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The Grandma’s Guide to Gender and Sexuality in the 2020s                      

The answers to questions you may be afraid to ask.

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illustration of grandmother walking through field of lettering made out of grass
Josie Norton
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One of the most awful things I’ve ever done was about 10 years ago, when my husband and I were redecorating. We’d hired a designer named Michael. He was a small, balding man who wore his designer jeans cuffed and rings on his index fingers. I figured he was gay. Then he mentioned his wife. I figured I’d been wrong.

We became friendly and then friends. In the way of new friends, we began unspooling our secrets to each other. Eventually Michael told me he was ready to tell me something he shared with almost no one. The ensuing conservation went something like this:

“I’m transgender,” he said.

“You used to be a girl?” I asked.


“You used to have boobs?”


I squinted at his flat chest in his buffalo-plaid shirt. “What’d you do with them?”

“I had them surgically removed.”

“What was your name?”

“I don’t tell anyone that.”

“How do you have sex with your wife?”

Evan squinted at me as though he’d never seen me before. “That’s none of your business,” he said, and wasn’t my friend anymore.

There’s no excuse for my insensitive reaction to the intimate information Michael so trustingly shared with me. I think, however, there is an explanation for my shock and curiosity. Sure, a handful of states had legalized same-sex marriage. But at the time, no one told you their pronouns. There were no gender-neutral bathrooms.

You remember: A decade ago, Caitlyn Jenner was still known as Bruce Jenner, and paparazzi stalked the Olympian/reality-TV star just to subject him to public ridicule for his suspected gender dysphoria. “Bruce Jenner Caught Cross Dressing” was a 2012 CelebrityDirtyLaundry.com headline.

Fast-forward a decade. Earlier this year, our daughter’s best friend since kinder camp, Scott, (now 22), whom we’d considered our honorary son, came out as nonbinary. What did I do?

I way overcompensated for how I’d responded to Michael's gender disclosure. I assiduously used Scott’s new pronouns — “they/them” — fortissimo (like a person who speaks loudly to “help” a non-English speaker understand her, my daughter said, cringing). I bought them the illustrated memoir Gender Queer, a Stonewall Honor Book — which, duh, they likely already had. I compulsively congratulated them on coming out as if they had won an Olympic decathlon.

I just couldn’t stop. Why? Because despite my paroxysms of love and acceptance, I lived in mortified fear that, out of sheer ignorance, I would hurt Scott or someone like them, the way I did Michael. This shame-filled terror finally motivated me to do something sensible. I got out my reporter’s notebook and asked Scott for an interview.

This Grandma’s Guide is based on conservations I had with them, along with information I obtained from expert sources, such as PFLAG (formerly known as Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and the LGBTQIA Resource Center at UC Davis.

First things first: A glossary of key terms

Asexual: People who don’t experience sexual attraction.

Bisexual: People who are attracted to men and women.

Cisgender: People who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth. Does not mean they are heterosexual.

Gender-fluid: People whose gender expression and/or gender identity change. Sometimes they may feel female, other times male, other times both or neither.

Intersex: People born with sex organs that don’t conform to male or female norms.

LGBTQIA+: An expansion of the term LGBT (meaning lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) that includes (depending on whom you ask) the questioning, queer, intersex, asexual, allies to all of the above, plus anyone who is of an as-of-yet undefined gender or sexuality.

Nonbinary: People whose gender identity and/or expression may combine both female and male elements or neither.

Queer: A word meaning “odd” that around the early 20th century began being used as a slur against gay men and, toward the end of 20th century, was reappropriated by them as a positive label. Today “queer” is an umbrella term that can be used by persons who don’t consider themselves entirely straight or entirely gay.

Pansexual: Someone who is physically, romantically and/or sexually attracted to people of all gender indentities.

Pronouns: Antecedents like queer (and cisgender) people have begun using to tell the world by what gender, if any, they want to be known.

Pubertal blockers: Prescription medications that are given, in a somewhat controversial hormone-blocking treatment, to young people who are experiencing gender dysphoria to delay the onset of puberty while they work out their gender identity.

Transgender, trans or transsexual: All describe people whose gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth.

The answer to a question you may be afraid to ask

Why are there suddenly so many LGBTQIA+ people in the world — and such a variety of them?

Most experts say that as a percentage of the population, there are not more people in these categories than there have ever been before. However, it might seem as if there are more LGBTQIA+ people (like it’s possibly even a fad) because so many have come out over the past few years. Our society may have reached a tipping point in the wake of developments such as the legalization of same-sex marriage, the election of openly gay politicians and the enduring mainstream popularity of the television show RuPaul’s Drag Race, among other factors.

Some facts

  • In the last 10 years, the number of Americans openly identifying as being LGBT or something other than heterosexual has more than doubled — from 3.8 percent to 7.1 percent.
  • Gen Z (people born 1997 and later) is driving that change. In a 2017 poll, 7 percent of this group identified as LGBT. In 2021, 20.8 percent did.
  • Almost half of people who consider themselves straight say they are sexually attracted to both men and women.
  • Gender Queer: A Memoir (the award-winning illustrated book I gave Luka), is the most banned book in the country.

Do’s and don’ts

Don’t: Say or think a person who has changed their gender identity is going through “a phase.” That doesn’t mean they won’t change their gender identity again; it does mean they are working hard on figuring out who they really are. But …

Do: Understand that what they are going through is change. It can take time to figure out what gender identity fits you. Scott says he always felt uncomfortable describing himself as a gay man. “But then I realized it wasn’t the ‘gay’ part I was uncomfortable with. It was the ‘man’ part. I didn’t feel a connection to the gender.”

Do: Treat gender-nonconforming people they way you treat gender-conforming people. One thing that really bugs my cousin Jennifer’s partner Mia is what she calls “the LGBTQ table.” “At weddings we always wind up at a table of only queer people — as if gender and sexuality is all we want, or have, to talk about!”

Don’t ever: Do anything like what I did to Michael: ask what sex organs a person has, whether they’ve had surgery, and how they have sex.

This month AARP is launching an initiative, “Our Kids in Crisis,” with a special report in AARP Bulletin, stories throughout aarp.org, The Ethel, The Girlfriend, Sisters From AARP, and The Arrow e-newsletters. Plus, there's a virtual summit with experts and teens on September 20. For more stories, advice and insights, and to register for this important informational event, please join us at aarp.org/teensincrisis.

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