Mac Walsh (she/he/they) and their mom, Heather Walsh (she/her), were kind enough to sit down with us and share their perspectives on how to support gender diverse youth. You might recognize Mac from their previous AutismBC Connects and their contributions to our Autism Awareness Video Series which you can view here. Thank you, Mac and Heather! We appreciate your insights and your courage.
My Self-Discovery Journey
Mac: I initially came out in 2017 as something along the lines of gay, but I also knew that I was starting to lean towards the idea of wanting to bind my chest. After attending multiple gender conferences and a couple years of self-discovery, I began to reach where I am today: a non-binary transmasculine individual. A lot of my self confidence didn’t come until around grade 10 when I really started to discover who I was; even then, I still definitely struggle at times, particularly when it comes to peer relationships. I was one of the first openly gender non-conforming people at my school, as well as one of the first openly autistic people, which led to a lot of self advocacy and trailblazing. Self-advocacy isn’t a skill I was born with; however, through life experience and trial and error, I was able to develop these skills.
Trans and Autistic
Mac: Being autistic and trans non-binary are both parts of who I am, and there are definitely times where these two identities interact, for better or for worse. For instance, something for worse was when I went to get top surgery, I struggle to get a needle. To some doctors, not being able to get a needle translated to “I must not want top surgery that badly,” or, “oh you’re autistic, are you sure you can make that decision for yourself?” Those sentiments were partially increased because I was doing it as a minor at 17. It can also be difficult navigating things like bars (outside of COVID), as the number of people, the noise, etc. can be very overstimulating, making it hard to interact and meet people.
The Importance of Family Support
Mac: My parents have been very supportive since day one, which I am forever grateful for. They may not always understand exactly how I feel or exactly what’s happening, but they are always willing to do their very best to learn and grow alongside me, which is and has been so important in my journey. My parents would go with me to queer events, they would be the only straight cisgender 40+-year-old individuals at most events, but they stuck it out and we had a great time anyway!
I was really lucky in that I faced little backlash from my family and my couple of friends. As mentioned, I was one of the first openly gender non-conforming, autistic students at school, though that being said, I still don’t think many people had much of an idea of what was going on, but I was okay with that, it’s my journey, not anyone else’s. There were times where I felt boxed in within the younger queer community, being expected to conform to the “typical” steps of gender transition, such as hormones and surgery, but eventually, I was able to seek out people and environments that were more open. I had a lot of positive experiences with ‘older’ members of the LGBTQ+ community who were often more positive and accepting than my younger peers.
Advice to Parents/Caregivers
What should I say or not say when talking to my child about their gender identity? Is language important?
Mac: Language is so important when discussing someone’s identity. While some people prefer not to use labels, for me, they are something I have found to be helpful on my discovery journey. It’s also important to watch what you say and try not to make sweeping statements. For me, I encountered things such as “when you were born, there was no doubt what sex you were,” or “you were definitely a little girl/boy when you were younger,” or “oh you’re non-binary and therefore you must use they/them pronouns exclusively.” Those can be very damaging statements, regardless of intention or reality. Sometimes it can take time for someone to discover who they really are and that’s okay.
Heather: The advice that I try to give myself is to make the effort — it’s important and it makes a huge difference. When in doubt, ask. Skip the justifications and excuses. Apologize when you make a mistake and move on. Change and update your language as often as required, and let the grammar thing go — they/them is here to stay.
“Having that trusting relationship can be hard to build and does take time, but having it goes a long way.”
When and how should I check in with my child?
Mac: Dialogue around gender can be difficult. Try and educate yourself the best you can prior to approaching your child, but also keep an open mind to what your child wants to share with and teach you. Checking in with your child in a manner in which they feel safe and respected is really important. Having that trusting relationship can be hard to build and does take time, but having it goes a long way. Communication can happen in many forms. For me, I often struggled to get what I wanted to say out verbally, so I would write it down, and when I was ready, I would hand it off to whoever it was meant for.
Heather: One of the greatest gifts that Mac generously offered us was to invite us into their journey — albeit, hesitantly at first and with a lot of guidance around how to behave appropriately! Mac became our cultural tour guide and we explored so much of the queer community together — concerts, poetry readings, festivals, conferences, and innumerable pride events. Again, being an active, enthusiastic, and probably most importantly, a humble and open learner was key. There were many awkward and uncomfortable moments, but far more moments of joy and kindness that allowed us to embrace Mac’s journey in a whole different way.
What specific things should I do to support my child?
Heather: I have two images that I use when I think about supporting our children – a nest and a net. To me, the nest is the place where our children can return to any stage of their lives—as children, teens and adults—a place where they can be pulled close, be vulnerable, receive additional support and even regress a bit if that feels like what they need. The nest provides a place to rest, heal and grow. This safe, loving and judgement-free environment builds and/or rebuilds the self-confidence and strength they need to leave the nest and fly again. The net is also ever-present and offers our children the freedom to feel confident in spreading their wings and taking risks, all the while knowing that we will always be there to catch them if they falter. The contrast of the nest versus the net encourages me to not hold on to them too tightly in an effort to protect them, but rather to give them the support they need and then to release them to their independence with the knowledge that I have complete faith in them.
Mac: Do your best to never assume things about your child, try not to make unnecessary judgements or put words in their mouth. Understand that the journey of self-discovery is never linear. The best thing you can do is love, embrace and support your child in their journey, wherever they are at.
“One of my most significant takeaways was learning to expect frequent and unexpected shifts in how our children identify, what pronouns they use, how they present themselves, etc.”
How do I know if this is who my child is or if it is “just a phase?”
Mac: Sometimes it can take time to reach a point where you feel comfortable with who you are. Learning and experimenting are all part of the journey. Personally, I went through a couple of different identities before I found one I felt comfortable with, and that’s okay. As mentioned, loving and embracing your child wherever they are at is the best thing you can do. Always validate your child’s journey of self-discovery, never dismiss it.
Heather: I found the book Transgender Teen: A Handbook for Parents and Professionals Supporting Transgender and Non-Binary by Stephanie A. Brill to be particularly helpful. One of my most significant takeaways was learning to expect frequent and unexpected shifts in how our children identify, what pronouns they use, how they present themselves, etc. Knowing that this was normal and was not a confirmation of the idea that this might be a ‘phase’ was so helpful. I think as parents we can be anxious for our children to find their equilibrium and settle on an identity, pronoun, etc. I think we eventually realize that this is our need. Our discomfort in the constant learning curve, flexibility and patience required to peacefully adapt to each new stage is incredibly taxing. Inevitably we get things wrong and the resulting corrections and conflict can be so hurtful and exhausting for parents and children alike. Anticipating a ‘to and fro’ type of journey helped us be better prepared and less reactive to what can feel like constant change.
How do we help our child/teen “come out” in a safe way?
Mac: I think often, you end up coming out in life multiple times, both in different contexts and sometimes as different things. Personally, as I mentioned when discussing my journey, I initially came out as gay and then later came out as gender non-conforming. Establishing if an environment is safe to come out in can be tricky, but it should always be your decision. ‘Outing’ someone is never okay, regardless of your intention. I decided to start small with just my immediate family and then gradually came out to others around me. Not everyone has the luxury of a safe family to come out to however, others may choose to come out to an accepting friend or other trusted person instead. Regardless of who you may or may not be out to, your identity is always valid.
Heather: As I said earlier, I think as parents we can sometimes feel the need to provide a clear and concise label or coming out story to our friends and family in response to the changing identity, pronouns and/or appearance of their child. We wish to protect our children from judgement, misunderstanding and awkwardness in social settings. As Mac so aptly points out, following our child’s direction is paramount. In my opinion, our children’s needs, and thus safety, must be our first priority and we can adjust what, to whom and how we share information in a way that aligns with their wishes. If, on the other hand, we feel that our children are too open in sharing their identity and are putting themselves at risk, I believe speaking to them honestly and openly about our concerns while at the same time guarding ourselves against being too directive is helpful.
“Listen[…]to our children with an open heart and try[…]very hard not to respond from a place of fear and uncertainty.”
How do we decide on and/or support our child/teen when making physical changes like hormones or surgery?
Mac: Deciding when to make physical changes is a big decision. It’s okay to learn from other people and see yourself in and relate to their journey, but it’s important to not feel any peer pressure, such as the pressure to transition in a certain way (as mentioned before).
Heather: This is a big question and it is a subject that people frequently ask me about. The permanence of physical changes for our children is so frightening and there is such a huge burden of responsibility when the decision is life-long. We may worry that our children will change their minds later, that they will be unhappy with the results, that the judgement will be too great to bear, or any number of the other worries that plague us.
I think the same guiding principles apply here as elsewhere: listening to our children with an open heart and trying very hard not to respond from a place of fear and uncertainty. Knowing that we can ask for time to digest before engaging in further conversation. Ensuring we have gathered adequate accurate and factual information rather than what we may have read or heard from the media or others. Exploring where there is potential flexibility and/or time sensitivity in whatever procedures are being considered. For instance, puberty blockers are time-sensitive. Making an appointment to speak with an expert/doctor/specialist and when possible, setting up appointments for parents and child (both separately and together) with a mental health professional who specializes in gender identity. As we might expect, waitlists to see specialists and also for the procedures themselves can be long — too long. This can be excruciating for a child who is experiencing gender dysphoria so it is important to be mindful of this and stay in close touch with our children during this waiting time. For some parents, however, it can also create a time buffer for those who are struggling with the decision and need some additional processing time.
I am pleased to share that our experience with Mac’s top surgery has been so incredibly positive. Post-surgery, we observed an immediate change in Mac’s comfort level, confidence, and happiness. It has been such a joy to witness!
What are the best places/people to help me understand and support my child?
Mac: While it’s important to provide space for your child on their journey of discovery, it’s equally important to give yourself the space to learn and grow alongside your child. It’s okay to take some time to process what you are hearing, to reach out and find the supports you need.
Heather: When Mac came out to us, I was almost completely ignorant about the subject of gender identity. I very quickly recognized the urgency of learning everything that I could in order to support Mac in their gender journey. One thing that was immediately apparent was that Mac had educated themselves very thoroughly and that we needed to acknowledge and embrace their role as an expert in their own experience and also as an invaluable resource.
Mac: Support can come in so many different forms, it may be other people, community resources, books, podcasts, articles, movies, TV shows, conferences and anything in between!
Heather: There are endless sources available for parents whether we want to learn more, find support or meet others—simply start googling!