Learning to Parent Transgender Children

Photo by darkdays via Flickr.
Photo by darkday via Flickr.


Over the past few years, stories of transgender children celebrated by their parents have flooded the Internet. But how do these parents come to be supportive of their gender-variant kids? In a recent article in Gender and Society, Elizabeth Rahilly tries to answer that question. Her interviews reveal that instead of entering parenthood with gender-progressive ideologies, supportive parents learn to accept their child’s gender-variance after their child’s persistent urging. Together, parents and children develop methods to reaffirm the child’s gender identity and combat the gender binary.

Rahilly identifies three common techniques that indicate a shift in parents’ perspectives on how best to raise their gender-variant children. In this study, “gender variant children” refers both to children who identify as a different gender than they were assigned at birth and who more casually cross traditional gender boundaries. In responding to their gender variant children, parents first use what Rahilly calls “gender hedging,” or the creation of boundaries for their child’s gender variance. A gender hedging parent might allow their male child to wear pink socks, but not a pink sweater.

Gender hedging allows both children and parents to explore gender nonconformity and begin to question the legitimacy of the gender binary. This questioning leads parents to seek out information about gender-variant children, connecting them to online materials that accept and normalize gender variance.

Then parents participate in “gender literacy,” or active education of their children about issues of gender variance. Rahilly argues that gender literacy permits parents to actively resist the gender binary and demonstrate acceptance of their own children. Finally, parents adopt a practice of “playing along” with the gender binary according to boundaries set partially by their children. For example, a parent may not correct a stranger who mis-genders a child in a grocery store if a child requests their silence, but will address a teacher who mistreats the child.

Ultimately, Rahilly found that supportive parenting of gender-variant children is largely child-driven. Neither parents nor children are driven by ideologies that encourage gender variation, such as feminism or gender-neutral parenting. Instead, accepting parenting practices develop directly in response to the children’s interpretations of their gender and corresponding understanding of their needs.