But What If They Change Their Mind?!

Consider this post a close cousin to my last post, “On Being ‘Sure”. Related to loved ones’ fears about a transgender person being “sure” about transitioning are the fears that they may one day regret the transition or “change their mind” about being transgender. Yes, I hear this a lot. From doctors, from parents. It’s a valid concern, although I’m not sure the frequency with which it happens is correlated with the amount of concern about it.

It seems that at first parents hope their child (either a youth or their adult child) will change their minds when a transgender identity is first revealed. Later, this thought turns into a fear as transition nears or progresses.

In my opinion, some of the fear and anxiety comes from good intentions, trying to use their own perspective to understand. If they put themselves in the transgender person’s shoes, they would imagine not only would they “change their minds”, but they would want to “switch back” immediately. It’s really important to try to not use your own perspective in this situation if you have never once struggled with your gender identity. For as sure as you are about your gender identity, your transgender loved one is likely just as sure about their gender identity.

But what about the studies?? Oh, the studies. The studies that scare everyone. There are plenty of studies that show gender nonconformity in childhood doesn’t persist. That even those who insist they are the “other” gender do not go on to transition. Keep in mind some of these studies were written by doctors who were actively trying to get the child to conform to their birth gender. Additionally, all the dynamics at play with the child’s gender identity are not known in those studies.

Not everyone follows the same path. Not everyone has the same personality, confidence, support system, encouragement, discrimination, access to resources, parents, communities, ego strength, temperament, role models etc. All of these factors, and many more, can affect whether or not someone chooses to transition.

Someone may decide that having their body be different from their affirmed gender identity is more distressing than having their birth gender identity be different from their affirmed gender identity. Everyone is different. People experience distress in different ways and because of different things. Just because someone chooses not to transition, or later “de-transitions” does not mean they are not transgender. It means that they (or others in their life) decided transitioning was ultimately not the best choice for them.

I believe that most of the children/teens/adults who say they are “sure” and then transition do not live to regret this decision. I have anecdotal evidence with my own clients. Don’t believe me? In 2011, a man named Colin Close conducted a survey about how medically-assisted transition
affects the lives of transgender people. The study examined the
experiences of 448 individuals to identify the impacts transition on
gender dysphoria, quality of life, emotional well-being, personality
traits, and sexuality.

The outcome?

  • 94% of trans* people reported an improvement in their quality of life due to transitioning
  • 96% answered that their sense of well-being improved
  • 9 out of 10 responded that their overall personality improved due to transition
  • 85% described their emotional stability as “improved” (11% reported no change)
  • 96% reported an overall satisfaction with transition
  • 97% reported a satisfaction with hormone therapy
  • 96% reported satisfaction with chest surgery
  • 90% reported satisfaction with genital surgery

You can download the full report here.

Are there those that do change their minds and regret transitioning? Yes, there are. I can’t speak to exactly what dynamics led to this, as only they know everything that went into all of their decisions. However, I believe they deserve just as much support “de-transitioning” as they did transitioning. It is their gender. It is their life. It is their journey.

We as humans (probably as self-protective measure) tend to look at the “worst case scenarios” and feel scared by risks associated with choices, no matter how small. It’s natural. However, those small percentages of things often scare us from taking the leap to do something we want to do.

Let me use this as an example: what if the ratio of successful airplane flights to the number of airplane crashes was roughly equivalent to the ratio of people who are satisfied about transitioning to those who regret it?

If we all based our sense of safety on thinking about the small percentage of airplane crashes, none of us would want to fly again. There a risk to much everything we do, and there are no guarantees. Yet with risk often comes adventure, new possibilities, fulfillment, joy! Think of transitioning as your loved one spreading their wings to fly. 🙂

What about the kids, you say? They are not adults. How can they POSSIBLY make such a huge decision as this? Well, gender identity is not a decision. It is a way one is. For children who have shown a persistent and consistent cross-gender identification during childhood and express a strong desire to be seen as the gender with which their brain identifies, they should be allowed to do so. Transitioning is something one does about one’s gender identity if it doesn’t match one’s body. Parents and professionals need to help youth access the resources they need to do so; that is the vehicle for supporting one’s true identity, not just a “big decision”.

Bear with me for a moment while I expand upon the decision about marriage as a metaphor of sorts for gender transition as I did in my last blog post. I don’t know what the current percentage is, but last I heard 50% of marriages end in divorce. 50%! That’s HALF of the people who decide to commit themselves to someone for the rest of their lives, and essentially “change their minds”. I can tell you that is FAR higher than the number of individuals who will regret their gender transition! Now, does this mean we should increase the hoops one should jump through in order to get married? Should one’s mental health be evaluated before entering into marriage and signed off by a licensed therapist?Does the person who is performing the marriage have to have some sort of guarantee that this marriage will last forever before conducting the ceremony? Of course not. If both parties are entering into the marriage willingly and are able to make sound decisions for themselves, they should have every right to do so. Informed consent is the name of the game when it comes to getting married, as it should be with gender transition.

Is there a chance your loved one may regret the decision? Yes. Is there a chance you may die the next time you get in your car or the next time you take an airplane flight? Yes. There are no guarantees. But I can say this: there are more risks associated with not transitioning or allowing your child to transition that there is with transition. Acknowledge your fear but don’t let it hold you (or your loved one) back. Soon you’ll all be ready for takeoff.

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On Being “Sure”

One of the first things that comes to most loved ones’ minds when told about someone’s transgender identity or plans to transition is “Are you sure??” In fact, this is often a question many of my pre-transition clients are asking themselves; “Am I sure??”. The question is worth asking, but the answer may not be a simple “yes” or “no”.

Most people are pretty darn sure of their gender identity. Cisgender and transgender alike, most are pretty darn sure. What confounds things is that only transgender people have to navigate through having a brain gender identity that differs from their birth sex, and having to first understand and then explain this to others. Still, most are pretty darn sure. Remember, gender identity is different than making the decision to transition. Often times, knowing one’s gender identity is the “easy” part. Pursuing a life to align one’s gender presentation with one’s brain gender identity? Now that’s the more challenging part.

So, “Are you sure?”. If you are a loved one who finds yourself asking this question, try to clarify what you are asking about. Are you asking about your loved one’s gender identity or plans to transition? If you separate the two, you may find more confidence in the first than the latter. If your loved one is sure of their (trans)gender identity, asking if they are sure about their transition may contribute to fears and anxieties surrounding this “decision”. Instead, ask “How can I help? What’s the first step?”.

Many clients I’ve met with who are contemplating transition have said to me, “I want to be 100% sure”.  My clients tend to be intelligent, high-functioning individuals who are used to doing things well, and they want this to be no exception. They research, they inquire, they ruminate, they agonize, they weigh the risks and benefits ad nauseum. After all this, they are still “not sure”. Why? Because there ARE risks, and because the process isn’t easy. Therefore, anxiety about this huge undertaking can be interpreted as not being “sure”. Again, not so much about the gender identity- if I can bring them back to that aspect of themselves instead of just the “decision” to transition, they are much more sure about their gender identity. A good example might be left-handedness. People are born left-handed, no? It used to be lefties were encouraged to use their right hands until it became habit. Gender identity is similar in that it is inborn.  It can be stifled to present differently, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for the person. And what gender one presents as is far more pervasive than which hand is dominant!

One of my clients, a happy and insightful trans man, made mention to not feeling completely sure until AFTER he had transitioned. I later contacted him to write a little blurb for this blog post, and he delivered beautifully. Here is what he had to say:

“To be honest I wasn’t 100% sure about transitioning until I was already pretty far into it. One day about 4 years in I looked in the mirror and for the first time in my life I recognized myself. I don’t think you can ever be 100% sure about anything in life, any decision, any path…it’s all educated guesses wrapped up in a hope for happiness.”

Isn’t this the case for most things? We make huge decisions all the time that will affect the rest of our lives: where to live, where to go to school, the career path to follow, to marry or not to marry, if yes who to marry, to have kids or not have kids, if yes how many, etc. Yet these decisions typically aren’t as agonized over as much or as misunderstood as gender transition.

I’m reluctant to compare gender transition to getting married, but the analogy really sticks in my mind. How many people are “sure” when they get married that they will be with the other person “forever”? Of the couples who eventually divorce, if you could ask them “but were you SURE when you got married?”, most of them would unequivocally say “yes”. Some may argue that gender transition is a more “serious” decision than getting married, but is it? Marriages often result in children, who are thereby affected by a divorce if it were to occur. If a capable individual decides to get married, they get married. However, if a capable individual decides to go through gender transition, the issue of being “sure” is one they will have to answer over and over again. I guess it’s because other people can understand marriage, but have a harder time wrapping their brains around gender transition. However, this should not matter when it comes to others and their decisions about their own lives. Not to mention the rate of transgender individuals later “changing their minds” about transition is FAR, FAR less than the current rate of successful vs. unsuccessful marriages!

I suppose feeling more at ease with one’s decision comes down to trust. If your loved one is telling you who they are what they have decided to do, trust them. If you are transgender and have decided to transition, trust yourself. If the person making this decision is of sound judgment and mind, there is no real reason to think this is an irrational decision that will ever be regretted. Additionally, if one has come to the decision to transition, it has not come lightly. Many transgender people agonize about the decision to transition long after one’s true gender identity has become consciously aware.

Perhaps being “sure” is an evolutionary process, and one that can only happen after the first step. I do know that trusting yourself is a good idea… of that I am sure. 😉

For those of you how have transitioned, how “sure” did you feel before? After?

The Pronoun Corrector

Want to be a super hero? Who doesn’t? There’s a very special kind of super hero when it comes to supporting a newly transitioning, or newly out, transgender person.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane?? NO! It’s:

The PRONOUN CORRECTOR!!!

Someone in the early stages of disclosing their authentic gender or social transitioning often experiences a lot of anxiety about how they are being “read” and if they are being seen as their authentic gender. They can experience a lot of fear and anxiety about being read as their assigned (birth) gender.

When someone is already feeling unsure and a little anxious, it’s certainly hard to find the courage to correct pronouns and other clarifiers such as “sir” or “ma’am”. I’ve coached numerous clients and groups on how to do this in a friendly, confident fashion.  But it remains incredibly difficult for many individuals, and I can’t say I blame them.

I was having a conversation with one of my teen clients the other day.* When I asked how he was doing correcting pronouns in one of his classes as needed, he said, “Well, I have a friend in that class. She does the correcting for me.”  I was happy and relieved for him. I’m all about empowering someone to speak up for themselves; this client and all my other clients do plenty of speaking up for themselves.  When others intervene on their behalf it is a much-needed break!

I said to him, “Oh, you’ve got a Pronoun Corrector in that class! How awesome. That’s a special kind of superhero, a Pronoun Corrector.” He smiled because he knew exactly what I meant. I wonder if his friend even understands the power of her intervention. Perhaps one of these days my client will let her know.

Pronoun Correctors play a huge role in a friend or loved one’s transition. They model and prompt correct use of pronouns. They can be assertive and strong when the transgender individual is not feeling up to the task. Pronoun Correctors show how important it is to use the correct pronouns, and not to let the wrong/former pronouns slip by as if unnoticed or as if they didn’t matter. Typically, a Pronoun Corrector will have far less anxiety about correcting someone than the individual themselves. They are in the perfect position to speak up!

I felt this blog post was timely given the holidays are soon upon us. Many transgender people will be seeing family members and disclosing their authentic gender for the first time. Many will be seeing family members for the time since disclosure. Many will be in a room with some people who are supportive of their gender transition, and some who are not. They will be in rooms where some people use their birth pronouns and some use their correct, or authentic, pronouns. Sadly, holidays can bring an extra dose of anxiety to someone going through gender transition or trying to help others understand who they really are.

If you are the loved one of a newly disclosed transgender person, won’t you consider earning your cape?  Someone said “he” in reference to a MTF individual? Say “she”.  Someone said “her” in reference to an FTM individual? Say “him”. Someone said “he” or “she” in reference to a nonbinary individual? Correct to “they”, or whatever the individual’s pronouns are.

If you are the parent of a newly disclosed or transitioning child, you are in the perfect position to be their superhero!

If you are transgender and feel you need a Pronoun Corrector in your life or over the holidays, explicitly ask someone you trust. Send them this blog post and say “Will you be my Superhero?” 🙂

Have/had a Pronoun Corrector in your life? Let them know what it means to you.

Pronoun Correcting Etiquette:

  • Smile when you correct. Being friendly goes a long way. People will tend to follow your lead more when they don’t sense hostility from you or feel they need to go on the defensive.
  • Say it quietly, but assertively. State it as simply as possible, and nod as if to indicate, “It’s ok, keep going, just wanted to be sure you understand the correct pronoun.”
  • Be thoughtful about your target audience and recipient of the correction. Correcting pronouns is often most helpful to help someone understand one’s gender identity, or modeling for several people who may not be sure about the appropriate pronouns (and who then may appreciate the clarification).
  • Be gentle with loved ones. Is it necessary to correct every slip? Absolutely not. If a loved one (particularly a parent) is trying, and making a conscious effort to use the correct pronouns, let slips pass by. After a “slip”, you can subtly use a correct pronoun later when you are talking, just as a gentle reminder. If “slips” continue well into the transition, the transgender individual may need to sit down with the loved one to discuss how the loved one’s “transition” is going in regards to understanding, accepting, etc.
  • If a loved one is not ready or has expressed a strong resistance to using the  pronouns that reflect the individual’s authentic gender, don’t push it. Give them space and time. Use the correct pronouns yourself, and don’t comment on their choice of pronouns. Pushing someone before they are ready may close them off to future acceptance and understanding.

Check out my first Bitstrip below!

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*Much thanks to my client for giving me permission to write about our conversation in this blog.

Simply Put: Worksheets for children about gender identity and transition

When I was asked to help a child understand the gender transition their loved one was about to go through, I created a one-page overview of the process in simple terms. I also created a little “worksheet” that would encourage the child to think about how this change was going to affect them, and their loved one, specifically. The worksheet facilitates conversations between the child and adults; fill-in-the-blanks are a great way to find out what is on a child’s mind. While I was at it, I created a one-page summary for gender nonconforming children, complete with a brief fill-in-the-blank portion at the bottom.

These summaries/worksheets have come in very handy when working with transgender youth and the young loved ones of my transgender adult clients. I thought others may benefit from using them as well, so they are attached below. Please feel free to use, copy, and distribute as needed to assist children on their journey to understanding. (Who knows, sometimes concepts stated in simple terms can help adults, too. ;)).

For those of you not in the field of mental health or well-trained in interviewing children, here are a few tips for completing this worksheet:

  • Don’t make a big deal of the sheet. Just say you’re going to do a little something and do it. Act like it’s no big deal and you’re not nervous, even if you are.
  • Don’t look at the child being interviewed. Look at the worksheet.
  • Poise your pen or pencil over the blanks and begin asking the questions. Write the answer in the blank as soon as they are stated, without a reaction (facial expression, question, anything!) Children are incredibly in tune with others’ responses to what they are saying, particularly if the “other” is a parent.
  • When the worksheet is completed, go back and ask questions for clarification.

If you have any trouble with the way they are opening on your computer or printing out, please email me at tandotherapy@me.com and I will email you copies.

Kidworksheet

kidinfotrans

transitionworksheet

Feelin’ The Love: Watching the journey of parents

My work with my transgender clients often includes not only the transgender individual, but the family as well. As important as it is to be an advocate for my clients, it’s also essential I understand the process that is being undertaken by the loved ones of the individual. (See “It’s Hard for Moms”.) Many parents of my adult clients are very resistant to the idea of their “child” being transgender or transitioning, and are initially quite wary of me for supporting this venture. Typically with my adult clients I only hear of the resistance expressed by the parents without witnessing it directly. In session, I am privy to the intense longing of the individual for support and acceptance by their parents, no matter how old they may be.  This is yet another reminder that unconditional love from parents is crucial at every stage in one’s life.

When I work with parents of transgender youth, it’s a little different story. These parents are willingly seeking gender therapy for their children, searching for answers and a roadmap for this unforeseen journey. Fear and resistance are often still a part of the work, but there’s so much more than that.

I have seen parents evolve in the journey with their transgender/gender nonconforming child from tearful and terrified to peaceful and resolute. I’ve seen parents give their child space to express themselves in a way that allows the child to be honored and embraced, even if the parents are scared by the possible ramifications. Some parents accept very quickly while others fight to hang onto what feels safer and more familiar. Some become advocates, others are willing to share their stories, still others remain very private; all of them intensely love their child. To see a parent accept something they never wanted or saw coming is a source of true inspiration for me, and a very touching part of the work I do. I respect and admire these parents more than they know.

The passion I sense from these parents for their child can be expressed in all sorts of ways: fear, anger, pride, doubt, guilt, sadness, grief, bravery; the list goes on and on. I’ve always loved children, but it wasn’t until I became a parent that I could truly understand the passionate love a parent has for their child. The kind of love that makes you willing to do anything for another’s happiness, willing to sacrifice, fight, and conquer all for the sake of your little person even in the face of your own anxiety or trepidation.

Sometimes I feel hot tears spring to my eyes* in the middle of one of these sessions with parents, especially with those early in the journey. What brings on these tears? Is it sadness? No. It’s not quite something I can explain. It feels like a mixture of compassion, inspiration, and awe at the intense love I’m witnessing, along with honor that I get to be a part of such a life-changing journey.  I’m definitely feeling the love, and in the end, I know the child will too.

*Not a robot.

Oxygen: Living Life Fully

If you are like most people, you haven’t had to think much about your lungs. You were born with fully functioning lungs that have delivered oxygen to your blood and brain, just as they are supposed to. You can’t imagine it any other way, simply because it’s never been any other way for you. You’ve also not given much thought to the role oxygen plays in your life, because it’s always been there, as much as you need, delivered to you on cue, no questions asked.  For anyone who’s briefly experienced a decrease in oxygen, or lack of oxygen, that person will likely never forget the feeling of panic and the intense, primal need to have oxygen fill the lungs once again.

Take a nice, deep breath. Let the air expand your lungs and your stomach.  Feels good, doesn’t it? Ah, oxygen. What would you do without it? Well, you’d die, is the obvious answer.  What if you had enough of it to survive, but just not quite enough to lead a “normal” life?

Picture this: You were born with something wrong with your lungs, so that they couldn’t fully absorb and process oxygen the way most people’s lungs can. You can take in just enough oxygen to live, but not fully engage in life. Since you were born with your lungs not doing precisely what they should do, you spend every day of your life not being able to do all the things you would otherwise like to do. You spend many of your days wishing your lungs were different, wishing you could breathe as fully and deeply as everyone around you. You watch everyone take those deep, life-sustaining breaths, and you can tell none of them realize how lucky they are; their lungs (and the resulting oxygen they get) is simply taken for granted.  You stand there, taking shallow, ragged breaths, feeling weak and somewhat listless.

Then one day, you stumble across something on the internet: ‘Sub-par Oxygenation Syndrome”. (Yes, I made that up.) You discover there is a name for what you’ve been experiencing, and other people have it too!  Sadly, some have taken their own lives from not being able to tolerate the feelings associated with having this syndrome.

You feel relieved, validated, excited. Then you read that there is a solution. While it may not give you new lungs, there is a machine that can deliver this life-enhancing oxygen straight to you: an oxygen tank. It’s expensive (insurance doesn’t cover it in this scenario), but you know you’ll do anything to get access to it. The day you get your tank feels like the most liberating, exciting day of your life. You strap that baby on (it comes in a nifty backpack) and put the tubes under your nose. To breathe so fully and so easily is something you’ve longed for your whole life, but never thought you’d experience. (At times, you feel sad and resentful you have to wear such a contraption to feel the way most others were born feeling, but continue to be grateful nonetheless.)

When you explain to those close to you what you’ve discovered and show them your new tank, they’re skeptical. “Really? Are you sure you’re not getting enough oxygen? I get plenty of oxygen every time I take a deep breath. Perhaps you’re not doing it right.”  Others don’t like your oxygen tank. “Hmmm, I liked you better before you wore that tank. I’m not used to seeing you with those tubes. Can you please take it off?”. You’re saddened and shaken by these responses, but you don’t take it off. The oxygen tank brings you too much relief and too much life to dare take it off.

§

I’ve been looking for some sort of concrete metaphor to use to help explain being transgender and transitioning. Concrete examples can help with understanding. However, I wanted to be careful not to compare being transgender with being disabled. I do not think it is a disability. I think it is something REAL, like not getting enough air. I hope this analogy does justice to those transgender individuals reading it and hits home with loved ones.

The irony of my example is that if someone had been born with something wrong with his or her lungs, it would likely have been caught right away by medical doctors, and offered a solution early on. Gender variance is a bit trickier; a person’s need for his or her gender identity to be validated develops much later than one’s need for adequate oxygen. While we still have a long way to go, intervening with children who display persistent gender-variant behaviors and a consistent desire for changing genders is much like offering the oxygen tank to the person in the above scenario as a child; “I know what you need; here you go.”

One last thought worth mentioning is that I do believe being transgender is a medical condition and belongs in the medical books, not the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). This is why comparing it to another type of medical condition was appealing to me. I’ll save the rest of my thoughts on this topic for another blog. 🙂

To Oxygen!

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.

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 they are 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, they are in a vulnerable place. I can almost guarantee you that they are 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!

 

Gender Identity Vs. Sexual Orientation

After my Gender Vs. Sex blog, I got some requests for a blog about Gender Identity vs. Sexual Orientation. Happy to oblige! For those of you hip to this scene, it might be something you’ve heard before, perhaps said a bit differently. For those of you still learning, I hope this will serve to clear up some confusion. I apologize in advance for the length of this blog… although I could have said more, trust me!

I’ve heard gender identity described as “who you are” and sexual orientation as “who you want to have sex with”. I agree with this, but there’s a lot more to it.

Gender identity refers to what gender your brain is, who you are, and how you want others to see you. What gender you identify with is going to impact many areas of your life, if not all. It will affect how you are seen in society, how others respond to you, how you are addressed, expectations for your behavior, where you go to the bathroom, your role in your family, and much more.

Sexual orientation refers to who you are attracted to, who you would like to receive romantic attention/affection from, and who you would like to be sexually intimate with. I’d even like to say sexual orientation not only refers to the sex (anatomy) one is attracted to, but also the gender. Certainly, anatomy plays a big part in sexual relationships, but the gender of the individual is likely what captures your attention in the first place. I would also suggest that gender is more of a factor in dating and relationships than one’s anatomy.

Ultimately, who you are sexually attracted to doesn’t have a lot to do with who you are and how you present on a day-to-day basis. To whom you are attracted doesn’t matter when you are checking out at the grocery store. Since our standard greetings don’t entail “Hello, Lesbian” and “Thank you, Gay Man” but “Hello, Ma’am” and “Thank you, Sir”, you can see how gender identity is a more pervasive issue and one that affects an individual even more regularly than sexual orientation. Who you go to bed with that night doesn’t matter when you’re out interacting with society. Additionally, one may not go to bed with anyone that night… or have a sex life to speak of, but one’s gender and how it impacts a person is unavoidable.

Do children have a gender identity? Yes, usually children have a clear understanding of their gender. If you can’t remember thinking about your gender as a child, it’s likely because your assigned gender matched with your natal* sex. (*Natal meaning “of, relating to, or present at birth; associated with one’s birth”. In this blog when I say “natal male” or “natal female” it is referring to one’s anatomy, or sex, present at birth.) Do children have a sexual orientation? Not really. Children are not sexual beings. However, at what age do you remember “liking” or having crushes on other people? Developmentally, this usually happens in elementary school. “Wanting to have sex with” other kids, no matter what their gender, is not usually a factor during elementary school! However, whispering about, sending notes to, and giggling in the presence of one’s crush usually is. Therefore, it is at this age when some children realize they are interested in members of the same sex, but this won’t become a sexual idea for some time.

I remember many years ago watching a Larry King show with transgender guests. He asked a trans man (who was in a relationship with a female), “Wouldn’t it just have been easier to stay a lesbian?”. While the question seemed absurd to me at the time, I suppose it echoes the questions of many people who don’t understand the need to transition. Easier? Yes, I suppose avoiding transition would be the easier choice in some ways.  The better choice? No. Opting to live a life in a gender that feels foreign is the making of a rough journey.  Staying socially/biologically female and being a lesbian would allow the individual to continue to sleep with women, but all other areas of life would be more difficult. For example, think of the names “Mom” and “Dad”. If the trans man were to live his life “as a lesbian” and had children, his name might be “Mom” or a version thereof. This simply doesn’t fit with his gender identity and would likely sound as strange to him as it would to any natal male who is a father.  Another example would be this same person (continuing to present as female) taking [his] wife out to dinner, and the server says, “Hello, Ladies”. Cringing inside every time [he] hears the reference to [himself] as female is most certainly not the “easier” way to go.

Additionally, asking a trans man about “staying a lesbian” is actually a misnomer. A trans man is not, and never has been, a lesbian. Yes, many transgender individuals come out as gay prior to understanding their gender identity or coming out as trans.  Because being gay is presently more accepted and understood than being transgender, this may be the only way a transgender individual knows how to identify at first. If a natal female is attracted to women, [s]he may assume [s]he is a lesbian and may come out as such, before realizing he actually identifies as male. Often times one’s gender identity is understood later which then invalidates a previously thought sexual orientation.

The fact that gender identity and sexual orientation are two separate entities is precisely why someone can be transgender AND gay. For example, a natal male who has the brain gender identity of a female may transition to a woman and also be attracted to women, thereby making her a lesbian. (Stew on that one, Larry King!) I can hear it now, “If the male were attracted to women already, why transition to be a woman only then to be a lesbian? Wouldn’t it be easier to stay a straight man?”. Forgive me if I’m being redundant, but this person never was a straight man and therefore could not “stay” one.  The above-referenced person could date women, but would perceived as a straight man, which would likely cause great distress. This is because one’s gender identity is a pervasive, essential fact to everything one does during the day. One’s sex life is only an element.

While these two concepts are different, they are not entirely separate. Gender identity and sexual orientation affect one another in the bedroom. Sexual relations are not only about who you want to sleep with, but how you want your sex partner to treat and perceive you. A transgender woman will likely want to be treated sexually as a woman, no matter who she is sexual with.  This is because the former is about gender identity, the latter about sexual orientation. Additionally, one’s gender identity must be factored in to understand one’s sexual orientation.

To summarize gender identity: Someone with a male gender identity (natal male or not) will want to be treated as a man in the grocery store, by society, by his family, and in the bedroom. Someone with a female gender identity (natal female or not) will want to be treated as a woman in the grocery store, by society, by her family, and in the bedroom.

To summarize sexual orientation: Someone with a male gender identity (natal male or not) who is attracted to men is gay. Someone with a male gender identity (natal male or not) who is attracted to women is straight. Someone with a female gender identity (natal female or not) who is attracted to men is straight. Someone with a female gender identity (natal female or not) who is attracted to women is gay.

Of course, I’m as opposed to boxes as anyone else… there are all sorts of beautiful nuances of both sexuality and gender identity! Please forgive me for making this blog seem like both are black and white. This was for the sake of simplicity. 🙂