#1364: “Gender is elusive, and I cannot teach it to you, Mother!”

Hi Captain!

I’m a 21 year old trans man, (he/they) who came out on New Years and I’ve been trying to help my mother deal with it and learn. My mother is so so so much like yours as described in Letter 1233, and so desperately wants to understand things, but has no clue how to deal with all the complicated feelings my being trans brings up about me and about her own gender. She doesn’t get it and won’t rest till either I’m not a man or she’s able to understand how I feel and why the hell I’d feel that way about my body and self in a way that works for her.

It’s not been the worst because I’ve got college classes resuming this week as a buffer, but I’m already so exasperated because I cannot do the work for her to understand this the way she wants/needs to but don’t know how to help her further. I wrote some of my feelings, I gave her S. Bear Bergman’s Butch is a Noun to read some passages I listed from, I suggested Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation and Kate Bornstein’s My New Gender Workbook, and a myriad of articles about how to support trans people. But she doesn’t feel this way about herself as a woman and is just so fundamentally struggling with why and how do you know this, and are you sure, you haven’t even dated anyone so maybe things will change when you do things with another person (I wanted to melt in my chair).

I’m a women’s and gender studies major! I should be able to do this, but I’m so far away from where she is I don’t know how to bridge the gap, and while it’s academically invigorating as an interest it’s becoming personally exhausting. Any advice for me, or a message that might help her?

Tired Trans Man

Dear Tired Trans Man:

Happy New Year and congratulations on taking a really big, hard step! Aside from your very fraught parental relationship, I hope that coming out brings you a ton of joy and comfort and self-discovery in the coming year.

First, per #1233, I’ve been thinking a lot about the relentless need to “understand” as a derailing tactic that people and institutions with relative power use to withhold compassion and help from others. Of course we want to help, we just can’t deliver any help until we are sure that it’s exactly the right help, better commission another study and think about it more. Or, what if we help, and that just makes the situation worse? Better not to do anything until we know for sure. In the meantime, can you try explaining it again? And you needn’t have such a nasty tone when you ask! Do you want help or not?


This is how we treat people who we don’t believe are experts about their own experiences. Their needs are always debatable, “understanding” is presented as the key to unlocking compassion and care, and it’s irresistible, really, because who wants to go against increasing understanding? What wouldn’t you attempt in a quest to “only connect” with someone who is so important to you? Surely if you just explain yourself well enough, your mom will understand, and once she understands, she’ll care, and then she’ll do the right thing. It’s a perfect trap because you’re a scholar of this stuff, because you believe in reading and well-reasoned arguments. And it’s a perfect trap for her, too, because the well-worn position where she imagines that she is the authority on what’s best for you is far more comfortable than than the reality where you know more about certain things than she does (like yourself)(and the course of study that you are a relative expert in). But, good news, your identity is not disprovable by people who aren’t you, even if everybody does the required reading! You don’t have to prove how trans you are to your mom, or anyone!

I think it would be wonderful if your mom would come to understand where you’re coming from, and I, too would love it if she could read the perfect argument that would make her say, “Yes, okay, I get it!” and treat you right. But I also think that she needs to do right by you right fucking now whether she understands or not. As it stands, the more you try to persuade her, the more the framing persists that this is a project of persuasion, with you as the one who must persuade and your mom as the arbiter of how much persuasion is possible. To disrupt this dynamic, I want to get you out of the persuader-and-comforter-of-Mom role and reset the relationship a little bit. It’s time to enforce a set of boundaries and expect a set of loving and respectful behaviors immediately, and hope that understanding follows.

First, if you can safely get a little physical distance from your mom,  do it. The dorms, another relative’s house, a friend’s house, walks outside, do something so that she’s not in your face and in your head all the time. This is a gift to both of you, I think. She needs some time on her own to process, you need some time to not feel like a freshly picked scab.

Next, I want you to take stock of all your supportive resources – emotional and physical – that don’t depend on your mom. If she gets nasty and starts throwing out ultimatums, do you have safe people and safe places to go? What can your school offer? Who’s got a couch you could crash on for a while? Do you have access to bank accounts and your important paperwork? Hopefully this is too much caution on my part and you’ll never need this list, but a lot of people who never thought they’d need it have turned out to need it, so emergency planning is going to be an unfortunate part of the coming out process until we make a different world.

For now, it’s also time to limit conversations about gender at home, not deepen/expand/footnote them. You told your mom a fact about yourself and gave her some reading material. You’re not Transgender Siri, open for 24-7 Thought Experiments. “Mom, I know you have questions, but I’m kind of exhausted talking about it right now. Can we just watch some TV together?” 

Then, as soon as you have some time/headspace, could you grab a journal or blank document and make a list of things you need from your mom right now? “Mom, whether or not you understand why, I need   _________________. “

You don’t have to show your mom the document or express all – or any- of these things to her now or ever. I just want to yank this back from being all about what she claims to need from you in order to do right by you. You’re a young adult in the middle of a huge, transformative thing. What do you wish your mom would do about that? What did you hope her reaction would be like? Now that you’ve told her, what do you need her to actually do in the day-to-day to make this easier on you?

Possibilities that come to mind:

  • “…I need you to use my correct name and pronouns.”
  • “…I need you to use my correct name and pronouns without arguing and without every conversation becoming about your feelings about my gender. If you mess up, apologize quickly and move on!” 
  • “…I need home to be a safe place that I can decompress and spend time with you, just hanging out, without having to justify or explain my whole existence.”
  • “…I’ve shared some resources that were meaningful to me, personally, but I can’t actually teach you how to process this while I’m in the middle of going through it. If you want to discuss gender identity and transition more in depth, there are groups and resources for parents, and I need you take some of your questions and anxieties there, especially while this is all still so new for both of us.”  
  • “…I need what every kid needs: I need you to tell me that you love me and that you’re proud of me.” 
  • “…I need to be able to tell you true stuff about myself without having to comfort you because I turned out different than what you imagined.” 
  • “…I need you to accept that I have the final say in how I identify and describe that identity. You’re not going to be able to argue me into being different than who I am, and I can’t keep discussing this with you if that’s your end goal.” 
  • “…Mom, if you’d like to help, I could really use a trip to a tailor and some money to replace some wardrobe pieces with stuff that fits me better.” 
  • “…Mom, I need to look at the health insurance plan documents and see what they cover.” 
  • “…I don’t need you to earn a PhD in gender studies, I need you to be my mom right now. As my mom, you don’t have to understand everything about everything in order to be nice to me and be on my side, right?” 
  • “…Telling you my gender identity doesn’t mean you get to comment on my body or my dating/love/sex life. That stuff is private and not up for discussion!” 
  • “…I need you to help me spread the word to the extended family, and I need you to help enforce name & pronoun expectations with them.” 

Your list doesn’t have to include any of what my vicariously-generated one does, and it will almost certainly have stuff that hasn’t even occurred to me here, and that’s fine! It just matters that it’s authentic to you. Once you have your list, pick some basic actions that would make you feel better and that you feel like you can consistently insist that your mom do, whether or not she understands or agrees with the why. These will be the seeds of your boundaries, stuff where you can repeat “Oh hey, he/they pronouns please, thanks” and expect her to do what’s needed without engulfing you a long, draining discussion about it. (I keep mentioning names, both because they are important, and because cis people change their names all the time and everybody rolls with it. When Miss Thing from college got married and changed her name to Mrs. Dicksmack Elderberry Wiggenspoof IV, your mom may have had private opinions about that, but I bet she managed to not be an asshole directly to the lady in question when she wrote out the annual holiday cards, so surely she can muster the same baseline of good manners on behalf of her child?)

Once you shift the territory from “What does your mom need to understand in order to be nice to you?” to “What does your mom need to do in order to be nice to you?” it gets much simpler. Not easier, but simpler, in that the more your mom does affirming and supportive actions without creating additional friction for you, the better relationship you’ll have. The more she makes you fight for basic politeness and respect, the more you’ll shut down boundary-crossing conversations and the less time you’ll spend with her. Making it simpler also means that your scripts can stay fairly consistent and incorporate tons of positive feedback for the behavior you want to see, while still refusing to make fixing her heart your job: “”Mom, I don’t really know how to explain that to you, but thanks for [doing the thing I need you to do] anyway, it really means a lot to me!” 

If she really wants to be a supportive mom, her way forward is clear: Do the kind, supportive, necessary thing for her son now AND seek more resources/readings/discussions understanding on her own time, until actions, understanding, and heart align. If those things can’t happen all at once, she should start with kind, affirming actions and words. Bonus: When she insists that she just wants to be involved, refer to the list of the things you actually need and see if you can channel her energies in a way that’s less invasive and more fruitful. 

Important: Often, when you first set and actually enforce a boundary, the other person’s words and emotional reactions get worse as they try to bluster and bully and manipulate you into compliance, but their behavior gets better. It’s often referred to as an “extinction burst” when the boundary-crossing or -disrespecting person senses their control slipping and in panic they throw everything possible at the problem in hopes that you’ll decide it’s just “easier” to do what they want. They’ll often “neg” you – calling you “selfish” or “ungrateful” is pretty common – in order to try to blame you for how they are behaving and trick you into proving you are not that thing (by doing what they want). When you’re dealing with someone who Just Wants To Talk About It One More Time, So They Can Finally Understand, it can be really, really hard to stay consistent with your boundary, because you want to communicate, dammit! If you won’t engage until the boundary is respected, it becomes so easy for them to paint themselves as the Great Peacemaker and you as the one who is perversely refusing to engage. It’s a tempting trap, but until the boundary is respected, it’s still a trap.

If you can anticipate and plan for the traps, it can make it easier to hold your course. To do this, when you’re just starting out with enforcing a certain boundary, try to give the other person’s emotional outbursts as little attention as you can manage, and treat evidence of each behavior change as signal that it’s working and proof that you should continue. Examples:

  • Mom rolls her eyes and dramatically sighs every time she gets your name right = Mom got your name right = It’s working, so keep insisting!
  • Mom uses the wrong pronouns, but immediately corrected herself = Mom used correct pronouns = It’s working.  Keep insisting!
  • Mom calls you “selfish” or “childish” or “inconsistent ” for having a boundary, but does the thing you asked her to anyway = She did the thing = Keep insisting!

This grace period of “she was annoying about it, but at least she did it”  has a limited shelf-life, and I’m sure readers could tell you stories about “Family Member, I transitioned TWENTY YEARS AGO, come the fuck on with pretending you ‘can’t remember’,” but in the very beginning, getting the actions to accrue in your favor is the first step to building a new normal where good behaviors are routine and performative backlash and outrage are way too much effort – for them – to continue.

Finally, before I go, I just want to reiterate: Your mom’s journey toward understanding and acceptance is ultimately her own project. You’re not harming her by being who you are, you’re not being trans at her, you owe her neither defense nor restitution nor an annotated syllabus. You’ve been generous so far in sharing yourself and trying to educate her in the right direction, but your worth was never subject to her limitations, and it’s entirely unfair that you should have to do all this work to be accepted in your own home. I hope your mom does the right thing and tries her best to deserve having such a wonderful, thoughtful, beautiful, lovable kid. I’m sending love, and I know everybody in AwkwardLand is rooting for you.