Why everyone needs a trans aunt

For my niece Molly’s sixth birthday, I bought her the sparkliest thing I could find. I got the gift at a jewellery store during a shopping trip with a group of other trans women, some of whom had just started transitioning. Being in their company reminded me of the first moments in my journey and when I took my first oestrogen pill. “Is the jewel magic?” Molly asked me. “It can be anything you want it to be,” I said.

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed the jealousy women express when I tell them I’m an aunt. Everybody wants to be a ‘cool aunt’. A cool aunt is a quirky, single, glamourous, slightly mad, often childless, and sometimes tipsy woman who clearly doesn’t respect the safe scripts of married life. It could be the algorithm listening to me chat incessantly about my niece, but content about cool aunts is making waves on Instagram and TikTok too, with popular posts encouraging women to embrace their ‘auntie era’. As the ‘tradwives’ (slang for ‘traditional wives’) trend gains visibility online – advocating for the resurgence of traditional gender roles – the cool aunt seems to reject them in favour of a very different, and more alternative, kind of womanhood. She is the rebellious counterpoint to rising conservatism and right-wing expectations of a woman’s place in society.

Thanks to scholars like Kareem Khubchandani (drag name: LaWhore Vagistan), we even have the early seeds of what could be a new branch of queer theory: Critical Aunt Studies. In an era where queerness is often heavily censored, on-screen aunts ingeniously mock heterosexual culture and embrace their transgressive lifestyles. It is their ability to celebrate deviation that makes aunts such significant role models – and this concept is the essence of Khubchandani’s research. In their ‘auntroduction’, they argue that aunts wield radical potential as women on the fringes of the nuclear family. There they have greater “permission” to resist patriarchal constraints within the home, through style and sexuality. In other words, you can do what you want when the world views you as a rebel without a husband. And if being trans has taught me anything, it’s that there’s power in life on the margins.

Of course, some aunts also serve as mothers – assuming all are childless overlooks this fact. The important point, therefore, is not what all aunts are, but rather, what aunthood might have the unique potential to do. For instance, the ability of aunts to enter queerness discreetly into children’s lives in ways more complex for parents has never been so important. When I was a teenager, I felt I couldn’t transition partly because the media reported negatively on schools that were inclusive of transgender kids. Because of this, numerous trans girls I know had to transition in secret to evade the stigma aimed not only at themselves but also at the parents who supported their journeys. Now, parents in particular face scrutiny like never before, with some of them being investigated for allowing their children to transition. The recent Cass Reviewa major report on young peoples’ (in)access to trans healthcare – has recommended that pre-pubertal children who have chosen to socially transition should disclose this to a clinician (so don’t worry kids, you’re going to get a licence for that trans-femme haircut!). This means that if a child chooses to change their pronouns or appearance, their parents’ judgement may no longer be enough to satisfy the state that this decision was necessary. In this climate of suspicion, parents have little choice but to demonstrate their commitment to cisnormative childhoods.

This, in turn, brings tremendous responsibility to the aunts of children whose parents fear marginalisation, or worse – their safety in a hostile community. Through their rebellious dispositions, general extra-ness and unorthodox taste in fashion, aunts remind younger generations that a more alternative, and possibly queerer, life can still be possible; they can relish in their positions as semi-outsiders of the home, causing children to think of them not only as relatives, but beyond that typical framework too, as friends. For Molly and I, friendship is the transgressive value of our bond; she comes to me with her ‘secrets’, telling me places she’s hidden toys or sweets around the house. My otherness as an aunt invites her to pull me close, and I often wonder if this transformative relationship is something I could ever recreate as a mother. 

The positionality of aunts is often one that transcends conventional family structures through a distinct blend of love and support, and sometimes allyship. As such, an increasingly transphobic and restrictive environment likely plays a part in why women are drawn to its title – I know it has for me. I feel nothing but pride in my sister’s ability as a parent. I also admire the work of women who continue to make motherhood a feminist issue. But as for my role in Molly’s life, the best I can do is to show her how the world can sparkle from the sidelines, so if she wants to stand with me there, she can.

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  • Source of information and images “dazeddigital

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