I’m looking forward to speaking by phone tomorrow with a group of MSW students (Master in Social Work) at the University of Kansas. The class is “Social Work with LGBT Clients,” and is meant to prepare future clinical social workers. The students would like my perspective on things they should consider when providing family counseling/therapy for family members of someone who is transgender. UPDATE: Thanks to the class for its interest and great questions today. It warms my heart to know that future therapists are researching LGBT issues.
Of course my perspective is that of a spouse, but I’ve also had many conversations with family members and today I interviewed a parent. I also have referred to my library of helpful books, all listed in the resources section of this blog. Since I’m preparing for the talk anyway, I may as well post some of my thoughts here. (Sorry that it’s a bit wordy!) I’d appreciate hearing from readers as well, if you’re so inspired.
I’ve identified five overriding issues, regardless of one’s relationship to the transitioning person.
1) You find yourself grieving a person who is still there. Your son/father/sister/husband/etc. will no longer be a part of your life. Instead, you now have a daughter/mother/brother/wife/etc. That’s a difficult phenomenon to wrap one’s head around.
2) Gender is a big deal. To hear from someone transitioning “I’ll still be the same person” is only part of the story. If they’re “the same,” they wouldn’t be going to the trouble of transitioning. For better and worse, gender shapes our identities, relationships and perceptions. It’s healthy to acknowledge that.
3) Most of us have been raised to feel deep shame about anything gender variant. Men becoming women or possessing feminine traits is seen as particularly unacceptable. Shame is toxic and it will affect decision making and thoughts. The most effective strategy for me is to try to determine why I’m feeling shame and deconstruct it. This obviously takes self-analysis, both the willingness and the ability, and not everyone is at that point. The important thing is to know that shame will be a factor.
4) The transitioning person likely has been mulling over their news for years or decades, whereas it’s new and shocking to you. Once they unload their burden, they feel a weight lifted, whereas you’re now the one burdened by it. These feelings are at odds.
5) Being at odds, as mentioned in No. 4, will become a dominant theme during the transition and one that requires a lot of patience from both sides. The transitioning person and his/her loved ones will have divergent needs at various times. Their most extreme times of rebirth/celebration will be times you might react to as death/grieving. Even if you’re fully accepting of the transition, this is a phase you’ll go through over and over. You won’t always be there for the transitioning person and vice-versa. Lina and I, who have always supported each other, found this part excruciating. After the official transition, when I was still feeling much sadness, she started, uncharacteristically, to lose patience. Our dear therapist explained to Lina how I needed more time and to please allow for that. It turned out that I didn’t need much more. Her backing off gave me just the little bit extra I craved and served as a vote of confidence in us as well.
Below are some specific thoughts about spouse/partner and parent relationships. I’m not commenting on the perspective of a child with a transitioning person, or of parents of a young child with a gender conflict. Though some reactions will be the same, I have no experience with those unique situations, which have been written about in the books I’ve listed. I’ve also not mentioned siblings and friends, but they can be key as well, depending on how close the relationships are.
Common reactions of spouse/significant other of someone transitioning:
Our entire relationship has been a lie. What other secrets have you kept from me?
The person I turn to for comfort is now a stranger.
This is not what I signed up for. This isn’t fair. You should have kept this to yourself and honored our commitment.
What’s wrong with me to attract this kind of person/relationship?
Will my spouse become attracted to the opposite sex after transitioning?
What will family, friends, neighbors, etc., think about me? Will I be an outcast, a source of gossip? Will they pity me?
If we do stay together, I’ll be perceived as a lesbian (or as straight if you identify as gay) when I’m actually not.
If we do stay together, what about sex? I’m not attracted to the same sex at all.
Can we stay married and look elsewhere for sex?
I don’t know anyone in this situation. Who do I talk to? Will anyone understand?
Once the word is out, people will ask uncomfortable questions.
Some people will minimize the change and others will awfulize it. How do I find people to give me what I need from them?
A final word on spouses. As I’ve said many times, this is a relationship that might not stay intact and for good reason. First, you must have a very strong and healthy relationship to start with. Second, you have to want to move forward together. It’s understandable if you do not. If you decide to part ways, try to do so with an open heart and mind.
Common reactions of parents of someone transitioning:
It’s my fault.
What could I have done differently so this wouldn’t have happened?
My child was in turmoil and I didn’t see the signs and I wasn’t there to help.
Why was my child afraid to tell me? Doesn’t he know I love him?
I clearly don’t know my child the way I thought I did. Who is he/she? Why has she turned away from us and lived a secret life?
I’ve lost my beloved son and now I’m gaining a daughter I don’t want.
How will this change the family dynamic? (Spouses, siblings, grandparents, etc.)
How will this reflect on me? What will family/neighbors/friends say?
Will my child be safe? Violence against trans people is a reality.
Will my child be happy? This seems impossible.
I did have a straight son. Now I have a transgender daughter who is living a gay lifestyle. How much can I take?
Why did she have to tell us this news and break our hearts?
If the transitioning person is having facial surgery: how can you change the face you were born with in such a brutal way? You won’t even look like my child anymore.
How do I tell new people I meet about this? It will be with me for the rest of my life. How do I talk about, deal with the past, including family photos?
Further observations about parents:
When parents reach the point of telling others, they can set a positive tone by delivering the news with acceptance and strength.
While I’ve certainly heard stories of parents disowning their children, in my experience this is not the most prevalent reaction. Usually parents try at least to understand and many do accept the change.
Still, the fear is there and real. I’ve spoken with dozens of transgender people and emailed many more. Across the board, they most fear telling their spouses and parents, especially parents, no matter their age. They say it’s the scariest thing they’ve ever done. So I hope parents can honor their courage if they’re not happy with the message.
One final note. An interesting thing I’ve observed and was reminded about today by the mother of a transgender woman is that often in the “telling,” the transgender person holds back and talks more about feelings without including an upcoming plan of action. Therefore, the family member/s thinks these are only feelings and not anything to be acted on, and in fact maybe nothing more will happen and the whole mess can be shoved back into the closet. Usually, though, the transgender person doesn’t come out until he/she is ready to act. Clarity about this could be helpful.