other readers’ responses. Perhaps you want to weigh in with your own advice.
Our answer, also posted at that page, is:
The previous commenters have made some excellent points. What needs to be addressed here, obviously, is this letter writer’s attitude toward her sister-in-law. Of course parents must put their own children’s needs before those of other adult people. But the assumptions about what those needs might be in the future and how to handle the personal details of someone else’s life are very skewed. We hope that the letter writer will do some self-educating about transgender issues before trying to teach her children about this topic.
To begin, why is it assumed that the aunt’s being transgender is a secret that needs to be kept or revealed, as though it’s the most pertinent piece of information that everyone must know about her, whether she wants to share it or not? We don’t expect people to disclose other information such as being an ex-Catholic, an ex-smoker, an ex-gymnast, or an ex-army captain. Also, the preferred term is “transgender” not “transgendered,” like “smart” or “tall” instead of “smarted” or “talled.”
Deciding whether someone is a woman based on the presence or absence or appearance of a couple of body parts is reductive. And it’s antifeminist to try to take away a woman’s agency in declaring what she is or isn’t. We really should be, as a society, past the point where a group of people get to determine for someone else what her relationship should be with her own body, how she can dress, and how she can interact with the world. Do we all want to go back to a time when women weren’t allowed to have short hair or powerful jobs or wear pants?
Also, the letter writer is assuming that the children will ask questions about their aunt because the letter writer herself does not think of the aunt as a woman, even though so far the children have never treated the aunt as anyone but their aunt. If everyone in the family just treated this trans woman as the real woman she is, perhaps the children would just grow up thinking that the concept of “woman” is diverse enough to include all the people they meet in life who present and identify themselves women regardless of what sex they were labeled at birth.
But if the children do ask, there is nothing wrong with that. And it’s a great opportunity for the letter writer to be a great parent and to explain that there is no set of rules for being a woman (or for being a man), that women act and look in a wide variety of ways, and that how to treat someone shouldn’t depend on that person’s gender (or race or economic status or religion or physical ability, etc.). Most important, the letter writer can teach her children that all people are to be treated with respect and kindness.
Perhaps in advance of these types of questions, the letter writer could begin teaching her children about the various ways in which people within their community and across the world are diverse in so many wonderful ways and how no single characteristic determines the whole of who someone is. Those are always good lessons to teach children, even ones who don’t (knowingly) have diversity within their families.
As this state’s only organization led by and for transgender youth, adults, and our families, we at the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition know all too well the discrimination transgender people face from both family members and the public. By becoming better informed about gender identity, the letter writer and this blogger, Barbara F. Meltz, can help change that for these children’s aunt.
We are including a few links and book recommendations here that the letter writer and others may find useful in understanding transgender issues.
Transgender 101: masstpc.org/media-center/transgender-101
I AM: Transgender People Speak video project: transpeoplespeak.org
A documentary about Uncle Bill becoming a woman: nodumbquestions.com
Luna by Julie Ann Peters – a young-adult novel about a transgender teen
10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert and illustrated by Rex Ray – a picture book about a transgender child
Transitions of the Heart: Stories of Love, Struggle and Acceptance by Mothers of Transgender and Gender Variant Children edited by Rachel Pepper
True Selves: Understanding Transsexualism—For Families, Friends, Coworkers, and Helping Professionals by Mildred L. Brown and Chloe Ann Rounsley