There are so many essays on the internet about explaining gender and sexuality to children. Ironically, they’re the demographic who need these concepts explained the least. They haven’t been around long enough to be fettered by heterocentrism and gender policing. My middle-age, Caribbean parents on the other hand? I wish there was a guide out there for making them understand. After coming out as bisexual last June and the rough couple of months that followed, I finally see them becoming the allies I’ve always needed. But they have a lot of catching up to do.
Both of my parents were raised in Carriacou, Grenada, where LGBTQ people face far greater discrimination than they do in the U.S. Under restrictive buggery and gross indecency laws, same-sex conduct remains illegal in Grenada. My mom likes to say that that isn’t true — and perhaps those laws are rarely enforced in our modern era — but their mere existence speaks volumes. They ensure that discrimination against LGBTQ people can persist because it’s state-sanctioned. Coming from that background, American concepts of sexuality and gender identity aren’t just foreign to my parents, they’re also uncomfortable.
My parents learned that gender identity and sexuality are inextricably linked. They spent their entire lives thinking that if I liked my same sex, they would have known. They assumed that a queer little girl would play a lot of basketball, wear her hair short, and prefer the color blue. I have never seen someone look more confused than my mother did when I told her that I’d always known I was bisexual. “I had never even considered that,” she admits.
Both she and my dad were taught that heterosexuality is a default setting, that people fit into two different gender categories and that there is an accepted set of behaviors for each. They never questioned this. While they could perhaps understand that people exist outside of those roles, they struggle with the idea that they aren’t real but manufactured.
I brought one partner, a masculine-of-center woman, to their house a few months ago. My dad pulled me to the side to ask, “Does she have one of those gender thingies you always talk about?”
I assume he meant to ask if she was a trans person. But there is, of course, a difference between someone’s gender expression and identity. I tried to make the distinction, but I only got a blank stare in return.
A few weeks later, my beaming father sat next and told me he’d watched a documentary on gender. Suddenly, he imagined himself to be an expert. “I bet you didn’t even know Magic Johnson’s son is trans,” he said.
I looked it up. EJ Johnson is not, in fact, a transgender person. He is, however, gender fluid. Again, I noticed my dad was conflating gender expression with identity.
As a cisgender femme, I probably have a lot to learn. But I do so by literally asking people questions and then respecting their answers.
“How am I supposed to know if someone is trans or not?” he asked when I corrected him.
“Does it matter?”
My father didn’t actually want to know how to identify a person’s genitals without seeing them. Instead, he had stored two sets of rules in his brain for so long that rather than throw them out the window, he was hoping I’d tell him how to assign them properly. This confusion is best expressed by his later question: “How do I know if they’re a he or a she?”
“You just ask,” I responded. He looked at me like I had six heads, so I elaborated a little. “You can ask which pronouns they prefer.”
I don’t profess to be an expert on gender. As a cisgender femme, I probably have a lot to learn. But I do so by literally asking people questions and then respecting their answers. My dad was perplexed at the idea someone could choose an identity, as if that made it less real. I had to remind him that gender is only real because we perceive it to be. It’s real insofar as it informs the way people are socialized, policed, and harmed. Gender is very obviously politicized. Outside of that, gender can be whatever we want it to be.
I have non-binary friends and partners, and it is in meeting them that my parents have had a breakthrough. It was only my sixth time explaining that my friend Darling prefers they/them pronouns, that we use the singular they/them in many other contexts, and that even I mess up sometimes but that we were going to commit, as a family, to using the correct ones. Finally, something clicked.
“People just know how they want to identify?” my mother asked. Yes! Yes. Perhaps it feels too simplistic but that’s because it is, in reality, that simple. How masculine or feminine a person is doesn’t always reflect their gender identity. This is true for everyone, whether they’re trans, cis, or somewhere in between. We can meaningfully discern gender by trusting individual people to tell us theirs and by accepting that every label is subject to change.
“So we just shouldn’t assume anymore?” my dad asked, incredulous.
Yes. They even realized that by assuming I was a heterosexual person and parroting certain misconceptions about LGBTQ people my entire life, they had made me feel isolated. They didn’t mean to. But the sad truth is that so many LGBTQ youth face mental health disparities simply because they recognize that their identity is something that separates them. Sometimes we look at heterocentrism as something passive when really, it has consequences just like outright homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia do.
My parents raised me with a certain picture of who I would be, informed by the fact that girls are supposed to like boys and boys are supposed to like girls. But I like both genders. In fact, I like all genders. Bisexuality is the potential for attraction to genders different and similar to my own. And now that I’m 26 years old and fully embracing that aspect of myself, I am introducing my parents to it.
There are certainly new lessons for us on the horizon. But I count myself blessed to have parents who are moving past the areas in which they were misinformed. They are overcoming social conditioning from a country that criminalizes the person I am. As I advocate for LGBTQ rights frustrated by the level of violence happening against us, that is something I try to keep in mind.