NEW YORK — This holiday season is going to be different for 16-year-old Jordan Rae O’Reilly, but they’re hoping for the best.
The high school junior in Hagerstown, Maryland, identifies as genderqueer, preferring the above pronoun. And a week before Christmas, they’ll receive top surgery to hopefully end their body dysphoria — the disconnect between their sense of identity and the female one assigned at birth.
“When I first came out I got called my dead name a lot and she/her pronouns, which takes a huge toll on my mental state,” Jordan told The Associated Press.
“The holidays tended to be a huge low for me where I’d find myself a lot more depressed than normal. This year I won’t have to deal with the gender dysphoria, which I think will make my holidays a lot better. However, I know I’ll still have to deal with the misgendering, everywhere I go. Being misgendered is the worst part of the holidays,” they added. “It just reminds you of the part of you that you want to forget about, and it hurts more than usual because it usually comes from family.”
This time of year can be tough on anyone when it comes to gatherings. Advocates for LGBTQ children and teens believe there’s even more at stake when shifts in identity, new names and pronouns, unsupportive relatives and a general lack of knowledge about related gender issues are in play, particularly for the first time.
Gender Spectrum, a San Francisco-area non-profit that helps families, organizations and institutions increase understanding of gender, said there’s plenty that parents can do to help before, during and after holiday gatherings.
DO SOME DETECTIVE WORK
Pam Wool, director of family support for Gender Spectrum, said it’s not uncommon for kids and teens to dismiss questions from parents, especially if they feel their answers will somehow “ruin” the holidays. She suggests starting with a simple question: “What needs to happen for you to feel good during the holidays?”
Parents should attempt to gather information from a child ahead of time at the right time and in the right place. Accept that answers may come in bits and pieces. Reflecting on past holiday gatherings might help. Ask for three things that didn’t go well and how those things can be changed.
“We’re not controlling our inner circle in the same way we might be able to do during the year,” Wool said. “The holidays are a time when we really are with groups of people that might not know us as well. And it really might be the first time that many people who aren’t in our day-to-day lives are seeing our child in a true gender for the first time. That can bring up a lot of situations and feelings for everybody.”
COVERING ALL THE BASES
Parents should think ahead of time what information should be conveyed and to whom. Does a child or teen want to do the talking themselves?
Names and pronouns should be shared beforehand. So should guidance on which questions are OK to ask and which are not. Help others realize that what may seem like an innocent comment, question or mistake can have a lasting negative impact.
“The starting place is what your child wants. It’s important for a parent not to make any assumptions about what a child wants because there are different priorities and different relationships. A child might feel differently about a grandparent using a certain name or pronoun than they do about an aunt, an uncle or a cousin. They might feel like, ‘Oh, for this person it’s really OK. I understand.’ It could be because of the age of the other person. It could be their particular relationship,” Wool said.
DON’T GO INTO ATTACK MODE
Parents need to check their own attitudes at the door, especially if a child is feeling celebratory about coming out recently or deciding on a particular manner of dress. Being thoughtful and deliberate is key when attempting to manage extended relatives and friends.
“A lot of times parents go into kind of Mama Bear, Papa Bear roles of being very protective, and completely understandably so,” Wool said. “Some parents tend to jump to the ultimatum stage really quickly. While it’s true that there are some situations that end up there, and that’s inevitable, we don’t encourage people to start there. There’s a lot of space for even family members and friends who don’t understand and may not even support your child’s gender expression or identity to still find a place in the middle where you can find love and connection.”
DURING A GATHERING
Find a way to check in with your young person in the moment, whether it’s a quick run to the car for some privacy or a stress-relieving pivot to an activity, like a game of cards.
Also, Wool said, shut down conversations related to gender that are inappropriate in the child’s presence, particularly when young children are involved.
“If a teenager in a certain situation really wants to talk about gender and wants to answer questions, that’s different. It’s perfectly natural for adults to have questions and to have feelings and to have worries. What’s not appropriate is to share those with the child. Those are feelings and situations to share with other adults, and to find support elsewhere,” Wool said.
DRESSING & GIFTS
Working out formal attire may take planning, especially if your family will be travelling. How can dresses and suits be modified, for instance, to suit a child’s gender identity?
Parents should make sure all accessories are available: preferred undergarments, accessories, shoes. They should also consider who might find their child’s gender expression in dress difficult or upsetting, and take that on.
Offering a child a gift aligned with gender can be a powerful statement of affirmation and support, Wool said. Handing over the opposite can leave scars and spoil a child’s holiday.
Gender Spectrum suggests parents make it clear to gift givers to stick to what a child is asking for and not to use gifts as a way to challenge a child’s gender. The best rule of thumb, especially for givers who don’t know the child well, is to steer clear of gendered gifts, unless a child has asked for something in particular.
All of that can be conveyed by parents, if necessary. Otherwise, parents can suggest gift certificates for an experience, or gift cards with a broad focus.
“We want the child to feel like they’re loved,” Wool said, “and that they’re seen.”
Leanne Italie, The Associated Press