Today, I had an experience which is accelerating my plans to discuss my gender with my immediate family members. A cousin pieced together some evidence and called me and asked me point-blank if I “am transsexual”. I was flustered and didn’t answer, instead delaying the conversation for later that evening. After giving it some thought, I decided to answer the literal question and not the implied question. I do not consider myself transsexual, so I answered her that “no, I’m not”. I didn’t go into any more detail to my gender, but instead mentioned that we know someone who is trans, and we are educating ourselves on the topic (again, true, I know myself, and I’ve definitely been educating myself). This satisfied my cousin, and we wrapped the call.
But while I love my cousin, and know that her nature is to be direct and open, her question unsettled me. I believe her intent was to discover if I feel myself to not be cisgender – she just worded the question poorly. But to me, especially at such an early stage in my journey, I am keeping my gender private, and sharing with immediate family only just now (I had the conversation with the first of my siblings just two nights ago). Since I’m feeling that there may be signs that I’m not aware of that other people are picking up on, I’m evaluating possible opportunities to have these conversations with the rest of my siblings and their families. I feel badly about misleading my cousin, but this information is mine to determine with whom and when I wish to share it, and her question came before I was prepared to have that conversation with her. I hope that when the time comes to have that conversation, she will understand why I misled her and will not harbor any bad feelings – I was not intending any insult to her.
All this brings up the topic of being “out”, that is, having other people be aware of your gender (and the mismatch with your body). As you might imagine, there are many similarities between a non-heterosexual and a non-cisgender person’s decisions and factors for coming out. This is a very personal topic, where there are no right or wrong answers for who should come out to whom, and when. But there are some factors which play into those decisions. There are also some guidelines for etiquette when someone is out, especially when out to some, but not others. I may write about coming out at work in some future post; this is just about family and friends.
Do I have to “come out”?
The simple answer is no. There’s nothing forcing me to reveal my gender to anyone. I could live as I have, letting people assume I’m cisgender. But it’s more complicated than that, since I’ve begun to change my body to become more like the gender I feel myself to be. Some of these changes are internal (hormones), but some are external (clothes, choices about hair). As I mention above, my cousin may have been picking up on some of those external clues.
I have also reached a point in my journey where I want to be able to share my true self with the people in my life. It’s exhausting trying to keep up appearances and making excuses for the various little signals which inevitably slip past your defenses. So I have determined that I need to come out, so that I no longer have to spend resources keeping up the appearance of being cisgender.
Who should I come out to?
This is a personal question, with many, many factors. For me, the very first person I came out to was myself. While this may sound a little funny, it’s true. I denied my true nature for my entire life until last year, and spent so much time and energy making sure that I conformed to the expectations of a member of the gender I was assigned at birth. I didn’t even allow myself to admit these feelings inside my own head! This manifested in a long string of sleepless nights, depression, anxiety, moodiness, apathy, and a variety of other symptoms. I finally reached a point where I ran out of energy. I had no energy left to deny and suppress these feelings, and when I finally admitted to myself that they existed, they exploded!
The next person I came out to was my spouse. To say that this was earth-shattering would be an understatement. As I’ve mentioned before, our marriage has been pretty close to perfect, and this was a bombshell! It has been difficult, but we’ve worked through the challenges this has thrown at us. We still love each other, and we’re still together. That’s more than I have any right to expect, and I’m thankful for it every moment of every day.
After that, it was a string of professionals – therapists, doctors, more therapists, more doctors – that’s all captured in my previous post. And now I’m moving on to family – my children, parents, and siblings. From there, who knows?
But let’s take a step back and revisit the question: “who should I come out to?”. For me, the answer has pretty much been “those whom I must”. But not everyone can do so. For some, it is unsafe to come out – they may already know that family and friends will be hostile and perhaps even violent. To come out would threaten their very existence – their life. Young people are especially vulnerable, since they often depend on their families for their basic needs. For these people, my heart breaks; my journey has been peppered with moments of feeling utterly alone, even though I knew I wasn’t. For those who cannot come out due to safety concerns, I can’t imagine what their misery must be like.
So I suppose the answer to this question is “to someone you feel it is safe to come out to”. Even if it’s using an anonymous account on an online chat room, it’s important to break that feeling of isolation. There are people who will be sympathetic and supportive of you – it may take some work, but it is important to find them.
When/where do I come out?
While there may not feel like a right time, there are some times you might want to avoid. For instance, holiday gatherings, other people’s birthdays, or special events (weddings, graduations, baby showers). Basically, you want to make sure that you’re not stealing someone else’s thunder (unless they have given you permission). You might also want to make sure you have enough time to have a long conversation. The person you’re coming out to might have a lot of questions or want to take some time to process this new information. You may also want to give some thought to your location when you have this conversation. Perhaps you’re more comfortable in your home, where privacy is assured. Or perhaps you’ll feel more comfortable in a restaurant, where others are around, but not privy to your conversation. Or maybe a public place, like a park. Or maybe in a car while driving a few hours (I’ve seen some stories where people feel more comfortable because it forces the other person to not be able to run away from the conversation) – but be careful not to cause an accident! Or maybe while you’re working together on a task – like painting a room – where the task doesn’t take much thought, but keeps you busy while you can talk. You know your audience better than I do, so give it some thought.
How do I come out?
This is another very personal choice. Again, consider your audience. And consider your own comfort. This is a difficult conversation to have with anyone – even someone who you know will support you. I’ve seen stories of people writing a letter, putting it in the mail, then calling the recipient and telling them anything from “there’s something important I wanted to share with you so I’ve sent you a letter – please call me once you’ve read it” to fully coming out before the letter arrives (and the letter served to force them to come out). I personally, wouldn’t do it via text, but have considered doing it on social media (once I’ve covered my immediate family and close friends) – but here again, if there’s nothing forcing me out, I might just let people figure it out for themselves.
For me, I prefer private places, having one-on-one conversations (or perhaps two-on-one, with my spouse by my side for support), and generally lead off with “A few months ago, I figured out something about myself, and it’s important to me that you know about it.” I’ve educated myself a lot about gender, so I’ll offer to share some of what I’ve learned and experienced. In fact, this blog is a form of that – it’s a resource to which I can point those to whom I’ve recently come out, where they can learn more about what I’m dealing with and get the basics of what I’ve learned about gender. One of the common responses I’ve had when coming out is “ok, I’ve heard of that, but I don’t really know a lot about it” (which is fine when it comes from friends and family, but if your medical professional says that, might be cause for concern). I try to meet them where they are and explain things in ways they might be able to relate. I usually wrap with “please ask me any questions you’d like, as long as you understand that sometimes the answer might be ‘I don’t know’, and sometimes, it might be ‘I’m not comfortable discussing that right now'”.
Ok, so there’s a little etiquette involved in sharing this information, both for the person coming out, and the person being told. For the person coming out, remember that while you’ve had months or even years to process this information, the person you’re telling might only have had minutes. This is big, so give them time and space to process if they need it. Or maybe it’s not big, in which case, yay for you!
If someone has come out to you, here are a few things you might want to remember as well:
- Do let them know that you appreciate their trust in you and you will do your best to honor that trust.
- Do ask questions that show an interest in affirming their gender and learning more about the information they’re sharing with you.
- If they don’t mention it, ask if they’d prefer different pronouns or to be called a different name (this lets them know you’re onboard and supportive and thinking of their feelings – it’s super affirming!)
- Don’t “out” them to anyone without their consent. This is more than respect, this is a safety issue.
- Don’t assume that because their gender is different than what you previously thought, that their sexuality (who they are attracted to) has changed. It might have, but it also might not. Remember, Gender ≠ Sex.
- For that matter, don’t assume that their gender has “changed”. It may have been what they just told you all along; they just didn’t give any indications differently.
- Don’t ask them about their future plans, especially as relates to surgery. If they want you to know, they’ll tell you. Otherwise, you wouldn’t like someone asking you about your genitals, would you?
- Do your research and learn more about gender, especially with respect to trans experiences. But you’re already doing that, right?
Every coming out is different, just as every relationship is different, so don’t take my suggestions as gospel. It may be that you have the kind of relationship where it’s ok to talk about future plans. Or maybe you’re already well versed in gender (in which case, you’re awesome!). Anything you can do to reassure each other that your relationship is solid and you still feel the same about each other is a good thing. Because, really, the only thing happening is one of you is getting to live a more genuine (and hopefully happier) life. Isn’t that cause for celebration?
Update: I came out to my entire family one evening, and they took it great! I’m very lucky to have these people in my life!