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Truth and Consequences, Part 2: Coming Out as Transsexual

| Jun 22, 2009
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In my last column, I shared my thoughts on the pros and cons of self-disclosure for crossdressers.  In this month’s column, I’m going to focus on the process of disclosing one’s status as a transsexual who plans to undergo a gender transition.  Because transition occurs in public, it is not something that can be kept secret. The trick is to decide whom to tell first, when to do so, and how to go about it.

Before all the logistics however, you must summon the courage and strength to claim the right to be your authentic self. As I’ve said many times to my clients, this is at least 50% of the battle. Some transfolks come to my office with a strong sense of themselves and their right to be happy, but many are tormented by shame, guilt and self-doubt. For example, one current client, a beautifully passable young adult MtF, struggles with entitlement issues as an only child whose parents are running extremely hot and cold as they watch the early stage feminization of their son-into-daughter. They can see that she is much happier and determined to transition, but their own struggles with loss cause them to unconsciously throw out roadblocks to her progress. In turn, she questions her ability to move forward -  we have named this inner voice “Mr. Doubt.” Every week, she recounts all the ways in which Mr. Doubt has refuted her right to be her true self. Together we work to challenge this internal critic and to restore her confidence in herself.

I have worked with people who have wrestled for years in therapy with this first step of claiming personal entitlement. It is one thing to know who you are, it is quite another to risk the potential loss of loved ones and status that sometimes accompanies coming out as transsexual. Although many cisgendered (i.e., non-transgender) people think of transgender folks as exotic or “alternative,” there are of course many gender variant people who have led lives that are remarkably “normal” in every way except for their inner gender inclination. These folks have great difficulty facing what they view as the inevitable loss of everything they have spent their lives building. Although I cannot guarantee that coming out will be easy, I do note that many of my transitioned clients have reported in retrospect that their fears were far worse than the actual consequences.

My reassurances notwithstanding, I continue to see a small group of clients on and off over a period of many years who agonize over the decision to present their internally sensed gender to the world. Frequently, they engage in discreet crossdressing and/or hormone therapy. There may be one or two special people to whom they have disclosed their inner gender identity, but they believe that any further exposure will cause irreversible calamity. My role is to wait patiently with these clients while helping them to grapple with their doubts, supporting their entitlement to be themselves, and working to prevent them from cycles of self-destructive purging. I can and do assure them that I have no personal investment in their transitioning, but only in finding a path that allows them some peace and contentment.

When an individual decides to undertake a coming out process, the doubts do not magically disappear. It is more like reaching a point where the balance tips in favor of transition, and it can happen with lots of fanfare or in a quiet, gradual way. For some, disclosure is confirming the obvious, because they have been transitioning in subtle ways already. For FtM individuals, it is typically the case that they have presented as masculine women, often having been part of the lesbian community. Still, the news that a butch lesbian woman is really a transgender male can be difficult to receive by friends, family, and partners. With MtF folks, the revelation is often more shocking, since male gender status is assumed to be superior to female, and femininity in males is a highly stigmatized characteristic. I have found that male-bodied people who have female gender inclinations tend to struggle with doubts before, during and after transition, but if they manage to get through the many steps required for an external gender change, the doubts tend to disappear. Both FtMs and MtFs have issues with the decision to be open vs. “stealth” after gender transition, but I will reserve this topic for a future column.

Once a commitment to an external transition has been reached, the decision tree comes next. Who to tell?  When? In what context? What do I say? There is no one right or wrong way to approach these questions – it all depends upon the individual situation. Let’s start with who and when -  one basic rule is to picture a series of concentric circles or a spiral, with your closest and/or most trusted persons in the inner circle. It makes sense for your first disclosure to be to someone whom you trust to honor and respect that information. Often, it is to a significant other, but not always. For some people, the first disclosure is to a friend whom they consider non-judgmental and open-minded. Although it is my belief that spouses and SOs should be told about transgender feelings as soon as the relationship becomes intimate, it is often the case that the transgender partner has not realized the intensity of these feelings until well into the relationship.  S/he may have suppressed the transgender inclination, sincerely believing that love, commitment, family and sheer willpower  would serve to hold it at bay.  In these cases, it is often helpful to disclose to a trusted, accepting confidante as a preliminary step.

The general idea is to begin with an inner circle and to move outward on a need to know basis, taking as much time as is needed within the constraints of the transition itself, that is, the degree to which external changes become obvious and/or the trans person’s inner need to be known becomes too pressing to ignore. Disclosure in the workplace is a special case, and I will write about this in more detail in the future. Children also need special care, and this will also be tackled in a future column. As I mentioned in Part One, adolescent children are the toughest customers, and a trans parent should proceed with extreme caution if the relationship is to be preserved. For most people, once the disclosure process gets going, it becomes progressively easier to tell others. When it does get bogged down, or enters a holding pattern, it’s usually because “Mr. Doubt” has taken over, and we have to return to the process of inner discernment and issues of entitlement.

As far as what you decide to say, and in what setting, there are many approaches that can be used. Some people prefer to write their story down, and this is fine, although I don’t recommend disclosing to those in your inner circle on paper, or by reading from a document. This is important news, and should be delivered in person, if at all possible. This is an “I and Thou” moment which will likely change the nature of your relationship, and thus should be delivered with all the strength and sincerity that you can muster. I usually recommend to people that they pick a time and setting that is relatively private and free from distractions. It helps sometimes to say in advance to the person that there is something personal that you want to tell them and you’d like to find a time that is mutually convenient. Once you are together with that person, it can be helpful to say in advance that you’d like them, if possible, to hear you out and to save questions or comments until you have finished with what you have to say. With key relationships, I usually suggest that you tell the person how important s/he is to you, and how much you hope that they can understand and accept your news, even if it is difficult to do so at first.

As for how you tell your story, it is up to you, although I usually suggest that you present it in an honest, non-defensive manner, without elaborate explanations or theories about the condition itself. If it is something that you think will be completely shocking to the person, try to explain why you have kept it so deeply hidden. Don’t leave out your own pain and suffering, but don’t dwell on this to the exclusion of the pain and hardship the news may impose on the person you are telling. Be open to their feelings, and don’t tell them everything is going to be just fine, or you “are the same person” or imply that they should have seen this coming. At the same time, don’t assume that this is the worst possible news that you could be inflicting on anyone, and that you should spend most of your time apologizing. Some accountability for the degree to which you may have withheld this information at the other’s expense may be in order, but give it in context, e.g., your own refusal to accept the internal reality. Do assume that the people in your circle, especially the inner one, will have their own transition to go through, and that they will need time and patience from you while grappling with this new reality. Let them know this, and be sure to tell them that they can ask you any questions that they want, and that you will try your best to answer them. Offer them a visit with your therapist, but don’t pout if they are not ready to accept. Remember that this is a process, and whatever reaction you receive at first will continue to evolve as you go forward.

In closing out today’s column, I’d like to share a quote from the film, Fame, which was brought to my attention by a fellow traveler:

“Everything you want to CHANGE about yourself —
All the parts of yourself that you keep SECRET —
It’s your POWER —
It’s who you ARE!”

See you next month, when I’ll be talking about post-transition stealth versus openness  – maybe by then it will have stopped raining here on the East Coast!


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Dr_Osbo

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