Trans youth and families are facing contention on a national scale. A growing number of states have successfully put limits on or banned access to gender-affirming care for trans youth, sending catastrophic ripples through families. From the relative legal sanctuary of Oregon, I met with two nonbinary members of the same family—a teenager who goes by P here and their parent who goes by C—to learn about their respective gender journeys and to ask what advice they might offer young folks and parents at this time.
Our conversation was an emotional one, peppered with expressions of well-founded anxiety about surmounting transphobia. Together, we broached divisive stereotypes of trans adults and youth, parsing the difference between grooming, indoctrination, and influence. We talked about how identity is formed, and how, in the case of this little family, it has emerged from a fertile ground of mutual respect and anti-adultism—the practice of empowering minors’ capacity for decision making.
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“I don’t really care how other people want me to present,” said P, a nonbinary thirteen-year-old who exudes remarkable insight. “I think that is cool about myself.”
I began our chat by asking P about when they first began to realize their genderqueerness. “I learned that I was not fully female, and, as far as I know, not male either, when I was eight,” they replied. Like many other gender-nonconforming (GNC) youth, a tight binary of clothing options catalyzed P’s self-discovery. The first inklings of their genderqueerness bubbled up with distaste for wearing dresses or skirts in elementary school, especially during a time when they had to wear school uniforms.
“I remember this moment when you didn’t want those khaki skirts anymore,” recalled C—P’s 41-year-old parent. “You were like, ‘no more skirts. I just want shorts and pants. And we’ll get them from the boys’ side of the store’.”
Despite this shift in their presentation, P favors the aesthetic of feminine fashion because, in their words, “it’s more experimental.” They elaborated that they still love feminine clothing; they just currently do not feel like wearing it.
As a parent, C has raised P in much the same way they were raised, by honoring bodily autonomy and intrinsic desires. In their view, young people are “wise about themselves and completely capable of speaking to their own opinions and desires and needs.” C’s anti-adultist parenting approach aims to celebrate the discoveries P is making.
“If P comes to me with something about their gender and my immediate response is always, ‘I’m worried about x, y and z,’ and I never offer celebration, then they are going to assume I have a negative association with everything about their gender,” said C. This kind of adult worry tends to cause kids to shut down and stop communicating with their caregivers. “When P told me they wanted to maybe try a binder, my first thing was like, ‘That’s amazing! So cool that you came to this realization that you wanted to wear a binder. Let’s find out more so we can do it safely’.”
For P, the joy of being genderqueer has flowed from their growing self-awareness. “It’s almost like being reborn. It’s like, you realize who you are, and then you’re experimenting from the start,” P mused. “So it’s a second life.” Instead of accepting society’s idea of what their gender should be, P has decided to figure out what feels right for themself, exploring the options available with the added benefit of some maturity. They do not give much credence to oppressive social expectations, emphasizing they have no toxic friendships with peers.
“I don’t really have many fears or many worries,” P reflected. But they quickly followed this with a note that their life is not entirely carefree: They feel concern for the physical safety of C. They feel hurt when others deliberately misgender them. But they are also buttressed by tons of friends, who are “ready to always help each other.” Secure attachment offers a stable support for their process of becoming.
When asked about their own gender journey, C explained that, though they experienced queer self-realization in early childhood, their sense of gender-nonconformity remained latent for much longer as “more of a feeling.” Like a seed that will never sprout without exposure to light, C’s gender identity found itself at the growth edge of the cultural factors that unfurled it.
“When I look back, I see a lot of fluidity in my youth of what appealed to me,” C recalled. Through age eleven they loved femme self-expression—dresses, Barbie hype, makeup, etc. “I had a feminist mom with a bowl cut who didn’t wear makeup. It was completely inside of me that this love of that femininity came from.” When C reached middle school, they began trying on a more masculine aesthetic, influenced by their interest in punk culture.
In early adulthood, C gradually became acquainted with transfeminine and transmasculine folks, but these iterations of transness did not quite match their experience. In their 30s, C learned of the term nonbinary and began integrating it into their presentation, using “she,” “he,” and “they” as pronouns. More recently, C pared their pronouns down to “they,” because folks were not inclined to try all the previous options.
“I don’t need my nonbinary-ness to be something I was biologically born with. I’m completely comfortable with it being influenced by the world around me. I think that’s what culture is, right?” they reflected.
To this day, C still loves looking at wedding magazines and high-femme aesthetics, even as their current presentation leans toward androgyny: “I have a very strong passion for the feminine and the sacred feminine, and also non-toxic masculinity is very beautiful to me.”
As our dialogue deepened, the onslaught of legislation affecting trans children and their families came to the fore. This topic dredged up C’s anxiety about being separated from P for validating their genderqueer self-expression. “I don’t think that’s going to happen with me and P, but I think that’s where that fear leads,” C clarified, gesturing to the violence of history. “That’s maybe what would have happened in the past, and that’s potentially what could happen now in some states.”
They also bravely disclosed worries about misperception, wondering if certain family and friends might suspect them of indoctrinating or grooming youngsters towards a queer and trans lifestyle.
To assuage C’s concerns, I volunteered my formative experience of religious indoctrination as a counterpoint: While C has learned to affirm P’s intuition and choices, I experienced hard limits and shame for wanting to wear, say, and so much as think about anything out of line with my religious community’s values. While C has cultivated the capacity to talk out their worries, the trauma of religious behavioral control manifested as subterranean anxiety in my early life.
“What do you mean, grooming?” P asked C as our discussion continued.
“Do people think I’m grooming you to be trans? Like, it’s my fault, and I’m trying to manipulate you…” C clarified, posing a hypothetical.
The transphobic conception of “grooming” comes from harmful stereotypes of trans folks as sexually perverse. Some legislators have even hypersexualized queer and trans folks to the point of maligning drag performance, claiming it is a means of grooming minors. In this way, by simply expressing themselves in public, Trans and GNC folks (drag artists included) have become the red herring for an extractive country that grooms its populus into lives of servitude and gender-based violence under capitalism.
Grooming involves the gradual preparation of those with less social power to fulfill the wants and fantasies of those with more social power. It often entails acts of coercion and unchecked self-interest, orienting toward desired outcomes rather than open-ended self-discovery. As C pointed out, this tactic of control stands in contrast to social influence, which occurs naturally with exposure to any number of cultural factors.
“We need to be in loving relationship to other people to form our identity and our sense of self, so of course our gender is going to be influenced, just like lots of other things about ourselves,” mused C. Social influence affects human growth and development without removal of body autonomy. It presents an option while leaving room for choice.
C continued, “That’s beautiful, not bad, as long as what you’re influenced to be is not hurting anybody.”
In their life as a middle schooler, P has encountered transphobic stereotypes as well—namely the notion that young people are presenting as trans or non-binary because they are “just experimenting” with it.
“There’s definitely a few people who fake it [genderqueerness] for attention sometimes,” P conceded, adding empathetically, “maybe they’re having a hard time at home and they need validation. Sometimes they don’t know what’s going on with their gender.”
This kind of attention-seeking and experimentation does not bother P. “That’s how people figure it out,” they continued. “If you’re going to do that, I will respect that. It’s literally not hurting anyone.”
When I asked P if they had any final words of wisdom for the parents of other trans and GNC children, they responded with a straight shot: “Tons of parents around the world will spend hours tending to their child and not focusing on their own needs. But then suddenly, when it comes to something that parents disapprove of, they will be like, ‘This is hurting me. Your opinion doesn’t matter right now’.”
P’s advice to parents is simple: “Stop making it about yourself.”
On the flipside, C offered sage wisdom to trans and GNC youth.
“No one can know more about yourself than you. You’re always the expert on yourself, so trust yourself,” C assured. “You don’t have to take in what other people tell you about yourself if it doesn’t jive or match your intuition or knowledge or wisdom about yourself.”
For both C and P, intuitive gender expression leads to affinity-driven connections with others. It facilitates strong bonds with their chosen family that brings plenty of joy.
Trans and GNC folks have paved the way for more nuance to enter into the social experience of gender. In C’s estimation, gender-nonconformity and transness bring abundance to the spectrum of human expressions—affirming, not disparaging cisgender identities in the process. And, while more and more folks might find they feel influenced to explore gender at this moment in history, influence will never equate to an imperative. Rather, it offers a chance to experiment, to consider possibilities, and to build identity based on the trusty compass of one’s own intuition.