Table Talk: They, Them, Theirs …

Eliminating the stigma surrounding gender diversity

By Molly Absolon

Alex was 13 when they first told their parents they might be gay. Six months later, Alex asked Sarah and Steve to use “they/them” pronouns, saying they identified as nonbinary or genderqueer. Currently, a few years later, they are self-identifying as transfeminine or trans.

“It’s a journey, not a straight line,” Sarah says. “It’s been an exploration; they’re trying on different identity terms. But just because those terms have changed, the process, the exploration, the search for who they are is very real. Our child does not fit into the binary gender system. The term they use to express themselves is not as important as it is to understand and embrace our child for who they are.”

Most of today’s parents came of age at a time when no one talked much about gender identity or sexual orientation, so the conversations happening among today’s youth can make older generations feel out of touch, ignorant, and maybe a little threatened. 

As recently as 20 years ago, things were pretty black and white: you were male or female, and either hetero or homosexual, at least according to societal norms in the U.S. Today, that has changed. Younger people are helping to drive a shift away from binary thinking about gender. A 2015 Fusion Millennial poll found that of 1,000 people between the ages of 18 and 34 questioned, 50 percent believed gender is a spectrum, and that some people fall outside conventional categories. 

“Gender diversity has always been a part of humanity,” says Lewis Smirl, a Jackson therapist at Teton Wellness Affiliates. “The data is really strong across cultures and history, as far back as the human record goes. Gender fluidity was often celebrated, and in many cultures it still is.”

That history doesn’t make it easy for parents faced with a questioning child, whether that child is exploring their own gender identity or wondering about things they’ve heard or seen at school. Sarah and Steve said they weren’t that surprised by Alex’s announcement that they were genderqueer, but they also weren’t sure what they were supposed to do. So, they did what any loving parent would do when confronted with an issue they didn’t fully understand: They started reading. They looked for a therapist. They sought out support. 

“When your child is depressed, anxious, having outbursts, and not sleeping or eating, you feel like a terrible parent,” Steve says. “You feel helpless. There’s no road map for this.”

Alex faced bullying and intimidation because of their nontraditional gender expression. They said they were terrified to go to school. But they were also a teenager, acting out, misbehaving. At times it was hard for Sarah and Steve to know what was related to Alex’s gender identity, and what was just regular adolescent angst. But it was becoming clear that school was not a safe or welcoming place for their child.

“We kept insisting that they go to school without realizing how much anxiety it caused,” Steve says. “In retrospect there are three things I wish I’d known. One: Don’t force them to go to places they don’t feel safe, including school. … Until our schools become safe and truly welcoming places, sending our gender-diverse kids there may risk their mental health.”

“Two: Allow for self-expression,” he says. “We came to realize that what our child wears and their personal sense of style is not something we should be trying to control. Like everyone else, they should be entitled to self-expression that feels good and natural to them.

“And three: Get over the pronoun problem. Whatever someone wants to call themselves, let them. Why does it matter?”

Not all people are as accepting as this family. 

As the current political climate shows, many are disturbed by what they see as a kind of contagion of socially deviant behavior. But Jackson therapist Cheyenne Syvertson-Hagestuen (Teton Wellness Affiliates) pushes back against labeling gender fluidity as something new or abnormal.

“We’re seeing more because it’s something that is opening up,” Syvertson-Hagestuen says. “It’s something people are allowed to express in ways that we weren’t, or I was not, when we were young. For some people it feels as if there are suddenly so many gender-diverse youth and kids that we didn’t have before, but we did. It was there. It’s always been there. People were just coming out later in life, living dual lives, or perhaps never coming out at all because it wasn’t safe.”

“It’s normal and developmentally appropriate for children to explore and wonder about their gender,” she says. “If your child is exploring their gender, that is ok, and you can best support them by saying, I’m here for you. I believe you, I trust you, and I support you. … It’s a journey for a child, and a journey for a parent. … Parents may wonder, or even doubt, that their child is sure they’re gender-diverse, but the benefits of being with them on their journey, no matter what the outcome, are powerful.”

Syvertson-Hagestuen trained with Stephanie Brill, the author of “The Transgender Child” and “The Transgender Teen,” and founder of the group Gender Spectrum. When Brill moved to Jackson in 2017, she said most therapists were sending families to Salt Lake City or Denver for therapy because they did not feel as if they had the training and experience necessary to deal with transgender or gender-diverse patients.

“It came from the goodness of their hearts,” Brill says. “They wanted families to be with a therapist with experience, but imagine being told you have to drive four hours to get therapy. You’re being told you don’t belong here.” 

Brill helped establish virtual support groups for families and kids in Jackson, Teton Valley, and across Wyoming. She provides learning opportunities for therapists and resources for families, so they don’t feel as if they must leave the area to find guidance. Now Syvertson-Hagestuen and Smirl are among the small, but growing, number of therapists in the area trained to work with gender-diverse clients and their families.

“In the past, a lot of transgender and nonbinary community members felt so uncomfortable they moved away,” Brill says. “My feeling is that people shouldn’t have to choose between the land they love and the community they grew up in, and being themselves.”

Still Sarah and Steve think their child will probably need to leave the area to really thrive, at least for a while. Right now, they say the political climate in both Wyoming and Idaho is hostile and unwelcoming, even though their child has found a network of accepting friends and attends support groups for gender-diverse youth in Jackson Hole that has helped them gain confidence.

“It’s scary,” says Sarah. “It feels as if government is trying to come between you and your child and your doctor. The message these bills send out to our kids is that they shouldn’t exist, that something is innately wrong with them.”

Salix is a junior in high school. Salix identifies as genderqueer and uses “they/them” pronouns. Salix is also gay. They say they can’t ignore the politics.

“It’s hard to see the people that we’ve elected—well not me, I’m only 16, but the people my town has elected—it’s hard to see them make these decisions that are either directly or indirectly harmful.

“All I’ve really wanted is respect,” Salix says. “Sure, I’m gay, but I’m also a human being. We are all humans.”

Respect, according to Salix, comes down to listening and trying.

“What matters to me is not that you are 100 percent perfect, but that you are trying,” they say. “I can tell when someone is trying and that means a lot to me.” 

“I don’t think parents have to fear change,” Brill says. “Our kids live in a more complex world than we grew up in. It can be a monumental task to know how to parent in this time. But kids need the same thing from us that they have always needed. They need our ear, they need boundaries, they need unconditional love and support, and they need a safe place to work through challenges.”

Statistics show that gender-diverse youth are vulnerable. The Trevor Project, a group dedicated to ending suicide among LGBTQ young people, conducted a survey in 2022 that showed 45 percent of LGBTQ youth had seriously contemplated suicide, while more than half of all transgender and nonbinary youth have had suicidal ideations. Such young people are at risk, not because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, but because of the way they are mistreated and stigmatized by society.

“Being gender-diverse in and of itself does not elevate risk. Rather it’s ignorance, rejection, and stigmatization that makes this population more vulnerable,” Syvertson-Hagestuen says.  

Sarah and Steve do worry. People notice Alex. They have piercings and colorful hair, and sometimes dress in a way that pushes the boundaries of gender expectations. 

“It’s important to support Alex in who they want to be, that’s the job of all parents, but we have fear—fear of how others will treat our child,” Steve says. “Alex has to remember that outside our house, they are a target. Self-expression is great as long as you feel safe. We discuss safety plans in ways we wish we didn’t have to. But that’s the reality. Our child is a target just for being themselves.”

“We have a really amazing kid,” Sarah says. “They are smart, artistic, funny, athletic. Being trans is just one thing about them; it’s not even the most interesting thing about them.

“We want people to realize that those of us raising trans and nonbinary kids are not so different, so scary, so ‘other,’” she says. “We are just families trying to do what is best for our kids.”

* All names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals and their families. 


The LGBTQIA+ acronym is a mouthful and seems to be constantly evolving, or growing. Part of the shift in labels reflects a shift in understanding. Terms are added to capture different experiences along the gender spectrum. But this constant language evolution can be confusing. 

The important thing is to try to understand and use language in a respectful, open way. If in doubt, ask. If you find it hard, practice. Language has power and can shape the way people feel about themselves and each other. 

Pronouns in Email Signatures

More and more often individuals are opting to include their pronouns in their email signatures. For cisgender people, this may seem unnecessary. But it’s not. You should never assume another person’s identity based on their appearance or name. Furthermore, it can be awkward and uncomfortable for people to have to ask or tell everyone they’ve ever met or worked with to use pronouns that may not be readily apparent. So, help people out. Just make note of your pronouns. It sends out a message that you are a safe and welcoming ally to all people, regardless of their gender or sexual identity.

Local Support Groups

Parents and Caregivers of Transgender, Nonbinary, Gender-Expansive, and Questioning Children and Teens Virtual Support Group: Zoom meetings held the third Tuesday of each month 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. MST.

Virtual Support Group for Transgender, Nonbinary, and Gender Questioning Teens and Adults: Zoom Meetings held the second Tuesday of each month 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. MST.

Gender Diverse Youth Meet-Up, adult supervised: Meetings held once a month, irregular dates.