The Ethical Dilemma: My Nephew May Be Transgender. Their Parents are Evangelical. How Can I Help?

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Express or Suppress Transgender Suspicions? My husband and I have a superficial but friendly relationship with his evangelical brother and his wife. We deal with our religious differences through “live and let live” avoidance. Our kids are all close, which is great. We love their children very much.

Here’s the dilemma: We think their seven-year-old boy might be transgender. He has always preferred “girl” things and, more importantly, talks about wanting to be a girl. As far as I can tell, his parents’ reaction is to try to talk him out of it by telling him about the advantages of being a boy. They allow him to wear “dress up clothes” in their house, but tell him that this is “inside the house” behavior.

I know it’s possible that this is a stage, but what if it’s not? We’ve never discussed this with the parents because of our “live and let live” relationship—and on the one hand, I do feel that how parents raise their kids is (usually) their own business. On the other hand, I also know about the high suicide rates for transgendered kids who have unaccepting parents. I fear that it may be unethical for us to say nothing. But if we do say something, how do we approach this in an effective way that won’t cause his parents to turn a deaf ear, or shut us out of, this child’s life?

—Just a Phase or Just the Beginning?

Dear Just,

Your question is a wonderful example of sensitivity and wisdom, of concern and a sense of responsibility, balanced with respect for boundaries.

As a parent who has listened to people offering well-meaning, sometimes helpful, sometimes totally off-base and occasionally infuriating advice as to how I should handle my kids, I advocate gentleness and tact, and “when in doubt, leave it out” in commenting on other people’s childrearing. Unless someone is quite sure there’s a genuine, serious problem that needs to be addressed—for example, a child who’s having trouble learning because they may have undiagnosed dyslexia, or one who for sure is involved with drugs or shoplifting or bullying or abuse, or is depressed or suicidal, and the parents are clueless—I am inclined toward staying out of it.

From what you describe, these parents are giving their son room to experiment—allowing him to dress up in the privacy of their home but shielding him from outside witnesses at this point. There’s no need for other children, or their parents, to start labeling him before he even understands that anyone might take issue with boys trying on dresses. In contrast, many parents—evangelical or not—wouldn’t for an instant stand for a boy doing anything they consider girlish, even in his own room. So this is a really encouraging sign. It’s quite possible this couple has the same suspicions you do, and they are cautiously, compassionately finding their way, along with their son. No need for you to say anything at this point.

What you do want to do is continue to be involved as you are, with your two families doing things together. That way you, and perhaps your children as well, can keep an eye on how this boy and his parents are progressing. Do whatever you can to make them aware that you are available should they need someone to talk to—especially if the child needs a trusted friend who will listen without judging or trying to steer him down one particular path.

At the same time, you might look for opportunities to discuss with the parents the exponentially increasing awareness and acceptance of all the possible variations on traditional gender roles. Maybe a mention of Caitlyn Jenner could trigger a conversation. Do a little research on the statistics of how many people may not fit the binary model of male/female gender identities, how these variations are becoming much more recognized and accepted than ever before, and resources for children and families with gender issues. If you can, segue into the fact that transgender people tend to have a higher likelihood of depression, suicide, and being bullied, not intrinsically because they do not fit into a simple male/female box, but because their nonconformity is rejected and condemned by people around them, often beginning with their parents.

No one—not parents, not well-meaning relatives, not even the most skilled psychosocial professionals—can make life a bed of roses for children who don’t adhere to societal norms. But it is generally more constructive for parents to unconditionally love their children, accept them, and support them than to “protect” them by shoehorning them into an ill-fitting conventional mold. This child of evangelicals has at least a few progressive people—your family—in his life providing other perspectives, so he’s not completely in thrall to fundamentalist mores.

You sound like a very astute, sensitive, and caring person who has the potential to be an invaluable figure in your nephew’s life. At this juncture, take the position of “watchful waiting,” and be poised to offer more if it seems warranted as your nephew matures and his identity develops. The overriding goal is to remain part of his inner circle and support network as his story unfolds.