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.

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!