Tracy Moore is a writer in Los Angeles.
It wasn’t a shock — as someone who has been a culture writer for years, I’ve avidly followed the shift in this conversation. Not just here in Los Angeles, but also in the online stories illuminating family and workplaces refusing to respect preferred pronouns and identities. But now it was my daughter hashing this out with me, and it was time for me to put everything I believed into practice in my own home.
That’s when I came across a Slate advice column that fielded a question from an exhausted but supportive parent whose teen changes their queer identity on a weekly basis. “However their identity settles out is fine with me,” “Tired and Confused” wrote. “But I am also struggling with these rapid changes.” They noted concern their child was just testing their limits, just trying on costumes and that this was somehow attention-seeking and not authentic.
I understood the whiplash. I confess I had to look up “demigirl” (which, for the uninitiated, means someone who is assigned female at birth but doesn’t fully feel the part). But I never bought the suggestion that this isn’t very real for kids today. I also felt extraordinarily lucky that my child felt she could speak openly about her anguish with me, a hard-won trust I’d built on open, frequent discussions about everything under the sun. I felt deeply for the kids she told me about whose parents weren’t so supportive, and angry about the teachers who told them they simply “couldn’t deal with” a request to use they/them pronouns. I wanted to get this “right,” whatever right looked like.
To start, parents should realize that searching for pronouns that feel accurate isn’t some kind of emo phase. Yes, such questions of identity often occur right in step with the many other seemingly superficial changes tweenagers undergo concerning every facet of self while on the cusp of or directly in the trenches of puberty. But I believe it’s our duty as parents to accept that times have changed, and to recall our own struggles at that age whether they match those of our children or not, and to dig deep for compassion, not hand-wringing.
I was once 11 too, in small-town Tennessee, no less. I didn’t struggle with my sexuality, but I did wrestle with how to present as feminine in a place that held Southern beauty pageant standards as the benchmark, despite my personal preference for guy’s Levi’s, baggy T-shirts and haircuts lifted from goth bands. Had I been that age today, I would have stumbled onto the term “mild gender dysphoria,” which includes feeling out of step with gender norms. Instead, I was accused of being a lesbian for simply not mimicking Pamela Anderson.
Neither my generation nor that of my parents had anything like the understanding that sexuality could exist on a spectrum, or even that just not getting dolled up could coincide amicably with feminine identity. And, most of the kids I knew who knew they were queer had been so thoroughly conditioned to self-loathe that they stayed closeted until they moved thousands of miles away rather than come out in a place so hostile.
I couldn’t perpetuate that, so here’s what I did: I listened. Every day. Every time. I asked questions. I offered my daughter books about terminology and fiction unafraid to center queer or trans identities. I got solid recommendations of middle-grade fiction from avid readers, queer bookstore clerks and publishers. I sympathized with her frustrations and provided every resource I could find for identity or allyship.
And when it felt frustrating and urgent for her to sort out, I told her it was absolutely okay to let all this marinate, evolve and emerge for her and her friends on their timeline. And when those friends visiting us tell me their preferred pronouns, I use them. And when I slip up, I apologize and correct it.
We haven’t come to any conclusions here, but that doesn’t change what I would tell any parent, boss, teacher or colleague: Just buckle up and deal with it. Sure, it’s not automatic, and that’s okay. But it’s not going away.
So, take your discomfort somewhere else, because this isn’t about you. It’s about stepping up as a parent in an era that’s new for all of us, but doubly delicate for our children, who need us to support their latest haircut as much as we would the person they’re becoming — whoever that person may be.