Care and Feeding

I’m Afraid Our Friend’s Harsh Ideas About Gender Are Hurting Her Grandchild

Should we say something?

Hands putting on nail polish.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Irina Tiumentseva/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I recently moved to a conservative state to be closer to his family after a long period away for work. I’m a queer woman, and he’s a trans man who came out just after we got married (which rocked his conservative family in a way that his first coming out as a lesbian never did). My husband’s mom has a lifelong friend I’ll call Lisa, and she and my mother-in-law raised their kids together in a religion that strongly emphasized gender roles. Lisa has a daughter, Jenny, who has a 6-year-old son named Alex. Jenny and her husband both work full-time, so Lisa often watches Alex after school. For the past few years, Alex has been expressing interest in things traditionally gendered as feminine, such as painting his nails and wearing dresses. Jenny reached out to my husband and me for advice on how to handle this, and we encouraged her to let him explore, along with encouraging affirming language without labeling Alex prematurely. My husband remembers being forced into dresses to go to church as some of the worst experiences of his childhood, and we were glad to be able to help Alex.

Lisa, however, has a huge problem with this. She believes Jenny should be enforcing gender roles with Alex to teach him to be “normal,” and that if he “chooses to be different” when he’s an adult, that’s on him. When Alex is in her care, she keeps him from doing things that she sees as “girly,” including playing with his younger sister’s toys. Jenny reached out to my husband and me to talk about this recently, concerned that Alex has started to reject the feminine things he used to love because, he says, parroting his grandmother, they are “only for girls,” even though it clearly upsets him. Jenny feels a great deal of debt towards her mother for all of the childcare she does for free. She also respects her and doesn’t want to challenge her mother’s strongly held beliefs, even though she disagrees with them. She is very conflicted about to do and asked our advice.

I suggested that my husband offer to talk to Lisa, as he has the prevailing experience on this topic, but he demurred, saying he didn’t want to start a fight. He tends to defer to his mother and doesn’t want to rock the boat. ut when I look at Alex, I see the same thing being done to him that was done to my husband, and I’ve had a front row seat to undoing that trauma since we’ve been together. It breaks my heart that Alex may be going through the same thing and that the adults who should be protecting him won’t do anything to stop it. My husband has asked me not to do/say anything, but I don’t know how I can just sit back and let this happen. Should I say something to Lisa on my own? I know the statistics for trans kids in unsupportive environments, and I want to stop this cycle.

—It’s Just Nail Polish

Dear Just Nail Polish,

I think you have wandered into a multifamily nest of trouble and that inserting yourself into the unhealthy dynamic between all of these adults is a terrible idea. It will not help Alex, and it will cause untold trouble between Jenny and her mother, between Lisa and your mother-in-law, between your husband his mother, and (probably) between you and your husband. You are not going to be able to convince Lisa to think differently, or to treat her grandchild differently—there is just zero chance of this.

That said, one way you can support and help Alex is offer to have a larger role in his life, if that’s possible for you and your husband to do. Volunteer to help with childcare, invite him out for a day at the zoo or something else fun, and pay lots of loving attention to him when everybody is together. Another way to support him is to encourage Jenny to stand up for herself—and stand up for her child— when she worries aloud or complains to you. The truth is, there is a hell of a lot more going on here than the single thread of Alex and his gender exploration. You cannot fix all of this. You can lend an ear to Jenny and support her in any way you are able and that she is willing to accept; you can be the cool, supportive, loving “auntie” to Alex that he needs. But you can’t make any of these adults grow a backbone. And you shouldn’t try to persuade yourself that you are the one who can make any of them see the light. That’s a fool’s errand.

— Michelle