When a loved one comes out as trans: BELIEVE THEM
The entry below is an excerpt from my upcoming book Holding on to Hope: Help for friends and family of transgender people. It's a similar title to Reaching for Hope: Strategies and support for the partners of transgender people and re-presents some of the content, but has a wider scope.
In the early days of processing the truth about your loved one’s gender identity, your thoughts and emotions may be wide ranging and contradictory. You might even have trouble believing what they’ve told you.
But it’s important to understand that gender is a social construct which varies from era to era and across cultures and geography. Western understandings of masculinity and femininity don’t align with those held in other places by other peoples. They vary within regions, communities, and even individual families. In every society which ascribes to the male versus female binary (not all do) trans people have existed. Any time you try to reduce complex humanity into achromatic simplicity you’re sure to find people who are brave enough to point out that they’re more filled with color and nuance than that.
If you haven’t had previous relationships with trans people, encountering this variance can be confusing. The process of coming out can unfold over time, which can also be puzzling. Some people come out as gay first, and later realize they’re trans. Homosexuality has a wider level of acceptance currently, which means gay people are more visible. Trans individuals may therefore think being gay explains why they haven’t felt “normal,” or that it’s simply safer to come out as that. If this happened with your loved one, you may question whether they really know who and what they are.
Hear this: they’re not crazy.
When your loved one shares their truth, it’s an intensely vulnerable time. They’re showing you great trust and asking for a lifeline. Remaining closeted makes people vulnerable to depression, drug abuse, addiction, and suicidal ideation. Transition can literally be a lifesaver.
As things move forward, the fragility typically hardens into something more resilient. In the meantime: believe them. They know how they feel, they know what they think, and they know what their lived experience has been like.
If your trans loved one is a young person, don’t make them be the one who must educate you. A wealth of information is available online, and Google is just a few taps away. (A few starting resources can be found in Appendix C.) Your job is to be a sounding board and to assure them of your love. That’s what they need, and they need it desperately.
When a person says they’re trans, they are trans. You don’t have to understand. You may never understand. Your job is simply to accept that reality, and figure out how to respond.
I think that if there is a single thing that cis people should understand about trans people is that we aren’t trans because we transition, we transition because we’re trans. Stopping a trans person from transitioning doesn’t make them not trans, it makes them miserable.