Care and Feeding

How Do I Protect My Trans Child From His Judgmental Relatives?

A mama bear struggles with the religious cousins she’s known her whole life.

Mother confronts judgmental relatives.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com.

Dear Care and Feeding,
Over the weekend, my parents and I had a falling-out with my favorite cousin and his wife. They are very religious, and we have always avoided the topic. My cousin, having consumed quite a bit of wine, misinterpreted something I said about the Adam Rippon–Mike Pence story and thought I was slamming Christians in general. He freaked out and verbally attacked my parents and me (dropping F-bombs in front of my 8-year-old). That’s all bad enough, and I’m angry at my cousin on my own behalf.

The real issue is that before they packed their bags and took off, my cousin’s wife (whom I have known for 30 years!) woke up my 14-year-old transgender son and proselytized to him about finding God and Jesus and about how he is really a beautiful young woman. I didn’t find out until the next day, but now I’m livid!

I know that deep down they are good people; I’ve known them for decades and was even in their wedding as a teenager. We’ve never had an incident even remotely like this my whole life. I know that his wife meant well in her own totally inappropriate way. But I feel like I failed my son for letting this person be close enough to him to say something like this, and I don’t know that I will ever trust these people again. I have a big, close family, and it will be awkward and uncomfortable the next time we see them (which thankfully won’t be soon). But I feel like I will be pressured eventually to forgive and forget in order to keep the peace, but I feel like I can never let them near my son again. My usual instinct is to forgive and move on, but the mama bear in me is absolutely raging. What do I do? I love these people, but they crossed a line that can’t be uncrossed.
—LGBT Mama Bear

Dear LGBTMB,
There is a saying, often attributed to Maya Angelou in a conversation with Oprah Winfrey: “When people show you who they are, believe them.”

In this letter you are describing two different versions of your cousin and his wife. You are describing a family of “good people” who “mean well.” But you have also described people who will scream, hurl insults, and wake a child up just to deny his gender to his face. You can continue a relationship with the first people you’ve described, but not with the second. And the events you describe in this letter prove, without any doubt, that your cousin and his wife are every bit as much the second kind of people as the first. You must believe equally in both.

It doesn’t matter that they have been polite or friendly. We must be careful of mistaking politeness or friendliness for safety. One does not mean the other, especially for marginalized people. Nor is kindness, in and of itself, evidence of the presence of good. I’m sure there were people who would have gladly attended or even facilitated the lynching of my ancestors just as they would have politely brought a cherry pie to a neighbor. In this country ugliness and politeness are in no way incompatible.

It also doesn’t matter that your cousin’s wife’s behavior came from what she believes to be a good place. The impact of her emotionally violent behavior on your son, who is a child, is destructive. You cannot both love and support your son and put this person’s behavior completely behind you. You love your son, so you will do everything within your power to make sure that he does not have to be subjected to this again. You may not fully succeed, but this event cannot simply be water under the bridge—at least not until your cousin and his wife issue a full-throated mea culpa and accept your son without reservation. And even then, you would be wise to be wary. Try to keep your son from being forced to be in the same room with them. You may even accept apologies, but you should not force your son to accept them on your behalf. Protecting him is far more important than making nice with them.

You cannot forget this, and I do not think you can put it behind you. But forgiveness is another matter. It is possible to forgive without forgetting, just as it’s possible to forgive without opening yourself up to a repeat of the same transgressions. To forgive is simply to become willing to have your heart and mind free from hatred and resentment. And I think you can do this. Even if your cousin and his wife cannot.

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Dear Care and Feeding,
My 22-year-old daughter has poor oral hygiene, with bright red gingiva and visible plaque on her teeth. Growing up, brushing was always part of our family routine. She has had regular dental appointments twice a year since she was a baby. Instead of becoming more proficient and responsible with age, her situation has deteriorated since she went away to college. She becomes extremely defensive and angry when I try to calmly, kindly discuss it.

I am a dentist (not hers) and understand this could be her twist on normal mother-daughter head-butting. I don’t know what to do and my husband says it may be too late to do anything, which is crazy and unacceptable to me.
—My Daughter’s Dirty Mouth

Dear MDDM,
Your child is 22 years old. You are no longer in charge of her teeth. You can advocate and plead, but there is nothing you can actually, physically do. She is a grown-up.

It sounds very much like the real struggle here is between a mother who is attached to one thing and a daughter who is reacting to that attachment. And make no mistake, your meticulous accounting of her oral care history is something specific to you. It’s hard for me to imagine, let’s say, a pipe fitter being so profoundly concerned about their 22-year-old’s teeth as to write a letter asking for advice about it. Whatever, we all have our things. I probably take too much of an interest in my kids’ fashion choices. The problem comes when we don’t recognize our things as our things and instead try to foist them upon our grown children.

I would guess that, like most people, your daughter does not wish for her teeth to rot out of her head. But she really does not want her mother micromanaging the inside of her mouth. My advice is to let it go. You have been present and attentive, toothwise, and you have shown her precisely what good oral hygiene looks like. Your work here is done. I suspect that once you are no longer the opposition she will find it almost impossible, after a while, not to care for her teeth exactly as she was taught to do.

Dear Care and Feeding,
My 10-year-old had to do a school project about his culture or ancestors. He chose his Mormon pioneer ancestors, who pulled handcarts across the country to escape death threats. After my son finished his project, I was reading a little more on the internet about one ancestor my son had mentioned by name and learned that this person likely participated in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which a Mormon militia killed other California-bound settler families and blamed the deaths on local Native Americans.

I’m feeling heartbroken about past (and current) atrocities. We still sing a lovely song written by this murdering ancestor! My son was so proud learning about his history. I feel like I have to tell him. Is that right? Ten is not too young to handle information like this, is it?
—Descendant of a Killer

Dear DoaK,
What an American story.

I’m sorry for your son that he has to learn this way that much of the country’s heroic past is really bloodshed and murder of the innocent. While it may be tempting to view this as a bizarre one-off circumstance—I read about this event, it’s … weird—I think more can be accomplished by taking this as an opportunity for your son, and probably you, to approach a more honest view of America’s past.

The good news is that there are still heroes for your son to worship and learn from and be inspired by, even if he may not be able to brag about being related to them. Let him learn about Native American people, about black people who fought for freedom and freed others. Let him learn about abolitionists, and healers, and people who made charity and kindness integral parts of their lives.

And yes, unfortunately it is your responsibility to teach him about his family’s own complicity in relationship to this. You may do it gently and slowly and in age-appropriate language, but you must do it. This is an opportunity for you to change what lies at the center of your collective narrative about history. The default narrative he still sees everywhere—in family stories, in pop culture, even in school—is that it’s heroic white men who settled the country. The reality is much more ugly. This is your chance to raise a child who knows the difference. I suggest, for his sake and the sake of everyone who shares the country with him, that you take it.

Also yeah, you should stop singing the song.

—Carvell