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Transgender 101: A Simple Guide to a Complex Issue

Nicholas M. Teich

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Paper, 160 pages, 8 line drawings, 9 tables
ISBN: 978-0-231-15713-1
$20.00 / £14.00

March, 2012
Cloth, 160 pages, 8 line drawings, 9 tables
ISBN: 978-0-231-15712-4
$65.00 / £45.00

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Chapter 3: Coming Out as Transgender: When, Why, and How People Come Out

Coming out, or revealing one’s transgenderism, can be one of the most difficult parts of a transperson’s journey. At the same time, it can be one of the proudest and most satisfying. But before transpeople can come out to others, they must come out to themselves. For some people, the process of coming out never really ends, but it becomes easier with practice and time. Other people who come out initially choose not to identify as trans at all, and they identify simply as the gender they feel they are: man, woman, and so forth.

Why Come Out?

The simplest answer: to be yourself, to live life as the genuine you, it’s necessary to come out in at least some areas of life. We usually hear the term “coming out,” which is the short form of “coming out of the closet,” in reference to sexual orientation. While certainly not ideal, it is possible for most gay, lesbian, and bisexual people to go through their daily lives without revealing to whom they are sexually attracted or with whom they might have a romantic relationship. However, transpeople have a different set of circumstances. Once they begin any type of transition that makes them look different from the sex they were labeled with at birth, their gender-nonconforming appearance is plain for all to see. Thus, the choice of whether to come out is not readily available to most transpeople, at least in the beginning of transition.

Coming Out to Self

Realization that one is trans can take anywhere from a few moments to several decades. Usually transpeople have an inkling early on in their lives that their assigned gender feels out of whack with their bodies. The self-realization process is extremely complicated. The human mind does its best to help us survive, which can translate into triggering intense denial. Because of societal constraints, it is common for a person to try to ignore signs pointing toward transgenderism, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Deana F. Morrow, editor and contributing writer for Sexual Orientation and Gender Expression in Social Work Practice, notes, “Being [trans] does not automatically make a person immune to the pejorative terms and misinformation used to construct images and stereotypes of GLBT people. GLBT people tend to internalize those messages, and they have to ‘unlearn’ much of that harmful rhetoric.” This is known as internalized homophobia for GLB people and internalized transphobia for transpeople. Those who do recognize that they have been raised as the wrong gender may still not know that transition is available to them or even that it exists at all. Let’s consider the following analogy: if a person falls down and lands on her wrist, and her wrist swells painfully, then she will likely visit a doctor or hospital. She will get an X-ray that will confirm what happened: broken, sprained, and so on. Transgenderism just isn’t that simple. Although there may be signs throughout someone’s life, being trans is not on most people’s minds. Transpeople are not born with sensors that pop up one day and tell them that they are trans. It is not like a broken wrist; it is not something that says, “Hey, you fell. You’re in pain. Go get an X-ray!”

Each person has a different level of self-awareness for a variety of reasons. Many transpeople realize that they are different from their peers at an early age, but some do not know why they feel this way. Some feel that they are nonconforming in many ways while others clearly identify that they are different in terms of gender. The stage that follows this initial self-awareness, according to Arlene Lev, therapist and author of Transgender Emergence, is one of “reaching out.” This is when the transperson will begin to share information with those who have been in similar situations or those who may be able to provide some understanding.

Coming Out to Family and Close Friends

An adult who reveals that he or she is transgender can encounter a wide range of reactions from family and close friends. Parents, siblings, spouses, children, loved ones, and friends connected to a transperson may feel as if they have no concept of what it would be like to be in the transperson’s shoes. Most people go through a lifetime without so much as thinking about what their gender means to them. When something as fundamental as gender is called into question by a friend or a loved one, many people feel as if the rug has been pulled out from underneath them.

Parents of Trans Adults

No matter how old we get, our parents will always view us as their child. And no matter whether someone is a teenager or is middle aged, coming out can cause family turmoil. Many parents wonder what went wrong in the rearing of their child; they may blame themselves or the other parent. Some parents may have thought that their child was gay, lesbian, or bisexual, but have never considered the possibility of transgenderism. Because many people are uneducated about the subject, they may feel blindsided by such a revelation.

Transpeople come out to their parents in many different ways. Some choose to do it in person, on the phone, via e-mail, by letter, or through a third party. There are certain advantages and disadvantages to using each of these methods. It comes down to personal preference.

Sometimes parents do not initially think about the struggle their child has gone through, but sometimes it is all they can think about. Parents may react with anger and hostility, feeling a combination of betrayal and a sense of loss. It is difficult for a parent who has raised a child to think that he or she could have missed the signs pointing toward something as significant as transgenderism. However, we know that gender transition is the furthest thing from most people’s minds, and our minds can do incredible things to keep us from realizing our biggest fears. For example, it is easy, and quite common, for parents to pass off their “daughter’s” lifelong masculinity as an extended phase of tomboyishness rather than face the fact that they have actually always had a son rather than a daughter.

One common reaction of parents is to tell their child (even if that child is forty) that he or she is being selfish and not thinking about the effect that coming out might have on the larger family. What these parents might not understand is how torn their child has likely been over whether gender transition would hurt the family and that their child has already delayed coming out as long as possible. Another prevalent parental reaction is guilt for the years of pain and inner turmoil that the child, now an adult, has gone through. There may be guilt surrounding the fact that parents did not notice or address their child’s anguish. In many cases, although there may have been signs of gender variance throughout someone’s childhood, nothing could have been done to bring the issue to light beforehand. As we have learned, the symptoms are not as concrete and easy to see as one might think.

Parents need a lot of time to adjust to the news of their child, however old, coming out as trans. Most parents feel a sense of loss in the process. A mother of a transwoman, for example, might feel as if she has lost her son. In spite of the fact that she may be gaining a daughter, that loss is still difficult. This mother might feel guilty about her feelings of loss because she did not actually lose a child. It may be difficult for a parent to talk to others about the situation. In cases where no support is available, everything inevitably becomes more difficult. If the parent does disclose her child’s news, she may find that people are unsympathetic, freaked out, or unwilling to believe that the parent isn’t to blame for the child’s transgenderism. Of course, she may also find a great deal of support, depending on whom she tells.

Every parent has a dream for what his or her child will become and how that will unfold, and coming out as trans can do serious damage to—even kill—that dream. Grief over the loss of this dream must take its course naturally. Internet support groups for parents of transpeople are very popular. As with many other things, only a limited amount of support (though undoubtedly needed) can come from those who have not been through the same process.

When parents do decide to begin disclosing to others outside their inner circle that their child is trans, the way they deliver the news is as important, if not more important, than the news itself. It is common for people to take their cues on how to respond from the bearer of the news. If a parent hesitantly tells another person that her child just came out as trans and the parent is visibly upset, the person receiving the news will probably share those feelings. On the other hand, if the parent delivers the news that “Emma is transgender; he is now going by Dan, and he is doing great,” the receiver of the news will likely react with acceptance, at least in that moment. After all, the parent in the latter case is not inviting an opinion or any commentary on the subject. Whether or not the person receiving the news is shocked by it, it is clear that the parent in this example feels confident in disclosing this information.

Unfortunately, some parents never adjust. Adolescents and young adults still dependent on parents may face rejection not only emotionally, but also in the form of loss of financial support and possibly housing. Adults at any stage of life may lose their parents’ support after coming out. Needless to say, the devastating effects of such rejection are far reaching.

Siblings

Siblings often have a difficult time with the coming-out process. Siblings who are children or adolescents will undoubtedly face a period of time in which they receive less attention from parents and other family members who may be distracted by, and possibly distraught over, what another child has revealed.

Siblings of transmen may feel a significant loss of the sister they once had. Many brothers, older ones especially, feel that they ought to be their sister’s protector, looking out for her well-being. When this sister transitions to become a brother, it can be difficult for the male sibling to relate to this new identity. This is especially true of brothers who have watched their only sister transition to become a man. Sisters of transmen may be losing a confidant or a same-sex role model. Similarly, siblings of transwomen often struggle with the fact that their brother is now their sister and they must deal with all the consequences of that change.

Siblings sometimes have more intimate relationships with each other than they do with their parents. Siblings share a relationship with one another that is unique, whether positive or negative. Redefining this lifelong relationship when one sibling transitions can be a major challenge.

Friends

With news this big, it is easy to imagine good friends getting caught off guard. Though some initially react negatively and slowly become supportive over time, the opposite can occur. Some people will react positively or neutrally in the moment and then, once they sit down to think about the news, they become uncomfortable and withdraw from their trans friend.

Friends experience many of the same feelings of loss that family members do. There is, almost without exception, an adjustment period. If two men have been close friends and one of them reveals that she is in fact a transwoman, it may be difficult for the friend to feel that he can continue to relate to his trans friend in the same way that he always has. Likewise, a woman whose close “girlfriend” reveals that he is a transman may have obstacles to overcome in the relationship.

Many friends of transpeople feel betrayed during the coming-out process. They might say, “We told each other everything; how could you keep such an instrumental part of your life from me?” As we know, often the transperson has been unaware of his or her own situation. Still, it may be difficult to convince a close friend that this is the case. Some transpeople might have deliberately kept their secret from even their closest friends because of fear of losing them. It is a common saying that if one loses a friend over something like gender transition, then that person was not a true friend in the first place. While this may sound sensible, it is always difficult to lose a friend. Sometimes the loss may not be permanent, but many transpeople have to prepare themselves for at least some permanent losses.

A transperson must face his or her family, friends, coworkers, and every acquaintance down to the person who works at the local convenience store. That could number in the hundreds, even thousands, of people. To have to come out to each and every one of them is a daunting task, but two things can make this process easier. One is as old as the human race: gossip. It spreads quickly. The other is the Internet, a somewhat more recent phenomenon and an invention that has made spreading news that much easier. Both of these are double-edged swords that can also make life more difficult for a person in transition. We cannot control the way people talk about us, or whom they talk to, or where they choose to make their opinions known. There will always be people who are out to mock others’ struggles or who wish to be the first to tell everyone the big news. Nevertheless, many transpeople find e-mail and social networking sites to be a very convenient way to come out. In one simple announcement they can reach everyone from close friends to long-ago acquaintances.

Spouses and Children of Transpeople

For many years, helping professionals advised that a trans individual with a family should leave the family, state, town, and even country of residence to begin a completely new life elsewhere. It was as if trans individuals had the same needs as those who go into the Witness Protection Program. The rationale for this way of thinking was that there would be no chance of the transperson being accepted in his or her home, workplace, or community, so the best option would be to leave and never look back. Now, because of more comprehensive support resources and visibility of the trans community, there is a greater likelihood of being able to stay put. The thought of having to permanently leave one’s family, friends, and home is devastating. However, even today, complete rejection is still a reality for many transpeople.

So what happens when a heterosexual couple is seemingly happily married and the husband comes out as a transwoman? Well, a variety of things can happen, from complete acceptance over time to ugly divorces with bitter custody battles. This has to do with the feelings of each partner in the marriage; there is no right or wrong way to deal with transition in this case. Just as each couple deals differently with any major bump in their relationship, each couple deals differently with a newly-out transgender member.

Jennifer Finney Boylan, transgender author and college professor who fathered two sons with her wife prior to her male-to-female transition, wrote a memoir titled Shes Not There. The following is part of a conversation between Jennifer and her wife (called Grace in the book) just after Jennifer had come out as trans:

“You can’t expect me to feel the way you do about this. I can’t imagine what it’s like for you, even now. I’m not the one who’s trapped in the wrong body, in the wrong life, in the wrong place. At least I didn’t used to be. No matter what happens from here on out, I lose.”

[Grace’s] lower lip trembled.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“I know you’re sorry,” Grace said. “But what can I say to you? You don’t want to be the person I married.” She shrugged. “I do love you. But this isn’t what I signed up for. This isn’t what I had in mind, when I spent the last twelve years, building something.”

“It was something I built, too,” I said.

We both sat there for a long time then, not saying anything.

“For all that,” Grace said, “I still believe that being together is better than being apart. I still want to be with you.”

Of course, this is an example of a couple who decided to stay together, and that is likely the exception, not the rule. However, it is important to know that it is possible and that it does happen. Because our society is so centered on the gender binary, something that immediately comes to mind with a transitioning partner is: what, then, is the sexual orientation of the wife of this transwoman, or the husband of a transman? And what does that mean for the spouse’s sexual orientation when she or he first fell in love with a person who, as it turns out, is actually trans? We touched on this a bit in the last chapter. In the end, some spouses realize that they love the person whom they married, not the perceived gender of the person. Others realize that they can only be romantically happy with someone who identifies as the original sex of their spouse. Still others make a choice based on many factors. It is similar for same-sex couples when one partner transitions to the other gender; the spouse of the transperson may feel as if he or she has been left with an identity crisis.

Just like any situation where two parents are at odds with each other, a parent’s transition can take a toll on the children. If one spouse’s transition is causing turmoil in the marriage, it will likely cause turmoil in the entire household. The nontransitioning parent may try to convince the children that the transgender parent is wrong or sick. The transitioning parent may try to level with the children without the spouse present, which can be confusing, especially when the parents have opposing viewpoints. Generally speaking, younger children have an easier time taking the news that one of their parents is trans. Most young kids take things at face value; as long as you are the same person inside and can relate to them the way that they like, they can adjust rather quickly. Jennifer Finney Boylan’s children call her “Maddy.” It is a combination of mommy and daddy that seemed to fit perfectly for their family.

Adolescents can be quite a different story than younger kids. It is not easy for teenagers to take the news of a parent’s transgenderism in stride, but it can be worse if the impending transition is kept a secret from the child. When the news breaks, the teenager must then choose whether or not to tell his or her friends, though in the end, the entire community will likely find out anyway. This can be a frustrating position for someone who is already trying to figure out how to fit in. Many adolescents find that their friends are surprisingly supportive and may even help change their mind about their parent. Some adolescents are understanding of their parent’s needs from the beginning and will readily attend family therapy sessions.

Adult children of a transgender parent can react to their parent’s coming out in many different ways depending on personal views, the status of the current relationship with the transitioning parent, and so on. The older someone is, the more difficult it is to learn to view such seemingly fixed things as gender in a new light.

Coming Out in the Workplace

People who come out once they are settled into a career generally face fewer obstacles than do people who come out when they are just starting a job. Either way, there is the issue of bosses and coworkers and how they handle the news of their associate. Some coworkers may easily be able to get past the news and treat the transperson the way that person would like to be treated. There may be coworkers who are uncomfortable and upset by the news and thus will withdraw from having conversations with the transperson. Then there will be those coworkers who only think of the transperson as a constant piece of news or gossip, never getting past the initial news.

Oftentimes coworkers will have a chance to see the transition coming. A transwoman may begin to change her daily appearance from male to female by gradually growing out her hair, dressing in more feminine clothing, and even discussing her change in appearance. This may bring the issue to the forefront before an official announcement is made regarding a trans employee’s status. This conversation may snowball into an earlier-than-expected announcement to the entire workplace. Depending on the environment, this can be a positive or a negative.

Bathrooms can become a major bone of contention in the workplace. Male employees who knew a coworker as a woman may express discomfort when that coworker, a transman, begins to use the men’s room. The same goes for female employees and transwomen. Usually the company or place of business itself must decide how best to handle the situation.

The majority of corporations, businesses, and other workplaces do not specifically protect transgender employees from being fired due to their gender identity. There are no laws regarding this subject in most towns, cities, counties, or states. Therefore, a trans employee faces not only social risk during transition, but risk of losing his or her job as well. This subject is covered in more detail in chapter 7.

Transgender Children and Coming Out

There can’t really be transgender children, can there? Kids can’t know for sure how they feel when they’re really young, right? Wrong. If you take a controversial subject like transgenderism and add children to the mix, it becomes extremely controversial. The vast majority of adults would be hesitant to believe that a child can make such a serious decision as gender transition. But it is possible.

A mother of natal male and female twins, who goes by the name of Stephanie G., wrote of her struggle to figure out how to support a son who felt that he was always meant to be a daughter:

Just before first grade began, one hot August night, I was putting [Ryan] to bed and we were saying our prayers. When he ended, he looked at me and said “I’m so mad at God. Every night after I say my prayers, I close my eyes and ask God to make me into a girl, and every morning when I wake up I’m still a boy. God made a mistake mommy and he won’t fix it, no matter how hard I wish.” . . .

At school, Ryan began to have panic attacks; he had emotional breakdowns daily. He was unable to do his work; he could not concentrate or pay attention.He would say things to me like “You don’t know what it’s like to be me” or “Mom, I wish I was dead.” . . .

By six years old, Ryan was suicidal. We had to lock the windows upstairs because he threatened, on a regular basis, to jump out and end his life.

Certainly not every case is like this one, but some are, and they warrant attention. Trans children may feel so alien in their world that from the earliest age that they can begin to express themselves (less than two years old), they know that something is seriously wrong. From their perspective, something is wrong with those who keep referring to them as their birth sex. “But I’m a girl,” a male-born trans child might say. “Why does everyone keep calling me a boy?”

Though it might seem that anatomy and biology are over a toddler’s head, young kids do realize that they have a penis (and shouldn’t, in the case of a transgirl) or a vagina (and instead should have a penis, in the case of a transboy). But even before awareness of anatomical differences, children are taught that girls should act a certain way and boys should act a certain way. Transboys labeled female at birth have a bit more leeway in terms of dress and expression (just like their adult counterparts) than transgirls who were labeled male at birth. It is common to see tomboys, but people tend to be less comfortable when they see boys becoming interested in typical “girl stuff.” I once spoke to a parent who said that her young son’s teacher told her she shouldn’t worry if her son wanted to play with dolls and pink toys because the teacher’s uncle had been the same way in childhood and grew up to be a manly construction worker. Although the teacher may have been trying to comfort the mother, her message was clear: “Don’t worry, your child won’t behave the ‘wrong’ way forever.”

As adults, we do not usually take what a two-, five-, or seven-year-old says quite as seriously as, say, a twenty-year-old. Therefore, many parents realize that their trans child is struggling so gravely only when the child threatens to (or does) mutilate his or her body or even becomes suicidal. Unfortunately there are parents who do not even take their children seriously after such threats or other serious behavioral clues.

Gender identity is thought to be solidified by age six. This does not mean that children absolutely, positively know how they identify by that age. It simply means that their gender identity is there. If it doesn’t match up with the sex they were assigned at birth, then that will start to manifest itself in different ways, whether visible or not. As we know, it may take decades to figure out one’s gender identity, especially because hiding the fact that one is different, in any way, is something most children and even adults will try to do.

Venessia and Joseph Romero, parents of a nine-year-old transgirl named Josie (born Joseph, a male), each reflected on their experience.

Venessia: For years we knew Josie was different. Doctors diagnosed her with ADHD, depression, anxiety disorder, insomnia, reactive bowel disorder, and I don’t even remember what else. She was highly medicated, to the point where I called her a walking pharmacy. She simply didn’t have the vocabulary to express herself to us and, more importantly, I didn’t know how to listen. When she was six years old she would put on dresses, high-heel shoes, raid my make-up and jewelry, and even refused to get her hair cut anymore. Misinterpreting her, I thought she was a gay boy. We don’t have a TV and we were living on an ultraconservative military base in Japan, so I didn’t have access to a lot of the information I was needing. Finally, the base pediatrician went out on a limb and quietly suggested I look up transgenderism online. I did, and wow, how liberating it was to find there was a real word that fit Josie!

As I grew to understand this really was it, not another misdiagnosis, but the real thing, I allowed Josie to select a few outfits to wear at home. After about two weeks, she just wouldn’t leave the house in boy clothes again. This led to petitions circulated at the school, picket lines, people throwing things at us and at our house and cars, trash being left on our doorstep, Josie being thrown off her scooter by teenagers, threats of violence, and shunning. Our world had become a scary place to be. We ended up moving back to the States for our own safety.

Joseph: For the first several months, I denied Josie’s transgenderism in every way I knew how. Even when I couldn’t deny it anymore, I believed it was a phase she would outgrow, and all I cared about was how soon it would be over with. Joey was gone, and I felt like my world was ruined.

Eventually Venessia dragged me to a photo shoot for Josie. I still didn’t give a damn about anything, and I went along in an apathetic way. It was at this photo shoot where Josie dressed up like a princess. The shock of seeing her like that made me pay attention. What I saw was my beloved child looking at me with all this hope and fear in her eyes, desperately needing me to give her a smile of my own approval. I made the connection with her then, for the first time, knowing I had gained a daughter. My baby was in there, but not as the boy I thought I had; she was a vibrant, loving, shy, little girl who was terrified of losing her daddy. After the first few frames both Josie and I were wearing genuine smiles and laughing out loud. I had found love in my heart for my beautiful daughter, and that love grows exponentially every day.

***

Children who are not labeled as trans but rather have gender expressions and identities that do not conform to the norms for their given sex may be called gender variant or gender nonconforming. These children face their own set of difficulties. Some people may blame a parent for allowing any gender-variant behavior. Others will be curious. “What’s going on with Jennifer?” a friend or family member might ask a parent. “Does she feel like a girl or a boy? Which one? And when are you going to make that decision so that people will know how to refer to her?” Imagine the pressure of those questions when your child seems perfectly content to be gender variant. Somehow the answer “She is what she is right now” doesn’t satisfy people the way it should. Tempting though it may be during a time of gender crisis in the household, it can be dangerous (not to mention extremely stressful on parent and child) to try to push a child into transitioning genders simply because adults want to know which gender he or she is. Likewise, it won’t work to try to keep a gender-variant child boxed into the societal norms of his or her birth sex. One important thing to keep in mind is that not all gender-variant children grow up to be transgender. In fact, most do not. This is another reason for parents to listen closely to their children and go with the flow, as difficult as that may be.

Parents of young children who come out as trans face a very complicated set of issues when making decisions that affect schooling, friends, community, and their own relationship with the child. Oftentimes parents do not agree on how to handle the rearing of a trans child, which can put a strain on the marriage or partnership. If one parent decides that the only way to see little Josh smile is to let him/her wear a dress when s/he goes out in public, and the other parent is dead set against that, serious problems can arise.

Parents of trans children, if they are listening to their kid, will likely end up bringing the child to some sort of mental health professional. However, there is still no official standard for how to treat transpeople (see chapter 6 for gender identity disorder). Each professional is left to decide how to advise parents to proceed. Similarly, before 1973, homosexuality was listed as a mental disorder; parents who believed that their child was not mentally ill tried to visit professionals who had similar opinions, and vice versa for those who did believe that their child was mentally ill.

Statistics on trans children are few and far between. We do not know how children fare when their parents do not acknowledge their severe distress, but one can only imagine that the child will continue to spiral downward. Some trans children are very open about their identities, but some want very much to blend in, understandably. So when they begin living as their “correct” gender, they may stop coming out. For example, if Michael transitions to Michelle and goes to a new school where no one knows her, she may not want anyone to know that she was labeled male at birth. She may want to be stealth, to fit in with the other girls her age, and may even resent anyone that does know her secret. These feelings may or may not change as she gets older.

Now that we know a bit more about coming out, let us embark on some of the many journeys that make up transition.

***

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About the Author

Nicholas M. Teich is a licensed social worker pursuing a Ph.D. in social policy at Brandeis University. A member of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, he trains and educates groups about gender issues and is the founder and president of Camp Aranu’tiq, the first-ever summer camp for transgender children.

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