I - Basic Info On Transexuality
II - Are You A Transexual?
III - Social and Moral Implications - this article
IV - Questions by Posters
V - Politics And Gender Identity
VI - What's Involved In A Sex Change
VII - Breaking the News
WHAT: This is the third of several articles I'll be posting over the next little bit about sex, gender and identity.
WHY: Recent journal entries by several people have shown the need.
RULES: As always, any honest reply or question is welcome, and will be answered, and posted as a top-level JE so that others can read it. This is a sensitive topic, and the people who are most affected are in many cases extremely vulnerable. Please show the same compassion for them as you would want for yourself or a loved one if the situation were reversed.
Social and Moral Implications - For Those On The Outside Looking In
First, we'll deal with etiquette: You've just learned that someone you know is TS (transsexual). They may or may not have completed their transition to their "target gender". What do you do?
Initial coming out - acceptance or rejection
Well, if they've approached you and confided this to you in person, hopefully you realize the trust you're being shown, and act responsibly. You can be reasonably sure that if this is the scenario, they want to talk, to "explain things", if only to get back some assurance that you understand this is not something they "chose", and that they hope to continue to maintain the relationship, whether it be a friendship or a school or workplace situation.
Need for external validation
Listen to them, ask the questions you are curious about, and be honest about how this affects you. If you're going to need some time to take it all in, say so. If you can accept it, again, say so. Whatever you do, don't lie about how you feel. He or she will know if you are lying. Remember, they've had to work up to this, and all their senses and defenses are working overtime. It's a scary time for him or her. If they give you some links to read on the web, take the time to do so. If they give you a printout to read, read it, but don't leave it lying around for just anyone to find. And don't share this information without permission. Not only is this against the law in many jurisdictions (personal medical information is presumed to be closely held unless specifically stated otherwise), but it could jeapordize their health, their social standing, their work or school status, or, in extreme cases, their life. If they've shared it with you, consider yourself honoured for being trusted both as a confidante and someone who they are seeking validation from.
Now why would they need validation? After all, if it is a medical condition, then that should end it. No need for external validation, right? Wrong.
Gender is very much a social construct. I don't mean by this that it is "artificial" in any sense, but that it is an integral building block of human interaction. People are social beings. So much so that we have always used removal from general society as an extreme form of punishment (think of excommunication and solitary confinement as examples). We need friends. We need people to care about us, and to care about in return. Part of that caring is accepting the other person as they are, in the understanding that they will do the same, and, over time, build up trust and tolerance.
Early formation of the habit of hiding GID
Aa pre-transition person who is affected by GID has had to face serious issues in regards to a core concept: "who am I"? They can't get validation by looking into the nearest mirror - it lies to them. They can't get it from looking down in the shower stall - it just reinforces that they are not whole, complete or who one part of their brain keeps insisting they are.
Now add in parental and other "guidance", and early peer pressure (including bullying and beatings - kids instinctively establish pecking orders and know who's vulnerable. This isn't surprising; humans are certainly more advanced than chickens). The only way a kid knows how to survive in such a situation is to hide or deny the problem, to the point of self-denial and overcompensation.
"But denial isn't healthy" I hear you thinking. Of course its not, but you can't ask a child to deal with issues that adults need special training to deal with. By the time they reach puberty (which is almost invariably yet another disaster for them, as their bodies insist on amplifying the divergence between brain and body), they've pretty much become habituated to hiding their true feelings, and their true selves. To them, this is what life is.
This is why external validation is so important. A lifetime of hiding, of being seen as something you're not, and conforming to something that feels so wrong causes a lot of damage. Acceptance helps undo that damage. At the beginning, transsexuals are starved for acceptance as who they really are - a little goes a long way, and will help sustain them through the tough times. And there will be tough times.
"You lied to me!" - the whole "dishonesty" issue
Life is messy. Because of the need to conform, transsexuals often end up in socially messy situations. For example, married with children. Not too many people react well to their spouse announcing they're gettin a sex change. They accuse their spouse of lying about who they are (so do others, but to a lesser extent, dictated by the proximity of the relationship, how much is invested in it, and the intrapersonal dynamics).
Is this claim of "lying about who you are" valid? It would certainly seem so on the face of it, wouldn't it? Especially since most transsexuals knew they were the wrong sex before puberty hit, never mind marriage and/or family. But a closer examination of the issue raises more questions than it answers.
GID wrongfully perceived as something a person has some control over
We generally don't hold people responsible for actions beyond their control. For example, if someone is allergic to animal fur, we don't think less of them because they don't want to be around our pets. Likewise if someone comes from a family with a history of heart problems, we don't go around saying "you should have told me! you lied!" We like to pretend that love conquers all
This is because, as individuals, when confronted with the reality of the situation, we are so overwhelmed at what we've lost (a spouse, a brother or sister a parent figure, a child, a friend) that we become angry. Angry at the person before us for "imposing" this problem on us. Anger at ourselves for "being such a fool" or not seeing it. Fearful of "what am I going to tell the neighbours/kids/my parents?". Its classic - grief, anger, denial, barter, and finally (sometimes) acceptance. but in such a close dynamic, the grief, anger and denial frequently all get rolled up into one big explosion of hurt, and it gets ugly.
The blame game and guilt
The problem is, the person "coming out" as a transsexual already has had to go through all these same stages, as well as a lot of fear. As I pointed out earlier, we don't generally hold children responsible for their actions. To what extent, then, do we hold an adult accountable when everything in our society was geared to bend them to something they are not, and hasn't given them the tools to deal with it? We don't blame an adult with no legs for not jumping to safety. We don't blame an adult with hearing loss for failing to hear our shout of "look out". We DO blame adults for making decisions they had the full capability of entering into. I would argue that this is a special case, almost one of "diminished capacity." The transsexual is not "feeble-minded", but at the same time, he or she has had to deal with a situation that is far enough outside conventional "social wisdom" that to require that they have the tools to deal with it is unreasonable and morally wrong, just as we would make allowances for someone with a history of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or an allergy, or diabetes, or hearing loss.
But instead, we often do assign blame to them. And they expect us to do so. Why do they expect that, if its unreasonable? They feel guilt over not finding a solution that doesn't impose on those they care about. About "letting everyone down." Even when something is not our fault, we wonder "Is there anything I could have done differently." We second-guess decisions all the time. By the time they come to you, you can be sure a transsexual has spent a lifetime agonizing over this. They've had to go through the grief, anger, denial, barter - not just once, but many times, as they try (and fail) to find a solution that meets what they've been socialized to believe are reasonable expectations.
Don't be surprised if in your first encounters with a transsexual you get the impression they feel shameful. Its not because they believe its "their fault" or that they have made a questionable decision; rather, they know that many people will find this upsetting, and they have already run through pretty much every other possible scenario and come up empty. They don't want to burden friends and family with their "terrible secret", but feel they have no choice. Nobody is very comfortable in a situation where they feel they have no real options, and where so much hangs in the balance.
I can accept them for who they are - now what?
Well, that's probably the most important thing you can do. Whether they're pre-op or post-op, they still need their social support network. You might want to offer specific help. For example, if a M2F (Male to Female) transsexual could use a few pointers about comportment, makeup, hair or dressing, and you can help, why not help her? If a F2M (Female to Male) transsexual could use some hints about body language, haircuts, clothing, etc., again, an offer to help would be appreciated.
A bit about the RLT
Now's as good a time to give you the 10-second tour of the "Real Life Training" that gender therapists recomend, in 25 words or less (more about the Standards of Care in another entry). Simply put, transsexuals are expected to live for at least 1 to 2 years full-time as the opposite sex before being considered for surgery. This can be awkward when interacting with people who knew them before. So, some tips on what you can do to make everybody's life easier are in order.
Even if they haven't publicly commenced the actual process of transitioning to living full-time as their target sex, they will probably have chosen a preferred name. Why not use it in situations where they're comfortable, for example, at gatherings where everyone is already "clued in". Same goes for phone conversations, email correspndence, and holiday greeting cards. And please, remember to use the right pronoun. It makes a world of difference. Addressing them using the proper gender term (Ms, Miss, Ma'am, "oh, Woman!", etc., for an M2F, or Mr. Sir, Dude!, "Hey guy!" for an F2M), even if they're not yet fully "out", will help reassure them.
If you're into card or board games, and you normally divide up along gender lines, why not assign them to the appropriate team, even if they haven't begun to transition in public. For example, with an M2F, "Okay, from now on, you're playing with the other women." For an F2M, "Dude, you're with us!"
Expect that, if they knew you before they began transition, and are still in the process of "working it out", they are going to be shy about being seen by people they know dressed as their target gender. Offer to have them over for a movie or supper, and let them know you expect the "real them", not the person they've been pretending to be all these years.
Another thing you can do is let them know that you are aware that they're probably spending a lot of time in private dressed as their target gender, even if they are not yet very public with it. Tell them that you're aware that this is a requirement of their therapy, and that there's no need for them to change back into their previous persona when you come over, or hide all the signs of their living as their target sex.
They happen. Perhaps they will experience a time of doubt, or a painful rejection. Deal with it by being a good listener. Let them know that you are sympathetic, and that this too shall pass. It will. Above all, don't say anything like "Thank god you've changed your mind!" You will destroy any trust. After all, it implies that your earlier acceptance was a lie. And when they get back on track (which they will), they will have one less person to help them.
That's enough for today. Next: As promised, the first Q. and A. entry, where I gather up the questions raised in posts from previous entries.