My Husband Won’t Accept Our Nonbinary Child. What Do I Do?

 On How To!, two moms of nonbinary children connect about how they’ve learned to stand up for their kids.

Two women holding up signs that say "Proud Mom" and "I love my gay daughter."
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Amid protests and a pandemic, this week brought an unexpected victory for LBGTQ rights as the Supreme Court outlawed anti-LGBTQ employment discrimination. But many in the country still have a long way to go in standing up for all of its citizens, especially those who identify as transgender. On this week’s episode of How To!, Karin wants to support her child, Kay, who recently came out as nonbinary, but she’s still coming to terms with their gender identity. More challenging still, her conservative community in Pennsylvania isn’t very accepting—including her husband. We introduced Karin to a fellow mom of a nonbinary child and former president of PFLAG Oklahoma City, Lisa DelCol, to share some tips for developing the understanding and language to be an advocate for Kay. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Charles Duhigg: What are you struggling with?

Karin: I’m struggling with the name change. I saw myself as the mother of two boys. I feel like I have to change my identity now too. This came as a complete shock to me.

My husband is like an ostrich putting its head in the sand, like I’m just not going to deal with this. Kay told my husband that it was OK if my husband kept calling him Kevin [Kay’s birth name], so that’s what my husband’s choosing to do. But that’s one thing that makes it really difficult for me to try and start using the name Kay—I’m kind of afraid to use it around my husband.

Charles: Do you feel guilty that you’re struggling with this? 

Karin: Yes. I feel like a mother should just be unconditional love. And I do really, really love my child. It hasn’t been quite two years yet, but I wish I could just flip a switch and be completely on board with this, but I still struggle.

It makes me feel sad because obviously my child’s been in a lot of pain for a lot of time, but I just didn’t have a clue. I really care about my child and I want to have a relationship with my child and I want my child to be happy. So I want to be able to come to terms with this.

Charles: So I wanted to introduce you to another mom, Lisa DelCol, who has been through something similar and now leads a support group for parents of transgender children. 

Lisa DelCol: I currently live in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and I am the parent of a nonbinary young adult. My child who was assigned female at birth came out to me just before they started high school. It was difficult to wrap my head around. So I totally get Karin taking some time to come to terms with it. It’s not the same path for everybody and it’s not the same timeline for everybody. It’s a learning curve.

My kid said, “Mom, I’m the same person!” At that moment, I actually asked myself, OK, so what is it about this kid that you value? My kid is smart, funny, empathetic. All of that is still there. And when I finally wrapped my head around that and went, OK, I am not losing this person. I just have to change my frame of reference. I’m not grieving my kid. I’m grieving the expectations that I had for my kid. You’ve held those expectations for your entire life. It’s hard to let those go.

Charles: Karin, let me ask you. Does this sound familiar?

Karin: Yes. When she said that her child said, “I’m still the same person,” I got that exact statement to me, too. I’ve been trying lately to use the name Kay and “they” and I’m going to keep practicing. It’s helpful as I’ve been able to tell people. Right now, my husband is still using Kevin and it’s very difficult for me to go back and forth.

Lisa: You’re gonna have to learn when and how to gently correct other people. It’s a habit you have to force and you’re going to have to force yourself to use that name and force yourself to use those pronouns. It’s going to feel weird for a long time. I’m not going to lie. I’m not saying it’s easy—you can get there, but you have to force yourself to do it.

Karin: I haven’t told a whole bunch of people. I’ve been telling people who I know will support me. There are a few people I should probably tell, but I’m imagining that the reactions will not be great. I have one co-worker who I already know what her viewpoint is gonna be, so I don’t really want to tell her. But it’s kind of hard when people are saying, “How are your boys?” I am kind of at a loss as to how to talk to people right now.

Lisa: In that type of a situation, I just kind of present it as matter of fact. There was a person actually that I talked to at work one time. He knew I had twins. And we hadn’t seen each other for a year or two. He said, “You have to tell me again—Boy? Girl?” And I paused for a minute because I knew the person was conservative and I wasn’t sure how it was going to go. But I thought, no, this is my kid and I’m proud of my kid. And so I just said, “I have a boy. And the other one is nonbinary.” And his eyes kind of popped and I just said, “I know, right? Imagine my surprise when I found out.” I joked a little bit to let him know that it’s OK to be surprised. And then he asked a couple of questions and I said, “Hey, I’m glad you’re asking.” And we had a conversation. I think we anticipate a negative reaction more than it actually happens.

Karin: I have a family member who said recently that they think that you should just take all transgender people and lock them in a house and burn them alive. How would you have a conversation with them?

Lisa: I would say, “I don’t ever want to hear anything like that again. The person that you knew as Kevin is transgender. Kay goes by they/them pronouns now and identifies as nonbinary. So I’m going to let you sit with that for a bit.” Let them go away. Let them think. Who knows how that turns out. It may be that they are hardened in their position and they’re never going to change. Or, they may come back in a week, two weeks, a month and say, “OK. I thought about what you said. I get it. I still don’t agree with it. But I’ll use the name and pronouns.” Hey, that’s a start.

You can even do that over email or Facebook. It doesn’t have to be a conversation. Remember, you’ve got to take care of you, too. You can’t advocate for your kid if you’re not OK. So if it’s more comfortable for you to send an email and say, “Look, I have this news. I just need to let you know. How about you contact me when you’re ready to talk about it?” That’s acceptable too.

Charles: Karin, can you tell us a little bit about how the conversation with your husband has gone? 

Karin: It’s not something that he’ll discuss with me. He says he doesn’t want to talk about it. He’s going to act like it’s not happening. He got permission to keep calling Kay “Kevin,” and he’s going to roll with that.

What I have said to him is that he’s supposed to be my person. He’s my husband and we’re supposed to share what’s going on with each other and our lives. And it’s something that I need support on and want to talk to him about. I don’t want to paint him as a bad guy because he’s really not—he’s a really great guy and he’s been the most amazing father. He was so active with everything in their lives. It’s just not something that he can deal with right now.

Lisa: Even if you said to your husband, “I know that this is really tough and I know that I’m ahead of you and that you can’t accept it right now—and that’s OK.” He’s on his own journey and you can just acknowledge that to him. But also say, “Listen, I just need to talk about this. If you can say, ‘Here’s what I need from you. Just let me use the names and pronouns and don’t cringe when I do it.’ ” Just little things like that. Baby steps.

To hear how Karin’s husband responded after she told him what Lisa said, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! with Charles Duhigg wherever you get your podcasts.