Private Vs. Secret

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When it comes to disclosing one’s transgender status, I encourage my clients to think about it in terms of PRIVATE or SECRET. Some people are more private in general than others. Some people will tell others pretty much everything about their lives, while others try to keep most things private. Both are ok, as long as the individual is the one doing the deciding about what to keep private and what to share. Just as most things land on a spectrum, so does one’s feelings about exactly how private being transgender is. Some are “out and proud”, being the first in line to wave the transgender flag in the Trans* Pride parade. Others, on the other end of the spectrum, guard it like a deep, dark secret; one they feel could devastate them if others were to find out.

In my opinion, one can land on this spectrum based on temperament, upbringing, personal background, etc. I will say that those on the “secret” end of the spectrum seem to experience more intense dysphoria and internal distress than those who have a healthier relationship with being transgender. Sometimes it does seem to be in the client’s best interest to shift from “secret” to “private”.

This entry was originally written as a Social Skills Group topic, so the wording may seem relatively elementary. It is for that reason that this can be shared with both kids and adults! If you have a child who is either very private about their transgender experience or is contemplating who to tell, this would be good to read together and process.

For the purpose of this post, here is what I mean by “private” and “secret”:

PRIVATE: Something about you not everyone needs to or should know.

SECRET: Something you don’t want anyone to know.

Secrets can be fun, like you what you are going to give someone for Christmas. Or, if someone is throwing someone a surprise party, they will want you to keep that a SECRET from the recipient. Secrets like these are important because they are about doing something nice for someone else. Other secrets are not healthy, such as an adult asking a child to keep a secret from their parent. Other secrets are not good or bad, but might be important to others. For example, if your friend tells you who they have a crush on, they might ask you to keep it a “secret”. Of course, what you look like under your clothes is private! Only a child’s parents, guardians, or doctors should see their body for the purpose of keeping them healthy and taken care of. For older individuals, they can choose with whom to share their bodies in a more intimate setting.

An important qualification I want you to keep in mind is that personal information about you should be considered PRIVATE, and not necessarily SECRET. I believe this results in less stress, more self-acceptance, less anxiety, and more confidence. Mainly this has to do with how you guard the information in your head and in your heart. If you feel like there are some things about you which you would rather not have everyone know, or would choose only a few people to know, that’s okay. If you have a secret that you feel like “I would just DIE if anyone knew!”, that can affect your mental health negatively. If you feel you have a secret like this, it’s time to do some self-exploration. Do you feel this way about being transgender? If yes, why? Do you consider it a bad thing? If yes, begin working on having a more positive relationship with yourself and your history. Talk to a therapist, parent, or trusted friend about it. Try to figure out why this feels so secretive to you and how you may be able to evolve into considering it private information instead.

The truth is, no matter what information you have about yourself, it won’t ACTUALLY be the end of the world if others find out. You might feel exposed for a little bit, but you would be ok. If you feel like the “secret” getting out would be the end of the world, you might be spending more time feeling more worried or unhappy than you need to. Feeling like it is “private” instead may help you feel better about it in general and less worried about others finding out.

Here’s a visual for you: think of personal (private) information as being kept behind a fence with a gate. There is a boundary around the information, and not everyone can get in. YOU get to decide for whom to open the gate, or who gets to know your information. Remember that everyone you tell your private information to now has a key to the gate, and can let others in without your permission. This is why you want to stop and think before you share private information . Also, you can remind yourself that if others you had not intended to know find out, “It’s ok, I can handle this”.

Think of having a secret as guarding it like a castle with a tall wall, drawbridge, and moat with alligators around it. You are guarding it very aggressively, making SURE no one finds out. The problem is, having such walls around you and guarding your secret can eventually make you feel very alone. This is why having a fence with a gate (private information) is better than having secrets (castle with many guarding factors).

If someone asks you a question about your personal information, STOP AND THINK if you would like this person to know your personal information. If yes, share with them and then ask them to keep it private. Remember, you have no control over whether or not they actually will keep it private. If you do not feel comfortable sharing, or don’t want to risk others sharing this information, you can say something like this:

  • “That’s personal.”
  • “I don’t want to talk about that.”
  • “I’d rather not say.”
  • “That’s private”.

You don’t need to apologize about not sharing; it’s your gate, you get to decide for whom to open it! 🙂

If you are transgender, where do you land on the “private vs. secret” spectrum? Do you have some shifting you can do?

If you are sharing this blog with a child, please feel free to complete the attached exercise with them. (Some adults may find it useful, too!). Ask them to write down in the column next to the listed information whether the information is “private”, “secret”, or “open”.

Private/Secret/Open Worksheet

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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?