Dear Sugars,

I’m the mother of an amazing teenage daughter. Our relationship is close, but recently things have gotten complicated. She came out to us as pansexual when she was 11. I was concerned about her labeling herself at such a young age and being bullied. She met a transgender child in summer camp, then a few others, and helped them through some tough times. I was proud of her for her compassion and did not restrict her friendships, though she wasn’t allowed to sleep over at anyone’s house.

Fast forward to age 15. After several heterosexual relationships and a few girl crushes, she wants to date a transgender boy. My older Latina mother, who lives with us, disapproves. I also feel uncomfortable. She goes to a small private school where she would be labeled by some, although there are friends who would understand. I’ve told her we need to meet the person and if her behavior starts to be affected adversely we would react accordingly. Our daughter feels it’s unfair that she has more restrictions placed on her dating than her brother.

I know it’s her life, but I don’t like her hanging out with these kids, some of whom don’t go to her school. A few are really odd in appearance and seem to focus very narrowly on gender issues. I worry that I’m being shallow and judgmental but want to do what’s best. How much of this is experimental teenage stuff and how much is who she is? What should I do to support her? My mother thinks I am crazy to “allow” her new relationship, but I don’t want to lose my daughter’s trust.

Mother of a Free Spirit

Steve Almond: You’re concerned that your daughter wants to date a transgender boy, and that she’s socializing with children from the L.B.G.T.Q. community. But it sounds like your underlying anxiety is that your daughter has a sexual identity and desires that aren’t heteronormative. It’s hard enough to move through a world fraught with bigotry as a young Latino woman. It becomes that much harder when you identify as pansexual and have a transgender partner. You worry that she’ll be bullied or ostracized, or that she’ll define her identity too narrowly. That doesn’t make you shallow. But it’s also true that there’s an undercurrent of anxiety around her social and sexual independence. The best way to support your daughter is to sort out how much of your anxiety arises from threats to her happiness and safety versus threats to your own idea of what’s “normal.”

The central questions I’d be asking are not about who she’s hanging out with, but about her. Is she happy? Is she doing well in school? Is she kind to those around her? Your daughter is still a minor, so officially you get to make the rules around the house. But it’s only natural that she’d object to a double standard predicated on gender rather than character or circumstance. It’s going to be hard for your daughter to trust you if she senses that you don’t trust her.

Cheryl Strayed: Nothing you write about your daughter’s choice of friends and potential dating partners gives me pause, Mother of a Free Spirit. Your discomfort doesn’t appear to stem from any peril to your daughter, but rather from your own biases. I encourage you to examine the ways that negative assumptions you’ve made about L.G.B.T.Q. people have needlessly stoked your fears.

You state that you’ve told your daughter that you need to meet the trans boy she wants to date and that you’ll “react accordingly” if her behavior changes while dating him. Wouldn’t you do that regardless of whom she was dating? Why do you put her current romantic interest in a special category because he’s trans? Because our transphobic society has told most of us that trans people are in a special category, that’s why. But they aren’t. They’re just people. Everything that may happen between your daughter and the trans boy who’s attracted her interest is everything that may happen between your daughter and anyone she may date, their gender identity notwithstanding. The best thing you can do for your daughter is to wrap your mind around that.

SA: To that end, it’s worth asking what you mean when you write that you don’t like your daughter “hanging out with these kids.” You mean kids who happen to be L.G.B.T.Q.? Your own daughter is part of that community and has been for several years. So what you’re saying, on some level, is that you don’t want your daughter hanging out with kids like … your daughter. Can you see how this would breed mistrust?

We’re living in a cultural moment in which kids like your daughter are suddenly free to think more openly about who they are and whom they might choose to love. That can be unsettling for those of us who grew up without those freedoms, and within systems of bigotry that assailed those freedoms as unnatural or sinful. But in the end, the heart desires what it desires. That’s the natural order of things. Your daughter appears to have recognized that early on. She’s now offering you the opportunity to reckon with that truth. Bless her. And bless you for being the kind of mother willing to bear the risks of self-examination. The world needs more people like you.

CS: Your sincere effort to do right by your free-spirited daughter is commendable. You aren’t alone in feeling afraid and uncertain at various points along the way as you watch your daughter explore things that are foreign to you. Your question about what part of her interest in gender identity is “experimental teenage stuff” and what part is “who she is” can be rightly answered two ways: In choosing the friends, romantic partners and interests she has, your daughter is showing you precisely who she is, and also, with the passage of time, who she is will change. Both her current and her future self will do better if she has you by her side — loving her, trusting her and accepting her through it all.

Read more about parenting and gender identity
From He to She in First Grade

These Transgender Children Say They’re Thriving. They Want to Help Others Do the Same.

Raising a Transgender Child