Editor’s Note: A heartfelt thank you to Sandra Collins, for allowing Transparenthood to feature her essay, “All That Glitters Isn’t Pink.” Originally written for Gender Spectrum, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing education, training and support to help create gender sensitive and inclusive environments for children of all ages, this essay sheds some light on what the holidays can be like for families with gender-expansive children. Sandra is the Executive Director and Founder of Bay Area Rainbow Day Camp and an Assistant Professor, California State University, Chico.
The maple tree in our front yard is losing its leaves; from green, to on-fire-red-to orange, they have been falling to the ground yellow. It signals that it is now the season of fall for my family in Berkeley, CA. As soon as the sugar rush of Halloween has passed, the slow dull ache of anticipating the holidays begins.
Usually, the holidays for most families is meant to be a joyous occasion, a time of family traditions and a time of family gatherings. When you have a Gender-expansive child, however, it can be complicated. We have three children, two cis-gender teenagers and our youngest is a six-year old transgender girl who socially transitioned last year. She has been gender-expansive since she was two years old, wearing pink and primarily girls clothing. Her gender expression was a girl although she was born a biological boy. She did not identify as a girl until last year when she informed us that she was indeed a girl.
That has meant that for four years our family holidays have been tense to say the least. We allowed our child at the time to dress increasingly in pink. At first it was a small tutu, which expanded into a tutu plus a pink top, which became a girl’s hand-me-down dress from a neighbor, which then morphed into buying a red holiday dress with silver sparkles from Target. Now he is a she, and she has chosen a new girl’s name for herself. Gender expression has become Gender identity. Did I say it was confusing for the grandparents?
Both sides of the families were very vocal in their disapproval. Both grandfathers teased her and would say “Surely, you are going to start dressing like a boy now that you are a big boy now, right?” This continued numerous times when they visited throughout the year when we saw them at age 2, 3, and 4. And the identity switch? Oy!
At home and alone with my husband, I was an activist, a roaring and protective mama bear, angry and fierce. We prepared a letter guided by Gender Spectrum’s template and printed it out. But as soon as a grandparent (mine or my husband’s) would enter the picture, my resolve would melt. I felt unsure and tentative. Their intent wasn’t to shame, and it wasn’t so aggressive. I could see their love for my child, and I felt strange if I called them out on their bias when they were interacting with their grandchild, because they were obviously having fun together. At times their micro-aggressions were hard to call out when my own child didn’t read them.
We were in conflict about being a good daughter and son to our parents and being a good mother and father to our child. We weren’t sure about how to navigate educating an older generation about gender identity and expression and whether they were going to really listen about their grandson who was transitioning into a granddaughter.
Over the years, they bought boy’s clothes for Christmas that were obviously meant to counter all the pink dresses in which we had begun to dress their grandson. They were beautiful boy’s designer clothes. But they were a denial of who their grandchild authentically was.
I felt hurt. My daughter was wounded as well. She said, “Mom, these are poo-poo colors. I don’t like them. I’m never wearing them.” We accepted the inappropriate gifts with smiles and re-gifted them or donated them to charity. There were many unsolicited comments and advice given to help us convert their grandchild back to a boy. “Can’t you just make him wear boy’s clothes?” Or, “Why is it so hard to make him wear blue?” And yet that boy had already begun his gender journey to a girl so many years earlier. The color blue was the least of it. How did I explain to them that it was less about colors than about gender identity?
My mother, a devout Buddhist, had told me about the three Buddhist truths: the truth that can be heard, that is kind and that is timely. I talked with her about Scarlett’s evolving gender identity, and my mom became a strong ally who began to work on my father. She told me that when I was young, I had wanted to be a Power Ranger, and I had only played with the neighbor boys since I was a tomboy. She said she even made me a paper penis to wear around the house so that I could explore my own sense of wanting to be a tough tomboy who played with the neighbor boys. I knew that if I had my own gender history that had a “forgotten” gender expression of being a masculine girl, then I could also help advocate for my daughter as well.
She gave me permission to break free of needing to think of their feelings and to concentrate on my child. I knew from then on that it was the most precious gift she could have given me that year, and it was one that hasn’t stopped reverberating in my heart. It was the gift to parent a gender expansive child: to listen and to follow my child’s lead.
In her infinite wisdom, my child had figured it all out, and she announced that she was in fact a transgender girl at the age of 5. We have been following her lead ever since. Given the bravery that it takes to articulate this type of gender identity at such a tender age, both sets of grandparents now understand it. It’s been a year since she transitioned but four since her gender expression, and it’s been consistent, persistent and insistent. They no longer ask about dressing in blue. In fact, they buy girl’s dresses for presents. Happily.
It isn’t easy navigating the holidays with family when you have a gender-expansive child, but it can be done. This is what I have slowly realized as I fumbled through our daughter’s transition. You have a relationship with your parents and they have a relationship with your child. It needs to be kind and respectful. As long as it is good, as theirs was with our child (all of our conversations were always away from my daughter) I would allow the relationship. I know that I am lucky. I have friends who have had to cut their ties with family because their parents commented directly to their children in ways that were shaming and unkind. I feel for my friends, and I know they sought the help of mental health therapists, counselors or religious counsel to help them.
My advice is to be kind to yourself, your child and to your family during the holidays. It isn’t easy to learn about gender expression and identity, but it is possible. I think about the three Buddhist truths – can your comments be heard? Are they kind? Are they timely? These are three ways to gauge whether telling someone about gender expansiveness in gentle ways can be heard in kind and timely ways about a loved one during an emotionally charged time of year. I think of small steps, the phrasing “Have you considered…” and less of lectures and of shaming. If not, we chose to smile to keep the familial bonds strong.
It was our daughter’s conviction of her identity, a strong testament to her authenticity, which ultimately won over her grandparents’ hearts. She proved to them through her authenticity that she is who she is. Ultimately, the most important person to focus on is your child. After the initial sheen of (pink) glitter, the gift that I return to is the one my mother gave to me which is to protect our children by listening and following their lead.