Thank you to Olya Kobruseva for the photo: Pexels
Ask! Don’t ask, that! Don’t ask them! Arghhh! Which one is it?
I talk a lot about being curious and if you’re not sure, ask and gain clarity, avoid assumptions, and ask the question. At the same time, I also say that it is not always appropriate to ask, so I thought now would be a good time to get some clarity on this. When is it a good time to ask? What is ok to ask? Who is the right person to ask? These are all important questions for you to ask yourself before you ask the question and at the same time, it can be difficult to know the answers. It’s true that it’s not always ok to ask. Let’s get clear, together.
It’s important to educate yourself
Being well informed is going to put you in a much better place to be a supportive, loving parent and ally. It will reduce the mistakes you make, which translates to reducing unintentional hurtful or harmful behaviour and comments. You don’t know what you don’t know, therefore how can you know that something is upsetting, until after the occurrence? There are a variety of ways you can educate yourself and one of them is asking questions, however, it is not always the most appropriate option to ask your child. It is not the trans community’s responsibility to provide every other individual with education. It can be exhausting to always be ‘on’ to answer questions, and be vulnerable and open about your own experiences, thoughts, and feelings. Therefore, it is a good idea to find other ways to educate yourself, including asking others.
The internet can be a great help; however, you may have already realised that it is a deep dark hole that you can very quickly become lost in. It‘s hard to know what’s accurate, what pertains to your child, and what is digestible for you. Let’s face it, not everything is relevant to your child and their experience, not everything on the internet is accurate and you’re not necessarily ready to hear ALL of the information.
Peer groups can also be helpful. Again, you need to be conscious of the fact that not everyone’s experience is going to be the same as yours and/or your child’s. Hearing from other queer people and/or other parents can be a powerful source of information and support, so I would encourage you to find one that feels right for you. In person groups had to pause for the pandemic, however, hopefully, they are starting to open back up now. One good thing that came out of the pandemic is that we now have many more options online. There are a few different models of parent support groups online and dependent on your needs and level of confidence I’m sure you will be able to find one. I also have a private Facebook community, Rainbow Transformations that we’d love for you to join.
Following queer folk on social media can also be quite insightful. I’m not suggesting becoming the queer stalker, however, there are quite a few queer folks out there, using their social media platforms to educate, advocate and inform others. Find a couple that resonate with you and your situation. Your child might even be able to recommend someone who they resonate with, which will potentially give you more insight into their experiences.
There are more and more books being written about sexuality and gender, including guides for parents, and even better, it is becoming more common for libraries to stock some of these books. If you’d like a list of books that other parents have found helpful, feel free to email me and I can send it to you.
Other queer folk or parents of queer folk in your life may also be an option for you to ask questions and/or get some clarity. Be mindful that your child may not be ready to be out to others and it’s important to respect their privacy, so check in with them before you speak with others in your life. Remember that other people’s experiences are not yours or your child’s. Use these conversations as guidance and exposure to conversations around sexuality and gender, not as an indicator that what you’re feeling is wrong, or how your child described their feelings and experience as wrong.
And of course, professionals working in the queer space can also be very helpful. This alleviates the risk of getting lost in the deep tunnel, otherwise known as the internet, it decreases the risk of inaccurate information or information influenced by the emotion of personal experiences of others and it eliminates the concerns around protecting your and your child’s privacy.
Now we’ve explored some possibilities for the who, other than your child, let’s delve a little deeper into why asking questions is important and the when, what and who.
Assumptions are dangerous
As humans, when we feel nervous, uncomfortable, or uncertain about talking about a topic we can fall into the trap of making and believing assumptions. When there are gaps in information, we fill those gaps ourselves and often we’re wrong. In fact, we are renowned for making assumptions. It is almost impossible to not make them, however, we can raise our awareness of the assumptions we’re making, question them and adapt accordingly.
Ever heard that saying? “When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.
I say, “avoid assumptions’, though, the most achievable suggestion would be to pay attention, recognise, acknowledge, explore, and challenge your assumptions. When we do this, we are more able to adapt as necessary.
When you recognise you’re making an assumption, my initial suggestion is to gain clarity, by becoming more informed, however, this is not always accessible, at least not straight away. If this is the case, you can simply acknowledge that you are making an assumption and it is not necessarily the reality. Perhaps explore possible alternatives and when you can, find that clarity.
When to ask?
There are many factors that can come into play when considering when it’s ok to ask a question. They can all seem a little obvious and common sense, though when we are stressed or nervous, our brain does not function at its full capacity. We can become more tunnel visioned, less focused, and unable to think things through, see the bigger picture or recognise detail. For these reasons people often find themselves asking either inappropriate questions or questions at inappropriate times.
Keeping this in mind, if you are feeling stressed or nervous, take some deep breaths and revisit whether it is appropriate. Ask when everyone is feeling reasonably relaxed, not straight after an argument, or when there are worries about other things. When there is privacy. A quiet corner in a café, in the car, in a private room in your own home or on a walk in nature, can all be good options. Avoid times when there are time pressures. For example, directly before bed, as one of you are about to leave for work, an appointment or school. Ensure there is the time to honour the question and response, adequately.
Just because the question popped into your head, doesn’t mean now is the best time to ask.
What is ok to ask?
A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, ‘would I ask my cis, straight child/friend/family member the same question?’ This is not foolproof, because there are some questions you wouldn’t ask them, because you don’t need to, and there may also be questions you would ask them that could be particularly sensitive for your queer child, however it is a great place to start.
Another question to ask yourself first is, ‘why am I asking?’ ‘Will it make me more able to understand my child and be more supportive?’ Or ‘am I simply asking to fulfil my curiosity?’ If it’s the former, then go right ahead and respectfully ask. If it’s the latter, more reflection and exploration might be required before you ask.
You can also ask yourself, ‘can anyone else answer this question?’ As mentioned earlier, it can be exhausting and often frustrating for trans folk to have to be the educator all the time. It is therefore a good idea to aim to only ask your child the questions that only they can answer.
Your child is the only one that can accurately talk about how they are feeling. For example, what affirming their gender might look like for them. Therefore, they are the only one you can ask this question. However, you can educate yourself about how others feel and what the options are, so you have a better idea about the possibilities. This allows them the space to talk about their feelings rather than educating you about the details or possibilities. It also puts you in a better place to be curious, ask questions, or avoid asking questions that might be upsetting. You will also be more prepared and less likely to be shocked and therefore respond in a way that is uncomfortable for you both.
Who to ask?
We’ve already touched on this one, above, however, it’s worth going into a bit more detail. To recap, when you’re looking for education, answers about general experiences, processes or situations then look elsewhere for your answers. If it is of a more personal nature and specific to your child’s feelings and experiences, they are the best person to ask.
If you’re looking for peer support, wanting to hear from other parents or get a general idea about queer folks’ experiences, the internet and/or peer support groups can be a good place to start. Following queer activists on social media can also be quite informative. Do your research, and take some time to consider what you are looking for and what you will find most helpful. If something doesn’t feel right for you, move on. There’s no shortage of information.
When looking for specific answers around the laws, guidelines in schools and workplaces, medical procedures, and other logistical information it’s important to go to the most appropriate source in your area. LGBTQ+ clinics, school boards, legal bodies, and queer affirming organisations. Be mindful that peoples’ opinions are not fact and may not be relevant to you and your family.
If your child is not ready to be ‘out’ publicly or to other family or friends, it is worth reaching out to a queer affirming professional who is bound by ethical and legal confidentiality guidelines. Again, do your research. Not every queer affirming professional is experienced in supporting and responding to parents and families. Advocacy is a significant element in the role of queer affirming professionals which can result in parents feeling judged, unsupported, not heard, or understood. This is not the fault of anyone, it’s perhaps just not the most helpful choice of support for you.
Be sure to ask yourself, are you simply looking for answers to specific questions, or are you also looking for support? Unfortunately, too many of my clients have been left feeling judged, criticised, or misunderstood when seeking support from a queer affirming practitioner. Again, those practitioners are likely very effective, professional, and supportive of queer folk, but it can be difficult for therapists to juggle the support and advocacy role for queer folk and offer objective, unbiased support to parents. In saying that, there are often benefits to some shared sessions.
Having spent many years in that position, providing support for queer folk and their families, as well as a significant element of my role requiring advocacy, I know exactly how challenging it can be to be completely neutral and supportive of all involved. This is why I have moved away from advocacy, so I can provide a safe, non-judgmental, open, supportive environment for all my clients. Do your homework, and make the most of the ‘free consultation call’ that many private practitioners now offer. Treat it like you’re interviewing them, because you deserve the best support you can get, while on your journey to better understand your child and work through your own emotions and experiences.
And finally, if your child is out, or happy for you to talk with a queer friend or family member, they can be an incredible source of information and support. Please keep in mind, that they also are at risk of ‘LGBTQ+ education fatigue’, so I’d still encourage you to get the basics elsewhere first. You might also be able to talk to another parent, who is a little further along in their journey than you. Remember everyone’s experience is different, but there is something beautiful about sharing with others who are having or have had similar experiences to you.
Get informed, explore all your options, and find the most effective, accurate sources of information that you’re looking for. Get the general information and understanding from books, professionals, the internet, and peer groups and leave the more personal, specific questions for queer friends, family and your child. Check-in with yourself about why you’re asking the question and choose your timing considerately.
As I always mention, I love to support and witness the healing, growth and deepening of the relationship between a parent and their child (regardless of their age). If you’d like to know more about the support that’s available to you, book a free call to discuss further.
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Remember to take care of yourself. Like the flight attendants always say, “put your own oxygen mask on first”.