What We Learned

I spent Labor Day weekend at the Gender Spectrum Family Conference in Berkeley, where I led a workshop for parents of gender-nonconforming kids. Much of the focus of the Gender Spectrum conferences, so far, has been geared toward parents of transgender kids–children who insist, consistently and persistently, that the body they were born in does not reflect their true gender. There’s been less space devoted to kids who, like my son Sam, are happy with their bodies but prefer the clothes, manner of play, toys, and playmates (not to mention accessories) typically associated with the opposite gender.

The workshop came out of conversations I’ve had over the years with Gender Spectrum’s Director of Education and Training, Joel Baum. One of the things Joel and I have discussed is that being–and parenting–a transgender kid has a huge number of challenges. But being–and parenting–a kid who doesn’t quite fit into either the male or female box has its own set of challenges, some of which are quite similar to those of trans kids, and some of which are quite different. So last year, Joel and I hatched the idea to create a space at this conference for parents of gender-nonconforming kids to talk about the issues that our kids face, and that we face as their parents.

In my workshop, I encouraged the fifty or so parents in attendance to just talk, and to listen to each other. We talked about our kids being hassled in the bathroom, confusion in the classroom and on the playground, conflicts with school administrators, trouble with pronouns, talking to family members who don’t understand. Parents shared resources and ideas and support, talking more about their successes than their failures.

As we talked, it dawned on me that I’d unconsciously expected the discussion to be a real downer, as we reviewed all the ways that we’d all fought and lost trying to make space for our kids to be themselves. What surprised me is how much progress parents are actually making in homes and schools across this continent to broaden the definition of what it means to be a girl or a boy in an otherwise binary world. And what I clearly saw was how much love these parents have for their kids, how hard it is to exist in the not-knowing about where their children are headed, and how little they think they know—and how much they really do know.

And what we all learned was this: we are not alone.



  1. Jackson says

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; you’re awesome and other parents that accept their kids the way their kids want to be are awesome!

    Even though I’m considered an adult, I still wish I had parents that are as supportive of my transqueer (My own identity coupling a transgender but also genderqueer identity) identification as you and all the parents who showed up to talk about the successful strides being made for children who are genderqueer, non-conforming, etc. to just be.

    • shoffman says

      Jackson, thank you! I hear from many trans/gender-nonconforming adults that they wished their upbringings had been different…there are so many more resources for parents now than there used to be. Your voice is such an important part of the dialog. Have you heard about Caitlin Ryan’s work with the Family Acceptance Project? She shows how much of a difference family acceptance can make.

  2. WA says

    When “seldom is heard an encouraging word,” your encouraging words were thrilling to read, Sarah. Thank you for your all your work in putting concerned people in touch and giving them an informed basis from which to think and speak about the issue of gender conformity with children. The conference must have felt like a milestone in your work.

  3. Patti says

    I echo those offering congratulations, Sarah. I, too, am an adult and transgender. For a number of reasons, I am forced to retain this male body that houses a female on the inside. Every day, and every hour I’m awake, I am painfully aware of my dilemma: I’m a woman but only a few close friends know. How lucky children like yours are to have supportive parents. I know my mom knew I was a girl but she also knew I had no choice but to live with it. Children with parents like you have options. I envy them. Best wishes.

    • shoffman says

      Patti, it breaks my heart when I hear stories like yours–your mom knew, but couldn’t give you the options you needed to be truly yourself. Was/is she accepting to the extend that she could/can be? We are so fortunate that times are changing, though we have a long way to go to gain acceptance for trans and gender-nonconforming kids/adults. I feel strongly that people like you–those devoted to self-acceptance and willing to speak up about their experiences–are a big part of why this world is changing.

  4. Melissa says

    I so wish I could have been there! Chris never expresses a desire to be a girl. But he is as feminine a child as you will meet. Trying to explain to someone that your child with the ponytails and yellow sun dress is a boy and the first thing they ask is ” oh so he wants to be a girl ” umm…no he doesnt at least not as of now. The next question is almost always ” then what is he ? “. I just answer he is being himself.

    Why does everything have to be categorized anyway? Isnt having a happy healthy child enough :)

    • shoffman says

      Melissa, I’m planning a series on this topic–what it’s like to raise gender-nonconforming kids. It’s remarkable how uncomfortable it makes people when a child doesn’t fit the All Boy or All Girl category. Transgender people have had to work so hard for acceptance–and now, oddly (and wonderfully for trans people), I’m meeting more and more people who understand transgender people but can’t understand a kid who is gender-nonconforming.

  5. Patti says

    As you said, times were different then. I never could tell her how much I wanted to be a girl. But she knew. She knew I was more sensitive than my two brothers and took special care of me. She worried about me more than my borthers, too. And she would take me with her shopping and doing other things, which I loved. But she just couldn’t offer to let me buy girl clothes; she just couldn’t, though she knew how much I wanted to. I was disappointed, but I understood. She knew I wore her clothes whenever I could and when I was a teen, bought some of my own clothing. She said nothing. But she knew. we truly had a mothger-daughter relationship emotionally. I only wish I was born later so that my mother could be as understanding as you, Sarah.

    • shoffman says

      Patti, I hope that the level of acceptance your mother did have for you, which was probably all she could express given the time, made a difference for you.

      Thanks so much for sharing your story.

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