IT: My thoughts on what being transgender is all about

In all this talk about “getting it”, I realized I haven’t defined “it”. I haven’t said what it is exactly I’d like others to “get”. I have been referring people to my blog as a means of helping them understand all the various aspects of gender identity, transitioning, etc. but I haven’t thoroughly explained IT, meaning what it means to be transgender.

Am I qualified for explaining this one? I’m not transgender myself, nor could I even be considered gender variant. So is it presumptuous of me to take this one on? Does witnessing and listening to the intimate desires, dreams, emotions, trials, and tribulations of many transgender individuals qualify me for defining “it”? Maybe. In fact, that more explains why this blog has been primarily about the inner angst and the external pressures of the transperson; this is what I work with every day, not defining “it”. Likely because I get it, my clients get it, and we need to work out all the other details. So, details aside, this blog is about IT.

I’m not going to define “it” or give a clinical explanation (I might do that at a later time.) I’m going to share some thoughts (in my own words), based on my relationships with many transgender individuals who have allowed me to take a glimpse into their hearts and souls. To those of you who are transgender, I hope I did you justice. To those of you who are the “others” seeking to understand, put on your empathy hats. Let’s go!

IT:

It’s being a person faced with a remarkable challenge. It’s being a person, with feelings, thoughts, and aspirations that are affected by and often times overshadowed by the feelings of gender incongruity. It’s being a “normal” person, with a set of abnormal circumstances to navigate. It’s being a child who desperately wants to play with a kind of toy or a group of kids and is told wanting such things is wrong. It’s keeping the biggest part of yourself secret, often for years upon years. It’s life’s earliest lesson that others are not always going to accept you exactly as you are. It’s honoring yourself. It’s having a body that feels foreign to you at times. It’s feeling betrayed by puberty rather than excited by it. It’s fear that being true to yourself will make you lose those most important to you. It’s anxiety about making a “decision”, when in your gut you know it’s not a decision, but something you have to do for yourself. It’s a fear of losing a deeply loved partner as a result of transitioning. It’s sacrificing a lot to gain a lot. It’s a feeling of not feeling comfortable with the pronouns people use for you, but sometimes not knowing why. It’s huge relief when you finally figure out WHY. It’s facing a bigger challenge than most people do in their lifetimes. It’s holding your bladder for hours at a time to avoid using a restroom in public; either room could cause problems for you prior to transitioning. It’s being incredibly brave. It’s being careful of your loved ones’ feelings while hoping they are careful with yours. It’s not knowing how you fit in around those who share your gender. It’s a decision to be stealth or be “out”. It’s being a child who clearly knows his or her gender, and hoping a parent helps. It’s coming out as “gay”, even when that doesn’t feel right, because it’s the only way you know at the time to make others understand why you are attracted to who you are attracted to. It’s knowing exactly who you are, and wishing others did too.  It’s anxiety that even after changing you won’t be truly happy. It’s trusting yourself even in the midst of all the other voices. It’s fear of taking a hormone, even when you know that hormone is the only thing that can help you become who you really want to be. It’s gratitude for medical interventions. It’s finding where you land along the gender spectrum. It’s being teased for being who you are. It’s wishing things were different. It’s dread of changes, impatience for changes, and desperation for changes, all at the same time. It’s having to jump through hoops to get the interventions needed when what you need isn’t pathological. It’s fear (often projected) of transitioning too young. It’s sadness about transitioning too old. It’s understanding that others like gender to be black and white, and to make sense, and sometimes you don’t make sense to them. It’s feeling trapped. It’s feeling freed. It’s feeling your stomach do a flip the first of many times you hear a loved one use the “right” pronoun. It’s wishing others knew how hard this is for YOU. It’s making the impossible possible. It’s hours of research on the Internet. It’s absorbing the stories of those who have gone before you to make things seem less overwhelming. It’s a beautiful transformation.  It’s naming yourself. It’s a feeling of being “ripped off”, even when you don’t know who or what to blame. It’s having all the pieces of the puzzle finally make sense. It’s me wishing this was easier for you. It’s regret for moving too slowly, fear of moving too fast. It’s bitterness about the money it takes to change your body to align with your mind, when most can save for luxuries.  It’s compassion for yourself and all you are going through, when no one else around you can give it. It’s wanting concrete answers to an abstract concept. It’s thinking “am I crazy?” when you know you’re sane. It’s your heart racing every time you have to “come out”. It’s wishing you could “just be happy” in your assigned gender. It’s standing on the edge of a cliff, getting ready to jump and hoping you will fly. It’s skepticism that this will really work out. It’s incredible relief to finally be seen as WHO YOU ARE. It’s a feeling of inadequacy, even when those of us around you can see you are more than adequate just the way you are. It’s joy in being true to yourself. It’s relief in finding others like you, or others who understand you. It’s listening to your inner voice, possibly one you’ve been ignoring for a long time. It’s finally having the need to be YOU outweigh the fear. It’s excitement. It’s empowerment. It’s confusion. It’s happiness. It’s thankfulness. It’s pride. It’s hope. It’s relief. That is IT.

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What does IT mean to you?

 

Reactions of Others Part 2: They Just Don’t “Get It”

In the years I’ve been doing gender therapy, I’ve come to realize a simple fact about the general population and their understanding of transgender individuals: some get it, and some don’t. I don’t know what the common denominator is in those who “get it”, or those who don’t, I just know there is a pretty clear delineation of these two camps. I also know that there is one thing that set me up well to go into this particular niche… I just “get it”. I don’t think that makes me better than people who don’t get it; there is no judgment there. I see it as a piece that is simply a part of some people, and not a part of others. For me, I “got it” first and then was educated on all the intricacies of gender identity and work with gender dysphoric individuals. Others, I suppose, may need to be educated first before they “get it”. The great news is that even those who initially don’t “get it” can come to understand and accept over time. Others still may never really understand, but can be loving and accepting about it anyway.

There are a lot of factors that impact how others receive the news that a loved one is transgender. One of the biggest obstacles is a lack of knowledge. Many people have never had any experience with knowing someone who is transgender and simply don’t know anything about it. When there is a void of knowledge, a plethora of opinions, guesses, and myths can take its place, all of which can contribute to a difficult response or a difficult processing of the news.

Many people have misconceptions and pre-conceived notions. Some have heard misinformation about transgender people; others have heard a little true information and then “filled in the blanks” with assumptions that may be fueled by fear or stigma. Having certain feelings about the issue can also fuel the guesses.  Having pre-existing negative feelings about transgender people will breed negative guesses, taking the place of fact or reality. Add worry and concern for the loved one who is transgender, and the result is a pretty tricky response to the to the big revelation.

If you are a transgender individual who is “coming out” to someone you care very much about and you value the relationship with this person, it is a good idea to provide information from the start or steer them in the right direction of where to find information. There are a lot of resources out there for loved ones.  Additionally, taking the time to explain your journey to self-realization of your true gender identity, and all the feelings (both positive and negative) that went with it may be just the information another needs to “get it”. You may feel exhausted and depleted by having already gone through a long and difficult internal journey to get to where you are, but taking the time to share this with your loved ones could go a long way.

Yet even when information is provided, many still do not “get it”. Some simply cannot wrap their brains around the concept. There’s a difference between having information/knowledge and “getting it”. “Getting it” takes some ability to see the gray area about things, and understand that gender is not black and white. Some people have difficulty seeing things in anything other than black and white. There could also be a variety of other things that contributes to one’s ability to “get it”. Personal experience, background, basic tolerance for those who are different, religion, empathy, the ability to see life from another’s point of view, etc.  Some are stuck in their own experiences, some are stuck in the gender dichotomy, some can only see what is concrete.

How much energy should be put into trying to make them “get it”? After making a reasonable effort to explain yourself or the basic concept of being transgender, providing resources, etc., there is a necessary boundary that needs to be set. Doing this too much can be depleting for the trans person who has multiple other demands in which to put their energy.  It’s also important to allow others the space to come around on their own, (you have likely been down a similar journey of doubt, fear, and eventually acceptance) and accept the possibility that it may not happen.  In those cases where your loved one doesn’t seem to understand after a lot of explaining and resources given, tell them you love them ask for what you would like from them in regards to your transition. If they love you, operating from a stance of love and compassion can go a long way even if one doesn’t “get it”.

 

I’ve been contemplating what the ratio of “get its” to “don’t get its” might be… To transgender individuals out there: what ratio of people in your life “get it” vs. those who don’t?

Reactions of Others Part 1: Shock and Awe

I once did a presentation at the IFGE (International Foundation for Gender Education) conference in Washington, D.C. called “Ignorance, Questions, and Fears, Oh My!:  Surviving the Reactions of Others”. I will be using some of the concepts from that presentation for the next 4 weeks of my blogs; various aspects of the “reactions of others”. My hope is that it may be helpful not only to those who are coming out to family and friends as transgender, but also to those who are on the receiving end of such big news or may be passing along the news by proxy.

Please understand that my above use of the word “ignorance” is by no means meant to be offensive. I do not equate it to being unintelligent or unwilling to learn. My use of the word in the title simply refers to someone who doesn’t know much (or anything!) about the concept of gender dysphoria/being transgender.

I chose to present on this topic because it is by far the most commonly brought up issue in therapy for my clients who are transitioning. In fact, I think it can be the most difficult part of transitioning.  I am writing this blog to help those preparing to disclose, as well as help those who have been hurt by the reactions of others in the past. I hope this will help those individuals reflect upon where their loved one may have been coming from so that healing can happen. Additionally, my intention is for this series of blogs to normalize the feelings that friends and family members may have as they absorb the concept of how their loved one feels and what he or she is about to do. This topic may also be useful to the loved ones when they themselves have to disclose to others about the transgender friend or family member to others. Of course, it is my wish that the more knowledge I can spread, the less hurtful the coming-out process will be for all parties involved.

Shock and Awe: Take Cover

Many loved ones of a transgender individual are shocked when they hear the news of their loved one’s true gender identity and/or plans to transition, even if they may have witnessed gender nonconforming behavior for years.  Shock itself is an intense emotion, and therefore can cause impulsive, insensitive reactions. Shock can get rid of the “filter” that people have most of the time. This impulsivity may cause others to say the first few things that come to their minds. As you know, saying the first thing that comes to your mind when high emotion is involved is usually not a good idea. When a transgender individual is disclosing, he or she is in a vulnerable place. I can almost guarantee you that he or she is hoping for a good response, and can be shaken to the core by a negative one. Things that are said in those first few moments of disclosure may be something the transgender individual remembers for many years to come.

This is why disclosing through emails or letters can often be easier. As much as I appreciate the value of face-to-face communication (I am a therapist, after all!), this may just be one of those situations where a letter is appropriate.

A letter gives the discloser the opportunity to really think about what to say and how to say it. (A letter can also be revised many times, unlike saying it all out loud!) Those on the receiving end get to read and absorb it before a conversation takes place. Having some time and space to process it is a great way to avoid saying the first thing that comes to mind.  It allows the other’s initial reaction to be there without the discloser necessarily knowing everything about it. (Again, as much as I am for open communication, there are some things that are simply better left unsaid.)

Those of you who are preparing to disclose, about yourself or on behalf of a transgender person you love, it’s important to prepare yourself for possible hurtful statements on behalf of others…particularly if you expect them to be “shocked”. Preparing is not about anticipating negative responses to the extent of being fearful, or even holding back from sharing. Anticipating what may be in store will help you take better care of yourself in the moment. Remind yourself it is part of the process, and things WILL get better over time. It’s important to have answers and boundaries ready to go so that you are not caught off guard. (I’ll be talking more about responding and boundaries in the next few blogs). Additionally, it may be helpful to try to understand the feelings the other person might have and therefore what may be behind the statements. This may make the statements easier to tolerate and make you less likely to “take them on” as your own. Remember, you are identifying the feelings as someone else’s, not yoursCheck out my previous blog entry “It’s Hard for Moms”.

If you are a transgender individual preparing to come out, good luck… you can do it! I’ve seen the process many times and have witnessed/been privy to a wide spectrum of responses. Loved ones who have a hard time with it at first eventually DO come around.

If you are the loved one of a transgender individual, you are likely past the “coming out” period since you are reading this blog. However, if you feel you may have said some things initially that could have hurt your loved one, apologize. It’s never too late for healing to happen!