You're listening to Voices of Your Village this is episode number 221. I got to hang out with someone who I have loved following over on Instagram, my friend Wes Chernin. Wes is a gem of a human and we have learned so much from him, and it was such an honor to get to hang out with him. And I felt like I got to really show up here as a parent and ask questions and learn from him and be vulnerable and real. Because I don't know about you but the way we address gender and talk about it with kids and see it is different than the way that I was raised and what I know culturally and so it's a learning curve for me, I'm forever learning on this journey. And I feel so grateful to get to have people to be in community with, to learn with, to grow with, and I'm so excited to share this conversation with you today. Alright folks, let's dive in.
Hey, there. I'm Alyssa Blask-Campbell. I'm a mom with a master's degree in early childhood education and co-creator of the Collaborative Emotion Processing method. I'm here to walk alongside you through the messy, vulnerable parts of being humans, raising other humans with deep thoughts and actionable tips. Let's dive in together.
Hello. Hello, everybody. Today we get to hang out with someone that I have followed personally on Instagram for a while now and have such deep respect for and haven't yet had the opportunity to have a conversation with. So I'm so jazzed to get to hang out with you today Wes, hi!
Hi, Alyssa. Thank you so much for having me. I'm very jazzed to be here, too.
I love it. I love the jazz. I followed you for a while and I want you to introduce yourself. But I have known you as an SLP first, is how I found you and have found your resources and support on gender, affirming identity and transgender community really helpful for myself professionally and how I can best show up as a teacher, as an educator and now as a parent. And that's what I want to dive into today. But can you tell folks a little bit about your background, who you are, and what brings you here?
Yeah, absolutely. So, my name is Wes Chernin, and my pronouns are he, him. As he mentioned, I am an SLP. Speech language pathologist. That's my background. That's what my graduate degree is in. When I left grad school, I worked for six years in early intervention, early childhood special education as an SLP. And I was hopping around to all these different preschools and childcare centers and families homes and getting to work with kids and families in that way, which was really great. And on the side, I was also doing this consulting work and facilitating workshops on queer and trans equity and belonging. I am transgender. I'm queer. Those are two labels that I pretty strongly identify with at this point in my life. So, about a year and a half ago, I left working full time in education, which was a really hard decision to make. I miss it all the time. But I kind of shifted into leaning more into this consulting and workshop and facilitating role to reach more students and families on a broader scale for that gender affirming language and lifestyle. So, aside from my work, I'm also a partner and a dog dad, which I find a lot of pride in. My partner and I are beginning our journey to hopefully becoming parents of our own. Another thing I often bring up when introducing myself, especially to a new audience, is that I'm hard of hearing. So I wear hearing aides, which has been a great help to me. It's amazing. I didn't start wearing them until I was in my early 30s. I'm in my mid 30s now, and so that has been a journey and an evolution. And aside from that, I'm just someone who strongly loves being a homebody and resonates with that and almost equally loves traveling and being out in the world. So I try to find that balance.
That resonates with me. I was just saying, just this morning, I had a virtual coffee date with a friend. And I said, I've gotten so good at being at home, and I love it, and I'm so cozy and almost found myself, like, refusing to put plans on the calendar that involve me not being at home and then once I'm out, love it and miss in person connection. But for me, there's like, a barrier to entry there. I have to put on real pants and actually step out of the house. And in Vermont right now in the winter, it's so hard for me to do that. So that resonates. I also just want to plug for later at some point in conversation with you. I think it's interesting, the hard of hearing/ SLP connection, that connection and how that has informed your work as an SLP and how they connect, and just a little flag for later. But one of the things that I think is so interesting and that I think a lot of parents are curious about is what it looks like to support children in their gender identity from a young age. That I think we find this in early childhood across the board of, like, what are they capable of and when. And somebody was just sharing a story the other day about going into the grocery store with her child, and it had been a complete s storm, and they had, like, these full meltdowns. She was like, what could I do differently next time? How can I help make this maybe an easier experience? And we're talking about the value of pre teaching. And she was like, well, he's only 18 months. Like, I don't know how much he'll even get. And we were talking about airing on the side of, like, they understand and they understand so much more than they can say and communicate with words to us and just the value of that. And that comes up for me here around gender identity. And I'm curious to learn from you about what we can do as parents, as teachers, as caregivers to support children in who they are with as little influence from us as possible.
Yeah, you bring up such good points there. It resonates with me so much, the power of preteaching and how much our little ones from infancy and being babies, like, our understanding and grasping onto concepts. And I think one of the first things that comes to mind for me is doing some kind of self reflection, right, that we most of us anyway, vast majority of us, were taught that gender is really black and white. It's very binary. There are boys and girls. It's based on your body. That's just how it is. And we're taught that from a very young age, starting an infancy. And we're taught that because it's so black and white that we can look at someone and we can just know what their gender is, what words we should use about them. And I think one of the key things that we can teach little ones is that we can't always know what someone's gender is or what someone's words are by looking at them. We can ask, but we can't always know just by looking. There's lots of research out there showing that from I think it's like when a baby is around twelve months old, they're already starting to categorize people by gender. And when they're two, they're already recognizing gender stereotypes. And they're also sometimes able to communicate if there is a misalignment between the gender that they've been assigned and their own sense of gender, their own gender identity. And by four, they've really absorbed these gender stereotypes that are just all around them all the time, built into our language and messaging, that unless we've done a lot of reflection and digging, we might not even realize that messaging that we're giving our little ones. And so that's why it can be so powerful. Even though we need to do a lot of unlearning and reteach ourselves, it's this opportunity to start from the beginning with them. Like break down those gender expectations and gender stereotypes to allow space for all different genders to exist.
I love that. And I find that's my greatest work here personally is we had a family photographer come over and take our pictures recently, and I assumed gender based off of their name. And then I was like, halfway into the shoot and I realized I'd been I had used pronouns right from the jump and was like, oh my God, I'm so sorry. Like, I never even like it never came up for me to ask. It was just so ingrained. It's so ingrained from such a young age. And I find the hardest part for me in doing this work is that rewriting it's, the discomfort of it isn't black and white. Black and white feel so comfortable when I can categorize them and put something into a box and they can say like, okay, the name Sarah goes here. That is comfortable. And I think it takes practice, at least for me, takes practice to be in the discomfort of the unknown that I don't just know, I can't just categorize. And how uncomfortable that feels when you can't categorize. And how to communicate that to kids that, yeah, we don't know, and that it's okay to not know. And the discomfort that might come up for them in the unknown.
I think that's so important to just validate and honor. Right. It can feel really uncomfortable for some people to not be able to just look at someone and categorize them. And that's why there was a point, most people listening to this cannot see what I look like, but I present in a way that everybody reads me as a man, oftentimes as a cisgender man, meaning they assume that I was assigned male at birth. I have a beard, I wear stereotypical men's clothing, et cetera. There was a time in my life where people looked at me and couldn't categorize me because I hadn't started my transition yet, or I was early on in my transition, but I was still presenting in similar ways, meaning that I had a short haircut and that I was wearing stereotypical men's clothing. But my body and my voice had people reading me, sometimes as a woman, sometimes as a man, sometimes not sure. And I could feel that sense of people feeling uncomfortable about that or, like, not sure where to place me. There's this need to neatly place people and things in categories, right? And I think part of that, or a large part of that when it comes to gender, stems from the gender binary, which is just this idea that we've already been talking about, this idea that there are only two genders, and that everyone has to be one or the other. And that a person's gender that you're assigned at birth, dictates their gender identity, their gender for the rest of their life, and what they should look like, how they should dress, how they should act, what types of relationships they should be in. All of that is coming from there. And so I think it's so important to just recognize that piece of, like, wow, this might make me uncomfortable a little bit. That's okay. And maybe there's some unpacking to do there.
100%. We talk a lot at Seed about how self control requires tools for self regulation, which require self awareness, and you can't regulate what you're not aware of and then act with intention. And so, for me, it really has begun with the awareness piece. Like, there's discomfort there for me in the unknown, not in the result, but in the unknown. And what do I do from that, from that point of awareness and then going down that path of acknowledging and validating that part of me that grew up in certain societal norms and certain culture and then going through the work. But, yeah, that kickstart for me has been just the awareness of that discomfort of not being able to categorize, because when we can categorize, for me, it brings a feeling of safety and control, right? Like okay, I understand this. And so I feel safe and in control, perceived controls. My brain would love it would love so much more of it. And I was thinking, as you were chatting about how you said it starts in infancy, and a couple of things came up for me. One, I was at the airport, and Sage was I mean, even the name Sage folks don't know what to do with my tiny human name is Sage. And he was about one ish. And we were running around the airport. He was running around, and this person stopped and talked about how cute she is and all that, and I felt this in my body, like, do I correct her? And then I was like, do I know the answer? I had a whole internal dialogue. It's like, she's assigning gender. I have assigned a different gender to him from birth. Is mine also a guess? Right? It was like a light bulb moment for me of like, maybe she's not wrong, but we have given him this identity from birth and just how then ingrained it has become for me. And I realized in that moment that if I were to be the parent of a transgender human, it would then be a shift for me too, around like, oh, I have assigned something that's a guess. It's a guess. And have made it our reality, right? And our family shared reality. And it was just that light bulb for me of like, oh, wow, it's a guess. And I don't know if that might resonate with other parents who have maybe navigated similar things, or maybe you've assigned your child a gender and somebody you've been in public and you have said, like, oh, he's a boy. And yeah, what I'm really saying is, like, here's the sex of my child. And that acknowledgment for me was like, oh, lightbulb moment. And then another thing came up where I had a parent recently who was picking her child up at childcare and was like, hi, can I ask you a question? My child was in public the other day and was chatting and saying, was assigning gender to someone or was saying, is that a boy or a girl? And she was like, I didn't know how to answer. Like, I don't know the answer. But she was like, there was someone who had on a skirt but also had facial hair, and the child was like, the child wanted to categorize, right? And was like, I don't know which category in the binary sense to put this human into. And I also had no idea how in the general public to audibly respond to my three year old in the moment in a way that would help the three year old and be supportive. And that's what I'm interested in, really. Also going into here, what are some scripts that we can say and some things for those of us that didn't grow up hearing those scripts, a lot of this feels new of like, what do I say in that moment when my kid does want to categorize and we're in public at the grocery store or whatever?
Yeah, I think that starting from a place of just teaching that new rule, right? The old rule is, hey, we can look at someone with long hair and a purple shirt and know that that's a girl and say she and we can look at someone with short hair who's wearing basketball shorts and say he, boy. That's the old rule. Shifting to this new rule of, hey, we can't know what someone's gender or words are by looking at them. So we can ask if it's an appropriate ask. It's not always going to be. And so I think that's where more gender inclusive language comes in. Using singular. They/them. They them is a pronoun set that some non binary folks use as their set of pronouns. It's also a pronoun set that we can use about any single person whose pronouns we don't yet know. So if a little kid were to have asked me that question about seeing this person with wearing a skirt and having facial hair, is that a boy or a girl? I might say something like, I'm not really sure. I see that they're wearing a skirt. I see that they have facial hair and long hair. And I know people of all genders can have that type of hair. And I know people of all genders can like wearing skirts. So I'm not really sure we can't really know unless they tell us. And we can still talk about them because we have this word they. We don't need to avoid talking about them. And it doesn't need to be taboo either. It shouldn't be, it can't continue to be this thing that we feel scared to talk about because it's not disrespectful to acknowledge gender diversity, it's just reality. Like there are diverse genders in this world and in our community and in the worlds that our children are entering into, more and more folks in younger generations are starting to come out as transgender or nonbinary or gender expansive. And so by us starting to practice using gender inclusive language or just acknowledging this new rule that we can't always look and know, it's going to prepare our young ones for being respectful and interacting with their peers and their teachers and their future colleagues, right?
Totally. Totally. That's so helpful. And I find that script so helpful in the addition of and we can still talk about them. And here's the word that we can use in talking about them, gives us that permission. I love using language and communication with intention. Love it, here for it. And it's sometimes scary, the idea of making a mistake, especially making a mistake that would hurt somebody or would be harmful. I understand that fear. That resonates with me because then intention doesn't match impact, right? And it is hard to move away from what felt like taboo in maybe our childhood or in cultures we grew up in to say like, that's no longer taboo and here's how we talk about it. And for me, it takes like practice in spaces that feel cozy, right? Like practicing in small ways where I feel safe to make mistakes and yeah, drop the ball, say the wrong thing. The scariest thing for me right now would be like, I'm going to announce something on Instagram that I've never practiced how to say to 300,000 people or whatever, that buckle up for some DMs because it is like intention versus impact. And I feel that lack of control in parenthood of like, oh yeah, now it's not just what I say. It's that this tiny human who's trying to figure out the world might say something that could be harmful or hurt someone in public. And I'm not in control of that either. Every time I find out I'm not in control of something Wes, it really rocks my world. You think I'd learn at some point. I'm in control of almost nothing, but my brain keeps really trying. And so it's that fear for me comes up of, like, oh, my God, please. Child. One of our Seed team members was just sharing the other day about her child in the coffee shop who was yelling about someone who was fat and was, like, using the word fat. And she was like, I was mortified.
And I just wanted to get so small and invisible because I've been taught that that's not a word I'm supposed to use, and I didn't have the right language at my fingertips to respond in a way that could, like, support the human who's listening to this. And she's like, I wanted to respond to my kid, and I also wanted to comfort this other human. And so I think that's part of the fear for me is not just me making mistakes, but as my kid is publicly learning how to have these discussions, how to make space for that in a way that protects other people.
Yeah, that is tricky and nuanced. And it's such a common feeling or fear to, just fear of getting it wrong, always wanting to get it right, wanting your actions to align with your intent right, so that the impact is positive. I get that. I feel that, too. I think that there is something I love that you said that you want to practice somewhere where you feel cozy. I love that way of saying it and that wording. And I think it's important to be having these conversations, and they could be practice sessions, practice dialogue, just practicing the language and the way it feels so new and unfamiliar to you in a space with people that you feel cozy with. I think it can be sometimes a misconception that trans and nonbinary folks just get this and understand this right away or forever, they have, we have. And that's not the case at all. When I started exploring my gender identity in a conscious way, I was in my early twenty's, and so I had 20 plus years of absorbing and learning all of the same messaging that most of you all have also been learning and absorbing around the gender binary and these expectations. And I had to do a lot of self reflection and unpacking and digging in order to be able to access and learn what my true relationship to gender is. And I had to do a lot of practicing. And for me, I found my queer community to do that practice with. Currently, I still make mistakes. I will misgender people sometimes. The other day I was talking to my partner, we were on a walk and I was talking about a musician that I really like and I kept using the wrong pronouns. I was saying, oh, he's doing a show here and I saw him once many years ago. And then I paused in the middle of our conversation, I was like, I'm pretty sure I'm misgendering them. And then I just went ahead and I resaid what I was saying. I continued on with the conversation being very intentional about using they them pronouns. And I think that that is something that doesn't need to feel like a shaming or shameful experience. And it can really feel more like, what I want it to feel like to people is this recommitment to seeing someone, to being in community with people and to just getting back on track, to learning about who they are and listening to them and these mistakes, using the wrong words. That's going to happen. It's going to continue to happen. It's going to get a lot easier and more comfortable, but it's still going to happen. And it's okay. I think it's about the response and the repair. And it makes me think a little bit back to what you were saying earlier about how you have given your child this identity, right? Maybe it's a guess, maybe someone who used she pronouns. Oh, that's also a guess. We don't know. It goes back to getting us to this place where it's okay that we are continuing to assign gender to babies when they're born. It's not something that I'm advocating to get rid of, right? But what we can do is from the time our children are babies or starting now, however old they are, is bringing up this awareness and using this language that humanizes and normalizes different gendered experiences. So that if your child or your child's friend or their cousin gets to a point in their life where they are like, hey, wait a second, this gender that I've been assigned, it doesn't feel right. It doesn't fit me. It's not actually who I am. They know that A, that exists. Other people like them exist. Other people like them can thrive and be joyful and happy and hopefully that you are someone they feel safe sharing that information with because they know they've witnessed you being able to change your language and being able to talk about gender diversity.
Love that. And it's so helpful. And also thanks for the permission to assign gender at birth. Most of parenthood being like, am I doing the right thing? Have I made the right choice? And that's one of those things where I'm like, am I doing the right thing? Have I made the right choice? So thank you personally for that permission. And also I was just thinking about how when you were sharing, I was like, oh, it's just getting more information about a human, right? Even maybe if they get more information about themselves. And I was having a conversation with someone the other day who,
one of my least favorite qualities is pretentiousness. And I have a huge complex with wealth and rich. I grew up in a low income community and I'm one of five kids and Mom who waitressed on weekends and all that. And I have a lot of stuff and baggage around wealth and rich folks. Like my biggest trigger. And I was chatting with this human who I had, who now lives with a great deal of wealth and who I had already just assigned so many narratives about this human and then got to hear her backstory. And she'd grown up in a very similar situation to myself and she grew up really low income without resources, and it then shifted. Like, I got to write a new narrative internally about this human. I got more information about her and got to make a shift. And that story just came up for me when you were chatting and I was like, similarly with gender identity, it's that as we get more information, we make changes and there's a shift. And it doesn't mean that everything I ever thought about her before is wrong. It's that I was creating the narrative and doing the best I could with the information I had. And as I got more information that could shift and how that might come up here.
Absolutely. That's something I tend to go back to when people learn somebody's pronouns and for whatever reason it is about this person, they have a hard time getting those pronouns right. And something that I find I have found personally extremely helpful is instead of just trying to memorize someone's pronouns that you're having a hard time with, actually rewriting your internal narrative of them shifting your mindset to align with who they're telling you they are. Right. So it's not looking at someone who you thought was a girl and a she, and now they're telling you, I'm actually non binary and my pronouns are they/them. Not looking at that same person and still having this narrative that they're a girl, but their words are they/them and how hard and confusing that might be, but actually really taking some time to internalize this person is not a girl. I thought that they were a girl. That's what I thought for however many years I thought that that's not true. So I'm going to rewrite that that still exists as my history of narrative about this person, but it's just not true. So I need to just honor who they're telling me they are. And once I'm able to sit with that, to really have some time with myself to rewrite that narrative, it helps me with my language and being intentional about getting the words correct moving forward.
I love that I find that so helpful because we have categorized for reasons, right? Maybe it's like for me, it was that name, Sarah, right? Where I was like, all right, she/her, Sarah, then it would be harder for me to be like, I'm just going to know that their pronouns are they/them. Just going to know it now than to sit and rewrite that. And for me, it means taking down, like, oh, Sarah doesn't mean she/her. Right. And unboxing, that is a part of the process for me. Interesting. Okay, I have a question, and if this is too vulnerable, you can say, I don't want to talk about it, I don't want to answer that's 100% fine anytime, as a transgender human, if you look back, you're in early childhood, you're birth to eight. What do you wish you had or what support or what? Yeah, I guess. What do you wish you had? What might you, as you enter into parenthood, do differently in a way that you would have found supportive or helpful on your journey?
Yeah, I wish that the adults around me would have, A: not contributed and B: stopped when they saw other kids doing this. Like breaking down stereotypes and assumptions related to gender meaning, like, pink is for girls and blue is for boys, trucks are for boys and dolls are for girls. Certain types of shoes are for boys, certain types of shoes are for girls. Like, all these things that were so present in my childhood, like, my parents weren't directly teaching me these things, but I was learning them through TV and school and just living in this society. And I wish that I had people around disrupting that and letting me know that, oh, if you like those clothes, like, we can go shop in the boys section, like, no big deal. Clothes are for anyone. It's silly that they have these different signs that would have been huge as well as visibility and representation, having books that included queer families, having pictures and posters of diverse gender expressions. Those are all things that would have allowed me to humanize trans people and nonbinary people and to know that we exist and that we're right in our existence and we belong.
Yeah. To feel seen. Yeah, I love that and like, thank you. Because those feel approachable, not overwhelming for me as a parent, like, okay, done. Immediately for folks who are like, what books would that include? Maybe you have some you would recommend? I love the first conversation series. There are some great books in that series. Other ones that you would recommend?
Yeah, I have a few. There is the Pronoun book. That's what it's called. The Pronoun Book by Chris Ayla. Kronos. And that book, that's a board book. It can be introduced from the tiniest age. And it's so simple, it's just illustration, like beautiful illustrations of all different types of people. And they show everyone's pronouns. So you have he looking a million different ways and she looking a million different ways and they look a million different ways. Really cool. I also really like what are your words? Which is also a book about pronouns by Catherine Locke. That one is more of a story.
I've heard you use that a few times. We can't know their gender or their words. And so for folks who I realize that wasn't new to me, but if that's new to somebody, when you're saying their words, you're saying they're pronoun words.
Yes, usually. Yeah, right. Oftentimes, when I'm talking with little kids, I will intermix the language of pronouns and words. I want them to know the word pronouns and what it means. But words can sometimes feel just more approachable, and it can also include, like, someone's name and other gendered words, Mr. Miss Sir Maam, things like that. The other one the other book I wanted to mention right now is They, She, He: Easy as ABC by Maya Gonzalez. So that's another one that's really good for little ones and another one that just shows, like, a wide diversity of the way people look and the different words or pronouns that they might use. But there's this bookshop called Out and About Bookshop that is actually this, like, mobile bookshop in the San Francisco Bay Area that has all LGBTQ children's books, and it's so cool. Although, even if you're outside of the Bay Area, they have this online resource, which is all of these book lists for different age ranges. It gets very specific, and there's a list for LGBTQ Spanish books, and it's an incredible resource. So I'll get the link to you that maybe we can share with the audience.
100%. Yeah, we'll pop it in the blog post. That's great. Thank you. Thank you. It's helpful to have a jumping off point of, like, where we go and Introducing Teddy was one that we have on our bookshelf. Teddy is transgender, and it's, I would say, a preschool age book, three to five, not a board book. So we'll get ripped in your house if your child reads books. Like, my child very jazzed as he's reading books, but that's another one that's on our bookshelf.
Yeah. And that makes me think about this book called Peanut Goes for the Gold, which is also great for preschool and even older, as well. That's written by Jonathan Van Ness from Queer Eye.
And this is a book about Peanut is a hamster, I think. I hope I'm not getting that wrong. But either a hamster or a guinea pig.
Kindof the same animal.
Yeah. The book has nothing to do with gender or pronouns, but Peanuts words are they them that's just their words throughout the whole book. And so it's a nice way to just kind of normalize using they them about one singular person and just weaving it in seamlessly.
Yeah, that's my favorite kind. I have beef with books that are like, I have two moms, and I'm like, can we just tell a story that has two moms? It still feels othering to me when it's like, here's all the other books, and then, here's this one.
Absolutely. I think there's something really cool about having some having some tools, some children's books that are kind of, like, explicitly teaching, especially. It can also help give us as adults scripts and language to use. And also, I totally agree with you. It's so important that that is not all that a lesbian couple is, not just about being two moms and a family. So Out and About bookshop. One of their book lists, it says something like, LGBTQ books that have LGBTQ characters but that are not at all about LGBTQ identities. It just normalizes. We need to see children need to see LGBTQ people in stories just existing. Right?
Yeah. 100%. And apply that across the board. Yeah. This is so helpful for me, and your work in this space is so, so important. And I know I didn't grow up in a culture where this the culture that I grew up in is not the culture I'm raising my child in, in so many ways and in so many rad ways. And that takes education on my part, and it takes reflection on my part and awareness for me as a parent, as a teacher. And thank you. Thank you for being a beautiful teacher in this space and for also setting up things that really do feel accessible. Like, everything you said today, I'm like, okay, that feels achievable for me. And that's a breath of fresh air, too. That's awesome. Thank you so much. Where can people learn more about you, connect with you, follow you, all the things?
Thank you so much. That's very kind. I really enjoyed being in conversation with you, and I hope we get to do it again sometime soon. Folks can reach me on Instagram at @Hey_Wes. So that's underscore, and my website is www.hey-wes.com. Those underscores and dashes are really important, which is silly, but they got to be there. So, hey-wes.com. Or @hey_wes.
We'll link all that in the blog post if you're listening on the go. Or I often listen to podcasts as I'm doing the dishes or throwing in laundry, etc. And you can always come back to voicesofyourvillage.com to access the blog post and get all the links to anything, including all past resources. Thank you, Wes. Thanks for being you.
Thank you so much.
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