"It means being somewhere between man or woman, or sometimes, rejecting those labels completely," says a voiceover in the first minutes of MTV's new True Life episode. This is one definition of "genderqueer," and the show follows two young people who identify as such. What True Life has always been good at is presenting identities and situations viewers might not be familiar with — without sensationalizing them or giving them an air of tragedy. It's notable that Jacob, a 24-year-old activist living in New York City, points out, "My life is pretty great right now." The quote comes immediately before the introduction of Jacob's conflict: Their dad (Jacob's preferred pronouns are "they" and "them"), who lives in North Carolina, still doesn't fully accept Jacob. Of course, as a docudrama series, the show has a reality-TV element to it. But Jacob's family conflict is presented as a piece of their reality, rather than the entirety of it.
The segment introducing Brennen, a 17-year-old from Florida, opens with him (he prefers traditionally male pronouns) explaining "genderqueer" to his hairdresser — all while worried his mom might overhear. Brennen doesn't need MTV to tell his story; he has his own YouTube channel, which he uses to talk about gender identity, among other things. He's also among friends who seem equally comfortable with fluid gender identities. The show presents Brennen's parents' acceptance (or lack thereof) as a source of drama — but not an all-consuming one. Brennen is happy and comfortable with who he is and has found a community that loves him for that. It's clear that his parents' reaction could never take that away.
Overall, the interactions Jacob and Brennen have with their parents are fascinating because they don't follow the scripts normally given to parents of LGBTQ or gender-nonconforming children on TV: complete acceptance or raging bigotry. Jacob's father says he's willing to accept his child as gay, but isn't comfortable with Jacob "cross dressing." He agrees to go to Jacob's speech at North Carolina transgender pride, but says he will "put down his shades." Likewise, Brennen's mom asks for patience — and continues to call him "Kaitlyn" — but seems willing to pay for his chest binder. It's refreshing to see family reactions that fall in a more realistically gray area; these are parents who love their children, but are overwhelmed with their new identities. The crux of the episode is best captured by the final moments with Brennen and his family. While his mother stumbles over pronouns, always correcting herself, she reveals graduation announcement cards that feature Brennen's chosen name as well as the gender-fluid flag (which Mom explains she "found on the Internet"). An epilogue-type card explains that, two weeks later, Brennen's mom is still flipping back and forth between his chosen name and his birth name. But a perfect, happily-ever-after wrap-up isn't necessary. Rather, the episode acts as an important portrait, especially during trans awareness week, of two families that are working to accept their children for who they are — and of two young adults who refuse to be anything but themselves.