Seattle's Child

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Talking gender, allyship, and identity at Gender Odyssey Family 2015: A conversation with trans activist Kate Bornstein

How can parents best support their trans kid's needs while also parenting their child?

Photo: amanda tipton/Flickr


This year’s Gender Odyssey Family conference, held at the Washington State Convention Center, tackled an enormous range of issues around gender and the family: How to support a trans child; the unique concerns of trans folks who are parents; how to create support networks of families whose kids may be gender nonconforming; and so very much more.

The conference, now in its ninth year, is an inclusive space for kids and adults alike, with an entire hall that’s been converted into a youth playspace. The supervised space features a dress-up corner with rows of colorful costumes and clothing, a quieter reading corner with cushions and tons of books, and room to roam and play.

Seattle’s Child had the opportunity to attend a few of the conference’s talks. The first, "Finding and Creating your Local Support Network,” touched on the ways that parents of trans kids can find support networks in the areas they live. The second, “My Kid Has a Crush – Now What?” addressed the concerns that parents of trans kids may have for their child’s interpersonal and sexual health.

Photo: Gender Odyssey Family

A family in attendance at this year's conference.

The second talk in particular was incredibly sensitive, honest, and accessible, touching on the ways in which parents can model healthy sexuality for their kids while also supporting their trans or gender nonconforming kid’s own feelings, thoughts, and needs. Facilitator Kaden Sullivan offered parents age-appropriate sex-positive and body-positive tools that parents can use in supporting their trans kids through puberty and into young adulthood: “Sexuality,” he says, “can be a force for good.”

Sullivan suggested that parents can help their kid combat the dysphoria that trans youth often confront (the feeling of intense physical and emotional discomfort with one’s body) by “telling kids point-blank that it’s okay to experience sexual pleasure in the body you have.” Parents, he suggested, can and should model healthy, developmentally appropriate sexuality for their children: By teaching children verbal consent starting at a very young age and teaching them when, where, and to whom it’s appropriate to show your body; by giving children a healthy amount of privacy; and by having frank, honest conversations with your kid.

Along with its many presentations and talks, the Gender Odyssey conference featured two keynote speeches. Trans activists Andrea Jenkins and Kate Bornstein, both renowned in their own right for their work in the trans community, gave this year’s speeches. We had the opportunity to chat with activist, playwright, and author Kate Bornstein before the conference to talk about navigating allyship and parenthood, the specific issues that trans youth face, and representation for trans folks.

SC: You’re one of two keynote speakers at this year’s Gender Odyssey Family conference. Can you tell us a bit about what you plan to tackle in your speech?

KB: I want make it inclusive generationally; I think one of the big problems we’ve got now in communicating “trans” out into non-trans-land is that there’s different language being used across generations, and that can get confusing. It’s confused me. So I want to hopefully straighten out or provide a way for people to acknowledge that there’s a different language or maybe be prepared to talk about that.


How can parents be allies simultaneously to being parents?

There’s a big difference between allyship and parenthood. First and most primarily, you’re a parent, and second, you watch out for your child’s trans needs. But first is the life and well-being of your kid, and you as the adult don’t ask. You ask the to the degree that the child is capable of responding in an informed manner. Beyond that you don’t ask.

“I need to wear my princess dress to school right this minute!” “All right, let’s examine that, honey.” And [parents should] talk about all the possible implications of going to school the first day in a princess dress. “You’re assigned male at birth; I don’t want you to get beat up, and that’s what could happen.” So, you don’t necessarily provide what a trans youth needs because first priority is parenting.

My mom, when I first told her I was trans, I was almost forty years old. For the whole time she was alive, she was [saying], “Are you safe? I don’t want you getting hurt.” And that was her big concern, that was the number-one concern, that people would see me and hurt me. That’s a big concern. It’s there for a reason, because of, frankly, the freak factor. It’s all well and good to call your child a brilliant unicorn of light; that’s not necessarily what their schoolmates are going to call them, so juggle that.

On the other hand, totally, if I was a kid, and my parents said to me, “Honey, was anything you did today criticized because they think you’re a boy, was there anybody who misgendered you, why do you think that was?” And get them to talk about the kind of hurt that trans people can have. Misgendering is way out of proportion to what’s actually going on. So what if someone misgenders you? Yet, because the decision is such a big one, to make a gender change, misgendering takes on a heightened importance, and a hurt.

[Parents could say] “Honey, if they don’t know you’re a girl, they’re being pretty silly for not knowing and recognizing you. I know you are and the people who love you know you are. Go ahead, honey.” It’s not allyship, it’s parenting. Really pull those two apart. Now if you wanna be an ally to trans people, great. But no, parenting is parenting.


Photo: Gender Odyssey Family

Gender Odyssey conference founder Aidan Key with Kate Bornstein and Andrea Jenkins. 

You were a guest on a recent episode of I Am Cait (an E! television series documenting Caitlyn Jenner's experiences). What are your thoughts on how the show represents trans folks as well as how it deals with issues specific to trans youth? What are your thoughts on how the show addresses what you term the “freak factor” of how transness is perceived? The show often focuses on how “normal” it is to be trans, constantly defining transness in relation to how “normal” it is; I guess I see a danger in that.

Yep. It raises expectations: “If I don’t pass, I’m a total failure.” And the fact is, most of us don’t pass. Most of us can be read as trans. “You’re a boy!” “No I’m not, I'm a trans girl,” that would be an appropriate response. Just suggesting to a child that they say that, that’s going to shut up the people who are teasing them. And that’s what I’m saying when I say “pride in the freakiness”: own what you are. You’re trans, that’s legit. And if people can’t see it, you correct them.


One scene in this episode of I Am Cait shows a twelve-year-old trans kid mentioning that they fined their parents a dollar for every time that their parents used incorrect pronouns […] It seems that kids often have to be the ones to educate their parents.

I was mixed on that a little bit; yes, there’s a delicate balance; who’s the teacher, who’s the student. Again, the whole thing about pronouns, I think it’s blown way out of proportion. The question of misgendering – does the parent by saying “she” to a young trans boy, who for 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 12, years have been calling “she,” does that mean they’re insulting and attacking and being transphobic? No, it just means they’re learning. People have different learning curves for how to gender a trans person […] I think it’s important that trans people remember that it took them a long time to come to terms with their current gendering, and grant that to other people. 


What’s your take on representations like I Am Cait? I look at I Am Cait and I see simultaneously some really, really important conversations but then some really troubling ideas about womanhood and the emphasis on what Cait is wearing at any given time.

It’s a double-edged sword. I applaud I Am Cait because at least they are showing the other edge. Many other shows haven’t and wouldn’t. I think what’s important is that people are learning there’s another way to be trans. Like when they focus on the kids with pink and blue hair. You can be a little freaky kid if that’s what you feel you want to be. But so much of what has gone on in the assimilation of lesbian and gay identities into advertising and mass media; the clean, crisp, perfectly-mannered, the expectation to be like that in order to be gay, is heartbreaking. So a football player comes out as gay, alright, not all gay men are like football players or act like them, but okay. So that’s the danger: “If I transition, I’ll never be as pretty as Candis Cayne.” Very few people ever are. Setting an impossible standard has always been a danger for things feminine. That was one of the bases of second-wave feminism, was tearing down the false standards for femininity. Now trans is gonna have to maintain that, that’s all.


We have this idea that to be a trans woman means you’re hyperfeminine, and I think that does push other trans presentations and other trans identities to the side in favor of a really hyperfeminine presentation. Even the trans women who are able to have success are very feminine and very beautiful, unilaterally.

Yep. And the other part of being trans is something called nonbinary or genderqueer. That is a large part of trans [identity], and I hope that people are informing their kids that that’s an option. You don’t have to be one end of the binary or another. They can be bright and shiny unicorns, which are not horses and they’re not cows, they’re their own wonderful creation.

Many thanks to Kate Bornstein for speaking with us. If  you're looking for more resources for parents of trans kids, check out TransYouth Family Allies or Gender Spectrum.