Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:
A trans person, probably a trans woman, has parents. Those parents are a predictable yet incomprehensible medley of bigoted toward transgender people, ignorant of queer and transgender topics, and uninterested in learning more, and think “acceptance” means that the telephone shouting matches have mostly stopped and they haven’t severed all ties with their transgender descendant. There’s very little else they get right, and they think that their progress is measured in “time since they heard.”
There are a lot of specific things they get wrong, and they’re frustratingly defensive about getting corrected on any of them.
So here are some answers.
CN sexual assault, suicide, violence against women
- It feels like everything’s different, like they’re an entire different person that took over my old offspring’s life. Is that what happened?
Your trans offspring learned something big and important about themselves. That something changes their life and the lives of those around them in ways that are hard to describe or predict, but it doesn’t make them a totally new person.
Your trans descendent still has the same fond childhood memories, and might even get to be more honest with themselves about why they’re so fond. Your trans descendant is still in family photos even if they don’t look like they did when the photos were taken. Your trans descendant is still sibling to their siblings and grandchild to their grandparents. Your trans descendant was still raised by whoever raised them. Your trans descendant still had the same interests as a child. Your trans descendant still has the same birthday, the same birthweight, the same baby pictures, and, we hope, the same place in your heart.
Your trans offspring didn’t actually take anything away from you when they recognized that their gender isn’t what they thought it was. Instead, they gave you something new and wonderful: a chance to remake your relationship with them in more honest terms.
- They chose to be trans, right? So I can talk to them as if it were a choice they made that I think was a bad idea?
Being transgender, like being gay, is something a person discovers about themself. It’s something that was always true that they, at some discrete moment, noticed. This is not something a person “decides” any more than who a person’s biological parents are is something they “decide.”
This can be a confusing fact, because there are parts of being trans that are, in some way, decisions. We discover that we’re trans, but we decide to transition. The thing is, the choice isn’t between “blissful life our parents would approve of” and “transition.” It’s between “steadily deteriorating mental health culminating in suicide” and “transition.” It’s between living authentically, as ourselves, or no life at all. Those of us who make this call later in our lives than others are, often, those who reached that mental breaking point later than others. This is the same choice that people with other potentially deadly illnesses face when they decide whether to get treated for those illnesses, by the way, and social transition combined with hormone replacement therapy is the medically recommended treatment for being transgender.
This is why it hurts so much when our parents and other relatives act like our transitions take something away from them: because what we “took away” is what our lives would have looked like if we’d stayed closeted: short, miserable, and suicidal. That rhetorical twist tells us that you’d rather have had the funeral than the person we turned out to be, that you like the idea of us being dead better than you like the idea of us being ourselves. If that’s not actually how you feel, stop indicating that it is with your words and actions.
- Isn’t it enough that I sometimes let my trans kid be in the same room as me without throwing things at them?
Not severing ties with, disowning, or doing violence to your transgender descendent is Step 0. You only get credit for Step 0 if you’re in a country, such as Saudi Arabia, where completing Step 0 might get you killed. You get partial credit if you are part of a religious community, such as Mormonism, where rendering teenagers homeless or dead if they turn out to be gay or trans is common. Anywhere else, Step 0 is below the bare minimum.
- Is it horrible if I insist on calling them by the name and pronouns they used before? I spent decades using those and I don’t feel like changing.
Remember Step 0 up there?
Step 1 is honoring your trans descendant’s chosen name and pronouns. This is literally the smallest, most basic demonstration of actual, real acceptance you can give your trans descendant. Whether it’s appropriate to refer to someone with certain pronouns, or by a certain name, is totally unrelated to whether they’ve started hormone therapy, surgically altered their genitals, or even started wearing clothing associated with their gender. The only determinant of the appropriate pronouns for a person is what they tell you to use, and it is inherently disrespectful to use any others.
Any hesitation or refusal of Step 1 tells your trans descendant that their actual self, which they spent a lot of time and effort finding, is not welcome in your vicinity. Occasionally messing up and using their old name and pronouns is something we all forgive as long as we can plainly see that you are trying to get it right. Refusal of Step 1 also tells your trans descendant that you don’t care that being referred to by their old name and pronouns reveals them, in public, as people who are viable targets for anti-trans actions, exposing them to potential discrimination and violence. We have no reason to feel safe around, or willingly spend time around, people who do that.
It is difficult to break old habits and get used to talking about someone differently. Far more important than succeeding is visibly trying. That includes accepting correction when you get it wrong.
- Even if they’re not around?
Very much so. How you think about your transgender offspring is influenced by how you talk about them. Using or tolerating the wrong pronouns when they’re not around makes it harder to get them right when they are around. Further, the people you talk to about your trans descendant are taking their cues from you, and will misgender and misname your trans descendant if you show them that this is “correct” by your example. This means more work, and possible danger, later on, when your trans descendent has to fix the damage you did in their own dealings with those people.
- But once I do that, everything’s fine, right?
Step 2, once you’ve already committed to using your transgender descendant’s new name and pronouns, is proactively re-examining and reconsidering your attitudes about queer issues in general and trans issues in particular. If, like many parents of transgender offspring, you come from a severely homophobic and transphobic background, this isn’t easy. You likely think that your offspring turning out to be transgender or gay is a tragedy. You probably believe your preachers when they sermonize about how gay and trans people are crimes against or dangers to the natural order of the universe and the family. You probably think gay and trans people “choose” to be gay and trans people rather than discovering facts about themselves that were always so. You probably think we’re gross and disgusting. You probably think Step 1 is optional or that your transgender offspring is being unreasonable or excessive by insisting on it.
If being a part of your transgender descendant’s life in which they feel safe and welcome is among your priorities, you need to rethink all of those thoughts and replace them with better ones.
Your transgender offspring cannot feel safe, welcome, accepted, or affirmed in your vicinity if they know that you think of them as someone who had the option to not be an abomination and chose to be one anyway, or if the greatest expression of sympathy for the problems they face as transgender people they can get out of you is “you chose this.” Your transgender offspring cannot feel safe, welcome, accepted, or affirmed in your vicinity if they know that you claim to accept them from one side of your mouth and vote for politicians that want to scrap any pretense of human rights for transgender people out of the other. Your transgender offspring cannot feel safe, welcome, accepted, or affirmed around you if you refuse to educate yourselves on gay and trans issues and also refuse their knowledge of these topics.
Do not rest on your parent laurels. Do not assume that your past gifts, sacrifices, and efforts change this equation. Chances are, you’re the only people who claim to care about your transgender offspring who haven’t already started responding appropriately. Do not assume that your transgender offspring is or should be okay with their parents being the only segment of their lives where they are not dealt with as the person they are. Chances are, everyone else who refused Steps 0-2 has already removed themselves, or been removed, from your transgender offspring’s life for your transgender offspring’s own safety. Recognize that you’re getting leeway that no one else gets when you’re not similarly purged, and take advantage of this time.
And do not assume that you can make psychological exceptions for your trans offspring, deciding they’re “one of the good ones” and that all of the above horrors apply to the others. Your trans descendant has friends, life partners, and a whole community they’re part of who you thereby harm, and they’re not okay with that, either.
- But if they’re attracted to the same gender, they’re not “real” men or women, right? Being a real woman means being attracted to men, so a trans woman who is attracted to women clearly means her gender isn’t real, right?
Gender and sexual orientation are different things. In exactly the same way that non-trans women are not all attracted to men, trans women can be attracted to women. In fact, approximately one third of all transgender women are attracted only to other women. Transgender women are not an “extreme case” of being gay men, nor do we go through the long, expensive, frustrating process of transitioning and invite all manner of difficulty from our families and the world in order to become “straight.” Our womanhood does not depend on our attractions being conventional. Those of us lucky enough to have supportive spouses who don’t leave us over their relationships no longer being “straight” do not invalidate our struggles or our identities in the process. In fact, retaining these lifelines means that we are often emotionally and mentally better off than those of us who lose all of these intimate connections as they find themselves.
A trans lesbian is lucky, in one respect: the people statistically most likely to do violence to a woman are the men closest to her, and she has fewer of them.
- All right, all right, I’ll make an effort. So what’s this transition process actually like? What does “done transitioning” look like?
I’m glad you asked! A gender transition typically has three “streams,” which are pursued simultaneously.
- The social transition, in which a person acquires a new wardrobe, picks out a new name and pronouns, and starts introducing themselves as such to the people in their lives. This is also, necessarily, the period in which un-accepting or abusive people either remove themselves from the new trans person’s life, or get removed. Trans women also often consider milestones that their non-trans counterparts accomplished much younger, such as getting their ears pierced, learning how to shave body hair, or learning how to apply makeup, as part of their social transition.
- The medical transition, in which a person seeks out and administers hormone replacement therapy and eventual surgery. This is a long process, with many protocols mandating multiple months of consultation with a mental health professional before even referring a transgender patient to a doctor who can prescribe hormone replacement therapy. Typically, these doctors require that a trans person have made some progress on their social transition before prescribing hormones. Virtually all modern protocols additionally require a trans person to have been living outwardly as a member of their gender and been on hormones for at least a year before approving surgery. While seeking out permanent facial hair removal generally does not involve doctors, many trans women consider this part of our medical transition as well.
- The legal transition, in which a person gets their legal and other records amended to reflect their new situation. This is generally not possible until much of the other two streams is already complete. Even the most permissive US states require an affidavit from a doctor indicating that a person is in treatment prior to altering the gender markers on legal documents, and many insist on proof of surgery. Changing a legal name is typically easier, but often unsafe without also changing gender markers.
This is all involved, expensive, slow, and incredibly tiresome. The sheer obnoxious extent of the effort required to “fully” transition (have no further accomplishments left in any of these streams) means that a decade or more may pass between someone figuring out they are transgender and reaching a point where they have completed all of the steps that are right for them. Regarding a trans person as an “incomplete” or “unfinished” member of their gender until they do is cruelly unfair and also ignores the reality of being a trans person, in which getting social acceptance within their own circles as a member of their gender is one of the first things doctors and bureaucrats demand one do, not a reward for “finishing.” It also assumes that trans people should have to advertise the state of our genitals in order to get recognition as members of our gender, despite genitals not featuring at all in how most people decide whether the people they are looking at are men or women.
- What do hormones actually do?
The hormones used in hormone replacement therapy have widespread and diverse effects that are more profound than many realize.
Estrogen induces breast growth, softens skin, tightens tendons over the whole body (responsible for why men’s and women’s hands look different), induces hip widening, increases buttock size, softens and thins body hair, changes face shape, and alters the sexual response. Testosterone, taken by trans men, has largely opposite effects and also induces facial hair growth and voice deepening. Both hormones also alter emotional responses in ways that are hard to describe but which are deeply satisfying for people who ought to be taking these drugs. Both hormones take one to three years achieve most of the changes they will achieve.
Most effects of estrogen (technically estradiol) and testosterone are reversible, and this is the premise of hormone replacement therapy: using hormones “opposed” to those produced in a person’s body to replace the previous hormones’ effects. However, breast development does not reverse when estrogen is suppressed, and estrogen cannot undo voice deepening, facial hair growth, or Adam’s-apple growth induced by testosterone. Trans women often undergo laser hair removal and voice training to deal with these additional concerns.
- What’s the deal with bathroom laws? Don’t they just make sense?
Anything that outwardly flags a trans person as such marks them for discrimination and violence. Men, and specifically men who aren’t trans, are the primary purveyors of that violence. Directing transgender women to use the men’s washroom is, in literal and utterly certain terms, directing us to enter a confined space away from security cameras, full of the people most likely to brutalize us, in the name of “protecting women” from us.
More to the point, transgender women assault women in bathrooms at utterly negligible rates. Even the tiny minority of us that might have a mind to commit such a horrid crime know that our social position is too vulnerable, and the costs to our whole community too great, to try. More circumspect transphobes might claim that it’s not us they’re worried about, but men taking advantage of our existence to disguise themselves as us and get into women’s bathrooms without incident, but this risk, too, is virtually nonexistent. In reality, men intent on assaulting women in bathrooms rarely disguise themselves to do so, and often get away with entering the women’s bathroom as-is. Disguising oneself as a trans woman—one of the most vulnerable and most maligned demographics one could possibly be part of—is a particularly bizarre choice, exposing that would-be rapist to the very same dangers actual trans women face, and very few men ever attempt it. As a strategy for protecting women and children from sexual assault, directing trans women to use the men’s bathroom utterly fails while subjecting an already-marginalized group to ridiculous and unearned hardship and discrimination.
The only bathroom law that is okay is the one that says, “people should use the bathroom they feel safe using, period.”
- Are you available to answer more questions as we have them?