A Holiday Gift Guide for Trans Kids
Gift giving, gender roles, and parent-child trust
Growing up as a young closeted trans boy I received a lot of traditionally feminine gifts:
Always that cheap, generic perfume and body wash set you get at the drug store because you can’t think of anything else. The more visibly masculine my presentation became, the more often I got that sort of gift: I could never tell if it was thoughtless or malicious. An attempt to coerce me into femininity with cheap garbage that would probably give me hives if I actually used it? Or a last-minute gift by someone realizing they know nothing about me except my gender?
Except they didn’t know that, either.
Of course, I knew that boys could use scented body wash. In fact, many of the conventionally feminine things that I got as gifts were things I liked. But the fact that they were gifts; they were things I had not asked for; made them problematic.
The fact is, we assess what others think of us based on the gifts they give.
You could absolutely love something, secretly, and be mortified that someone else decided, “this is who I think you are,” and gave it to you as a gift. Because maybe the sort of person they associate with the gift isn’t actually who you are, or who you want to be.
Maybe you’re embarrassed, for example, that your partner gave you the Funko Pop you wanted: because even though there was one you liked, you think Funko Pops are plastic garbage that represent the worst aspects of consumerist nerd culture. And now your partner, you think, thinks you’re one of those consumerist nerds.
The culture of gift-giving is something we often talk about when someone visits a foreign country: in many cultures, for example, giving knives as a gift represents a desire to end the friendship. Rules about gift-giving between two people of culturally similar upbringing are rarely discussed.
My mom would sometimes ask for high-ticket cookware or cleaning products as Mother’s Day gifts, and we would always balk at this: to give your mother a vacuum or a frying pan on Mother’s Day signals that you see her as a cook and a maid.
When I was a kid, my mom got a Christmas card from one of our aunts. It had a picture of a puppy on it. She held the card up and asked,
“There’s a dog on this — is she calling me a bitch?”
So even today, though I like a lot of conventionally feminine things, I’m uncomfortable receiving them as gifts from family.
It was my parents, after all, that I had to convince I was a boy initially to be allowed to transition. This meant that even though I knew that one does not need to conform to gender stereotypes to be a boy, to be a girl, to be anything; my survival depended on being whatever I felt I had to be to get my parents to believe this was real.
Trans gender identity is typically not thought of the same way as cis gender identity; especially back then, it wasn’t. A cis child was allowed to be gender-nonconforming and still be cis, but being transgender was considered a medical condition in which conforming to traditional gender roles was the defining symptom. For decades, trans people were forced to perform these roles in front of doctors in order to obtain access to medical transition. As a result, the diagnostic criteria became a stereotype: people think we’re actually like that.
And if we’re not like that, they think we’re not really trans: that we have to be prevented from transitioning, or we’ll regret it.
I’m conflicted about it.
Not about transitioning. That was absolutely the right thing to do. About the gift thing.
I’d like to be able to discuss the fact that I’m not hypermasculine with my family without them thinking I’m detransitioning, but the fact is that they lost my trust regarding my gender long ago and I’m not sure any amount of support can bring that back.
I’m not sure how complex their understanding of gender is. We’ve never really talked about it because I’ve never been able to get far in serious discussions with my parents: as a kid, my mom would start crying, and my dad would yell at me for making my mom cry. As an adult, I’ve been able to express some more complex ideas about gender around my parents without upsetting them, but the fact that I wasn’t as a child may have led them to believe that I didn’t have complex thoughts.
And that’s somewhat of a trend I see in parents of trans children: they won’t listen to what their kids have to say, and then go on to assume the kids aren’t thinking.
After I came out, changed my name, started taking hormones: my mom would still occasionally try to get me to wear women’s jeans or shoes.
“It’s okay for men to wear women’s jeans,” she’d say, “isn’t that the style now?”
And both of those statements were entirely true. But it just felt like gaslighting. Now that I was a man, any time I didn’t want to do something that was conventionally feminine, she could insinuate that it was because of toxic masculinity: not dysphoria, not trauma and distrust following years of coercion.
And I hated that: that I felt obligated to perform conventional masculinity in front of my mother in some dim hope that it would get her to leave my gender alone.
And I hate that I feel, now, that when my parents ask me what I want for my birthday, I can’t ask them for nail polish or bath bombs, because what if they see that as a license to start calling me she?
Of course, they know I’m gay (queer is more accurate, but I tell straight people I’m gay because they know what that is) and I worry, too, that they think I’m only allowed to transgress gender stereotypes because I’m gay. Or that they think I think that.
The point I’m trying to make, I suppose, is that if you’re a parent of a trans child, and you think that your kid doesn’t understand the complexity of gender: the simple gender you’re seeing may be an act they’re putting on for you.
You may be mutually treating one another like you’re incapable of understanding. So talk to your kid like an adult, and act like an adult when you do it, and maybe they’ll trust you.