Reactions of Others Part 4: F-f-f-fear

Although I’m sure I’ll blog plenty more about coming out and coping with responses, this is the final installment in my recent four-part series “Reactions of Others”. In this blog I’m addressing the F word: Fear. Fear is often a huge component in the reactions of others. In fact, I’d be as bold to guess that when a transgender individual reveals his or her true gender identity and/or plans to transition, there are suddenly three participants in that conversation: the transgender individual, the loved one, and Fear. Of course, how much fear is present depends upon the nature of the relationship between the two people, how long they have known each other, and the world view of the loved one.

Any type of change can trigger the fear reaction. Many people prefer things to remain just as they are; familiar, stable, predictable. Change that is unexpected and unwelcome can signal something that is out of one’s control. I know many family members and friends feel out of control and powerless regarding this issue. Powerless to change it, powerless to fix it, sometimes powerless to understand.  Ultimately, many loved ones realize it is the decision of the transgender person to act on the transition even if they themselves don’t understand or want it. Many loved ones fear they are “losing” someone they love very much, and may not recognize the person they become. Many fear the one they care about will regret such a significant, life-altering decision. Most, at some point, worry about the safety of their transgender loved one.

In addition to these specific fears, having a close friend or family member come out as transgender questions the gender binary. Those who could previously organize gender into two neat little boxes can be thrown by the concept that gender can be fluid and dynamic. It can cause people to question core beliefs; something they always thought they understood. As you probably know, challenging core beliefs makes people uncomfortable. The less the person understands, the more fear will be present to take the place of knowledge and comprehension. Fear of the unknown is often NOT simply fear of the unknown, it’s a fear of the “what if”, or the “fill in the blank”. The ideas and worst-case scenarios people create cause more fear than simply not knowing.

Fear can whisper; fear can shout. Fear may be ever-present in the journey your loved ones take to acceptance, or it just may rear its ugly head every now and again. My hope is that when it does, recognize it for what it is. See the fear which may be disguised as anger, and masked in a lashing out you don’t deserve. Understand and expect the fear, as fear was likely a part of YOUR journey, too. Let your loved one know you’re in this together, the two of you. Eventually fear can be on its way.

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Published in: on January 25, 2012 at 7:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Reactions of Others Part 3: Your Alignment; Their Transition

I’ve talked a lot in this blog about the process of discovery transgender people go through and how there are often two major parts: realizing one is transgender (has the gender identity of something other than their sex at birth) and deciding what they are going to do about it, normally described as “transition”.  For the sake of this specific blog’s concept, I’ll be describing the process a transgender person goes through as alignment and the process the loved ones go through as transition.

If the transgender person chooses to go through the process of changing their gender, they are aligning themselves with their “real” gender. There are several definitions of align; the one I choose for this topic is “to move or be adjusted into proper relationship or orientation”. It’s critical people understand the choice to transition is a way of making things right, not deciding to change something that is already perfect. Deciding to align oneself is typically the result of many years of contemplation, possible ambivalence, agonizing, the weighing of options, and considering all outcomes.  Finally making the “big decision” can bring on feelings of relief, gratitude, and excitement, mainly because they have decided to ALIGN themselves, and that is a positive thing. Yet these feelings are not usually shared by the loved ones of the transgender individual. They are the ones who have to fully transition from an idea they have about who their loved one is to something different.

Transition: “change or passage from one state or stage to another”. When you reveal your gender identity and/or plans to align yourself, you are asking your loved one to adjust to the idea that you are about to change, when they like you just the way you are. 😉  (Additionally, the change loved ones anticipate tends to be more dramatic than what happens in reality, so there is fear involved here, too.)  They are often presented with years of your contemplation delivered in one single revelation; in a moment they are forced to adjust to an entirely different idea of you than they had in the moment before. Hundreds of things likely go through their heads in that moment; things that you have been contemplating for some time now. Whatever their initial reaction, remind yourself they are playing “catch up” and will likely need some time.

Although all of you are involved in this big change, these two perspectives can make this experience very different for each of you. This depends on whether you are aligning yourself with something that feels better to you, or having to transition to an idea that feels altogether foreign.

The Cold Lake Analogy

Picture this: you want to go swimming in a very cold lake. You first stick your toe in, shiver a bit, but forge ahead. Slowly, inch by inch, you submerge your body in the lake. It’s uncomfortable, but you’re determined to take a swim. Once you have been treading water for about 5-10 minutes, the water seems to feel much warmer. Eventually it’s hard to remember you thought the water was cold at all. You see your friend and yell, “Come on in, the water’s fine!”. They stick their toe in. Their response? “Are you serious?? It’s FREEZING!”.  Looking at you submerged in the water, smiling, your friend just can’t understand what it is you are doing, or how it feels good to you. This tends to be the way a loved one looks upon the transition; by the time the transgender individual “comes out”, they have been adjusting to the “water” for much longer.

One thing to keep in mind from this analogy is that the water both people are feeling is the exact same water; the same temperature. The difference in their interpretations of the feeling of the water largely comes from how long each has been getting used to it. The positive spin on this is that given more time, the other person may be treading water before you know it. 🙂

To the loved ones of transgender individuals: when your loved one reveals their plans to align themselves with their brain gender identity, please keep in mind they are revealing a way to make themselves right. They are not doing something to you, or trying to disrupt something you like just the way it is. They are trying to be whole; they are trying to be happy.

To the transgender individuals, this is my gentle reminder that you are asking your loved ones to jump into a very cold lake! Be patient, be kind (to them and yourselves) and keep your eye on the prize… YOU, aligned.