A good friend of mine called me the other day for some guidance on how to talk to her grade 2 son about people who are transgender. Apparently at recess he and a few of his friends were talking about how much it hurts to get kicked in the testicles (she did confirm they were using the scientific names for this body part, at least!) and one of the boys said, “Not for Caitlyn Jenner, she doesn’t have balls anymore.” When, on the way home from school, my friend’s son asked what this meant, she handled it beautifully by calmly replying, “I’m so glad you asked me this question, let me just think for a bit about how best to answer it for you. We’ll talk about it before bed.” Hence the 911 call to the Body Science Hotline.
Even I was a bit surprised that grade 2s were making reference to Bruce Jenner’s transition, but this incident serves as a good example of how we as parents need to assume that kids are exposed to more than we think, sooner than we think. And what a perfect teachable moment this is to talk about people who are transgender. With young children, we can simply explain that sometimes a person’s gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. Simply put, how someone feels as a boy or a girl on the inside sometimes doesn’t match with how they look on the outside. For example, a person may feel like a girl but look like a boy. This is called being transgender. For some people, their gender identity does not fit neatly into one of those two choices, they feel somewhere in between. These are all examples of how gender is not simple and how all of us are different. The important thing is that we respect and celebrate these differences.
If they choose, people who are transgender can transition from being male to female or female to male. This process may or may not involve treatments, medication and surgery to change the body physically, it is up to the person to decide. As for the claim that Caitlin Jenner no longer has testicles, who knows? The decision to alter a person’s body is a very personal one. Besides, what matters is that the person themself feels good about how their body looks underneath their clothes.
My friend called me the next day to report back that her son was quite blasé about their discussion the night before. As expected at his age, he listened, said that he didn’t have any questions, and promptly asked for his bedtime story. I’m so proud of my friend for having the courage to seize this teachable moment with her son. Not that she wasn’t comfortable talking about people who are transgender with him, but it’s hard for parents to know what to say, how much to say, and, most tricky when it comes to this topic, what language to use. On their website (www.glaad.com), Glaad (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) offers some valuable tips on what to say and not say when discussing or talking to transgender people. Here are five highlights:
- Avoid using the phrase “sex change”, instead say “transition”.
- Avoid using the terms “transgendered” or “transgenderism”. Instead, say “a transgender person” or “a person who is transgender”.
- Avoid using the terms “biologically male”, “biologically female”, “born a man”, and “born a woman”. Preferred terms are “assigned male at birth”, “assigned female at birth”, “designated male at birth”, or “designated female at birth”.
- Always use a transgender person’s chosen name. Even if they haven’t obtained a legal name change, call them what they wish to be called.
- Whenever possible, ask transgender people which pronoun they would like you to use. If it isn’t appropriate to ask, use the pronoun that is consistent with the person’s appearance and gender expression.
Thanks, Caitlyn Jenner, for providing teachable moments like this. They bring us one step closer to a respectful, inclusive society that embraces and celebrates our differences. And when it comes to having conversations with our kids that that we never had with our parents, let’s remember that they are most certainly up for the challenge!