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Supporting gender expression - heart hands shown with colors from the trans and nonbinary flags.

Supporting Gender Expression as a Parent and Loved One

October 13, 2022

National Coming Out Day falls every October, and it’s always an incredible reminder of how publicly presenting your gender is a serious process. For parents of trans and non-binary kids, the topic of gender expression can be difficult to navigate– even if your intentions are positive, there are ways that you can accidentally show insensitivity or ignorance towards your child’s gender.

Your kid comes out to you as trans or non-binary– how do you help them feel comfortable being themselves?

It’s so much more than just taking them shopping for new clothes or taking them for a new haircut. With years of experience as a personal stylist, and working with 20+ trans or gender fluid clients, I’ve put together ways that you can be supportive through their growth, as well as a list of what to be mindful of in regard to your behavior.

Do’s

  1. Listen. When they’re opening up to you about how they feel, listen. It takes a lot of vulnerability for someone to want to talk with you about how they want to look. 
  2. Let them react first and only share your opinion if they ask for it. Your opinion should not be present unless it gets an invitation. If their reaction is different than how you feel, keep your judgment to yourself!
  3. Encourage them to try, explore, and play. Discovering your style needs to be done in a safe, supportive space. 
  4. Provide extra positive support if they need some additional courage, especially when they’re trying something new or far out of their comfort zone.

Things to be aware of

  1. Try not to bring attention to how their body may appear differently because of their assigned gender. Saying things like “we need to hide/downplay your broad shoulders” is problematic no matter the gender of who you’re speaking to, but it can feel especially dysphoric for someone who is transitioning. 
  2. We’re constantly unlearning the conditioning we’ve experienced regarding gender, and the ideals surrounding gender. As a support person, it is not your role to push someone to dress a certain way because it matches your ideas of how they should look. Their transition, their identity is not about you. 
  3. Be mindful that you don’t comment on whether you think something is too big or too small. Fit is a personal preference! Everyone defines their level of comfort in their unique way. If they ask you “does this fit?” Or “do you think I need a different size” then you can look at key fit points such as the placement of the seams especially on the shoulders or hips. Look for unintended bunching or puckering, or excess fabric. 
  4. When they ask you “what do you think?”,  avoid making statements like “it fits you”, or “the clothes are nice.” Those may be true statements, but there’s no emotion behind it. There’s nothing thoughtful about how you’re answering their question. It may seem like they’re asking you as a trap, they’re not. They’re looking for validation and confirmation that they’re making the right choice about something they like.

In order to fully be yourself, you need to feel safe as yourself. Your role as their support person is to create a safe space. You may feel like you’re protecting them by sharing your opinion, but unless they ask for your opinion, your words could do more harm than good. The way your child, friend, or family member needs to express themselves (through style) is completely about them as the unique individual that they are. It might feel like you’re protecting them by telling them what to wear and what not to, but you could be smothering their need to show up fully expressed. It could be challenging for you to let go of how you view your loved one, but to be blunt, it’s not about you.

If your child or other loved one seems unsure of whether they’re wearing the right clothes, here are some genuine questions that you can ask to lead them in a positive direction and open up a bit more. (And hopefully make them more excited about the experience!!)

  • How do you feel while wearing this?
  • How does it feel to see yourself in it?
  • Does this look align with what you imagined? Why, or why not?
  • What do you see yourself wearing this piece with, or accessorizing?
  • You might feel a little nervous, but that’s not always a bad thing – do you feel a little excited too? What situation do you see yourself wearing this outfit and LOVING it?
  • What’s missing?
    • Trying on clothes in stores can be hard for everyone because you can’t reach into your closet and pull out your favorite jacket or experiment with makeup to see the full silhouette. Encourage your loved one to talk about this and open up their imagination to how they’ll create a full look if just being in a dressing room isn’t completing the picture.
  • Are you comfortable in this outfit in all ways? (Physically, emotionally, spiritually.)

Always bring the attention back to them and their feelings. Being able to talk about how they feel in their new clothes, will help them to find more clothes that are similar in the future, because they will be able to reference back to how they felt.

I’m always excited to help people with finding the style that affirms their gender and makes them feel euphoric, so please reach out if you or someone you love could use some help from a personal stylist. But there are also tons of other resources that can help you in all other ways. Here are some things I highly recommend:

Instagram handles

@shannoncollinsphoto – Queer photographer, parent, and founder of Youthphoria

@thejeffreymarsh – Nonbinary author, coach, and healer

@jamesissmiling – Trans actor, writer, and influencer

@mx.deran – Trans content creator

Meetings

Rainbow Connections – Abington Free Library

Podcast

Rainbow Parenting

Therapy

http://arrivetherapy.com/ (Philly suburbs, but they also have virtual support groups for trans folks/parents of trans folks/partners of trans folks that can be incredibly helpful!!)

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