This past summer, I was having lunch with my daughter, who is my youngest child, at a restaurant. Our waiter approached our table for the first time, to bring us glasses of water. He looked at me and said, “Hello, ma’am,” and then turned to my daughter and said, “Hello, sir.” Then he did a double-take, and said to my daughter, “Oh, I’m so sorry, miss!” He blushed and was very apologetic. My daughter laughed and told him, “No worries!” After he walked away, I started to tell my daughter I was sorry for what he had said. My daughter interrupted me and said, “Oh, Mom, I love it when that happens! I love it when people aren’t sure if I’m a girl or a boy.”
My daughter is non-binary or gender neutral. They prefer that people use the pronouns “they” and “them” when referring to or speaking to them.
How I Reacted When My Child Came Out As Non-Binary
I would like to tell you that when they came out to me as non-binary, I was the perfect mother. I would like to tell you I knew exactly what to say, how to support them, how to be non-judgmental and how to respond the way they wanted me to. I would like to tell you that, but it’s not true. I remember feeling overwhelmed, scared, sad and a little shocked. I told them that I loved them, but I also said I just didn’t understand. My child told me, “I love you too, Mom. Remember: just because you don’t understand something doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
To which my super-intelligent reply is, “Well, duh!” Of course, my child was right! As a mom, I needed to read, research, ask questions, talk to experts and listen to my child … a lot! I needed to understand.
How I Supported My Child When They Came Out
Gender underlies and infuses so much of our identity and our perceptions of other people. It’s the first question we ask during the prenatal ultrasound. It’s the first thing we identify when a child is born. The way we treat others, including how we speak to or about people, is affected by our own gender and the gender we perceive others to be, whether we are aware of it or not.
Those of us who are cis gender (a person whose sense of identity and gender matches their birth sex) take gender for granted. In all our childhood memories, we have always had a sense of “fitting in” to our gender.
Put yourself in their shoes.
Try to imagine how hard it would be if every time you were referred to as a boy or girl, every time you were dressed in gendered clothing, every time you were given a doll or a train set to play with, imagine if it always felt WRONG. Try to imagine how hard it would be if the people in your life who love you the most and know you the best, your parents, have no idea that this most fundamental part of your personality and life is not what they think it is.
Love on them and know they are finally living their truth.
As a pediatrician at UnityPoint Clinic LGBTQ - Methodist Plaza, I have the privilege to meet amazing children and teenagers who have incredible strength and self-knowledge. They know that they were not assigned the correct gender when they were born, and since gender is such a huge and life-altering aspect of their being, they know they cannot live a lie anymore. Many of them have been bullied, been terrified to tell their parents and friends and have contemplated suicide, all because the core of their identity feels so wrong.
Some patients know they are the opposite gender from the one they were assigned at birth. Other patients, like my daughter, do not identify as one gender but realize they are on a spectrum or continuum between male and female. Ask questions, but don’t question their identity. Accept and let the love for your child guide you.
I have learned, researched and read a lot in the last few years to educate myself about this incredible field of gender and sexuality in medicine. My patients and their families have taught me so much and will continue to teach me every time I see them. They inspire me with their courage and their belief in themselves. It is an honor for me to help them on their journey of becoming who they were on the inside all along.
Know that’s it’s OK to be sad and have mixed emotions.
My child was very happy after they came out to me and told me they were non-binary. They felt open and honest, like they were living their true life. At first, I was sad. I said to them, “This is not how I pictured your life and your future. I am grieving for what I’ve lost.” “Mom,” they said, “you never had what you think you’ve lost. Your job was to teach me to love myself and believe in myself, and I do. It’s my job to live my life and my future, and that’s what I’m doing.”
Of course, my child was right. Now, I realize that my child coming out to me was the greatest gift they could give me. They are happier now than they’ve ever been because they are now living authentically. They trusted me and loved me enough to include me in their life, and they want me to be a part of their future. I get to be a part of their new happiness.
Raising Your Kids With Pride
I am certainly not a perfect mother, and I never have been. I didn’t do everything right when my child came out to me. But I am a wonderfully blessed mom. My husband and I have two amazing kids. Our oldest child, our son, is incredible. Our youngest child is non-binary. They are incredible too.
- Wendi Harris, MD | Pediatrician
LGBTQ Health Care Information
To learn more about our UnityPoint Clinic - LGBTQ clinic location in Central Iowa and for educational resources, please visit unitypoint.org/lgbtq and/or visit Blank Children's Hospital for medical care options for gender-variant and transgender youth. You are all important, and everyone is welcome at UnityPoint Health.