I’d like to talk about two very important arenas of working with transgender people: one is their gender identity, and the other is what they are going to do about it. One is who you ARE, the other is what you DO.
A woman I was speaking with recently made reference to a transgender acquaintance of hers: “He is in the process of becoming transgender.” “Transitioning”, I said. “What?” she asked. “Transitioning is the process”, I said. “Being transgender is who he is.”
One does not “become” transgender. One is born transgender. What one eventually does with that is an entirely different issue, and is different for every individual.
Understanding, knowing, discovering, realizing one’s gender identity is a unique process for everyone. Some people understand what gender they are from the very start, never think about it, and never have to worry about it, not even once in their entire lives. These people are usually those whose biological sex match the gender of their brains. For transgender individuals, coming to understand their personal gender can look many different ways. Some have an immediate sense of identifying as the “opposite” gender (forgive my reference to the gender dichotomy!) and depending on temperament, family influence, etc. that awareness can cause very different levels of distress in the individual. Some are vocal about it, since childhood. Some guard it like a secret. Some don’t really know exactly what’s going on, but they have a sense there is something not quite right. Some individuals don’t realize their gender doesn’t match their biological sex until they are much older, but when they do, a lot of pieces fall into place. (Having a child or family member not realize until they are much older is often more difficult for the family members, but that’s a subject for another blog!)
By the time a client makes it to my office, he or she is usually pretty darn sure about his or her gender identity. In fact, MOST transgender clients I come into contact with are completely sure of what gender they are. I have been known to facetiously say, “that’s the easy part!”.
After understanding and coming to peace with one’s gender identity, the next task is deciding what he or she is going to DO about it. For those of you not completely savvy with all the concepts and terms, the process of aligning one’s biological sex with one’s gender identity is called “transitioning”. Mainly this includes changing one’s appearance, name, and pronouns to “present” as the gender with which he or she identifies. It often includes hormones and sometimes includes surgery.
This is the hard part.
Much of the agony for my clients comes from not trying to figure out what gender they are, but what they are going to do about it. Transitioning from one gender to the other, and coping with all that entails, is a very scary thing. Some clients will come saying they identify as “third gender” or something in the middle. (Of course, some people really feel this way, and they refer to themselves as genderqueer. In this blog I’m discussing those who ultimately identify as transgender.) What usually causes someone who is transgender to say this is the fear of the transition. In this case it is the “what to do” wreaking havoc on the “who I am”!
In my experience with my clients, fear of transitioning mainly comes from outside sources. They may fear the reaction of significant others, family members, co-workers, or society at large. If the fear of this remains greater than the desire to make themselves happy by aligning their body with their mind, the transgender person may decide not to pursue transitioning. This does not make the person any less transgender. It just means too much got in the way of doing what they needed to do for themselves, to make themselves happy. Having a transgender person decide not to transition is not cause for a sigh of relief, it is often cause for concern. Not transitioning due to fear of reactions or to please others may be the recipe for an unhappy future.
For some, deciding to transition is easy, even if the process is still a challenging one. Once their gender identity is realized, transitioning to match their body and outer appearance is a natural next step. For many transgender individuals, transitioning is a very positive process, one that brings much relief, joy, and satisfaction.
It’s my wish that over time, with an increased understanding of what it means to be transgender and extensive de-pathologizing of the concept, the gap between who someone is and what he or she is going to do about it will become much, much smaller.
To my transgender friends, clients, and blog followers, I’d love to hear your feedback about this! Either comment on this blog or email me privately. Thanks as always for reading!