Unless you’re off the grid, unplugged or under a rock, somewhere on your feed, in your paper or on your television, the news of former Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner openly living as Caitlyn Jenner appeared.
I have not bathed in the details because of my mixed feelings. To be clear, these feelings aren’t about Jenner being transgender. Parts of her 65 years of life break my heart. I don’t want to be a gawker. I’d like her and everyone else to live life authentically without judgement, discrimination and objectification. Ironically, living her life publicly, may pave the way for others to live authentically.
Talking to our kids
Maybe you’re wondering how to talk to kids about transgender. That’s why I’m writing this. But, first, I decided to go to the source. My almost-teen boy.
“So, what do you think about Bruce, now Caitlyn Jenner?”
“I don’t care. Doesn’t matter to me she’s a woman now.”
“Biologically, she’s not a woman.” Inside, I’m happy-dancing he used the feminine pronoun. We’d talked about transgender transitions a few days ago – including the anatomy details.
Boy, attempting to walk away and escape this conversation, fingers in ears, “Whatever. She feels like a woman, looks like a woman. I’m okay with that.”
Me, grabbing his arm, “What if it was your father?”
Boy, stopped in his steps as wheels turn in his brain, “Later, I’m outta here,” – as in ‘later dad, been nice knowing you.’
“Why is that so different?”
“That’s my dad, now he’d be my mom.” Enter gender roles, norms, society, etc.
“It wouldn’t change that he’d fathered you,” I explain. His fingers go for the ears.
“Relax. I’m not gonna talk about sex. Get those fingers out of your ears.
“He’d still be your biological father. Would that change? All of the things he’s been to you? Would it change your love for him?” I pelted him with questions.
“Well, no. What would I call him or her or …?” He’s concerned with practicalities.
“Dude, that’s simple, you’d ask, ‘Hey, what do I call you?’”
“Ok. That’s easy,” Problem solved, he turns to walk away. “I’ve got to feed horses. Later mom. I love you,” And that was as much as he offered. He was done.
Ever the persistent teacher, I add, “Really, you know, lots of things affect someone’s gender,” I follow him across the room pointing to the Genderbread Person “…biologically their anatomy: you know penis, vagina, etc.; who they’re attracted to; who they feel……..” and with that, his 12-year-old brain hit Charlie Brown overload. The door opened and shut.
There you have it. Not the first time we broached it, and not the last. (I will finish explaining the Genderbread Person, come hell or high water.) In one way or another, we’d discussed sexuality, gender, and more, since he was born. What began with calling a penis a penis, continues with things that influence gender. To borrow from my favorite author: so it goes.
More on transgender
Imagine attending a gala honoring your best friend: tux, and gowns required. No matter how long you look in your closet, there’s no tux. Not even a ball gown. (Hey, you’re flexible that way.) There are corduroy pants, an 80’s tie and a worn oxford shirt. She’s your best friend. She doesn’t care. She wants you there. Clad in corduroys you spend the evening feeling out of place. You leave, depressed about never fitting in. You feel worthless and judge yourself the way you believe everyone judged you. Imagine this feeling every day of your life. Every day for 65 years. That’s 23, 725 days. 569,400 hours. 34,164,000 minutes.
I’ll never know for sure, I imagine this is sort of what it feels like to be transgender – when you feel like a girl but your physical body screams boy! or vice versa. I’d guess the actual feelings are much worse. Like wearing corduroys to the gala – similar feelings on steroids and exponentially multiplied.
It’s accepted that most people form their gender identities by the time they’re 3 years old. If how they feel is aligned with their biological bodies – that’s cisgender.
For those who are transgender, born with one biological body and identifying as another, it’s the beginning of those “not fitting in” feelings. Society expects them to fulfill specific gender roles based on those physical bodies – regardless of how they feel inside. You get the picture. Maybe you begin to understand why 41% of transgender individuals attempt suicide and why more than 30% of LGBTQ youth reported at least one suicide attempt within the last year and more than 50% of transgender youth attempt suicide at least once by their 20th birthday. LGBTQ youth are twice, TWICE as likely to attempt suicide than their hetereosexual peers. Not to mention the increased likelihood of being victims of bullying and violence.
It’s hard to find an analogy to explain the intricacies of gender to my kids. It’s not perfect, but it’s an opening to compare it to eye color.* You’re born with the color of your eyes. You can’t change it. You can wear different clothes may bring out one color or another. You can buy colored contacts. At the end of the day, you’re still blue-eyed, but you’re so much more than just your eyes.
At the end of my day, I want my children (and the world, because I dare to dream big) to treat others with kindness, respect and compassion. I want us all to see the whole person – not only eyes, gender or sexuality. We are all so much more than a sum of our parts.
I want a world where Caitlyn Jenner doesn’t have adult children before being authentic. There is a poignancy in my son’s response to, “What if it were your dad?” The answer is different when it shouldn’t be. Suddenly, it’s real. It’s got to be challenging, maybe even painful for Jenner’s children. How much better would it have been if she could’ve been herself all along? The truth is, she’ll never know. Hopefully, her very public steps now pave the way for future walks of others. Not only for transgender individuals, but for those who love and support them.
So, this is way more than your basic sex ed. Or, is it?
Many of us talk with our kids about the physical act of sex. Some of us start young. As a former sexuality educator, I believe starting early and continuing the dialogue throughout childhood and into adulthood is where it’s at. The “act” of sex is a small part of a large ongoing dialogue. Like putting gas in a car is a small part of driving. It’s not the whole story. A solid foundation comes in handy when things like Jenner’s transformation take center stage over floods, wars, and earthquakes. (I’m looking at you fracking.)
Society, as a whole, recently started defining gender. Our understanding is new. Understanding leads to empathy and compassion. As Sam Killermann said, “Gender is something we all learn about as kids, but we learn a very limited concept of a concept that’s truly unlimited. ” When we consider about 40 years ago homosexuality was classified as an illness, we realize we’ve come a long way. I’m here to tell you, there are miles to go before we sleep.
How do you talk about these things with your children? Let me know in the comments. In the future, I hope to post more on gender, sexuality, and conversations with our children.
Here are some resources you may find helpful. Not all are perfect, but they’re all a good start:
*Most experts believe there are many influences on our gender.