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 yours. Check 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!