This post was authored with Samantha Smithstein, PsyD, by guest writer Oakley Phoenix (they/them), who is a junior in college studying Women's and Gender Studies, English, and Sociology—and a Medium blogger focusing on gender, sexuality, mental health, and youth culture. They are a Pacific Northwesterner, born and raised in the Bay Area, currently residing in northern Oregon. Phoenix has accumulated over 500 dedicated followers and built a safe space for marginalized youth and all who are willing to explore their queerness. When they aren't in class, working, or writing, Phoenix can be found spending time in coffee shops with friends, learning dances from YouTube, and going on long walks to listen to podcasts and contemplate the meaning of life.
As a young nonbinary adult who’s been out of the closet for more than a year, I’m comfortable with who I am, and my mom is as well. I came out slowly over time, first mentioning that I was considering changing my name and then suggesting that I was starting to use they/them pronouns alongside she/hers at school.
When I finally officially came out to my mom over the 2019–20 winter break, she had questions, but she didn’t boot me out of the house—which is a low bar, I’ll admit. She wanted to understand what being nonbinary was, why I wanted top surgery if I wasn’t a trans man, how going on T would affect my personality, how changing my name would change her understanding of the person she raised, and why I wasn’t comfortable being a sometimes masculine-presenting girl.
Now that my mom and I have each had months of conversations, heart-to-hearts, individual therapy, and support group sessions, I feel prepared to provide advice to parents of newly out nonbinary youth and young adults.
Thank you for taking the time to do this work. If you’re here reading this, I can tell you that you’re already on the right track.
Without further ado…
1. Listen without centering yourself.
Your kid’s gender journey is not about you. That’s a hard pill to swallow, but it’s necessary. Your kid being nonbinary, gender non-conforming, and/or trans is not about you. You didn’t “do anything wrong” or show them the wrong TV show. Your kid’s truth and sense of self comes first in these moments of shared discovery and understanding. Try not to let your emotions override your ability to put your kid first because they need to know that you have their back as they’re figuring things out. Be grateful that they trusted you enough to tell you that their gender has been on their mind lately.
2. Trust that your kid has done (and is actively doing) their research.
Your kid has likely spent months or years looking into genderqueerness and how it relates to them. You can trust that your kid didn’t watch one TikTok or YouTube video and suddenly decide they weren’t cisgender. Your kid is smart and capable and you raised them well. Have faith in your kid’s ability to determine what is best and affirming for them. After all, they’re the one who lives in their body, is called by their name, and walks through the world in their shoes each day. Trust that they are making good, informed decisions for themself.
3. Do research without asking your kid to guide you, whenever possible.
There are a lot of resources on nonbinary identities that aren’t your own kid. Seriously. Your kid has a lot on their plate, navigating gender while also being a full-time human being. Read Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity, Gender Outlaws: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us, or I Wish You All The Best. Check out Angel Morris or Brendan Dunlap. Look for articles, podcasts, essays, zines, or start Googling your questions. Your kid is not your gender and sexuality dictionary. (Do ask them what words to use when thinking of them, but don’t ask them what every single word means, you know?)
4. Explore your gender on your own time—or with your kid if they’re interested.
Gender’s not exclusive to Gen Z. You can think about your gender too. What makes you a woman or a man? Why do you stick to one section of the store when you shop for clothes? Have you ever considered doing something reserved for the “other gender”? What is it about being called “she” or “he” that feels right for you? How does your gender impact your work? Your family? Your romantic life? Your hobbies? Your way of speaking?
You can ask yourself the same questions your kid has gone over. You might learn a thing or two about yourself, and you’ll understand the amount of time and energy that has gone into your kid coming forward with their newfound understanding of themself.
5. Don’t out your kid without their explicit consent.
When you go to seek support, you may think of asking a friend, family member, or religious network to provide you with comfort. Ask your kid first. Their identity is not yours to share with others, not without explicit permission being given directly to you. Say you share your kid’s gender with your close friend who also knows your kid. Now, that person has heard about your kid’s gender from you, and you likely haven’t relayed the information perfectly, and that person is now trying to connect dots that may not exist in the first place.
Let your kid determine who knows about their gender journey, and give them time to work up the courage. Coming out as genderqueer is exhausting and never-ending, and your kid deserves to feel like they have control over their own narrative.
6. Know that your kid doesn’t have to be a medical expert to know what feels best for their sense of self and their body.
Too often, non-cisgender kids are expected to be able to defend their gender. That should not fall on the kid. To know every detail about every surgery or hormone, to explain all of the different pronouns and sexualities perfectly, to list off reasons why their authentic existence is valid and worthy of respect is a lot. You know your kid well, but they know themself best. There are gender therapists, endocrinologists, surgeons, social workers, and many more trained adults prepared to help gender journeys go smoothly. Please don’t pressure your kid to have everything figured out immediately. Odds are, you don’t have everything figured out about your own life either.
7. Seek gender-affirming support for your kid and for yourself.
Get a therapist. Go to a support group. Find a Facebook group or a WhatsApp group chat or a positive Instagram comment section. Anywhere you and your kid can find others with shared gender experiences is a huge help. You and your kid aren’t the first people to walk this path, and you won’t be the last. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. So many resources already exist, and more are being added all of the time. Find an affirming community, and start making yourselves feel at home in this incredible new space.
8. Understand that your kid’s “safe spaces” may change upon them coming out as nonbinary.
I don’t go to my hometown anymore. It’s too small and too “nice White liberal” for me to be safe there as a proud, out Black queer trans nonbinary young adult. My town is small enough that everyone knew me as my mother’s daughter pre-me coming out, and my town is small-minded enough that explaining what being nonbinary is would be almost entirely pointless. Your kid may be in a similar boat. Maybe grandpa’s transphobic, or your church is homophobic, or your kid isn’t able to be a Boy Scout anymore. Acknowledge that your kid’s gender is revolutionary and that some folks won’t want to handle it, and respect your kid’s choices if they ask to find other places to call home.
9. Prepare for your kid’s gender presentation to change drastically, not at all, or land somewhere in between.
Your kid is still your kid—no matter what. If they go on hormones, change their name, have a gender-affirming procedure, or alter their physical form in any way, they’re still your baby. They’re still that person that you helped raise. In fact, they’re more authentically themself now, and that’s a beautiful thing. Don’t take it personally if your kid decides to get a different haircut or asks for a new wardrobe or starts behaving differently from the way you expect them to. Embrace it. Maybe you can change up your look as well and bond over it. Also be prepared for your kid to not change visibly at all. Their identity is no less valid if they choose to continue to present in the same or similar way to how they had before. Being nonbinary doesn’t have a “look.” Always remember that.
10. Know that gender journeys do not have clear ending points.
Your kid may do a speed-run of their physical transition (if they have one). I changed my name, got on T, and had top surgery over the course of a year. That’s fast. My gender journey is not over by any means even though it may seem settled. My nonbinary gender manifests itself in my fluid presentation from day to day. My gender is always shifting and evolving and flowing and breakdancing and strutting its stuff.
Your kid’s gender journey could go a million different ways. Don’t expect an “endpoint” or a clearly defined “goal” because we don’t all have those. My goal was to feel better and safer in my body, and that’s a goal I will always be trying to attain. Love your kid as they evolve over time. (You would’ve done that anyways if they were cis, right?)
11. Stand up for your kid.
Not everyone is going to “get it.” Being nonbinary’s not a new idea, but it seems new to many people above the age of 35. If your coworker makes an offhand comment or your friend says something snide, stand up for your baby. Your kid is already entering the world as a marginalized identity, and they will shoulder far more of that burden than you ever will. If someone misgenders or misnames your kid and your kid is out to that person, correct them. Do it calmly and compassionately if someone made an innocent mistake, and feel free to provide education if you have the bandwidth for it.
If that person refuses to correct their behavior, consider dropping them from your life. You don’t want someone in your life who doesn’t respect your kid, and your kid will feel infinitely safer if you show your support for them in these overt ways as well as in the more covert ways I mentioned earlier.
12. Lead by example.
Your kid deserves the world. Use their name, pronouns, and other words that make them feel good. They’re looking to you for support because you’re their parent or guardian. How much you care about your kid’s gender sets the example for how much everyone else thinks they should. If you blow off their name or pronouns or requests for support, others will do the same. You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to try your best every day. The more effort you put into broadening your understanding of gender, the easier it will become to say the right things. Your kid is awesome, and they’re lucky to have you as their caretaker. Go out there and treat them well.