[TW: Familial rejection, abuse]
The transition from one gender to another or admitting to yourself and your loved ones that you don’t identify as either gender or as both is a very daunting experience. Each person’s experience is unique so we can only gain a glimpse of what we are about to do. Since our experiences differ and our methods of handling the challenges we face are different it is very hard to determine how any transition is likely to proceed. I would like to share my own experience of the way my loved ones dealt with my transition and how I responded to those reactions. As we are all different how your family reacted/may react could be similar or indeed completely different. I have heard many stories ranging from full love and support to outright rejection. Some of us think very highly of our family’s opinions, for others their opinions may matter very little. Each experience and reaction is valid in its own right.
My own story begins, like many, in my early teens. This was the late 1990s so there was little out there on being trans aside from a few poorly constructed documentaries on middle aged transitioners or the seedy sexual underworld of the fetishist crossdresser. Of course this frightened me. Would I be one of those middle aged transitioners to be sniggered at behind my back, or worse was this some fetish? It would be best to hide away from everyone including myself as many people my age decided to as well.
Moving away from home to university gave me an opportunity to explore a little more openly. This was now the early 2000s so still not a very welcoming atmosphere to trans people, no Gender Recognition Act for one. I thought that there was no way my career could stand if I transitioned. So again, I remained hidden. However the depression and compulsion to express my identity began to overwhelm me. I began to express my identity in public. For the last couple of years of my undergraduate degree this was as a part-time life going out into the LGBT quarter of my city some evenings and weekends and making a new set of friends who only knew me by my female identity. There was still the inevitable depressing de-transition on a Sunday evening. It was at this time I came out to my mum and siblings. This was an incredibly stressful and frightening time for me. I am sorry to break that to you, but I don’t want to pretend otherwise. My mum’s reaction was as one might expect, shock and probably disappointment. Her limited experience of trans issues would have been the same as mine in my early teens. Was her child going to be a “laughing stock” or a “pervert”? She then jumped straight to surgery, being frightened for my safety more than anything I suppose. My siblings reacted with what can only be described as disgust, whether overt or thinly veiled. I reacted by essentially jumping back in the closet. “No, I won’t transition”, “I don’t want to jeopardise my career”, “I won’t do it in public when you’re around” and words to that effect. Being 22 and not well informed about the trans community I was in no position to be an advocate for our rights. With that out of the way, my mum surprised me. She offered to help me express myself and provide a safe space at home. We went shopping and improved my wardrobe, makeup and hair not because that’s what matters being a woman, but because it helped me to express myself away from the outward facing appearance others saw. As far as my siblings were concerned, I slinked off to lick my wounds.
Then graduation came. Not only was there the profound dysphoria of graduating in a suit rather than joining my friends in some gorgeous dress that would have no doubt involved a wonderful day out shopping and socialising, but there was the realisation I would be entering the world of my profession. This was a profession known for conservatism, old boys club (despite a larger number of women than men by this point), and certainly no vocal LGBT advocates. I went into my first job, a highly coveted position in my field. I did well, mostly to distract myself from my pain, but to keep up the pretence. I was to be a highly successful and straight-laced person. Of course depression came back with a vengeance. I hadn’t had the time to express my identity at all for much of that year. Added to the stress of the job and the little opportunity for any outlet at all let alone being myself I approached my first suicidal point. These were only thoughts rather than any action at this time. However, I couldn’t continue for much longer before I did take an irreversible action. So I bought some clothes online, shaved my legs and took an opportunity to express myself when the opportunity arose, albeit rarely. It allowed me to hold on, just barely, for the rest of that year.
I returned to the city I graduated in to take a slightly divergent route in my career, one a little more open minded. Finally I was allowed to be me more openly. I told some of my new friends, who immediately accepted me for who I was and would join me out in the LGBT quarter. I still had the same career fears I had when I was younger, but what was important was I had support from friends. It was still incredibly depressing to de-transition and the fear that I could never be myself all the time began to get too much. I drove out into the countryside one night and connected a hose up to my car’s exhaust. I wanted to be far from people who knew me; they couldn’t find me, better a stranger does that. I also didn’t want to be interrupted. I was there in my car, favourite CD chosen, ready to press the starter button. I remembered a story about someone who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. They miraculously survived. But the thought that stuck with me was their thoughts jumping – “What have you done?!” I thought, “What am I doing?” If you are going to die, that really is final; there is nothing to lose here. So transition, I thought to myself. What is there to lose, you can always come back here. So I made the effort. Where was the family at this point? They were hundreds of miles away in ignorance. I hadn’t told them of the deep seated depression at not being myself. I was too afraid of reactions to be able to share with them. My siblings would absolutely not be there for me, and my mum was hiding hurt despite her helping me so I didn’t want to add to that hurt. My dad, I was too afraid to even tell yet.
However, the transition was happening so I had to come out all over again. I told my mum that I really was going to go through with this. I would love her support, but could continue without. At least she would still have her eldest as a daughter rather than a memory of an unhappy and troubled son. My siblings were told too, but with no change in reaction. It was about this time that I graduated my PhD. Sadly still in a suit. After having applied and been awarded extra tickets to allow more family to attend only my mum attended. My siblings wanted nothing to do with me. My mum did see how happy I could be when we went out for dinner and I could wear a nice dress. I told my dad shortly after to the inevitable shock and surprise response. He said he would never understand but would support me. Unfortunately that “support” was merely a lack of hostility, no real warmth. But, I must give some credit; he did and still does try. As for telling the rest of the family, this could have been much better. I would have appreciated some support but I was pretty much pressured to speak to each family member in turn to tell them of my transition. It was a repeated coming out over and over again. Each time came with its own fears and dreads. I couldn’t get my mum to understand the stress this placed me under. I would have preferred they were informed together without me there and then I return at a later date and could be myself, but these things rarely go as one would like.
Of course fulltime transition requires I am “out” and living as my authentic self at work as well as in my personal life. It would have been nice to have the crutch of family support for the difficulty of coming out at work but sometimes distance can be a blessing and allow me to do things in my way own way at my own pace. The work coming out process was actually very smooth and, dare I say it, easy. The family couldn’t see this a phase anymore, I really was going through with this. Thankfully this was to no detriment of my career. In fact I have progressed and grown since transition in my work.
So, my family have basically been luke warm on my transition to this point. No major hostility aside from siblings that wouldn’t talk to me. But there wasn’t much positive support either. I was managing my transition essentially alone. Then a series of family events happened in reasonably quick succession. Reactions varied from “We’ve bent over backwards to accommodate you, where’s your gratitude?” to completely cutting me out of activities. The crux came when a holiday was arranged for extended family and partners to enjoy, but was kept secret from me. Of course I reacted rather negatively upon finding this out the day before they chose to leave and ask me to make other plans, this after a 400 mile drive I had made to visit I might add. This reaction of mine was the catalyst for the partner of my mum to decide he’d sat on the side-lines long enough and express his great displeasure and disgust at my way of life bolstered by my siblings. The arguments raged hotly until I stormed out. My dad, living separately, was a refuge I sought. However, he was sympathetic to the others, “What did I expect? You sprung this shock on everyone.” Ah, I thought, now comes the hostility. Unfortunately I was left with no choice but to return to my home 400 miles away.
I haven’t returned in a year. I have had some contact with each of my parents and a couple of extended family, but very limited.
For me, support must be support or it is nothing. I am a strong person and can deal with much adversity alone, but I am not indestructible. I have been fortunate to have friends, supportive work environment and met a woman I am deeply in love with. However, my transition has been made that much harder. It is a two-way process. Family have some adapting to do as much as we do, but wouldn’t this be much more effective done together as a partnership rather than a battle to be fought?