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For families: a summary

  • Posted on August 25, 2014 at 3:28 pm

I have written a number of times about family issues. Just click the family tag below on the right for all of them. But here I want to summarise because I may not revisit; maybe I have no more to say.

First of all, the support for transsexual and transgender people may be poor and pretty much do-it-yourself, but support for families and friends is much worse, in fact almost non-existent. This is why I’ve written these past two and a half years: to observe, take apart, relate and describe, for better understanding at each stage.

If you are a friend or family member, partner or spouse, there are a few basic facts, which you may not like, but one way of another have to face, or live in denial of.

Your first fact: gender dysphoria exists

This means that transsexual people exist. Sometimes we say transgender, and maybe there isn’t a lot of difference, it’s just language after all. Whatever we do in response to our self-identity, whether transition, live a mixed-gender life, a non-binary life, or in complete suppression, does not affect this truth, that for perhaps one or two per thousand of the population (any country) the assignment of our gender according to birth genitals makes no sense.

This is currently termed gender dysphoria. Like autism or a fractured femur, and any other diagnosis, it is applied to people who are aligned with certain clinical criteria, and like a lot of diagnoses, the cause is not clearly understood. But it exists. You may not like having an autistic child, because it can turn your family life upside down. But if anyone suggests you should have had an abortion, you may well be the first to say that this is the most terrible, inhumane, unloving suggestion you could ever hear. You might not. You may resent an autistic sibling, or even parent. On a lesser scale, you may resent the family member on the eve of an ideal long-planned holiday who has broken their leg. You can blame their carelessness, or curse bad fortune – the leg is broken. There is nothing you can do about this in either case. And whatever you like or not, this person, this fellow human being, exists and if it messes up your life, that is for you to deal with.

It is just as true that society in general has little awareness of, and sympathy for, people with gender dysphoria. Don’t let that ignorance or indeed bigotry make you a less caring or loving person. Society can be very cruel over things it doesn’t understand. Worried about your children, as a parent? Their friends at school? The truth can be tough but it is still the truth, and hiding it is worse. Understand, and pass it on. Most of all, don’t be the one that places stigma on your own children, by blaming the trans person, making it all their fault just so you can avoid responsibility for facing the facts about gender dysphoria.

See also:

Your second fact: there is no cure

So someone in your family finally announces (previous clues and disclosures or not) that they are trans, that they have gender dysphoria. What is your reaction? That this is their choice? Or that this is a diagnosis of something true since their birth? You can argue that someone is not really autistic, or that a leg is not really broken. Your first reaction may be to ask if it can be cured. In the case of autism, there are strategies that can help the person fit in, socialise, and live with their autism. In the case of the leg, almost certainly there will be things that can be done so that it mends, even if not perfectly.

What you want as a cure, probably is not! Your idea of a cure is like the broken leg. In this sense, gender dysphoria has no cure. Rather, like asking the autistic person not to be autistic, the female person can’t be asked not to be female, and to behave like their genitals say they should (or vice versa, the male person). Gender identity is so innate that it can’t be changed by drugs, electric shocks, cognitive behavioural therapy, or anything else. Think about yourself: imagine a bank of therapies being tried on you to convince you that your gender is not what you say.

No, the only ‘cure’ is to allow the person to live in the gender identity they know to be authentic. Frequently this means hormone therapy, often followed by surgery to modify incongruent parts of their body. This is the only way to remove the gender dysphoria; it is not a psychological thing, it is a physiological thing. Like autism or a broken leg. And in all three diagnoses, we have learned a lot about how to get the treatment right.

See also:

Your third fact: the body is not the person

Sometimes it is the body that you want and love. It looks right in your home and out there with friends, and so long as a nice person lives in it, that’s OK with you. Whilst that might sound cold and nothing you would ever say, please ask how much it might be true for you. How did your romance begin? Love at first sight? Handsome/pretty person across a crowded place? Just looks nice, and interested? Visual prompts play a very big role in the way we partner up, and we shouldn’t deny it. But life is not just about partnering up, not if the person is a friend or a sibling or a parent, certainly! But a partner of many years?

This is not the body I chose to touch, hold, trust, be seen with, known to love.

Ask yourself, whilst these thoughts are churning in you, what that sounds like if you substitute ‘person’ for ‘body’. If the body has to be right for you to associate and love another person, then this is your truth, but the person with gender dysphoria is the same person at birth, as when you met them, as when they come out and tell you, or receive their formal diagnosis. Try to think of all the things you have found attractive about them, or likeable, or have respected, that perhaps make as much sense now, or more, now that you have listened to what they say about their dysphoria and their gender identity.

See also:

Your fourth fact: disclosing gender dysphoria is emotional

Typically, people with gender dysphoria have felt wrong or different, ‘not belonging’ perhaps, for a very long time. They have struggled to fit with what they were supposed to be according to everyone else. The only exception is people with gender dysphoria who have voiced this, and have been believed, at a very early age. The rest of us have lived with this all our longer lives, and probably suppressed it with self-hate and denial all that time, probably in isolation.

Of course understanding you have gender dysphoria is emotional! Very few people are jubilant about standing up at the start of this realisation and shouting ‘I am transsexual’. For many of us it is a journey characterised by stigma, rejection and significant material loss.

Yes, it’s emotional, and it isn’t because of the hormones! They may help us to cry at last, and more freely, but they don’t cause the emotions. You are never more vulnerable as when you tell people you love that you are not the gender they have assumed you to be. This is also a cork out of the bottle moment: a pressure release of a lot of pent-up energy. For them, a relief, but knowing that the consequences are entirely unpredictable, including telling you.

See also:

Your fifth fact: this is all about them

If your child is born with any congenital abnormality/difference, this is about them, not you. Yes, you become the parent of the child-with-a-difference, and you get right down to being a good parent. Is this just because you feel you have no choice, that this is the hand of fate? Whatever you believe, part of your resolution resides in your capacity to see the child, see the person, feel the love, accept the change in your life.

So no, this is not about you, about what your friends will say, your family will feel, or the way you look out in public, your child visible, or any stigma you may feel from people who don’t understand.

And this is exactly how it is when someone you love, or who simply is part of your family, or is a partner or spouse, discloses their gender dysphoria. It is about them, not you.

Now how you respond to that is up to you, but let’s get this straight, they are not there to be suppressed in their identity for your sake, to make you comfortable, or to avoid the stigma you feel by association. Your needs are just as valid, but you must find your resolution within yourself, not through denial, rejection or refusal to see a gender dysphoria diagnosis as real. Yes, it will challenge your self-perception and the nature of your love for the other. The dysphoria, however, is theirs, not for you to challenge or change. What is about you, is your capacity to understand that the person is not their body, that they are inevitably very vulnerable and emotional, and that the only resolution is to allow the person the self-respect of their own identity, not how you want them to be.

You both have deep needs at this point, but the diagnosis is theirs, your response is for you to sort out.

See also

Your sixth fact: this includes you

A disclosure (coming out as trans) changes you. You can never again be the person who does not know someone with gender dysphoria. Always the child of a transsexual parent, or the brother, or sister. Forever the person who married someone transsexual, or transgender, transitioned, transitioning, or complex-living. This is not an adjustment, it’s something that will never un-become part of your life, part of your explanation, defence – or denial: even that will stay with you. The trans person didn’t choose this, they were born with it. It’s nobody’s fault, so stop blaming or cursing the universe. The reasons why they could not understand and accept and disclose themselves before are very close to the same reasons you are finding this so difficult now. They were not lying to you just because they were struggling with something unknown about themselves.

Find out as much as you can about what might justifiably be called a ‘condition’. There is plenty of information. You can’t avoid this, or pretend it isn’t there any more, so at least respect the person you care about and get knowledgeable rather than defensive or opinionated. What you do after that is your choice, but it is more a choice than the trans person ever had. Right now they may feel the choice is either suicide or to live in their true gender; nothing exists in between. Which way are you going to push?

Yes, you matter too, but accept the foundations of your choice. These include love, respect, social stigma, inflexibility, sense of sexuality, ability to cope with change, and many more. But you are here now, and if counselling will help, or meeting transitioned trans people (rather than what can seem a bizarre initial process of change), or family members of transitioned people, or reading, or finding people like you online, please, go do it – and stick with it until you know what you need, without placing coercive pressure on the trans person.

See also:

In light of the facts

First of all you can do this together. You might not agree, but you don’t have to fight. Respect each other’s feelings, and recognise that one of you has been living with this a long time, the other has probably been hit hard and fast by the unexpected. Things are not going to go back the way they were. Whether you interpret this as broken, or as an opportunity to rearrange, is for you to work out, maybe with outside help. This much is your choice.

You have to sort this out between you, but accept the facts, not how you would have liked life to have been. Life is not as you were brought up to believe, and gender is not what you thought. You have to get over this, because the family member or friend you knew before is still there; all of them, with thoughts, memories and aspirations, and a shared life with you that they had no intention of losing. Whether you can change and accommodate the new reality is up to you both, but accept the facts, and see the person. Do you have the love to go through this with them?

Please search this blog site, it is the tale of my own transition, and is only me, observing my situation, not a paradigm. If all it does is inform, help you understand and make you think, then that is good. Stay honest with yourself, and communicate as much as you can, as openly as you can, listening as much as speaking. None of us chose to have gender dysphoria, and we feel it to different degrees, but we are still the people you used to love. Let’s be kind to one another.

Passing: please be honest

  • Posted on August 25, 2014 at 10:03 am

As one who has been there, please take this as sound advice, not as criticism. I too stood behind my own front door wondering what would happen if I opened it and walked down the street. I too spent ages doing my make-up, trying to work out when too much was more obvious than not enough. In the shops, I too had to scan the skirts racks dressed as a man. I too walked the same direction of the traffic to avoid passengers’s eyes. I too took selfies and doubted myself, sat in the back corner of cafés and still got noticed.

I too played the passing game.

This week, just to show everyone I was doing fine after surgery, I quickly popped a picture of myself wearing flowery trousers, on Facebook. It wasn’t to invite or ask anything, just to say I’m OK. 60 ‘likes’ later, I thought: that’s nice!

And this week I dropped out of a transgender group on Facebook because I’d had enough of the constant parade of cellphone selfies (cellfies?), either in mirrors or at arm’s length, all captioned: ‘Do I pass?’. It isn’t that I don’t appreciate the feelings, no, it’s the intended kindnesses that are unhelpful and disingenuous.

‘You look gorgeous, hun!’ can be true, but only in exceptional cases. What we really want to say to each other at this stage is, ‘Well done for trying, chin up.’ What we need to really say, is to share some tips on getting past the dead giveaways. We need to point out the obvious that we’d prefer went away, and tread an honest line between the knock-backs and the sound advice. This week I did read one honest and kind response, extensive and helpful.

What I really want to say is, don’t tell someone they are ‘passing’ when they clearly are not, because they have some things to urgently learn. It does them no favours to have a false impression, so is not a kindness at all. This is a very practical business, not a bundle of fun, however liberating owning your own gender feels.

I’ve written this from the MTF point of view, because to keep writing the alternative FTM in can be unreadable, and this is the way round I am most familiar with. But much applies both ways; don’t feel slighted.


Passing is a poor term that is supposed to mean ‘convincing in the gender role intended’. It is important, because you’re never going to gain confidence if everyone thinks you look, sound or behave like a man when you’re trying to live as a woman. If you are ever going to gain confidence in your gender, whatever it is, then looking like you’re in disguise, rather than natural, will not help. This is not to reinforce the binary model of gender, but to say that if you are trying not to stick out, do try to blend in. You will only do this through keen observation, not of other trans people, but cis people.

If you hold yourself as a man and dress as a woman, you will stand out. If you walk as a man, or gesture as a man, you will stand out. If your clothes feel unnatural to you, or if you dress inappropriately for your age or your social setting, you will stand out. If you speak (verbalise) like a man, and make no attempt to modulate your voice or change pitch at all, you will stand out. It’s a lot to do all at once, so go and use the Internet, scour YouTube, and practice out of public gaze until you understand what it takes. Find a cis friend or a trans friend prepared to weather your storms and need for attention, but only if they are prepared also to be honest.

And understand this: you will not be great when you start, you will need to grow a thicker skin, but that one day you will look back and cringe – because you are no longer like when you began. We are not gorgeous, hun, we are making do, trying our best. But we need the truth, matched by the determination to get each new thing right. And in the end a selfie on Facebook will not be about passing, but about looking happy and natural.

The biggest lesson to learn is that when you have tried to blend in, nothing makes so much a single difference as your own confidence. You will probably never be a paradigm of the femininity you have in mind (though you might), but that does not mean you can’t be just like a lot of other women your age. They are not all idealised magazine models either. But you can tell they are comfortable in their own skins and clothes. That is what you are aiming for first.

I see ‘passing’ much as I see transition: it is a process that you think about at the beginning and forget about at the end.

What about non-blenders?

This is an equally important perspective: those who almost belligerently assert their right to look different, even odd: ‘I am being true to myself, I don’t care what people think, why should I?’

Maybe for you this is important, at least for now, and indeed you have every right to walk safely, looking however you like. Attacks on goth-attired youngsters are not unknown, just as on any LGBT person. If being different is important to you, please just look out for yourself and play safe in places where violent and/or drunk people have been known to attack. No, it isn’t fair or right: the street is as much yours as anyone’s. No attack or abuse is your fault; just recognise things as they are, when you need to be safe – and report all hate crime, if not for you, for the next person.

But also recognise that not all of us are like this. Many of us going through transition do go through the ‘exciting phase’ – after all being set free feels pretty damn good. But to get on with life, whether it’s working, entertainment, shopping, meeting up with friends or whatever, we want to ‘arrive’, by which I mean becoming naturalised in our felt gender. For us, going out with friends who are non-blenders can make us very self-conscious. It isn’t transphobia, it’s just running counter to what we’re trying to achieve. We might be the most supportive person you’ve ever met, but that doesn’t mean we want to be blatantly outed by association. If we support you, try also to support us, and if that means trying harder, being more careful, blending (you may think it’s compromising), then at least think about your impact on other trans people.

But this is a digression: ‘passing’ means blending, not asserting our right to be immune from opinion. Some is unavoidable. Some of us do not want specifically male or female identification because we’re non-binary. People of all kinds and ages encounter problems when others can’t tell what we are. But this is not what I’m writing about here. Uncertainty is one thing, and society has to get over it. Being a non-blender is your choice, and all I’m saying, non-judgementally, is that standing out affects blending trans people too.

What about non-transitioners?

It is perfectly legitimate to see yourself as fluid or dual gender. Just because I have transitioned into what I guess is a binary way of life, does not mean that I have forgotten my early earnest assertions to be two-spirit, both in one person. If this is you, then the same applies. If you want to just live a natural blended existence, your aim is to feel comfortable in your own skin. It might be you like wearing a pink tutu at Sparkle, but just don’t expect not to get stared at for wearing a mini skirt and showing your stocking tops, in a too-shiny synthetic wig in the city on a Tuesday afternoon. If being dual gender is you, then why stand out in the female part, when you don’t stand out in the male part? If you like the attention and stand out in both, then feel free, but don’t protest society’s raised eyebrows. Maybe one day we shall embrace flamboyant lifestyles wholeheartedly, and maybe you can be an agent for change, but if you do not want to, as above, observe keenly, YouTube, practice and learn what it is to live and move as your fellow-gender friends and groups.

If non-transitioning is your holding-place, while you work out what you need to do, perhaps facing family problems, breakups and so on, you may find critical break points. Do you go for that permanent laser treatment on your face? Do you get your ears pierced? Do you pluck your eyebrows? Remove the hair on your body or legs? Or even grow your hair out? Only you can decide, but recognise that in these times of compromise you will need workarounds.

Most of all, this is a time to be working out just how far this will need to go, and if you don’t get it right enough to avoid stares, comments or worse, it will ruin the confidence you need to go the distance, or make a decisive change. Going ‘full-time’ without confidence is a psychological disaster. If you row your ducks up: name change, clothes to the charity shop, all your documents in order, gender clinic, counselling, support groups, etc., you need to roll over quickly and with certainty. Then is not the time for people to be telling you you’ll never make it, because you look ‘like a man in a dress’. And even if you have a fair idea that this is what they’re thinking but not saying to your face, it will make the whole process anything up to and including unbearable.

If you are not intending to put yourself through this kind of trauma, don’t do it to anyone else by suggesting they are ready and presentable when they are not.

Honesty, please

Honesty is not cruel, if it is constructive. Don’t tell someone they look crap, tell them too much pink doesn’t work on it’s own, try balancing it with a bit of grey. Tell them to learn to hold their head up and smile. Tell them about better foundation, or pan-sticks, tell them to moderate the eyeshadow, hint with mascara rather than plastering it. Tell them to brush their hair the other way, or to have it cut to the shape of their face. Tell them that to alleviate a square jaw, wear a lower, rounded neckline. Tell them that a really nice necklace is more distracting of an adam’s apple than a black polo neck, or that a lower heel would be really elegant.

Tell them things that have worked for you, point them to websites that help you learn to change your voice, or walk differently. Tell them that fun as those tights are, women their age tend not to wear them to work. Tell them that their body shape can’t do stripes, or to practice a gentler smile, a head tilt. Tell them what you have found to be different about the way that women speak, discuss, ask in shops, and gesture. Tell them how you have learned to observe, where has been better to go when in the learning phases, tips on discrete behaviour on public transport.

Tell them all these things, because that’s how we get there in the end. But don’t think it’s a kindness just to add your ‘gorgeous, hun’ to the Facebook accolades.

This is confidence game, not a pageant, and it’s hard work feeling natural. You grew up learning to imitate other boys and men so that you would fit in. There is a lot of undoing to do. You didn’t copy the girls’ mannerisms; they were doing it to fit in with each other too. Natural behaviours and fitting in only come with confidence, and the only confidence worth having is that based on honest self-appraisal and learning the work-arounds for the things you can’t change.

It isn’t about ‘passing’, it’s about confidently being yourself, with a bit of (honest) help from your friends. Don’t ask if you’re passing, ask what the most immediate giveaways are, and take it on the nose.