The Catalyst: When Being Transgender is Brought Into Conscious Awareness

Say you’re visiting a foreign city and you’ve been sightseeing all day. So many things to do and see, you’ve been going nonstop. Suddenly you see a menu hanging outside the door of a restaurant with a picture of the most delicious looking pasta you’ve ever seen. Suddenly aware of how hungry you are, you exclaim to your companion, “I’m STARVING!!” The two of you quickly agree to go inside the restaurant for a meal and begin pouring over the menu to see what other options are available.

Despite the common phrase, “Stop talking about that! You’re making me hungry!”, nothing but time and lack of food can actually make someone hungry. Did the picture on the menu actually create the existence of hunger? No, of course not. You were hungry because you had been active and had not eaten in a while. The menu simply made you aware of your hunger; it was the catalyst.

Such is the same with anything that sparks a transgender person’s “AHA” moment. Unless the person is someone who was insistent about their gender identity from early childhood, many individuals can name what it was that brought their being transgender into conscious awareness. For some, this is a person; either the person understands about gender identity and could explain it to them in a way that made sense, or the person had experience themselves with gender nonconformity. Often times this person will be significant to the transgender individual’s journey because of the help they provided in coming to understand themselves. Sadly, for some loved ones the person who was the catalyst becomes the person who is blamed for influencing the transgender individual. However, no one becomes transgender just because their friend is or because someone explains the notion of being transgender. One is either transgender or not; nothing another person can say or do can change it.

I will say that another person can influence the journey, or the transition, of the transgender individual. Influences by other people can either speed up or slow down the transition process. However, the transition is more an intervention to the state of being transgender and is not necessarily a good thing to be avoided. Read more about the separation of these two concepts in my blog post “What Are You Going to Do About it?

Other means by which someone may be triggered into understanding themselves and their true gender identity are often mainstream media, books, and of course, the internet. I’ve heard some parents lament the existence of the internet, feeling certain if it did not exist their child would never have learned about this and would therefore not be transgender. I have to gently remind them that their child would still be transgender, but they may not be consciously aware of it or know what options are available for it until much later. (Again, this is not necessarily a good thing. For those who feel the need to transition, early medical intervention can be very beneficial. For those who identify as nonbinary or under the trans* umbrella, they may come to understand their gender identity and how to ask others to respect it much earlier than they might otherwise have.) A catalyst is not causal; it does not cause the existence of something. It simply allows for awareness that something exists. In many ways, the catalyst has an extremely important job and is an essential part of the process. Just as that menu was the catalyst to help you recognize (and do something about) your hunger before you were collapsing from low blood sugar in the middle of a foreign town square, such is the case with something triggering awareness of being transgender. Transgender people may be grateful to the person or thing that brought this into their conscious awareness; maybe someday their loved ones will be too.

Do you think a catalyst can be causal?

If you are transgender, do you remember your catalyst? What was it?

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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.

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 transgender person.

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

The PRONOUN CORRECTOR!!!

Someone in the early stages of social transition often experiences a lot of anxiety about how they are being “read” and if they are passing as their preferred 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” 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 trans* people will be seeing family members and disclosing their transgender status 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 preferred (a.k.a. the “correct”) pronouns. Sadly, holidays can bring an extra dose of anxiety to someone going through gender transition.

If you are the loved one of a newly transitioning 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”.

If you are the parent of a newly 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 preferred 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 preferred pronouns, 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.

What’s In YOUR Pants?? (They’re called “privates” for a reason)

When a person reveals their transgender identity and plans to transition, one of the first questions they are often faced with has to do with their anatomy, or genitalia. If you have been one of those people asking such a question, don’t feel bad. It’s normal to be curious about this, and it’s something concrete I think people tend to ask about as a way of understanding the transition process. However, I’d like to take this opportunity to explain why questions about a transgender person’s genitalia might be a little off the mark.

When you ask about anatomy/private parts/genitalia, you are referring to one’s sex, not gender. When a person reveals their gender identity to you and it is different than how you have always thought, they are explaining how they would like to be seen by friends, family, and society at large. They are talking about which pronouns they would like you to use (“he/him/his”, “they/them/theirs” “she/her/hers”, etc.), which name they would like you to use, and whether they would like to be seen as a man, woman, both, or neither. If you think about it, our genitalia do very little for us in explaining our gender identification! Simply put, no one sees these parts of us except perhaps medical professionals or those with whom we plan to be sexually intimate. If the one of first questions you ask is about one’s genitalia, I would say you’re concerned with the “wrong end”. Bring your attention up… way up. One’s gender identity exists in one’s brain. If you really want to know about how a transgender person feels, identifies, or wants to be seen, ask about what goes on for them in their brain.

If someone says they are “transsexual”, this translates to “changing sexes”. So the more outdated “sex change operation” applies here. (Now called Sexual Reassignment Surgery.)  However, your loved one will probably not refer to themselves as transsexual. You will likely hear the term “transgender” which yes, means “changing genders”. Stay with them in this revelation and focus on their gender, not their sex.  (For a more detailed explanation of these two concepts, please check out my Gender Vs. Sex blog.)

They’re called private parts for a reason.  A complaint I often hear from transgender individuals is that as soon as they reveal their plans to transition, others feel they have the right to know about what’s in their pants, or what’s going to be in their pants post transition. A good rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t normally ask this person about their genitalia, don’t do it after they’ve come out as transgender to you.

If the transgender individual is a VERY close friend or family member, and you think it’s ok to ask, ask eventually.  Don’t have it be one of your initial questions. Show you understand their gender FIRST. Do research on what options are out there for transgender individuals and then lovingly ask  your loved one what they are considering.

Be different. Because many transgender people have told me this is one of the first questions they get, it will be refreshing for them to come across someone who doesn’t ask about their anatomy. Ask about what you can expect with their upcoming changes and how you can support them during this major transition. More importantly, ask them how they are doing with such an important change.

Because changing genders is largely about how someone is seen and perceived, transgender individuals are often most interested in those changes that will help them “pass” as the gender which matches their brain gender identity. One’s genitalia is not proudly displayed while one is shopping at the grocery store. Therefore, genitalia is not one of the first considerations of a transgender individual when focusing their efforts on trying to pass. The main things that help individuals pass for a particular gender include but are not limited to: hair length and/or style, presence or absence of facial hair, pitch of voice, clothing, and presence or absence of breasts. When someone is trying to assess another’s gender, these factors are usually used the most when trying to make a decision. Hormone supplements (Testosterone or Estrogen) can assist with many of these changes.

Shay O’Reilly explained it well in the article “Shunning Medical Hoops, Transgender Patients Turn to ‘Informed Consent’ Model”: “While much media attention is paid to gender confirmation surgery, it’s hormone replacement therapy that often makes the largest difference in the lives of transpeople. Patients frequently report that hormone therapy makes their body feel more comfortable or more like home—more importantly to many, hormones masculinize or feminize the body, helping trans people be read correctly as their gender.”

Referencing one’s genitalia immediately following a revelation about their gender can enforce stereotypes and insecurities. When the questions and conversation goes immediately to one’s genitalia, you are reinforcing the misconception that one’s gender is based on and entirely connected to one’s anatomy. When one immediately “goes there”, the interpretation may be something like this, “You say you want to be a man, well, men have penises” or “So if you say you’re a woman, you’re going to have a vagina, right?”.  If the transperson cannot afford or does not wish to pursue “bottom surgery”, the implication could then be that they will not “really” be the gender they are saying they identify as.

Additionally, it is likely the trans person is acutely aware of how their anatomy (sex) does not match up with the gender identity of their brains. Calling attention to this and asking them to explain it (often over and over to many different people) can be exhausting. Not only because it’s private and could make the transperson uncomfortable, but because it may bring up feelings of inadequacy, sadness, or wishing their anatomy were different.

For the transperson reading this blog who does not like discussing this with others, here are a few tips to deal with “the” dreaded question.

  • Have a response ready, or an arsenal of responses ready. Be a broken record if you need to.  Examples:  “I’m not comfortable answering that”, “That’s a little too personal”, “I don’t feel comfortable telling you about me specifically, but I can tell you that some transgender people choose to … and some choose to….”. “That’s private”.
  • If the question brings up feelings of frustration or exasperation, take a deep breath. Give yourself space for a response. As I said before, I don’t believe others are trying to be invasive or inappropriate; they are merely curious and trying to understand.
  • Re-direct the person to a more appropriate means of getting their curiosity satisfied. “I appreciate your interest. Let me suggest some websites… books… blogs, etc.”
  • A great way to re-direct a question like this is to briefly clarify the difference between gender and sex. You could say, “Actually, that question is more about my sex, and I’m trying to tell you about my gender.”
  • Use humor. Laughing it off will make the other person more comfortable, and it will probably be good for you, too. Kim Pearson, co-founder of Trans Youth Family Allies and mother of a Female to Male transgender individual, uses a great response when fielding questions about her son. When asked if he’s had “the” surgery, she states, “No, he still has his appendix”. When the person then clarifies they were referring to genital surgery, she asks them to please go first and describe their child’s genitals in detail. 🙂

Stay tuned for my next blog which will include descriptions of bottom surgery and other options for transgender individuals. My hope is that this will help satisfy some curiosity so the questions don’t need to be asked as often, and for transpeople to use as a resource to give those who are curious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cold Lake Analogy

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

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

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

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

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?

Reactions of Others Part 1: Shock and Awe

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

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

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

Shock and Awe: Take Cover

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

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

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

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

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

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