Sitting across from my mom at a small hotel café, I would have expected her to mention something about the quality of the coffee or variety of pastry selections. Previous mornings we talked casually about the latest updates in our family, plans for the next few months, and, of course, the latest breakfast special offered. This morning, however, was different. Unlike the crowded café of the weekend, the weekday breakfast brought reprieve from pushy people arriving just before breakfast was put away and the buzz of dozens of conversations. The quiet calm of our table brought something else to my mom’s mind. I was surprised by her question about the difference between gender identity and sexuality/sexual orientation. As you may imagine, she did not phrase her question with that language, but rather voiced her confusion about how a couple consisting of a transgender man and transgender woman have sex and make decisions about their transitions in relation to having sex. As humans, we need connection and shared learning. But sometimes the language that is used to ask questions feels charged because the topic feels taboo, the words used carry prejudice with or without the speaker’s knowledge, or there is a general sense of fear of the unknown where one or both parties simply do not know.
In this three-part series, I will begin with tips for answering challenging questions and transforming them into collaborative conversations. Parts two and three will go into more detailed explanations of the various spectrums of gender identity, gender expression, sexuality, and sexual orientation. Terminology that may be new to some readers will be found italicized throughout, at first mention, and in a succinct list at the end of each post. The list is not comprehensive, but a place to start. Along the way, my mom’s question will be answered and some! Join me and my mom as we journey through our collaborative conversation.
As a cisgender woman, meaning that my gender identity aligns with the sex I was assigned at birth and the assumed gender based on this, I gave my mom the same disclaimer I want to give the reader: 1) I am, thankfully, not an all-knowing being, so what I shared with my mom, and in these posts with you, is from my current understanding, which could contain human error and will most likely evolve in the future. 2) As stated above, I am a cisgender woman and do not identify as non-binary gender or transgender, and therefore I will never fully understand what it is like to live in a body that does not feel right, should not belong to me, or does feel right but others do not see as matching my gender identity. I have only occasionally been misgendered, meaning that others have assumed and incorrectly labeled my gender based on my appearance and used gender specific terms, such as pronouns, for me that I do not align with, and I, for the most part, appear and act as socially constructed rules project (more on this in Part 3). 3) I believe that each person is unique and the expert on themselves so my story and explanations may not fit for everyone, but I will attempt to provide as much general information as possible. What I am is a fellow human being who is empathetic and understanding. What I can do is educate on language, answer questions from my knowledge base, and speak from my own feelings and experiences that can relate to others’ life experiences.
Two P’s and Three C’s
Talking about topics that are unfamiliar or that we may not have the appropriate language for can be frustrating, scary, and maybe offensive, even if that is not our intent. The purpose of this discussion is to provide tips and language for having these potentially difficult and uncomfortable conversations in a collaborative, constructive manner. The tools I used to talk with my own mom can be summarized into the following concepts: Presence, Patience, Calm, Curiosity, and Context.
The first step to answering my mom’s question, after the disclaimer, was to check in with what feelings came up for me, sit in any discomfort and remain present. Presence, or being present, involves staying in the moment, remaining mentally and physically in one place at the current time. To do this takes practice with becoming aware of yourself, what feelings and emotions are surfacing, where tension shows up in your body, what is happening with your breathing, and where your thoughts are taking you. Is your mind wondering to your to-do list or trained on the person in front of you and the topic at hand? Is your breathing shallow in your chest or deep in your belly? Are your shoulders on the rise, heading straight for your ears, or relaxed? Feelings like anger or sadness, and reactions such as defensiveness or shutting down may arise, as they did for me at first mention of my mom’s loaded question, but I had to remember to recognize and utilize these as fuel for our conversation. Being aware of yourself also gives you the opportunity to voice feelings to your companion. These observations provide clues about the meaning that you give the topic, what your companion may be experiencing, and ways to self-soothe to remain open.
With presence comes the ability to tend to your needs, which in turn helps you attend to your companion. My initial surprise at my mom’s blunt question left me with tightness in my chest and the urge to change the subject. After checking in with myself, I found that I was proud of my mom for having the courage to ask questions and realized that my initial anxieties mirrored those in my mom. I drew upon patience and calm to promote an environment of mutual learning. To lay the foundation for collaborative conversation there needs to be a sharing, and often teaching, of language and meaning, which can take time and effort. This is where patience for your companion comes in! Shortness and urgency leave many of us feeling anxious, ready to shut down and check out. Having patience improves openness and the ability to have a shared learning experience. Remaining calm, facilitated by efforts to self-soothe, such as deep breathing and consciously releasing areas of tension, reduces shaming and defensiveness. This, in turn, allows for openness and the reciprocation of calm as a shared state of being. Additionally, both patience and calm provide the atmosphere for giving each other the benefit of the doubt, where both participants can accept that they do not know everything, including the intentions behind challenging questions.
Staying curious creates space for both parties to feel comfortable to ask questions, be heard, and form collective understanding, even if both parties do not agree. Key to curiosity is leaving expectations and assumptions at the door. Ask for clarification and remain willing to clarify. Curiosity provides the opportunity for transformation by creating a shared experience of openness and understanding. In the conversation with my mom, curiosity allowed my mom to be vulnerable and ask her question and helped me share the information I could provide, while being willing to admit when I did not know. We could then accept the limitations we share in our understanding, create room for us to continue revisiting the topic, build our shared knowledge, and strengthen our relationship.
To maximize the effectiveness of all the previously highlighted concepts is the consideration of context. Context is the background and stage setting that each of us carries with us. Each interaction and experience contributes to every person’s evolving context, and this shapes and guides us through all future interactions. For my conversation with my mom, I had to keep in mind many contextual clues. The first was the generational gap between me and my mom. My mom was never exposed to anything beyond gender being body and chromosome related and limited to the gender binary until a few years ago. Even I had limited exposure to genders outside of the gender binary until college. Additionally, my mom grew up in a small, conservative, Southern town, while I grew up in a more liberal Southern city. We also have different backgrounds in knowledge about the LGBTQ+ community, where I have a formal education in gender and queerstudies while my mom has only been exposed to informal discussions of gender and sexuality in the last few years through new friendships in the LGBTQ+ community. One major contextual factor is that we are both cisgender women discussing gender identities beyond our own.
Awareness of context provides insight into what we know and do not know, the language we use, the meanings we assign, and how we can continue to evolve and learn from each other. My mom and my contexts provided lenses through which we approached our conversation, and awareness of these created room for forgiveness, understanding, and all the previous P’s and C’s. Just as my mom loves to see how I continue to grow and change as a person as I age, I am constantly amazed at how much my mom has grown and changed in her tolerance, understanding, and acceptance. Discussions like this one in the hotel café have contributed to both of our evolutions over the last several years. Even with all the factors working against a collaborative conversation, I am amazed and appreciative of my mom’s willingness to be vulnerable and ask tough questions that are outside of her comfort zone. My hope in sharing this experience is to appeal to the very human quality of making mistakes and learning from them. In doing so, we can be more forgiving, more tolerant, and more open to all.
*This story was told with permission from my mom. Thanks, mom!
*Note: Language is constantly evolving and many of these terms may change in the future. Terms are, generally, ordered as they appeared in the text above. Additional terms were added to the list for clarity.
Brill, S., & Kenney, L. (2016). The transgender teen: A handbook for parents and professionals supporting transgender and non-binary teens. Jersey City, NJ: Cleis Press.
It’s Pronounced METROsexual (2012, May). What does the asterisk in “trans*” stand for?. http://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2012/05/what-does-the-asterisk-in-trans-stand-for/\
TSER: Trans Student Educational Resources (n.d.). Definitions. Retrieved September 9, 2018 from https://www.transstudent.org/about/definitions