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.

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!

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.

***

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?

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. 🙂

The Gender Identity of Children

I am thrilled to be seeing more and more transgender children as part of my practice. To me, it’s a very natural combination of two of my specialties: working with children, and working with transgender individuals! I have a special place in my heart for these gender nonconforming children, because I feel like in some way it’s a way of honoring my adult transgender clients. For many of them, if not all, having their gender identity heard and addressed as children would have made their life paths a lot easier.

I’ve had people ask me if children can really understand their gender identity at a young age. My answer is, “of course!”.  Most of us know what gender we are from a very young age. We don’t have to think much about it; our assigned gender matches our natal sex (sex at birth) and becomes part of our stats, like where we live, what color hair we have, etc. For gender nonconforming/transgender children, this is not so simple. They may feel a discomfort with their body or assigned gender, pronouns, etc. However, typically this comes from being denied being able to partake in an activity or interest that is typically not seen as acceptable for one’s assigned gender. For children who are not allowed to express themselves in their preferred gender, or the interests come naturally to them, I believe this creates a feeling of unrest (at best); deep shame and resentment at worst.

Children are concrete, and are more interested in what they want to DO and what kind of fun they want to have than abstractly thinking about what gender or societal category they fit into. Additionally, children don’t have the baggage and the tendency to over-think the way we adults do. They know what they know, and they feel what they feel. In some ways this makes expressing one’s gender identity much simpler, especially if the child is in an environment that encourages natural and genuine expression of self. If a child engages in play that society does not typically categorize as that of their assigned gender, let them. This behavior could mean any number of things, but the most important message is “you are ok any way you are”. Some parents worry about future teasing, and discourage them from engaging in behaviors to prevent teasing in other environments. This is a valid concern which I don’t mean to minimize. Certainly the parents can explain the likely response of others (informed consent, if you will) and then equip, equip, equip with coping skills to deal with these responses. (Helping your gender nonconforming child deal with teasing is such an important topic I promise to address it more in a future blog.) For now, I will say that beyond equipping your child to deal with teasing, establishing that pure and unconditional acceptance at home is the most crucial part of growing up.

Most gender nonconforming children understand “the rules”, and the expectations in their family/society/community/school.  They may know how they feel and who they are, but most also understand what others think and what others want. They learn to “play the game” as we all do, giving answers to make others feel better, even when it’s not the truth. Parents unknowingly ask leading questions all the time, and kids know what their parents want to hear.

Additionally, some children simply don’t have the verbal skills to express what they want or how badly they want it. Other children are not aware of their gender incongruence until puberty (at which times it often becomes a feeling of crisis). Many people are not aware until adulthood! This blog is specifically in regards to children who have their gender incongruence present in their consciousness from a very early age.

If your child who was born a natal female says “I’m a boy”, “I wish I were a boy”, or asks Santa for a penis, listen up. If your natal male says “I’m a girl”, “I wish I were a girl”, or prays to wake up the next morning a girl, listen up. These children know how they feel, and need your help. I’ll be writing more blogs about what to do if you are a family in this situation… stay tuned. 🙂

Gender Vs. Sex

Recently I had a conversation with my in-laws about a “Gender Revealing” party they saw on television. The expectant couple had the ultrasound technician find out the sex of the baby, write it on a card, and the couple didn’t peek at it. (Now that’s self-control!) They gave the card to a bakery, and a special cake was made based on what the card read.  At the “Gender Revealing” party, when they cut it open, a pink or a blue cake was discovered, thereby revealing the “gender” of the baby to be. My response? “I went to a party like that! Except they called it a ‘Sex Party’, which is what it was… they were revealing the sex of the baby, not the gender.  The true gender won’t be revealed until the baby is much older.” The blank stares I was met with weren’t surprising. So few people ever think of the distinction between gender and sex, but due to my work and experiences with loved ones, I understand how important this distinction is. Do I need to be educator at every turn, or explain the distinction any time someone mentions something like this? Probably not. But, the reason I do it is this: the more people in society who understand the distinction between sex and gender, the better off gender nonconforming people will be.

To be perfectly clear… sex refers to genitals and sex organs; either male or female genitals/sex organs make one biologically male or female.  One’s gender identity comes from the brain, and may or may not align with one’s sex.  I believe gender identity is something that is formed in the womb along with the genitalia; sometimes they just don’t match.

Gender is in reference to what a person feels like as a result of having a male or female brain.  If one identifies as having a male gender, he is most likely going to be comfortable with being called a male name, having male pronouns used for him, and will want to present as male. If one identifies as having a female brain or gender identity, she is going to want to be referred to by a female name, female pronouns, and will want to present as female.  Often I simplify this so-not-simple concept with this question: “When you check out at the grocery store, do you want someone to say ‘Thank you, Ma’am’, or ‘Thank you, Sir”?  I say this because it relates it to an everyday experience which we all can relate to. It just wouldn’t feel right to ANY of us if someone addressed us with the “wrong” title. In these everyday experiences, sex organs don’t matter, but brains certainly do. And yet transgender individuals have to deal with being referred to by the “wrong” gender (due to their sex) often for years before transitioning.

So when a baby is born and the parents hear, “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!”, that is a statement of what sex the baby is. One’s true gender (may match the sex, or may not) is revealed much later when the individual becomes old enough or aware enough to express the gender identity of their brain.