Jesse and Theresa Thorn on parenting a gender-nonconforming child.

Podcasters Jesse and Theresa Thorn on Parenting a Gender-Nonconforming Child

Podcasters Jesse and Theresa Thorn on Parenting a Gender-Nonconforming Child

Outward
Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Feb. 21 2017 11:12 AM

Podcasters Jesse and Theresa Thorn on Parenting a Gender-Nonconforming Child

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Jesse and Theresa Thorn.

Ibarionex Perello

A couple weeks ago, I was listening to my favorite podcast, Jordan, Jesse, Go, when I heard host Jesse Thorn explain that his 5-year-old is gender-nonconforming and had asked to be addressed as Grace and to use female pronouns. Intrigued by Thorn’s open, humble, nonjudgmental response to this news, I asked if he and Theresa Thorn—his wife, who is also a podcaster who had spoken about Grace on her podcast One Bad Mother—would be willing to talk about their experience parenting a gender-nonconforming child. The resulting interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Evan: Although I’ve been a longtime listener of Jordan, Jesse, Go and MaxFun podcasts, some readers might not be familiar with them. Can you start by describing JJGo and One Bad Mother?

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Jesse: They’re very different programs. Maximum Fun is a comedy and culture podcast network. In addition to my serious NPR interview show about pop culture called Bullseye, I also co-host a very silly comedy podcast, Jordan, Jesse, Go, with co-host Jordan Morris.

Theresa: One Bad Mother is a comedy podcast about parenting that I host with my friend comedian Biz Ellis. We talk about our experiences parenting, not giving advice or judging other parents but just sharing all the stuff we can laugh about.

I know you have three kids, and your oldest, Grace, is gender-nonconforming. Tell me about your starting point: Did you think about what you’d do if a son of yours wanted to wear dresses? Had you considered the possibility that your child might be LGBTQ and whether you’d support them?

Jesse: I think it was taken as read in our family and our cultural context that if we had a child who was LGBTQ, then we’d support them. That was presumed because of our shared values. But, for myself, I hadn’t thought much about gender nonconformity on this scale. I had thought about having a boy who liked pink or a girl who played baseball, but not about a child who was potentially transgender. Although it was a big surprise, for us it was never a question of “Is this OK?” or whether we’d support them.

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Tell me a little more about Grace, how she expressed her gender in her first five years of life, and how she’s currently expressing it.

Theresa: It was a little over one year ago, when she was 4, that she started asking for dresses, saying her favorite color was pink, painting her nails. And we were cool with that. I don’t think either of us thought much of it, we just knew that kids like to explore and we were totally OK with that.

Then she started saying that she wanted her hair as long as Rapunzel’s. Now, all that was fine while she was in preschool, but as she approached the start of public elementary school, we were a little less comfortable with her having long hair. We had her cut her hair to look neat for school starting.

Jesse: The corollary would be our middle child, who wants to wear Superman PJs everywhere. I didn’t even make the connection that it might be a gender thing. I’d read about kids who, at every turn, they’re expressing the conforming aspect of their preferred gender. But Grace wasn’t interested in Barbies, she liked trucks. We even laughed about how, even if you try to introduce gender-neutral toys, a boy still picks boy stuff.

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Then a few months ago, it became a lot clearer.

Theresa: She became a lot more vocal about how she wanted to express herself. Wanting to grow her hair out, that was one thing. Another was when we were going to a wedding, she wanted a nice dress for the wedding like the dress I was wearing. Well, we had play dresses for her, but nothing she could wear to a wedding. We had a suit for her. And I started to really think about whether we were giving her the chance to express herself the way she wanted to.

Then she started asking again, “Why do girls have vaginas and boys have penises?” which was something we’d talked about when she was younger. This time I just mentioned, well, not all girls have vaginas and boys have penises, and she said, “I’m a girl with a penis.” So then I took her shopping for some clothes she liked, and she changed over pretty quickly and chose the name Grace soon after that.

Jesse: Well, initially, she said she wanted her name to be Grease. Theresa said, “Do you mean Grace?” We were pretty relieved that she agreed to that.

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How have your family, friends, and the school reacted?

Jesse: We’re very, very lucky. Our parents were surprised, of course, but we really didn’t have to do much educating or convincing. We were concerned about the public school, but our experience was wonderful. Grace’s kindergarten teacher said that she was grateful that we were listening to Grace. She said she had an experience with a kid whose parents wanted her, as a teacher, to enforce gender norms, and it had been just awful for the teacher and for the kid. The principal worked with us to change the records for her name and gender so that a substitute teacher doesn’t call her the wrong name, and the school worked to make the bathroom situation comfortable for Grace, allowing her to use the girls’ bathroom if she wants but also having non-gendered bathrooms available if that’s what feels more comfortable.

I feel very aware of our privilege, financially and culturally, and I am so grateful for a public school where the teachers aren’t so overwhelmed that they can take the time to give us a little extra help on this.

What were your feelings around sharing this with your podcast audience?

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Theresa: That was kind of hard, and it still is. Speaking for myself, when I realized that this was not a phase and this is who she is, I realized that in a weird way, I’d already violated her privacy by referring to her as a boy on my show for her whole life. I wasn’t sure if I should talk about what was going on with her, because she’s 5, and there’s no way for her to give consent for that. But every time I called her “my son Simon,” I was betraying her and lying to my audience.

Jesse: Theresa and Biz’s show is very much about their parenting experiences but not as much about looking into the details of someone’s life.

Theresa: Yeah, but even if I’m telling a story about myself, I still have to name my child.

Jesse: On my show, I realized very quickly that I had to have a plan. So, first I started referring to her as “my kid” or “my older kid,” but this was not sustainable. I had to say something to my audience, just so I could talk about my life and something funny my kid said without it being incredibly weird. It’s not a show about my kids, but I do share life experiences, and 95 percent of my life experiences involve a funny thing my kid said.

My goal was to talk about it in a way that reduced the emotional stakes and made it clear that this was a normal thing, so I could go back to talking about a funny thing my kid said.

Theresa, do you think that One Bad Mother will address LGBTQ issues again, or was this a one-off?

Theresa: This wasn’t the first time the show addressed LGBTQ issues. We had a two-parter in the first year, and it’s always been something I thought it was important to have on the show. I don’t think it was a surprise that we’d do a show about [gender-nonconforming or transgender children], but the difference was that suddenly I had personal experience around it. When we booked the guest for that show [Lisa Kennedy from Gender Spectrum], I didn’t know if I would talk about Grace at all, but as the show approached, I felt more and more like I was ready. I am 100 percent sure that we will do more podcasts about LGBTQ issues and parenting.

Jesse, how did this topic fit with your silly comedy show?

Jesse: JJGo has a regular segment called “Momentous Occasions,” where listeners call in and share things from “I just bought my first house” to something really crazy—and it’s gotten increasingly more crazy over the years that we’ve been doing it. Years ago, someone called in who had just gone out in women’s clothing for the first time, and this was one of the momentous occasions that really stuck with me, because I guess I felt honored that someone would use our show to share something so personal.

Anyway, a few years later, we had comedian Riley Silverman on the show—she went by Rye at that time—and she said, “Did you know that it was me who called in years ago?” And it turned out that it really was the first time she’d left the house in women’s clothing, and one or two years later, she figured out that she was a woman, and then she’d moved to California, she started doing comedy, and I booked her on the show as a comedian.

When I realized that I had to talk about Grace on the show, I emailed Riley, and I told her my son Simon is now my daughter Grace, and I have to talk about it, and tell me if this is weird, but will you come and be on the show when I do that? She was really thrilled, and I was so glad to have someone who was already known to the audience and was a member of the JJGo community to come on and talk about it in a way that was fun and funny and not Very Serious.

How do you approach the possibility that Grace might not continue to identify as female? Do you use the word transgender to describe her?

Jesse: I usually use gender-nonconforming.

Theresa: I have started using transgender, because she identifies herself as transgender and because that’s a word that people understand and takes less explanation than saying gender-nonconforming.

Jesse: It was very important for me to leave room for her to be whoever she wanted to be as she grew up and developed. I didn’t want to talk about it on the show as if it was settled forever. She’s 5 years old. A lot changes with 5-year-olds.

Theresa: We don’t want to be so attached to her trans identity that she’ll have to do a lot of work to change that, if it changes.

Jesse: I’m focused on just letting her be who she is and expressing herself the way she wants to express herself, and I think that will work out fine. I’m fully supportive of whoever she is now and whoever she will be in the future.

What do you think other parents need to know about parenting a gender-nonconforming child?

Theresa: The lesson for me was in not judging my own child, really making the leap from thinking I knew what was going on to accepting the possibility that there were things I did not know. I realized that just because she doesn’t like dolls, it doesn’t mean that she can’t also be a girl. It was all about letting Grace lead the way.

Jesse: I got a lot of humility. At first I had to mourn this idea I had of who she was that was heavily influenced by thinking of her as a boy. But, a few weeks in, that started to fade away when I saw that my kid was still my kid. I hadn’t lost a son and gained a daughter, I still had my child who I loved and still love.

What I see now in my child is that she’s the same child, only more confident and happier. Not that she was particularly unhappy, but she’s more confident going to the bathroom, getting dressed, playing with friends. I realized maybe I should just roll with that.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Jesse: I was reluctant to talk about this on my show, and I was reluctant to do this interview, because my kid is 5. I want her to live her life, and as someone who has chosen to be somewhat in the public eye, I see the difficulties that come with that. I hope that other parents in similar situations will get something out of this. After the podcast, I heard from grateful parents in similar situations and from grateful parents in not-so-similar situations, and so I hope that our experience is useful. Even though it’s weird to talk about it, I hope that it’s more useful than it is weird.

Evan Urquhart (formerly Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart) is working to improve comments on Slate and is a regular contributor to Outward.