In honor of Deaf Queer Awareness Week, April 12 through 19, I’d like to talk to my fellow parents of d/Deaf nonbinary kids.
“I am saying that a journey is called that because you cannot know what you will discover on the journey, what you will do with what you find, or what you find will do to you.”― James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro
My teenager, Ari, is now 17. Ari’s pronouns are they/them, which feels kind of new for some people. If you’re not sure how that works, try imagining that you see an abandoned umbrella at the library. You might take it to the desk and say, “Someone left their umbrella by the door. Do you think they’ll come back for it?”
But I digress. Ari is deaf, a cochlear implant user, autistic, nonbinary and queer. Their dad and I didn’t find all of this out at once, though.
Ari missed their newborn hearing screening, so we spent the next 19 months wondering why our infant didn’t turn towards their dad when he played guitar for them, and why they weren’t babbling or responding the way other kids were.
I now laugh when I remember thinking, “My kid is either deaf or autistic.” Psych! They are both. But we didn’t figure out about them being autistic until later.
As Ari grew, they went through phases like every child. They had a princess phase, became an avid tree-climber, went through a few months of being obsessed with their school uniform and wanting to wear it even on weekends. They got into reading Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan and imagined themself as a demigod going on quests. The K-Pop phase is in full swing as I write this.
They also went through hard phases with teachers who didn’t understand them, a chronically nervous stomach and debilitating anxiety, much of which was caused by unkind classmates and peers who didn’t get them and weren’t willing to be inclusive. I worried a lot.
When Ari was 10 they said they could no longer hear well enough with their hearing aids, and asked for cochlear implants. This was a new stage of life for them. Learning to hear with their implants eventually gave them more confidence and helped them be more independent at school and in the world.
When they were 13 they briefly dated someone for the first time, a girl they met at an afterschool program. I wouldn’t say I was ready for this, but I took a deep breath and invited Ari’s girlfriend and her mom over for lunch. Ari seemed … not thrilled.
They came down the stairs that night and asked to talk with me. I followed them back up to their bedroom.
They seemed to struggle a bit, but finally asked me, “How can I have a relationship with someone if I don’t even know if I’m a girl or a boy?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “Honestly, I’ve never known what it means to feel male or female. But I love you and I want to support you.”
From that moment Ari and I, and soon their dad and younger sibling, started a journey together. This was not a phase.
Ari explored different names and pronouns until they found ones that feel right. They tried different outfits and hairstyles. My younger child figured out that they are nonbinary, too. I even learned more about my own gender identity, and though my outsides really didn’t change much, it feels good to know who I am.
Along the way I found Ari a therapist with expertise in working with kids on sorting out their gender. That took a few tries, but it was so worth it. I’ll never forget the therapist who used the wrong pronouns for Ari after their first appointment. She didn’t even apologize, just shrugged as if to say, “You know what I mean.”
I did, and it wasn’t OK. I reported her to her supervisor and found a different therapist.
Raising a kid who is traveling such a different road than most of their peers has meant walking a line between pushing their independence and being ready to rear up growling like a mama bear to defend them. It has meant being ready to reject anyone who rejects my child. Fortunately, all Ari’s relatives have been accepting, even my dear 85-year-old Mexican Catholic mother-in-law.
Raising Ari has also meant trusting them.
I trusted them when they told me they couldn’t hear well enough with their hearing aids. I trusted them when they came out to me. I trusted them when they said their stomach or joints hurt; we followed up and found out they have a genetic disorder that explains many of the health problems they have had throughout their life.
Last November, even though the pandemic was still raging, Ari had gender confirming chest surgery. They had been talking to me about wanting this surgery for almost four years. It was really hard for me to accept that they wanted to go under the knife, but eventually my husband said, “This is what Ari feels they need. They haven’t deviated from wanting it, and we have to trust them.”
When Joel and I went to meet Ari in the recovery room after their surgery, I felt something break open inside me. All that trust I placed in them, following their lead as they showed me who they are and what they needed, through IEP meetings, therapies, cochlear implant surgeries, health crises that scared the life out of me, into a new territory, a new name, new pronouns… All that trust was filling up a balloon inside me, and sometimes it made it hard to breathe. But that day the balloon burst. What spilled out was pride.
My child is a person who is willing to risk a lot so they can be true to themself and move confidently through the world with their outsides matching their insides. In addition to being a wonderful artist, a devoted friend, a terrific babysitter and a wonder with a crochet hook, my kid is brave enough to say to the world, “I am here to be loved for all that I am.” And I do love them.
When I asked some deaf nonbinary adults what they want parents of younger deaf nonbinary people to know, this is some of what they told me:
Freedom in gender expression has allowed me to be who I am. It’s one of greatest gifts parents can give their children.
– Leala H., Maryland
Allow your child to experiment and have fun while figuring out their identity. You could join them and make it even more fun! Dress up with them. If they show interest in shaving, [you] can pretend shave with them. If interested in make up, show them. My dad would show me how to “shave” and we would do it. He taught me how to tie my ties and we dressed up together. I have fond memories of that because it was experienced with my father.
– Morgan J., Maryland
Written by: Juliet Martinez
I am a freelance writer on parenting and health topics, and chronically ill, neurodivergent parent with two chronically ill, neurodivergent kids and a wonderful partner. My life rarely goes according to plan, but I love it anyway. Read more of my work, including the “Now What?” series I wrote for Britannica for Parents, at julietbmartinez.com.