I held my daughter's hand as we walked toward the sanctuary; I could feel my stomach churning and beads of sweat forming in my armpits. Gabby was wearing a fabulous dress we picked out with her nana, her newly long locks (thank you, extensions) curled just so, and a somewhat tentative smile hanging on her cute little 8-year-old face.
It was the first bat mitzvah in our immediate family, and it coincided with the holiday season, making the occasion especially festive. And while technically my niece was the guest of honor, I sensed all eyes turning toward us as we headed to our seats. We hadn’t seen most of our friends and family since one of our twin sons became our twin daughter.
“Hi, angel,” Gabby’s nana said, breaking the ice. “Don’t you look beautiful,” she continued and gave her a warm hug.
I let out the huge breath I didn’t realize I was holding and thought maybe this wouldn’t be so difficult after all.
And then I heard someone scream “Katie!!!” a little too loudly for my taste and well within ear shot of my twins (and likely most everyone else in the temple). I turned around to see my Uncle Ed smiling and waving from four rows back. “So nice to see you! You look great! Where are your boys?”
My heart sank.
That was several years ago. This year’s holiday parties and reunions have the potential to be stressful for all families; COVID has kept many loved ones apart for the better part of two years. Ripping off the proverbial Band-Aid…and heading back to in-person celebrations could add to the pressure of these often-fraught family functions. Going to these gatherings with a child who has transitioned genders in the past two years can feel like stress on top of stress.
“This could be a worrisome moment. This could also be a joyful moment,” explains Benjamin Davis, a psychotherapist, educator and author, who focusses on the needs of transgender and non-binary individuals and families. Davis suggests pre-planning can help mitigate the stress for newly trans kids and their parents, during a time when so many variables are out of a family’s control. For example, talking to relatives in advance or even sending a letter.
“One of the things that is in our control is to say (to relatives), ‘Hey, by the way, so-and-so is going by this name right now and using these pronouns,'" Davis advises. "'These are some other things that we’ve been up to for the last two years. But this is a piece of their experience that is really important to us — that we support and validate them. And so, the ways that we can support so-and-so is by using their name and using their pronouns.'"
My husband and I chose to send a trans version of the “Dear John” letter a few months before our first family reunion. The letter telling friends and family that Gideon was now Gabriella. That “he” was now a “she.” And asking everyone to address her accordingly … while also requesting they not make a big deal of the change or draw any additional attention to our new daughter or our new family dynamic when they saw us this first time. But reading about our trans daughter was one thing; seeing her in person for the first time was a different beast, even for our left-leaning, liberal and mostly accepting family. And I wanted to spare Gabby and all of us from any excessive awkwardness — and stares, as our daughter made her debut. That was pre-pandemic.
Davis says that in a strange way, COVID might relieve some of the uneasiness felt by newly trans kids, especially since almost everyone has experienced changes and transitions in the past two years. “I wonder if it’s helpful to both validate that … and to think about how there’s a little bit of a buffer right now," Davis says. "There’s a lot of newness in this time, which may or may not help in feeling less stress, but I think it’s maybe relevant.”
Also relevant, according to Davis, is discussing, or even acting out, possible scenarios that could happen. Like planning what to say if Uncle John or Aunt Jill uses the wrong pronoun when talking to or about your child while sipping that third glass of eggnog.
“I think an honest slip-up is an honest slip-up. And the intention is not malicious in any way. But I do think that the impact is relevant,” Davis says. If you’re the relative who makes the slip-up? “You need to take accountability,” advises Davis. “That doesn’t mean saying, ‘Oh my God, I’m so so sorry.’ But it is saying, ‘Wow, I used the wrong pronoun; I’m sorry.’ You correct yourself and move on.”
That said, there’s a big difference between a pronoun slip-up and an intrusive question, and Davis says setting boundaries can be critical, especially when it comes to kids. Which means if a partygoer asks you or your child about their sexuality, their potential plans for surgery, or anything you or your kid feels is off-limits, you’re not obligated to answer.
On the contrary, says Davis, “I think it’s perfectly fine to say, ‘That’s not a conversation we’re going to participate in. That’s a boundary. That’s private.' It’s important to remember that transgender children are, after all, children. ... I do think that with young people, that we really need to protect them, we really need to kind of help them navigate the outside world, which is unfortunately right now, quite hostile for trans folks.”
Ultimately, this might mean limiting contact, or even cutting off ties, with family members who are transphobic, unsupportive and/or abusive toward your kid.
That advice was certainly helpful for a good friend of mine, whose 9-year-old son made his family debut on Christmas Eve three years ago. An aunt immediately approached Jared (formerly Jemma) and told him he’d go to hell if he continued “acting this way.” Jared and his parents haven’t seen his aunt since.
I know our Uncle Ed meant no harm with his “boys” comment when my daughter donned her first dress at our holiday mitzvah four years ago. And I was thankful he apologized for his slip-up. I was even more thankful when I glanced over at my daughter during the party two hours later. She was dancing on stage with her brother, her cousin and a slew of other kids, keeping up with their moves every step of the way. Gabby’s smile radiated as brightly as the LED lights blinking around her.
“Look,” I said to my husband and pointed towards the emcee. “She’s up there with everyone. She seems so comfortable. So happy!”
My husband nodded. “Just one of the girls,” he agreed. Then he grabbed my hand and led me onto the dance floor.
Kate Brookes is a former TV reporter turned writer/producer. She’s also mom to twin tweens, one of whom is transgender.