“You will have the chance to prove that your soul truly belongs in hell.”
– Lucifer, Constantine
You can learn a lot about something by applying pressure to it. You get to see where its weakest points are, and where the first cracks form. You can find out what’s underneath it, what’s inside it all – what’s really holding it together.
That’s how I discovered the limits of my family’s acceptance and understanding, and the full extent of their ignorance. When I told them I’d be coming out to my grandpa, the one they had insisted on keeping this a secret from, I found out where they really stood. And it wasn’t pretty.
I’m sure everyone wants to know the details of how I finally got this over with, but to our surprise, coming out to grandpa turned out to be the least of our worries. Was it stressful, terrifying, and the most nerve-wracking 30 minutes of my life? Yes. Did it require thinking on my feet, using every last ounce of strength I could muster, and leveraging every last traditional trans narrative into which I could fit the events of my life? Absolutely.
But it was a success. He gets it, and it doesn’t change anything for him. Somehow, we managed to navigate through that vast space of unpleasant possibilities, and find the path that led to a Republican, racist, homophobic, devout Catholic octogenarian accepting that his “grandson” is a woman now.
The more surprising and disappointing event of the day was how unhelpful certain members of my family turned out to be when I told them I was going to get this over with. They’d always seemed entirely supportive, only wanting what was best for me no matter what. But on that day, I learned firsthand some of the more hurtful things that loved ones can say to you when you’re trans.
I recognize that a lot of this is simply rooted in a lack of understanding or unintentional insensitivity rather than active malice; my family has certainly never been overtly hostile to me, and the impact of certain attitudes can be difficult to understand if you haven’t lived this life yourself. But it’s insensitive and hurtful just the same, and it’s worth going over why some of these approaches to your trans relatives and friends are really quite insulting.
First, it certainly doesn’t help to tell me this is the most “extreme” thing I could possibly do with my life, or that it’s so “different” and “out there”. I already know it’s different. Obviously, most people don’t do this sort of thing. And I know that most people either don’t really understand it, or disapprove of it and are content to be huge assholes about it for no good reason. I understand the challenges of coming out – if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have bothered to put this off for so long. I would have told grandpa when I first came out to everyone, instead of spewing 2,000 dramatic words about how much this makes Christmas suck. But I recognize that people tend to have difficulties with this, and that people like my grandfather in particular are less likely to be understanding, and more likely to view it as “extreme” and one of the worst things I could possibly do.
But it’s really not. Anyone who thinks this is as bad as it could get is severely lacking in imagination. Nothing about this is life-ruining, reckless, or damaging to those around me. It deprives no one of anything. It isn’t adversely affecting me, and it isn’t adversely affecting anyone else. There are a lot worse things I could be doing than, um, being a woman. I have a family of my own. I have a partner and children who love me. I’ve made a name for myself as someone with ideas that people like to hear. After such a long time, I’ve finally found what makes me happy in my life, and I’m feeling better about myself every day now.
This has come at the expense of nothing. I already have people in my life who are capable of seeing this not as something weird or disturbing, but as something triumphant. They would never in a million years expect me to regard myself as “extreme” or “out there”, so asking that much of me is seriously out of line.
It also isn’t particularly productive to go on about how not everywhere is “anything goes” – as though transitioning in the middle of Florida has been a cakewalk compared to staying in Chicago. Really, when you’re trans, there is no place where people’s attitudes toward you are “anything goes”. You have to stake out those spaces for yourself – tiny, cramped spaces – slowly, carefully, always keeping your guard up. The only place here where “anything goes” for me is in these four walls with my girlfriend and our sons, with outsiders only being let in after the strictest of screening. Do you have any idea how much of the world you have to cut off just to avoid getting hurt? The only reason this place is any better for me is that Heather is here, and the people who think this is asking too much of them aren’t. Just what would you have done if I did decide to transition while I was back home, anyway?
Speaking of which, it’s pretty lousy to hear you talk about how glad you are that I moved a thousand miles away where nobody knew who I was. I can definitely appreciate the value of having a clean slate, starting anew in a place where people have no attachment to memories of me. But when you tell me how happy you are that nobody will be looking at you strangely or talking behind your back, and how you just lie to everyone who asks about how I’m doing these days, that isn’t happiness for me. It’s happiness that you got me far out of the way before anyone you know found out that this is who I am, before I could make life difficult for you by being a woman. I don’t think treating a child that way is something to be happy about. And I’m pretty sure it’s a little too late for that, anyway:
Yeah, I’m sure our friends never suspected a thing. Thank goodness they won’t have to see me changing so much.
And really, as if nobody’s ever going to be talking behind my back because of who I am? In the land of “NOBAMA” stickers and gun racks on every 4×4, I’m going to be dealing with this for a long time. Forgive me if I’m not all that sympathetic.
I also wasn’t too keen on the idea that I could just stay down here forever, precluding any need to come out to grandpa. That’s a hell of a sacrifice to make for a secret. I don’t intend to walk away from everyone I once knew. I’m not going to cut myself off from my parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, friends, and everyone who’s known me my entire life. What I want is for our families to be together, to get to know each other, and be on good terms without concealment or deception. That’s important to me. It’s so important to me that I was willing to take the risk of telling grandpa I’m a woman now, so that one day we could all be united. That’s how much this is worth to me! I don’t have a problem with people knowing who I am. Let them talk behind our backs – if we love each other, if we’re there for each other, none of it should matter.
Likewise, it’s just not accurate to suggest you would have had to deal with everything and I would have been isolated from any fallout if this went south, simply due to physical proximity. Whether I see grandpa every day or not, what my family thinks of me still has the power to hurt me, which is even more obvious to me now. I certainly never stopped caring about any of you just because we’re far away now, and I know you haven’t stopped caring about me.
And I really don’t appreciate the assumption that I was just going to “drop the bomb” on him in the least tactful way possible, purely for “shock value”. That definitely isn’t how I came out to the rest of the family. It’s not something you lob at people like a grenade. I know you haven’t been on my side of it, but this is typically accompanied by abject terror at the possibility of losing those who are closest to you, because what you are is often considered so bad that it can even destroy a family’s love. I was scared half to death just to tell any of you! There’s no way of knowing what people are going to make of something like this. It isn’t something to approach casually, and I’m pretty confident that my success with grandpa demonstrated that I was serious about doing this as delicately, gently and effectively as possible.
And on the subject of just what this is, I hope you can understand that it’s not actually “a sexual thing”. I know things like sexual orientation, gender identity, being gay and being trans get jumbled up a lot, and most people aren’t exposed to this enough to tell them all apart. But it’s only a sexual matter in the same sense that not being trans is a sexual matter, in the same sense that being a person is a sexual matter. Using those terms makes it sound like who I am is on par with the TMI of what people like to do in bed, like my mere existence is unnecessarily sharing some sexual fetish with everyone around me. The difference is that telling grandpa what we do in bed is inappropriate, but grandpa knowing whether someone is a man or a woman is not.
Finally, while I recognize that tact is called for when telling elderly relatives that you now live as a woman, demanding that I omit any reference to attire, appearance, or even my name is simply not realistic. it’s pretty tough to explain your true gender identity without some concrete details as to what this entails in a practical, everyday sense – and grandpa knows that just as well as I do. So what should I have said, when he asked if this is “like crossdressing”, and when he asked if I was still [old name]? By the end of our conversation, he’d learned that I’ve been dressing like this all along, even if he hadn’t noticed at the time. And he knew his granddaughter’s name. And he had no problem with this.
I might be even more irked about all this if coming out to him had gone as poorly as you predicted. But as is, I’m really happy to see that every expectation of doom was proven wrong – not just for my own sake, but for yours. I’m hoping this is something that people in my family can learn from and think about for a while, before they try to hide who I am ever again.