When your child comes out at 14 as “agender” what do you do? Eli’s Mom has always been loving and supportive, no matter what. However, that doesn’t mean the family’s journey has been straightforward. A loving mom shares with us the process she’s been through (and is still going through) in parenting an agender teen.
Growing Up Agender
For 14 years we thought, that like my two other daughters, Eli was a girl. But life has a way of throwing curve balls, doesn’t it?
I’ve always been so proud of my kids, and as a young child Eli was absolutely gorgeous with their blonde ringlets, blue eyes, and easy smile. They were good at sports, outgoing, steady as a rock, and hugely intelligent. Despite an occasional temper flare-up, they were very upbeat and laughed easily. All our relatives and friends were completely drawn to Eli; they were just easy to be around.
In eighth grade, Eli’s friend Julie was hospitalized for depression and suicidal thoughts. Eli explained that Julie was now going by the name Leigh and using the pronoun they instead of she.
After Leigh came home from the hospital, I asked their mom if Leigh was androgynous. I literally did not have the terminology to ask the right question because I’d never heard of anything like this! Truthfully (and cisgenderly), all I could envision was Saturday Night Live’s “Androgynous Pat” character. Leigh’s mom told me that their gender identity is called non-binary, and explained what that was. I wasn’t put off by the revelation, just a bit confused. We do live in a liberal town, so my contemporaries’ reaction was twofold. First there was the skepticism; “Is that really a thing?” And when my husband and I assured them it was, “Boy, that makes me feel old!”
By this point Eli had declared themselves to be asexual, which I found somewhat perplexing. I argued with Eli that at age 14, since they had no sexual experience, how could they be asexual? Throughout middle school Eli had done several school projects, each time choosing LGBT topics. They’d joined their middle school’s Gay/Straight Alliance and learned so many terms I had never heard of. So I figured they were most likely gay; being gay seemed so much easier.
Just a Tomboy
Joining the GSA and writing reports on gay rights weren’t the only ways in which Eli didn’t present as a typical (or stereotypical) little girl. Over the years I had gotten a total kick out of their tomboy persona. After all, I had two other girly girls, and Eli’s non-traditional interests and personality were quite refreshing.
I always thought Eli was just a tomboy because they always seemed so Girl Power!; never “I’m Not A Girl. With an amazing degree of confidence and from a very young age, they had always challenged gender stereotypes to anyone who would listen. My husband and I couldn’t have been prouder. We envisioned them growing up to be a pioneering feminist who would one day change the world in a better way for all women.
Eli’s genderqueer friend Leigh continued to have a very challenging time, with incidents of self-harm and an eating disorder. Leigh pulled Eli into many situations that were worrisome and inappropriate. Eli was, thankfully, wonderful about letting us know what was going on.
My husband and I were never under the illusion that Eli’s struggling friend had any choice in their identity or could control their own mental illness. We felt that if we cut off the friendship completely, Eli would accuse us of rejecting Leigh for these aspects of her life, and we emphatically did not want to send any negative messages about LGBT identity or mental health to our child. We also didn’t want Eli to feel punished for having alerted us whenever they felt Leigh was in danger.
But our primary goal was to protect Eli’s mental health. We spent a lot of time trying to discourage Eli from allowing themselves to become Leigh’s personal therapist. Eventually, however, when Leigh backhandedly suggested that Eli harm themselves, we deemed the friendship too unhealthy to continue. Eli felt the loss of Leigh’s tumultuous friendship acutely, and I would better understand why in a short time.
About six weeks later, when Eli and I were alone in the house, Eli told me that they were agender. I was so glad they felt comfortable telling me, and asked how they knew. Eli said they had always felt that something was wrong, but they didn’t have a name for it until they came across the term non-binary in their GSA meetings. They explained that they didn’t want to waste another minute of their life being someone they weren’t. Eli was truly brave.
Still My Child
My initial and primary reaction to them coming out was a simple one: “They’re still Eli—that hasn’t changed. And they’re still here.” I had just witnessed close hand the absolute and total devastation of two couples who had lost their children to suicide, and I knew I had so many things in my life to be grateful for, including my great relationship with my fantastic kid.
Truthfully, I initially thought it might have been Leigh’s influence on Eli that made them believe they were agender. Leigh could be a very compelling, influential kid who had led their friends through middle school with dramatic episode after dramatic episode. And what were the odds of both of these friends being agender when, until six months ago, I never knew such a thing existed?
As I continued to prod, Eli assured me they knew they were not a masculine lesbian, although they weren’t able to fully explain how they knew. They described their dysphoria to me, and it was unbelievably hard to hear about their pain. Hearing your child doesn’t like something about themselves is never easy, but when it’s about the very body they were born into… it broke my heart.
The next day we went out to lunch with my husband and Eli came out to him as well. It wasn’t a perfect conversation, but my husband and I both feel the same way, which is that we love Eli, and only want them to be exactly who they are, and no one else. Still, it was clear that we had a lot of catching up to do in terms of educating ourselves about what this meant for Eli and for us.
The next few weeks were a bit rocky for my husband and me. We watched a documentary about transgender children and the difficult decision their families have to make regarding hormones at a young age. We spoke to a psychologist once and practically ran fleeing from his office when he suggested Eli start puberty blockers. It was too much too soon. Eli had just told us about being agender the week before! There had been no time to process the revelation.
As the weeks went along, I took time to mull things over. Earlier in the spring I had read a magazine article about a woman whose brother was FTM transgender. Some of the things she described about her brother pre-transition rang true to me. For example, the transgender man’s sister talked about how he always wanted to run around without his shirt when he was a little girl. That was my Eli, too. I still search my memory for examples of when I might have unknowingly discouraged Eli’s true identity.
Reading this article was the first time I had considered that Eli might be transgender. I mentioned this idea to my sisters and my best friends when they visited. “No, no, that’s sooo unlikely,” they said. My hunch had turned out to be right.
Eli’s non-binary gender identity was still somewhat confusing for me because it wasn’t something Eli had been talking about from the time they were a young child. Stories of binary transgender transitions at a young age, such as Ryland and the Whittington family, made more sense to me. Eli’s identity had become clear after puberty, and it wasn’t that I didn’t believe them, it was just that I couldn’t immediately tell if this new identity was permanent. But Eli has been crystal clear and expressive in the last nine months about the fact that they are not a girl. Articles about transgender people like youtuber Gigi Gorgeous who had a post-puberty clarification of their identity helped me understand that path better. Now I can see that this is who Eli always was.
Another mystifying aspect of Eli’s coming out for me has been: if they aren’t a boy, why do they want to look like one? Eli feels that the male body is more gender neutral. I’ve taken to the internet to research the topic online, and have thankfully found multiple bloggers who are genderqueer, but present and live as male. At least it has helped me to see that Eli is not alone in this outlook.
In the fall Eli asked us to call them by the pronoun they/them, and came out to the rest of the family. Our relatives have been supportive, although the older ones are unable to switch to the pronoun “they.” I have been working on the pronoun switch myself for nine months now, and yet 60% of the time what rolls off my tongue is an amalgam of “she/they.” This kind of change (pronoun and plurality) doesn’t happen overnight, and actually requires laying down new synapse paths in the brain. It’s a constant struggle for all of us, but most in our family understand how important it is not to misgender Eli, so we keep trying.
Processing the Future
These days, when Eli talks to me about surgery, testosterone, and changing their name, I am careful not to react too much. I really want them to feel 100% supported. My husband has expressed his negative feelings about Eli making any changes while still a teenager. I feel the same way, but for the most part keep my mouth shut in the hopes that Eli will keep talking, which I believe is essential for their emotional wellbeing. Once, Eli and I discussed my uneasiness with surgery. Eli asked if I would understand their desires better if they were binary transgender. While I would probably understand it better, I wouldn’t feel easier about it. What Eli can’t understand is my parental point of view: they are my baby, and therefore, in my eyes, they are already perfect as they are.
As for the future, we’ll be with Eli every step of the way as they transition and grow. I’m constantly on the edge with worry and a fear of the unknown. I never slept very well, and I basically don’t sleep at all now.
In some ways I’d like to fast forward through the part where Eli has surgery, hormones, and a name change because despite the fact that I support them, I’m dreading the difficult process of further mourning the loss of the daughter that (at least in my own reality) I had.
Yet seeing Eli struggle with insecurity, dysphoria, and isolation also ensures that I will, without a doubt, experience fundamental relief when Eli is on the other side of their transition and finally feels comfortable in their own skin for the first time in their life. And when that happens, we will still have our beloved child Eli; just a happier version. Nothing else about this journey is as important as loving them and seeing them through it.
*Names have been changed for privacy.
About A Loving Mom
The writer is a Mom first and foremost, and feels that most other aspects of her life are tiny in comparison to this job. But if you feel you must know something else: before she was a parent she received a masters in writing that she’s been too distracted to do anything with. She juggles her hectic suburban parenting life with work in an elementary school library, and occasionally finds time for a little sewing hobby on the side. This is her first blog post.
Help Agender Kids
Help other non-binary teens come out to their parents, and help parents understand their kids’ gender. Your small contribution will go a long way in creating more resources and sharing more stories like these.