Embracing your Child’s Gender and Sexual Identity
Posted on: April 24, 2023
Therapists are suckers for feelings, treating the emotional worlds and expressions of the people who consult us as a sacred territory that we must not question, says Routledge author, therapist and physchologist Julie Tilsen. Here she gives us an insight on the parental loss narrative - and why we need to say good-bye to a parental response of grief and loss when their child comes out as queer or trans:
A person’s feelings are theirs, thank you very much, and much like questioning one’s religion or the U.S. defense budget, a person’s feelings are above reproach. In conventional therapeutic practice, feelings are the stones that pave the path to the very essence of a person. Please handle with the appropriate reverence.
Saying Good-bye to the Parental Loss Narrative
While there are a multitude of reasons we’ve come to hold feelings in such regard, many – if not most – of them (including the die-hard and well-circulated influence of intrapsychic, psychodynamic theories), are grounded in liberal-humanism and Western society’s post-enlightenment infatuation with the essential self and primacy of The Individual™️. Feelings are treated as stand-alone absolutes, part of a person’s interior landscape, unsituated and decontextualized from the social world within which they (the feelings and the person) exist.
But people and feelings do exist in a situated and contextualized space of discourse, relational engagement, and language practices (that is, all social interactions that generate meaning). In other words, feelings—as responses to events and expressions of people’s experiences and values—don’t emerge from within a person; rather, they are constructed in social worlds among people. This context gives feelings meaning.
An exemplar of the way feelings get disconnected from the discourses that produce them is the parental loss narrative. When a person comes out as queer or trans, parents often express feelings of grief and loss, as if their child (I use child here to indicate relational position, not age) had died or been disappeared. In fact, the professional literature as well as self-help books are teeming with advice for therapists and parents to follow conventional models of grief and loss (e.g., Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief and Boss’s notions of ambiguous loss) when faced with, what implicitly if not explicitly, is treated like a tragic death.
No one’s died or been disappeared when someone comes out as queer or trans. It’s not an ending; it’s a beginning.
Tilsen's award winning book Queering Your Therapy Practice: Queer Theory, Narrative Therapy, and Imagining New Identities is the first practice-based book for therapists that presents queer theory and narrative therapy as praxis allies. Browse the intro and first chapter here.
Dealing with grief and guilt
When parents meet their queer and trans children’s embrace of their gender and sexual identities with grief, it compounds whatever concerns or fears their child may have had about coming out. It’s not uncommon for queer and trans people to feel guilty about letting their parents down. This guilt is the other side of the same coin of parental loss: people feel guilty for letting their parents down by not living into the assumption that they’ll be straight and/or cisgender, and parents experience grief that their assumptions about who their child is went unrealized.
This heads-I’m-grieving/tails-you’re-guilty coin is the currency of heteronormativity and cisnormativity, two powerful discourses upheld by the gender binary. Because of these dominating discourses, parents are set-up to assume straightness and cisness, and their kids know this. At a time when queer and trans people often want to celebrate and be celebrated, when they look forward to a sense of relief and futures made possible by embodying their identity, they are forced to tend to others’ feelings when we allow these discourses to go unexposed and unexamined. Indeed, parents’ acceptance and support of their trans and queer children is treated as an accomplishment of the parents. (“Hey, Look! I’m not as shitty to my queer kid as I could be!”).
But although dominating discourses are, in fact, dominating, it doesn’t mean they have to be dictating of what we do and how we respond in our therapeutic conversations. In fact, I believe it’s an ethical imperative that we do not allow dominating discourses to dictate (and thus, limit) the options we and our clients have. At this cultural moment, when trans people in particular are the targets of increasing degrees of legislative and physical violence, it’s especially imperative that we resist participation in the parental loss discourse as it plays directly into rightwing anti-trans and anti-queer rhetoric.
The anti-trans movement exploits the assumption of parental loss in order to further their contention that transition is dangerous and wrong. I’m alarmed by therapists’ uncritical stance that a person’s declaration of identity is something to grieve... like a death. Implicitly—if not explicitly—this reflects anti-trans rhetoric inasmuch as it 1) denies trans people author-ity in their lives, 2) centers the experiences of cisgender adults, and 3) suggests transition is bad and that being trans is not a desirable outcome. Even self-proclaimed “trans-affirming” therapists traffic in the parental loss discourse. Now more than ever, any “affirming” practice that falls short of a full-chested insistence that being trans is good (not just something we support when faced with it) is doing more harm than good. If parents experience their children’s gender or sexuality as a loss and say they’re grieving, they are effectively grieving the loss of something that was never theirs to begin with: their child’s identity. Of course, adultism and the assertion that children are property of their parents are other dominating discourses that are absolutely central to the legislative, discursive, and physical attacks on queer, and especially, trans youth.
Do I believe that parents feel a loss and are experiencing grief, despair, and untold other distressing things? Absolutely I do; I know all too well how the limited discursive landscape—one which therapists have been too eager to accept without question—points parents to grief as the only way to make meaning of their child’s embrace of their gender and sexuality.
Do I validate and witness these feelings in a relationally engaged and responsive way? Of course. But I don’t stay there or stop there.
How to show understanding
Along with honoring parents’ feelings, I also ask questions that allow them to examine where their feelings come from, discursively speaking, and to expose the taken-for-granted underpinnings of the gender binary and our heteronormative and cisnormative world. Situating parents’ feelings within discourse (rather than “inside” them as part of a “natural” state) is compassionate and, I’d argue, shows more understanding than simply encouraging them to grieve. Furthermore, when parents expose these discourses and their effects, they get space to see that they have agency to respond in preferred ways.
For example, I’m curious with parents about their aspirations—their missions—as parents. I’ll ask something like, “is grieving your child at a time when they are stepping into their full self, and inviting you into their life* in line with your idea of the kind of parent you aspire to be, or is it the result of all those assumptions?” Together we come to acknowledge that parents of queer and trans people didn’t ask for the gender binary and the litany of normative cultural stories that comes with it to influence their expectations of their child and their own experiences as parents. Once they see the connections between their embodied experience of grief and the social expectations circulated constantly through discourse (is it a boy or girl? does he have a girlfriend?), they’re better able to engage with matters of gender and sexuality in ways that reflect their values and intentions as parents.
Celebrating queer and trans children in their fullness
In addition to exposing and deconstructing the parental loss narrative, I ask questions that help de-center gender and/or sexuality, separating it from what parents cherish about their child. Parents will tell sweet and lovely stories about what they value, admire, enjoy, and love about their kids—there are so many things parents love about their kids! (I’ve never heard a parent say, “I love my children because they’re straight/cisgender.”) This opens up a pathway to uncouple specific qualities or traits from gender or sexual identities, further exposing limiting assumptions. And it positions parents alongside their queer and trans children, firmly in their corner, celebrating them in their fullness. When this happens, there are many feelings: joy, gratitude, belonging, love. I don’t know about you, but I’m a real sucker for those.
Julie Tilsen won the AASECT Book Award for General Audience with her book. Offering fresh, hopeful resources for therapists committed to culturally responsive work with queer and trans people and the important others in their lives, find out more or buy the book here:
*I don’t talk about coming out; instead, I talk about inviting deserving others in.