One’s “True” Gender

What defines someone’s “true” gender? Some people would say “true” gender is defined by the genitalia one had at birth. Those of us who know better know that one’s “true” gender is the one that exists in the brain.

This concept may be different for children and adults. Children are concrete thinkers, while adults are capable of much more abstract thinking. Genitalia is concrete; the gender identity in one’s brain is more of an abstract concept.

In addition to this, as a part of a child’s moral development, the importance in “telling the truth” is given much significance. “Lying” or deceiving someone is frowned upon, and children are often punished for it. As a child gets older, there is a development of the understanding of truth, honesty, and conscience. Where does “truth” come from when we are children? For things that are simple, the truth comes from ourselves. For things that are less simple, or more unknown to us, the truth tends to come from the adults who are in charge of us.

When I was at my good friend’s daughter’s second birthday party, a bee buzzed around the child’s head while she was eating her cupcake. She exclaimed “A bee!” right as it flew away. Her mother, who had not seen it, said in a playful way, “Nooooo, that was not a bee, it was a fly!”. The child looked at her mom’s face, paused and thought a second, then got a big smile on her face and said, “Yah! A fly!”. She had been right (and her mother wrong), but she didn’t care. The smile she shared with her mom and the contentment that came from their agreed-upon reality was all she needed. How many children are told their reality from a very young age? How many children are told, “you can’t wear a dress, you’re a boy!” or “of course you don’t have a penis, you’re a girl!”. Often, those “you’re a boy” and “you’re a girl” statements are absorbed by the young children as TRUTH. Anything other than what their trusted guardians are telling them must be a lie, or something to be kept to themselves. Only the minority of transgender children will be insistent and assert their truth over the protests of their parent(s).

This moral development and ability to grasp abstract concepts can influence a child’s ability to understand their own gender identity, assert their true gender, desire to transition, and/or their desire to be read in larger society as their desired gender.

Have I lost you? Let me be clear. An enlightened, insightful transgender adult may begin the process of transitioning and being seen for the gender identity that matches what is in their brain. For example, a Female-to-Male transgender individual starts the transition process and is very pleased when a stranger in the grocery store addresses him as “Sir”. Does he feel deceitful and as though he is not telling the truth? Not likely. For him, he understands his “true” gender identity is male and it is ok to be seen as male and assert himself as male.

This is a bit trickier for a child, particularly a latency-age child who is learning the concepts of “right and wrong”, honesty, and the concept of guilt. I have heard many parents say “she gets MAD when people think she’s a boy! You’d think she’d be happy”. (On the other hand, there are kids who are thrilled when they are perceived as their preferred gender and would never tell the stranger otherwise! As I always say, everyone is different. :)) Often times, if the child gets mad, parents look to this as a possible clue that their child may not be transgender. I tend to think it has to do more with concrete thinking and the desire to be “honest”. One way to help children understand it’s ok to be true to themselves is to explain the difference between anatomical sex and brain gender identity, as well as the fact that their brain gender identity is who they “truly” are. This gives them the green light to relax and know that when they assert their preferred gender, they are in fact, telling the truth.

Some of my transgender kids, after they transition, are told by peers, “but you’re really a girl” or “you’re really a boy”. These peers aren’t necessarily being mean; they are simply asserting what they know concretely (body) and enforcing what they think is the TRUTH. Part of my work with my young clients is then to help them understand that who they “really” are is who they are in their “brain” and their “heart”, and give them language to help their peers understand as well. Of course to help everyone (kids and adults alike!), the focus has to be on a societal shift of understanding what someone’s gender really is. If gender continues to be defined by bodies, then confusion, misunderstandings and stigma will continue.

How comfortable are you in your own “truth”? Did it take you a while to fully understand who you are on the inside is who you “really” are? Was there anything that helped you come around to this understanding?

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

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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Trans*Forming the Dialogue

Trans*forming the Dialogue Logo

I am participating in Trans*forming the Dialogue, Simmons College’s Online MSW Program’s campaign to promote an educational conversation about the transgender community. This campaign was designed to shift the conversation away from the problematic questions that are often asked of the members transgender community and foster a more progressive dialogue. I was asked to be a “featured voice” in this campaign and provide my prospective about what TO ask and what NOT to ask trans* people. Of course, I am but one voice in the sea of many, please check out the other responses here!

The prompt: What are the do’s and dont’s when asking a trans* person about their experiences?

  • What are 2 – 3 questions that one should NOT be asking a transgender person?
  • What are 2 – 3 questions that one SHOULD be asking a transgender person?

I decided to go about this a little differently. Instead of listing specific questions one should or should not ask transgender people, I came up with guidelines for deciding which questions are appropriate and which ones are not.

Know the Basics

Before you begin asking too many questions of the transgender individual, do some research on the basics. Many times when someone is revealing their “true” gender, or their brain gender identity, others go straight for the anatomy of the individual. Anatomy is about natal sex, not gender. The transgender individual likely wants you to understand more about how they feel on the inside, not about what their body looks like. Read my blog post here for more information about Gender Vs. Sex. Additionally, it will be helpful for you to understand the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation. If you don’t, you might accidentally start focusing on the individual’s romantic life or sexual behaviors when they are trying to tell you about who they are. 🙂 Read more about this distinction here.

Use Empathy

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. It’s important to remember the transgender person is not there simply to educate you or satisfy your curiosity. They are a person, just like you, living their life. Try to figure out what kinds of questions you would like to be asked, and go from there. Would you want to be asked details about your potentially painful past? Probably not. Would you want to be asked details about your genitalia? Most likely not. See my blog post “What’s In YOUR Pants?? (They’re called “privates” for a reason) for more on this. What would you want someone to ask you about? You would probably want people to ask how you are, how your loved ones are, and what you’ve been staying busy with. Ask!

Stay in the Now

The transgender person in front of you is not living in the past or the future, they are living in the present. Stay in it with them. What name they were given at birth, the process of their transition, their plans for medical intervention in the future, etc. do not give you a sense for what that person is about, today. Ask them about their here and now, in general terms. If the transgender individual’s gender identity or transition comes up in this conversation, that means it is relevant for them in the present.

Think in Terms of Solidarity

If you think of yourself in a different category than transgender people, a separation is created that does not need to exist. We all have gender identity, and that makes us capable of understanding it. You don’t have to have gone through something exactly as someone else has to relate to that person. Many of the problems transgender individuals face is in regards to stigma, discrimination, and lack of understanding from society at large. Since we are all a part of society, we are all capable of creating change. Make sure you are using the correct name and pronouns for the individual. Speak up if you hear someone who is not. Speak up if you hear transphobic language, practices, policies, or potentially unwelcoming spaces for transgender individuals.

Think Beyond the Binary

Society tends to operate as though there are two genders, male and female. In reality, gender is on a spectrum and male and female are but two genders on it. Every person is the expert on their own gender identity. Trust what they say to be true for them, even if you can’t relate to it or haven’t heard of it before. Some people feel male or female. Some people feel both, and some people feel neither. Some people feel more one gender than another, and some fluctuate from day to day. Operate from the standpoint that you are there to honor and respect their gender, not decide what it is or what you are comfortable with. The only way to have a relationship with someone is to honor them for who they truly are.

Happy Conversing! 🙂

Transition is an INTERVENTION, Not a Decision

In my post “What are you going to do about it?”, I discuss two very separate concepts: one’s gender identity and one’s “decision” about what to do about it. However, I made it clear that “deciding” not to transition is not usually a positive choice for a transgender individual. Today let’s break it down one step further and clarify what this “decision” means. Deciding to transition often means acting upon something that already is. That is, someone can be transgender in that they feel the brain gender identity they have is different than their assigned gender based on their natal sex. Is being transgender a decision? Absolutely not. You cannot decide to be transgender, just as much as anyone cannot “decide” on their gender before birth. I think talking too much about the “decision” to transition undermines what just simply exists; one’s brain gender identity. I want to acknowledge that there are some people who are transgender and who choose not to transition. This is a valid choice and one that is completely within their right. Let’s just say, for argument’s sake and the sake of this blog post, that transitioning is the natural response to one being transgender. If that is true, let’s stop thinking about transition as a decision and more as an intervention. I suppose this distinction has become more and more clear in my work with transgender youth and how different their process can be. Adults have the tendency to overthink everything, and so sometimes my work involves sitting with a client while they agonize over the “decision” to transition. Some of this includes not just IF they are going to transition but when, how, etc. It is somewhat different with transgender children. Because of their luxury of not yet having a brain trained to overthink things, they typically know just what they want to do about it. It is their parents/guardians, those in charge of their care, who typically stall the transition. They want their child to be SURE. They want their child to know all aspects of transition prior to “deciding to do so”. I have heard this statement so many times: “I just want him to be sure he knows what he’s getting into if he decides to transition” or “I just want to be sure she is mature enough to make a decision like this”, and “I told her if you’re going to make this decision I just want you to know what the consequences could be”. (If you have made a statement like this in my office, please know it is not about you specifically. I have heard these things too many times to count or to connect to one person or family. 🙂 ) Because children don’t overthink things, being transgender and transitioning* are fluidly, easily connected. Let’s try not to infringe our overthinking brains upon them. Let’s start looking at transitioning as an intervention, not a decision. If your child had a medical condition, and a doctor recommended an intervention that could make their lives a whole lot better, or potentially save your child’s life, would you put the decision on the child? Would you present the options to your child but then warn them to consider the financial implications, social implications, family implications on said intervention? Of course not. (For a similar concept covered in a different blog post, see “Oxygen”.) We are so used to warning our children of possible outcomes that we forget some are natural consequences to a circumstance, not something to avoid at all costs. Will there possibly be difficult times ahead for the transgender child who opts to transition? Yes. Will you be there to help them through it? Yes. Given how debilitating and dangerous dysphoria can be, I can assure you any stumbling blocks post-transition will likely be easier to overcome by the distress of not transitioning at all. Adults reading this who identify as transgender, what if you were to think of transitioning as an intervention instead of a decision? Would you give yourself more permission to act on how you feel and what you know you need? Would you be more willing to assert what you need from others, knowing this is something that is necessary for you?

*I want to clarify that for the sake of this blog post I am speaking of transition in fairly binary terms, that is someone transitioning from male to female, or female to male. However, plenty of people do not identify within this binary; some are gender fluid, some are genderqueer, some are bi-gender, some are agender, some are gender nonconforming. For these individuals, the “transition” and “intervention” may be somewhat different. It could just include having those around them understand them better, possibly change pronouns, and advocate for the use of proper treatment and pronouns. Those in charge of their care/their loved ones should also look at their stated preferences as interventions to how they feel, not “decisions” they are making to be a certain way gender-wise.

A Parent’s Post: Anti-Loss

Many parents of transgender children (youth and adults) express sadness about feeling like they’re going to lose their child in some way when their child transitions. I’ve heard several parents say this impending loss feels like a death, and they prepare to grieve accordingly. It’s never really that they are feeling that way; usually they are scared they are going to feel that way when their child transitions.

I tell them most parents end up not feeling that way, as their child will still be here, but they won’t know this until they go through it themselves. Really, the parent is not losing their child. The child (again, I’m talking about “adult children”, too) is going to be the same person they always were. The parent is only now beginning to understand what pronouns and gender identity go along with who their child really is. The main loss is that of pronouns and a mental image of who the parent thought they were.

Recently, a father made it clear he had not experienced loss as a result of his child’s transition. I wanted desperately to bottle up his words and give them to each parent I see who is struggling with a sense of impending loss in regards to their transgender child. So, I did the next best thing; I asked him to write a blog post about it! Without further ado, please read these words from a father who has gained so much.

“Anti-Loss – By Peter T.

Emma was our second child, born from the love her mother and I shared and wanted to manifest in the world.  In the days after we learned she was pregnant, my wife and I had no idea if she would give birth to a boy or a girl – and to both of us, it made no difference, whatsoever. Whether our baby, our child, our young adult was a boy or a girl was pretty much irrelevant, as long as they grew up happy, strong, knowing they were deeply loved and accepted for their unique and beautiful self.

Our baby was born in the body of a girl… but in this baby, nature decided to do an interesting thing. Somehow, the heart and mind and spirit of a son was inserted into the body of a girl.  We as parents, being such literal and visual creatures, took the visual presentation of our baby to be all we needed to know about gender.  The doctor said “It’s a girl!” and we believed.  We went about dressing our baby and our child as a girl… giving “her” girl activities… and investing in our expectations about what “she” would grow up to be.

As our child grew up and was able to begin to make choices in clothing, friends and activities, it was gradually apparent that our ideas about “being a girl” weren’t really fitting this small person.  Still, we took our child to ballet lessons and set up tea parties with classmates, bought cute dresses and imagined the life-ahead for “her” – and our child seemed to participate in these things happily… up to a point, but beneath the seemingly-accepting exterior of this small person, inner turmoil was brewing.

We, as parents of transgender teens, all have our stories of how our child made their truth known to us and how we initially – and then eventually – reacted to their needs.  I won’t lengthen this writing by sharing mine in detail, but I will acknowledge that I definitely had to go through my own reprogramming… adjusting in some fundamental ways, how I perceived my child.  The child I had known for 13 years as Emma now was to be called Andrew… “she” was to be “he” and a whole new world of concerns for his welfare appeared – in addition to the ones that come standard with every teen.

I have been so very fortunate to be included in my son Andrew’s counseling sessions.  All sorts of truths rise to the surface there that “real life” often doesn’t allow time or space for.  A few weeks ago, I said something to Andrew in counseling that I’d said several times before – but this time, he finally made it clear that what I’d said was hurting him.  What I’d said was that he was at something of a disadvantage in passing as male, because, as a girl, he was quite pretty – and that gave him an obstacle to overcome in looking masculine.  Andrew shared with me that when I said things like that, he felt as though I was saying I had lost something – that I had lost my “pretty daughter”… and clearly, it hurt him to feel that who he truly was inside – and now, outside was something “less” to me.

I was very sad to know that my observation about “what he used to be” caused him to feel I had lost something along the way.  The truth is so entirely opposite – for me it has been “anti-loss” – ONLY gain – as I have seen my child stand up and speak his truth and claim his real life – against all odds, despite peer pressure, despite fear of ridicule, in the face of the certainty that his road ahead would be so very hard.  I told him then… and I will remind him often… that he is so very much *more* than I ever could have hoped for in a child, in a son, in a young man who I am so entirely proud to have in my life.

What was it again?  What did I wish for… back in those days before his mother and I knew his eye color or his name?  What was it that we had hoped for, above all?  I had wished for a child who would be able to grow up happy and strong… who would face difficult challenges with integrity and intelligence… who would know himself deeply  – and from that knowledge, live a life filled with love and joy and passions-abounding.  In my lovely son, I have found examples of all those things that I, myself, can only hope to aspire to.  His process of becoming himself is such an incredible honor to participate in and I hope, as he grows into the amazing man I know he will be, that he always knows that his parents accept him and love him deeply and completely.

There is nothing here but gain.”

Thank you, Peter, for your beautiful words and sharing your perspective. Thank you also to Andrew for letting me share part of your story. ❤

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?

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?