Coming out. It’s one of those hallmark processes of transition for the vast majority of us. It’s a process that’s often fraught with complications and awkwardness for everyone involved. For those of us doing the coming out, there’s a ton of stress and anxiety about the how, when and where of those conversations, and even who to have those conversations with. A lot has been written around the blogosphere about all of those items. But I think something equally important to consider is how the process of coming out affects those around us, and to give them the time and space to process the information if necessary.
Let’s get one thing out of the way. Some people are just going to be shitty and stay shitty, no matter what. I think some of us probably are lucky enough to have nothing but supportive people in their lives, but I imagine that’s the exception, not the norm. When we start the process, I believe it’s very important to be prepared for the possibility that some people in our lives will never be able to accept our transition and remain a part of our lives. Whether it’s the standard transphobic nonsense, an inability to process a change this significant, or some other personal hang-up, it’s just a reality given the state of our culture when it comes to transgression of the accepted “norms” of gender. For people like this, there’s just a point where we have to throw up our hands and let go. Education and patience will only get you so far, and eventually you are just wasting your time and emotional energy. But I think with a little patience, many people who may initially have difficulties accepting that their friend or family member is transgender will eventually come to some degree of acceptance and support.
One of the first things that we as trans folks need to remind ourselves is that no matter what, we have always had MUCH longer to process our gender identity than those around us. For most of us, that process goes on for years with tons of introspection, learning, and exploration long before we share that journey with anyone else. Our friends and family members don’t have the benefit of that experience, and many times aren’t privy to that portion of the journey at all. I know that for myself, that entire process was intensely personal and private, and I’m still not overly comfortable sharing it almost anyone. So when the facts of someone’s gender transition finally come out (generally, along with that person’s coming-out), I’m sure it came seem quite sudden and even jarring to many. Building on that, for those of us actually doing the transitioning, the facts of a transgender life are our everyday immediate reality, and in some respects, they become relatively mundane to us fairly quickly. But it’s important to remember that those around us, having a transperson in their life, with all the complications that it brings, is a completely new experience. And for a large portion of people, new is almost universally scary and confusing. What I’m getting is that those in our circles may need a period of time to adjust to the “new normal”, as almost all of us do when something major changes in our lives, and we need to learn to be okay with that.
I think, though, that the heart of some of the trouble we experience when coming out have a lot more to do with identity more so than experience. For many of the trans community, our identity when presenting as our assigned-at-birth sex is largely a construction, a convenient facade we built and held up for years so that we could function relatively without hassle in the world. There are often facets of our real selves woven into it, but it’s just not really the person we are inside. But we put a great deal of care into those constructions for our own personal safety (and I think many of us thought we’d hold onto them forever at one point). The problem is, everyone involved in our lives developed a relationship with that facade, without every really knowing what was going on underneath. So while we may feel relieved and excited to cast aside that construction and let the “real us” shine through as we transition, people important to us have attachments to that identity and all that it entails. They have memories with and of that person, stories that they share about them, and a relationship they feel they understand with them. For many, it can feel like their friend, spouse, child, etc has died, and they will feel the need to mourn that person. And I feel that that is totally normal, and that we as a community need to make allowance for it. I’m not saying we all suddenly become completely new and different people and there was nothing genuine about us before transition. But often there’s enough newness once we embrace what we feel inside and slip off our masks that the analogy rings pretty true. And really, I think that that kind of attachment is meaningful and it should touch us- it means that we are important, and we did well in cultivating that relationship. I truly believe that once our loved ones can understand how important transition is, and how much it’s improving our lives, they will more often than not be able to embrace the changes and hold onto that relationship.
If we aren’t willing to try to understand the complicated emotions that may surface when we come out to those we care about, then we put the relationships that could enrich our lives and ease the burden of our journey in jeopardy. I know that most of us are almost constant on guard for rejection so that we can harden ourselves to it before it has the chance to do much damage. So, when we see loved ones struggling to understand or cope with the realities of the changes we are going through, we’ll tend to see rejection and instinctively push that person away. Sadly, this tends to only worsens the problem. After all, who wants to put effort into understanding someone who isn’t willing to put in that same amount of effort for you? Now we’ve possibly lost a relationship, and the community has lost a potential ally, all for a lack of patience and empathy on our part. And really, is that exactly what we’re usually asking for from our friends and family members when we come out- patience and empathy?
Ultimately, I think what is needed is to realize that the coming-out conversation is a two way street. As much as we might not like to admit it (or just plain sometimes forget!), in coming out to someone, we’re asking for something big of them. We’re asking them to re-align their personal conception of who we are, and in many ways, to let go of someone they may have loved very deeply. I’m not saying we’re out of line for asking for these things…I believe that it’s a reasonable thing to ask from someone who cares about you once they understand the severity of the situation. What I am saying is that everyone deals with big things in their own way, and we owe it to the people who love us to give them the time and space to process it in way that works best for them. If we can give them a little patience and empathy, I suspect we’ll get it back in spades.