Reactions of Others Part 1: Shock and Awe

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

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

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

Shock and Awe: Take Cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Gender Identity Vs. Sexual Orientation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gender Identity of Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gender Vs. Sex

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

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

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

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

What Are You Going To Do About It? (Deciding About Transition)

I’d like to talk about two very important arenas of working with transgender people: one is their gender identity, and the other is what they are going to do about it.  One is who you ARE, the other is what you DO.

A woman I was speaking with recently made reference to a transgender acquaintance of hers: “He is in the process of becoming transgender.” “Transitioning”, I said. “What?” she asked. “Transitioning is the process”, I said.  “Being transgender is who he is.”

One does not “become” transgender. One is born transgender.  What one eventually does with that is an entirely different issue, and is different for every individual.

Understanding, knowing, discovering, realizing one’s gender identity is a unique process for everyone. Some people understand what gender they are from the very start, never think about it, and never have to worry about it, not even once in their entire lives. These people are usually those whose biological sex match the gender of their brains. For transgender individuals, coming to understand their personal gender can look many different ways. Some have an immediate sense of identifying as the “opposite” gender (forgive my reference to the gender dichotomy!) and depending on temperament, family influence, etc. that awareness can cause very different levels of distress in the individual. Some are vocal about it, since childhood. Some guard it like a secret. Some don’t really know exactly what’s going on, but they have a sense there is something not quite right. Some individuals don’t realize their gender doesn’t match their biological sex until they are much older, but when they do, a lot of pieces fall into place. (Having a child or family member not realize until they are much older is often more difficult for the family members, but that’s a subject for another blog!)

By the time a client makes it to my office, they are usually pretty darn sure about their gender identity. In fact, MOST transgender clients I come into contact with are completely sure of what gender they are. I have been known to facetiously say, “that’s the easy part!”.

After understanding and coming to peace with one’s gender identity, the next task is deciding what they are going to DO about it. For those of you not completely savvy with all the concepts and terms, the process of aligning one’s biological sex with one’s gender identity is called “transitioning”.  Mainly this includes changing one’s appearance, name, and pronouns to “present” as the gender with which they identify. It often includes hormones and sometimes includes surgery.

This is the hard part.

Much of the agony for my clients comes from not trying to figure out what gender they are, but what they are going to do about it. Transitioning from one gender to the other, and coping with all that entails, is a very scary thing.  Some clients will come saying they identify as “third gender” or something in the middle. (Of course, some people really feel this way, and they refer to themselves as genderqueer. In this blog I’m discussing those who ultimately identify as transgender.)  What usually causes someone who is transgender to say this is the fear of the transition. In this case it is the “what to do” wreaking havoc on the “who I am”!

In my experience with my clients, fear of transitioning mainly comes from outside sources.  They may fear the reaction of significant others, family members, co-workers, or society at large.  If the fear of this remains greater than the desire to make themselves happy by aligning their body with their mind, the transgender person may decide not to pursue transitioning. This does not make the person any less transgender. It just means too much got in the way of doing what they needed to do for themselves, to make themselves happy.  Having a transgender person decide not to transition is not cause for a sigh of relief, it is often cause for concern.  Not transitioning due to fear of reactions or to please others may be the recipe for an unhappy future.

For some, deciding to transition is easy, even if the process is still a challenging one. Once their gender identity is realized, transitioning to match their body and outer appearance is a natural next step. For many transgender individuals, transitioning is a very positive process, one that brings much relief, joy, and satisfaction.

It’s my wish that over time, with an increased understanding of what it means to be transgender and extensive de-pathologizing of the concept, the gap between who someone is and what they are going to do about it will become much, much smaller.

To my transgender friends, clients, and blog followers, I’d love to hear your feedback about this! Either comment on this blog or email me privately. Thanks as always for reading!

Published in: on July 28, 2011 at 9:04 pm  Comments (11)  
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