Written By: Michelle Topal, MSW, LCSW – LGBT Therapists in Durham & Raleigh NC.
Question: How do I explain the current controversy over the bill HB2 recently passed in NC to my child? I don’t understand the concern and am not sure how to help my child understand. What’s the issue with bathrooms and transgender people that I am hearing so much about?
There has been a lot of local and national media attention surrounding the recent HB2 legislation in North Carolina, or so-called “bathroom bill”, which is now being challenged in court. This bill relates to access to public bathrooms and the rights and protections for people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual and in particular, transgender. Media coverage has had people voicing their arguments on both sides of this issue, and much of the rhetoric has been heated and inflammatory. This may lead to questions for your child, or for you as a parent, about how you might respond. As with many things related to children, the age and developmental maturity of your child is a crucial factor in determining how you might explain something. Your value system is another. That said, we always caution parents that if the message to their child is one of intolerance or discrimination towards people who are LGBT, this may be significantly damaging to the child and to the parents’ relationship with their child, especially if they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or questioning. So, what is the best way to explain this very complicated issue?:
Defining Transgender & Gender Terms
Let us first define a few terms in a way that children can understand, which means you may need to simplify these complex concepts even further to fit your child’s ability to comprehend. This is, by no means, meant to be an exhaustive list or a comprehensive definition of the multitude of terms that may be used in understanding sex and gender:
- Biological sex is how we speak about ourselves, such as “male” or “female” and others based on the genitals that we are born with. (We always recommend parents use the appropriate terms, i.e. penis, testicles, vagina, vulva, breasts, etc. with their children, in order not to create an atmosphere of shamefulness or embarrassment around their bodies.)
- Gender relates to the category or term used to define how we see ourselves and others, and what this tells us about how we might relate or interact with each other. We use words like: man, woman, boy, or girl; or pronouns, such as: he, she, him, or her.
- Gender identity is how people feel about themselves inside, in relationship to the concepts of girl/boy, man/woman or some combination to this.
- Gender expression is how people behave on the outside to express the gender they identify with. It may include things like how they act, how they speak, how they dress, and how they relate to others.
- Transgender, or gender nonconformity, is when someone does not feel or act like the biological sex they were given at birth. What someone who identifies as transgender will do, so that their outsides match their insides, varies greatly from person to person, just as all choices related to gender expression might. This may or may not include hormonal or surgical options.
- Cisgender, or gender conformity, is when someone feels or behaves like the biological sex they were given at birth.
- Gender fluid (in addition to many other terms, like gender non-conforming, agender) is when someone’s feelings about being a boy or a girl may not be consistent, for example, day to day, or when they feel like neither being a boy, nor being a girl, quite fits how they feel about themselves.
- Sexual orientation, gay, lesbian, bisexual and heterosexual refers to what sex or gender we are attracted to, and/or whom we choose to partner with.
These are just very cursory definitions of the complexities that make us who we are as social and sexual beings.
Checking for Clarity:
Before answering any difficult questions, it is helpful to make sure you clarify and understand the question your child is actually asking, not what you think they are asking. You can do this by asking clarifying questions and/or restating their question in your own words to give them the chance to correct you. It is also helpful to make sure you have done your research (the World Professional Association for Transgender Health – http://www.wpath.org – is a great place to start), and that you are clear about how you think and feel, and what message you really want to communicate about the issue or topic.
Challenging Fears About People Who Identify as Transgender:
If you have a very young child asking about the recent concerns about bathrooms, they may be asking out of fear, because fear has been part of the media discussion and may be perpetuated by peers or other adults in their life. With young children, you want to keep it simple; communicating in ways that are developmentally appropriate. So, you may want to explain in this instance, that sometimes people are afraid of what they don’t understand, and that learning more about something can help overcome that fear.
Furthermore, it is important that your child understand that bathrooms are generally safe, and, as with all things, if they are ever scared or uncomfortable, they should tell you, or a trusted adult, immediately. You can let your child know that boys will continue to use the boy’s bathroom, and girls will continue to use the girl’s bathroom, and that no one is attempting to change that. It may also be important, in addressing your child’s fears, to let them know that transgender people are just people like everyone else, and that they just want to be safe being themselves, and are not looking to hurt anyone else.
*A note about statistics here: according to research by the Department of Justice (http://www.ovc.gov/pubs/forge/sexual_numbers.html), transgender people are much more likely to be the victims of assault, and no more likely to be perpetrators, than the general population.
Complex Issues to Teach Simple Values & Self Esteem:
If your child is a little older you want to “meet them where they are” developmentally. For example, they may wonder what is the big issue that people are having about who uses what bathroom. You can explain that the question people can’t seem to agree on is what it really means to be a boy or a girl. We find it helpful in these situations to first ask your child what they think about what it means to be a boy or a girl and have an understanding of where they are in these complex questions and understandings. You can ask them how they see themselves and express themselves regarding being a boy or a girl or if they see themselves differently, or or how they recognize this in someone else.
You will likely then want to explain that most people who are born with a penis grow up identifying as male, and most who are born with a vagina grow up identifying as female. However, there are some people who don’t feel that they are a boy, even though they were born with male genitalia; and there are those who, despite having a vagina/vulva, don’t feel that they are a girl. You may be able to relate this to some aspect of identity expression that your child is currently attached to. For example, your daughter may love to have her hair short and not feel “right” or “like herself” with her hair styled differently, or your son may be interested in toys, movies, or a sport that is typically considered to be “just for girls”. This is not to trivialize the complexities of gender and gender identity, but to translate it into what may be relatable to your child. Be sure to add that being able to be yourself and figure out what that means is complicated stuff, and that just as it feels good to them when they find things that feel right to them, and find the courage to be themselves, the same is true for other people.
Your child may wonder what causes variations in gender. With advances in science and technologies, we are beginning to deepen our understandings about the intersection of biology and environment (nature/nurture), and what contributes to who we are and how. For example, some scientists have found hormonal and genetic differences present between the brains of people who identify as transgender and those who are gender conforming. But, whatever makes a person see themselves as a boy or a girl, or somewhere in between, it is a core aspect of how they relate and interact in the world, and for most people it is difficult, if not impossible, to change. And, just as with many other aspects of who we are, such as body type and height, skin color, personality, or physical abilities, it is never okay to discriminate, be mean, or otherwise try to hurt someone just because they look or express themselves differently than we do.
The Bottom Line:
So, whether you have very traditional ideas about gender expression, or you have values that allow for a more variable or fluid expression of gender, the real issue here is not whether gender variation exists, or how someone else chooses to express themselves, but rather how we can all learn to live with each other civilly and respectfully. Differences in others can help challenge us to think, grow and be our best selves.
In addition, as a parent, you may have your own struggles with the many aspects of identity, self worth, and acceptance; whether related to gender, your role as a parent, partner, spouse, or how you fit in at work or in your community. The fear of being different or not fitting in, and the need to be accepted, are universal. As therapists, we see that human needs and struggles – yours, ours and other peoples’ whose lives and life experiences may be very different from our own – are what unite us and help create understanding and acceptance. It is not that we are all somehow different, but that we are the same in our need to feel connected, seen, heard and cared for.
Through helping your child be patient and understanding with the differences in others, you give them a world of possibility and opportunity, and hopefully a blueprint for creating a safer, more accepting world than we live in today – a world in which the best gauge of our success is not just the value we place on our individual differences, but the extent to which we are able to come together despite them!