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

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

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

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 So the more outdated “sex change operation” applies here.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oxygen: Living Life Fully

If you are like most people, you haven’t had to think much about your lungs. You were born with fully functioning lungs that have delivered oxygen to your blood and brain, just as they are supposed to. You can’t imagine it any other way, simply because it’s never been any other way for you. You’ve also not given much thought to the role oxygen plays in your life, because it’s always been there, as much as you need, delivered to you on cue, no questions asked.  For anyone who’s briefly experienced a decrease in oxygen, or lack of oxygen, that person will likely never forget the feeling of panic and the intense, primal need to have oxygen fill the lungs once again.

Take a nice, deep breath. Let the air expand your lungs and your stomach.  Feels good, doesn’t it? Ah, oxygen. What would you do without it? Well, you’d die, is the obvious answer.  What if you had enough of it to survive, but just not quite enough to lead a “normal” life?

Picture this: You were born with something wrong with your lungs, so that they couldn’t fully absorb and process oxygen the way most people’s lungs can. You can take in just enough oxygen to live, but not fully engage in life. Since you were born with your lungs not doing precisely what they should do, you spend every day of your life not being able to do all the things you would otherwise like to do. You spend many of your days wishing your lungs were different, wishing you could breathe as fully and deeply as everyone around you. You watch everyone take those deep, life-sustaining breaths, and you can tell none of them realize how lucky they are; their lungs (and the resulting oxygen they get) is simply taken for granted.  You stand there, taking shallow, ragged breaths, feeling weak and somewhat listless.

Then one day, you stumble across something on the internet: ‘Sub-par Oxygenation Syndrome”. (Yes, I made that up.) You discover there is a name for what you’ve been experiencing, and other people have it too!  Sadly, some have taken their own lives from not being able to tolerate the feelings associated with having this syndrome.

You feel relieved, validated, excited. Then you read that there is a solution. While it may not give you new lungs, there is a machine that can deliver this life-enhancing oxygen straight to you: an oxygen tank. It’s expensive (insurance doesn’t cover it in this scenario), but you know you’ll do anything to get access to it. The day you get your tank feels like the most liberating, exciting day of your life. You strap that baby on (it comes in a nifty backpack) and put the tubes under your nose. To breathe so fully and so easily is something you’ve longed for your whole life, but never thought you’d experience. (At times, you feel sad and resentful you have to wear such a contraption to feel the way most others were born feeling, but continue to be grateful nonetheless.)

When you explain to those close to you what you’ve discovered and show them your new tank, they’re skeptical. “Really? Are you sure you’re not getting enough oxygen? I get plenty of oxygen every time I take a deep breath. Perhaps you’re not doing it right.”  Others don’t like your oxygen tank. “Hmmm, I liked you better before you wore that tank. I’m not used to seeing you with those tubes. Can you please take it off?”. You’re saddened and shaken by these responses, but you don’t take it off. The oxygen tank brings you too much relief and too much life to dare take it off.

§

I’ve been looking for some sort of concrete metaphor to use to help explain being transgender and transitioning. Concrete examples can help with understanding. However, I wanted to be careful not to compare being transgender with being disabled. I do not think it is a disability. I think it is something REAL, like not getting enough air. I hope this analogy does justice to those transgender individuals reading it and hits home with loved ones.

The irony of my example is that if someone had been born with something wrong with his or her lungs, it would likely have been caught right away by medical doctors, and offered a solution early on. Gender variance is a bit trickier; a person’s need for his or her gender identity to be validated develops much later than one’s need for adequate oxygen. While we still have a long way to go, intervening with children who display persistent gender-variant behaviors and a consistent desire for changing genders is much like offering the oxygen tank to the person in the above scenario as a child; “I know what you need; here you go.”

One last thought worth mentioning is that I do believe being transgender is a medical condition and belongs in the medical books, not the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). This is why comparing it to another type of medical condition was appealing to me. I’ll save the rest of my thoughts on this topic for another blog. 🙂

To Oxygen!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cold Lake Analogy

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

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

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

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

IT: My thoughts on what being transgender is all about

In all this talk about “getting it”, I realized I haven’t defined “it”. I haven’t said what it is exactly I’d like others to “get”. I have been referring people to my blog as a means of helping them understand all the various aspects of gender identity, transitioning, etc. but I haven’t thoroughly explained IT, meaning what it means to be transgender.

Am I qualified for explaining this one? I’m not transgender myself, nor could I even be considered gender variant. So is it presumptuous of me to take this one on? Does witnessing and listening to the intimate desires, dreams, emotions, trials, and tribulations of many transgender individuals qualify me for defining “it”? Maybe. In fact, that more explains why this blog has been primarily about the inner angst and the external pressures of the transperson; this is what I work with every day, not defining “it”. Likely because I get it, my clients get it, and we need to work out all the other details. So, details aside, this blog is about IT.

I’m not going to define “it” or give a clinical explanation (I might do that at a later time.) I’m going to share some thoughts (in my own words), based on my relationships with many transgender individuals who have allowed me to take a glimpse into their hearts and souls. To those of you who are transgender, I hope I did you justice. To those of you who are the “others” seeking to understand, put on your empathy hats. Let’s go!

IT:

It’s being a person faced with a remarkable challenge. It’s being a person, with feelings, thoughts, and aspirations that are affected by and often times overshadowed by the feelings of gender incongruity. It’s being a “normal” person, with a set of abnormal circumstances to navigate. It’s being a child who desperately wants to play with a kind of toy or a group of kids and is told wanting such things is wrong. It’s keeping the biggest part of yourself secret, often for years upon years. It’s life’s earliest lesson that others are not always going to accept you exactly as you are. It’s honoring yourself. It’s having a body that feels foreign to you at times. It’s feeling betrayed by puberty rather than excited by it. It’s fear that being true to yourself will make you lose those most important to you. It’s anxiety about making a “decision”, when in your gut you know it’s not a decision, but something you have to do for yourself. It’s a fear of losing a deeply loved partner as a result of transitioning. It’s sacrificing a lot to gain a lot. It’s a feeling of not feeling comfortable with the pronouns people use for you, but sometimes not knowing why. It’s huge relief when you finally figure out WHY. It’s facing a bigger challenge than most people do in their lifetimes. It’s holding your bladder for hours at a time to avoid using a restroom in public; either room could cause problems for you prior to transitioning. It’s being incredibly brave. It’s being careful of your loved ones’ feelings while hoping they are careful with yours. It’s not knowing how you fit in around those who share your gender. It’s a decision to be stealth or be “out”. It’s being a child who clearly knows his or her gender, and hoping a parent helps. It’s coming out as “gay”, even when that doesn’t feel right, because it’s the only way you know at the time to make others understand why you are attracted to who you are attracted to. It’s knowing exactly who you are, and wishing others did too.  It’s anxiety that even after changing you won’t be truly happy. It’s trusting yourself even in the midst of all the other voices. It’s fear of taking a hormone, even when you know that hormone is the only thing that can help you become who you really want to be. It’s gratitude for medical interventions. It’s finding where you land along the gender spectrum. It’s being teased for being who you are. It’s wishing things were different. It’s dread of changes, impatience for changes, and desperation for changes, all at the same time. It’s having to jump through hoops to get the interventions needed when what you need isn’t pathological. It’s fear (often projected) of transitioning too young. It’s sadness about transitioning too old. It’s understanding that others like gender to be black and white, and to make sense, and sometimes you don’t make sense to them. It’s feeling trapped. It’s feeling freed. It’s feeling your stomach do a flip the first of many times you hear a loved one use the “right” pronoun. It’s wishing others knew how hard this is for YOU. It’s making the impossible possible. It’s hours of research on the Internet. It’s absorbing the stories of those who have gone before you to make things seem less overwhelming. It’s a beautiful transformation.  It’s naming yourself. It’s a feeling of being “ripped off”, even when you don’t know who or what to blame. It’s having all the pieces of the puzzle finally make sense. It’s me wishing this was easier for you. It’s regret for moving too slowly, fear of moving too fast. It’s bitterness about the money it takes to change your body to align with your mind, when most can save for luxuries.  It’s compassion for yourself and all you are going through, when no one else around you can give it. It’s wanting concrete answers to an abstract concept. It’s thinking “am I crazy?” when you know you’re sane. It’s your heart racing every time you have to “come out”. It’s wishing you could “just be happy” in your assigned gender. It’s standing on the edge of a cliff, getting ready to jump and hoping you will fly. It’s skepticism that this will really work out. It’s incredible relief to finally be seen as WHO YOU ARE. It’s a feeling of inadequacy, even when those of us around you can see you are more than adequate just the way you are. It’s joy in being true to yourself. It’s relief in finding others like you, or others who understand you. It’s listening to your inner voice, possibly one you’ve been ignoring for a long time. It’s finally having the need to be YOU outweigh the fear. It’s excitement. It’s empowerment. It’s confusion. It’s happiness. It’s thankfulness. It’s pride. It’s hope. It’s relief. That is IT.

***

What does IT mean to you?

 

Reactions of Others Part 2: They Just Don’t “Get It”

In the years I’ve been doing gender therapy, I’ve come to realize a simple fact about the general population and their understanding of transgender individuals: some get it, and some don’t. I don’t know what the common denominator is in those who “get it”, or those who don’t, I just know there is a pretty clear delineation of these two camps. I also know that there is one thing that set me up well to go into this particular niche… I just “get it”. I don’t think that makes me better than people who don’t get it; there is no judgment there. I see it as a piece that is simply a part of some people, and not a part of others. For me, I “got it” first and then was educated on all the intricacies of gender identity and work with gender dysphoric individuals. Others, I suppose, may need to be educated first before they “get it”. The great news is that even those who initially don’t “get it” can come to understand and accept over time. Others still may never really understand, but can be loving and accepting about it anyway.

There are a lot of factors that impact how others receive the news that a loved one is transgender. One of the biggest obstacles is a lack of knowledge. Many people have never had any experience with knowing someone who is transgender and simply don’t know anything about it. When there is a void of knowledge, a plethora of opinions, guesses, and myths can take its place, all of which can contribute to a difficult response or a difficult processing of the news.

Many people have misconceptions and pre-conceived notions. Some have heard misinformation about transgender people; others have heard a little true information and then “filled in the blanks” with assumptions that may be fueled by fear or stigma. Having certain feelings about the issue can also fuel the guesses.  Having pre-existing negative feelings about transgender people will breed negative guesses, taking the place of fact or reality. Add worry and concern for the loved one who is transgender, and the result is a pretty tricky response to the to the big revelation.

If you are a transgender individual who is “coming out” to someone you care very much about and you value the relationship with this person, it is a good idea to provide information from the start or steer them in the right direction of where to find information. There are a lot of resources out there for loved ones.  Additionally, taking the time to explain your journey to self-realization of your true gender identity, and all the feelings (both positive and negative) that went with it may be just the information another needs to “get it”. You may feel exhausted and depleted by having already gone through a long and difficult internal journey to get to where you are, but taking the time to share this with your loved ones could go a long way.

Yet even when information is provided, many still do not “get it”. Some simply cannot wrap their brains around the concept. There’s a difference between having information/knowledge and “getting it”. “Getting it” takes some ability to see the gray area about things, and understand that gender is not black and white. Some people have difficulty seeing things in anything other than black and white. There could also be a variety of other things that contributes to one’s ability to “get it”. Personal experience, background, basic tolerance for those who are different, religion, empathy, the ability to see life from another’s point of view, etc.  Some are stuck in their own experiences, some are stuck in the gender dichotomy, some can only see what is concrete.

How much energy should be put into trying to make them “get it”? After making a reasonable effort to explain yourself or the basic concept of being transgender, providing resources, etc., there is a necessary boundary that needs to be set. Doing this too much can be depleting for the trans person who has multiple other demands in which to put their energy.  It’s also important to allow others the space to come around on their own, (you have likely been down a similar journey of doubt, fear, and eventually acceptance) and accept the possibility that it may not happen.  In those cases where your loved one doesn’t seem to understand after a lot of explaining and resources given, tell them you love them ask for what you would like from them in regards to your transition. If they love you, operating from a stance of love and compassion can go a long way even if one doesn’t “get it”.

 

I’ve been contemplating what the ratio of “get its” to “don’t get its” might be… To transgender individuals out there: what ratio of people in your life “get it” vs. those who don’t?

Reactions of Others Part 1: Shock and Awe

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

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

I chose to present on this topic because it is by far the most commonly brought up issue in therapy for my clients who are transitioning. In fact, I think it can be the most difficult part of transitioning.  I am writing this blog to help those preparing to disclose, as well as help those who have been hurt by the reactions of others in the past. I hope this will help those individuals reflect upon where their loved one may have been coming from so that healing can happen. Additionally, my intention is for this series of blogs to normalize the feelings that friends and family members may have as they absorb the concept of how their loved one feels and what 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!

 

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. 🙂

It’s Hard For Moms

I have a lot of respect for Chaz Bono. Being the child of a superstar like Cher, coming out as trans and transitioning under the spotlight no doubt makes a frightening and difficult process all the more so. He has been very visible and vocal in order to educate the public and pave the way for other transgender individuals. As he said on the Oprah special, “I’m doing this because I want to try to help people…I want to try to put a face on an issue that people don’t understand. That’s why I did this publicly.” And now to push himself further out of his comfort zone and appear on Dancing With the Stars… wow. My hat’s off to you, Chaz.

He said something in response to a question from a fan about his mother Cher’s response to his transition that really stuck with me, and I think it summarizes an aspect of one’s gender transition beautifully.

The fan said, “I would think your mom would accept it real well!”

Chaz’s response? “It’s hard for moms.”

Yes, even Cher. Even the leather-wearing, booty-revealing, sex symbol/gay icon mom!

This process is indeed hard for moms; likely for all parents and guardians. This element is something that is a large part of the work I do with my transgender clients. Inevitably my job in therapy is part helping the individual transition and process emotions that accompany that; part is helping them cope with responses from others and understand what the process might be like for their loved ones.

When becoming a parent, the prospect of one’s child becoming a different gender than originally thought is not usually within one’s realm of possibility. Parents often begin planning, fantasizing, and formulating expectations for their child’s life as soon as they’re born; often as soon as they are conceived. Gender plays a big part in these expectations which then have to shift a great deal when the gender nonconformity or different gender identity is revealed.  This comes as a shock to most parents, and it can be difficult to wrap one’s brain around, particularly if the parents have not previously had experience with someone who is gender variant.

Of course, responses vary from one extreme to the other. Some parents get on board soon after hearing their child verbally reveal their true gender identity. Although rare, this can be related to seeing many signs of gender variance since early childhood, or sensing an unknown source of distress and seeing the relief the gender revelation brings. Other parents fight it and resist for many years, struggling to have any type of acceptance. This is the more common response, likely due to the parents having to shift ideas they had been formulating about their child’s life since the child was born. There is also a distinct element of fear; fear they will “lose” their child, or that their child will become unfamiliar to them. This usually is not the case (post-transition often being easier than expected and realizing their child is still the same person), but that “What If?” is sure powerful.

I have sat in many a session and witnessed two people in pain: the transgender individual, wanting desperately to be accepted and supported in the daunting process of transitioning, and the parent, wishing this were not true, wanting it to go away.

Some of the feelings a loved one might feel are likely similar to feelings the transgender person has already gone through prior to disclosing their gender identity or plans to transition. Many have walked through the fear, the wishing away, the major adjustment to how life is going to change.

If you are a gender variant person expressing your true gender or looking to transition, and your mom, parent, or loved one is struggling with it, take heart. Even though it’s hard for them, acceptance is possible. It may be closer than you think. While you are on your own journey, your loved ones are on theirs, and all of you deserve compassion, patience, and tolerance. When you find yourself getting discouraged, remind yourself, “It’s hard for ___________”, filling in the blank with your loved one who is struggling.

If you are a parent of a gender non-conforming child or adult, and you have struggled with negative feelings about your child’s gender expression or transition, be kind to yourself. No matter where you fall on the spectrum of acceptance, please don’t judge yourself for having feelings about this. It’s important you take care of yourself while taking care of your child. Having feelings of fear, dread, sadness, or loss doesn’t make you bad; it makes you human. Walking through these feelings to get to the other side is a part of the process. I can’t underscore the importance of getting to the other side, though… and eventually being able to support your child’s decision with the unconditional love they absolutely need, no matter how old they are. The significance of the parent/child relationship is both what makes this difficult on you, and why your acceptance is crucial to your child’s happiness. Ultimately, your acceptance will likely be one of the most important aspects on your child’s journey. So on this journey to acceptance and support (and anyone can get there!), validate your feelings, find a place to be heard, talk to other parents in your situation. Because yes… it’s hard for moms.

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. 🙂