I don’t often write about being transgender. It’s just a fact that that’s part of who I am, but it definitely isn’t all of who I am and I don’t like people to think of me as that transgender guy or that guy who used to be a girl. Sometimes people don’t share that they’re transgender because it’s dangerous for them — there are still lots of places where being openly transgender is a death sentence — or because they don’t know how people will respond or because they’ve transitioned to their satisfaction and they feel that it’s nobody’s business.
In my case, it’s not any of these things. I’ve been fairly lucky in that most people react with curiosity to me, not hostility. When I do tell people I’m transgender, most of the time the reaction I get is, “I’ve never met a transgender [person] before. Mind if I ask you about it?” And I don’t mind, not at all, but sometimes I feel like that’s all people see me as. They ask me what I think about Caitlyn Jenner or Chaz Bono as if my opinion as a fellow trans* person is more important than anyone else’s, and I don’t get to talk about all the other things I am. I am a writer, a psychology student, an uncle, a family member… I am sensitive and kind and I want to make a difference in the world… I’ve been playing violin for almost a year and studied piano for almost eight, from childhood to young adulthood… I’ve lived in three different states and experimented with probably five different careers… AND I am transgender.
Anyway, I want my experience to help you if you’re lost and confused because your child or your niece/nephew or your neighbor’s kid just came out as transgender and you don’t know what that means or what to do, or if you’re lost and confused because you are beginning to realize you’re transgender and you don’t know how to handle it. So I’m breaking the silence and talking openly about being transgender.
I didn’t realize who or what I was until I was in my early 30s. That’s probably part of what held me back my whole life — not knowing that there was a word for what I felt inside, for my feeling that even though everyone said I was a girl, I wasn’t. I couldn’t even really verbalize that I wasn’t the girl they thought I was. It seemed so obvious that I was wrong and everyone was right because they all said I was a girl and I had a girl’s body so….
Since I couldn’t verbalize it, it came out in other ways, most of them negative. I actively refused to play with girls as a kid. I didn’t feel like I had anything in common with them, and up until about 3rd or 4th grade it didn’t really matter that I played with boys. Then all of a sudden, the boys in my class developed an awareness that girls had cooties, and the girls in my class thought I was too tomboyish and weird to play with so I was pretty much out of options when it came to friends. I did have one or two friends — a girl who was a friend by virtue of our mothers being friends, until we became teenagers and I didn’t develop an interest in shopping and girlie things like she did; a boy who I shared an interest in Doctor Who with but who never thought I might want to play basketball with him and the other boys he played with (and incidentally, we were both bullied by other kids who said that boys and girls couldn’t be friends.) But for the most part, I was alone.
I was also an angry kid without knowing why, exactly, I was angry. Part of it was that I was incredibly strong-willed , which explains why I’m a writer who is so determined to advance my career, and part of it was that I idolized my older brother who at the time wanted nothing to do with a four years younger “sister.” But I believe a large part of my anger kept from not being seen as the boy I was. Not by the kids at school, who like I said didn’t want to play with me because of what I was “supposed” to be, not by my family, who saw me as a girl and hoped I would grow out of my tomboyish behavior, and not even by teachers at school who, when I acted out, would invariably say, “You’re such a sweet girl. We know you didn’t mean it.” I had temper tantrums often and as I got older it got worse because the expectations for my gender got greater. My female body required me to wear a bra, which I hated, but my parents weren’t comfortable with the idea of me going without, and wearing boys’ suits instead of dresses for special occasions was out of the question. I hated being referred to as female or as a young lady, but I didn’t connect that with how I felt inside. It just felt… weird.
Growing up didn’t make any of those feelings go away. In college, I experimented with using a male pseudonym online but backed away from it several times, feeling like I was being “dishonest” because people thought I was a guy and I knew I wasn’t, really, even though I felt more comfortable that way and gravitated towards it again and again. Sometimes when I confessed that my male pseudonym was just that, people who had formerly enjoyed my posts in online groups called me mentally ill and called for me to be banned for misusing the group and misleading them, while others expressed disappointment to find out that the guy they were enjoying getting to know was really me, someone they already knew as a girl. In the meantime, I bounced from dysfunctional relationship to dysfunctional relationship, from college program to college program, not knowing who I was or what I wanted. I fell in love, deeply in love, with someone who was addicted to drugs and who was sometimes abusive while under the influence, and part of the reason I stayed in that relationship is he would say, “You came at me like a guy so I came at you like a guy.” to explain his behavior.
In 2008 when I met some people who at the time I considered friends and entered my third and last dysfunctional relationship, things began to click. One of these people was transgender and her journey inspired me to start looking seriously at my own gender identity, my own feelings about it. For the first time, I was aware that I didn’t have to be a girl/woman just because everyone said so. I got a male haircut and started wearing male clothes, though I didn’t assert, yet, that I identified as male. But the more I did this, the more annoyed I got that people still saw me as female and my anger reached peak level. It got to the point where the only thing I could do was transition because I was tired of being angry all the time and tired of being misgendered and just plain tired.
That meant I had to tell my parents, which was the most frightening and frustrating thing I’ve ever done in my life and also the most liberating.
By this point it was 2012 and I’d been exploring my gender identity for years and years, but it was all new to them. They had no idea I felt this way, and to them it was bewildering, out of the blue, and probably not who I really was. At first they ignored my email about it, then they confronted me about it. They were concerned that I was imitating friends, that this was a phase, that this wasn’t really how I felt. We had a huge argument — and that was the beginning of understanding.
I’m lucky enough to have two parents who truly love me and have done their best to support me, but it took time to get there. I was very impatient in those days, wanting to start hormones, wanting to be accepted, wanting to be seen for who I am, and questioning how my parents could say they loved me when they seemed to think I was someone other than who I was. I was depressed a lot and spent an entire Thanksgiving break in my room so I didn’t have to hear myself being misgendered. Seeing other family that may or may not know was torturous. I couldn’t imagine, then, that things would ever change.
The old adage that it gets worse before it gets better was really true in my case. My family needed time to adjust because for 30+ years they saw me as a girl growing into a woman, and I was telling them that everything they knew about the core of who I was, was wrong. I wasn’t a woman, I wasn’t attracted to men, I wasn’t their daughter. I was their son who was attracted to women. It must have been confusing for them, especially for my dad who is a medical professional and undoubtedly asked himself how the hell he could have missed something like this with his own child.
It was easy for me to forget the years of questioning and doubt because for me as soon as I accepted that I am a man and started doing something about it, everything made sense and a lot of things started to get better. But my family was just at the beginning of their understanding, and for them, nothing made sense. Plus, my transition opened up the door to a bunch of questions they probably never thought they’d be dealing with. Who do we tell? Who do we not tell? Who will notice? What should we do if someone calls asking for [birth name] or asks what our daughter turned son is up to these days? How do we support and love our child when we’re not sure how we feel about this?
Today, I reach out to parents who have questions like this a lot. I love talking to parents who want to support their kids and don’t know how, because we hear too many stories about kids who suffered and died because their parents turned their backs on them when they found out they were other than they expected them to be. Parents who do what all parents should and try to support their kids even on a path that scares the hell out of them are heroes and I hope I can make it a little easier for some of them.
I also reach out to teens and young adults who are trying to figure out who they are and whether who they are involves being a different gender than they thought they were. It can be scary to feel like everything you knew about yourself or your kid is a lie, and I feel like my experience leads me to be able to help.
I’m much more comfortable now that I am living as the man I am. My parents saw it and that helped them realize this was the right path for me.
If your child is exploring their gender identity, here’s some things you can do to help:
Give them the space to explore. It can be really hard to just listen without advising or giving your opinion, but this is the best thing you can do. Active listening — reflecting back what you hear your child say without comment — can be really helpful.
Ask open-ended questions designed to help you understand. If you come from a position of really wanting to understand, your child will likely respond to it. Try to ask questions like, “What does it feel like for you when kids at school see you that way?” Just make sure you don’t have a secret agenda of trying to influence your child!
Give yourself time. One of the hardest thing for parents is to know that their child needs them to support them but not being able to do it perfectly. Realize that this is hard for everyone, and that it’s going to take time to “get” your child’s new-to-you identity. Beating yourself up is a waste of energy; just keep trying.
Have you been dealing with adjusting to your child’s gender identity? Share what’s worked or hasn’t worked for you!