Published in the Spring 2010 issue • Advice
Katie Addleman doles out advice on just about everything.
Dear Shameless: I want to tell my parents that I'm transgender, but I'm scared of how they'll react. What should I do?
Gender is complicated. There are entire schools dedicated to its study, where people spend their intellectual lives trying to figure gender out. Cultural construction? Fact of nature? Psycho-social phenomenon? Fortunately, the average transgender person doesn't have to have an answer to this question — it's enough to know that, although you were born with one set of body parts, you feel like you should've been born with another. Most transgender people know early on that their gender identity doesn't line up with the expected one. Maybe when you were little, you always wanted to play with boys instead of girls (or vice versa). Or maybe when you got a bit older, you felt jealous of kids of the opposite sex. In any case, the gender everyone wanted to assign you never seemed like the right one. So, you're transgender — simple, right?
In reality, it's not that simple. Although Canadian society has opened up a lot in recent years — there was a time you couldn't even admit to being a vegetarian, let alone a trans vegetarian — you'll still likely be faced with challenges you can't avoid. The first, and maybe biggest, of these is letting your parents know you're transgender. This can be extremely difficult, depending on your family's views, and it's important to prepare yourself before you take the plunge. There are a few ways to do this. You could rent Ma Vie en Rose, a fantastic French movie (not to worry — it's subtitled) about a transgender child and her family. Or you could Google "coming out to parents" and read the many FAQs and tip sheets that are out there. Make sure you completely accept yourself as you are, and try to have realistic expectations about the amount of support you'll get from those close to you. There are active support groups all over the country for trans people; contact one and talk to them about your plan for coming out. (If there isn't a group in your area that you can visit, call one — you can use the phone at your school counsellor's office if you don't want to call from home.) Organizations like PFLAG (www.pflagcanada.ca) can help you decide if you're ready, and they'll be there to support you if things don't go as you'd hoped.
A big difference between coming out as gay or lesbian and coming out as transgender is that not everyone knows what being transgender means, so you might have to answer a lot of questions. Be patient and explain as best you can. Once you can talk this through, it's reaction time. Everyone will react differently, and maybe not how you expected. No one should freak out — there is nothing wrong with being transgender and it's not something you chose for yourself — but sometimes they do. It's hard to understand why. Often, it has to do with worry (that your life will be more difficult because you're transgender), fear (of what others will think, of discrimination, of change, of the unknown), religious beliefs (that are at odds with non-traditional gender and sexual identities) or shock (that they don't, in fact, know everything about you. This realization never sits well with parents).
If you don't get the open-armed acceptance you deserve, remember: this is just a first reaction. Patience is key. Your announcement has given your parents a lot to think about and they may need some time to adjust to the news. Let them deal with it when they're ready. You might want to write them a letter that they can read later, explaining how you feel and acknowledging that this may be hard for them. You might also want to tell them about times from your childhood that, in retrospect, make it obvious that you've always identified with the opposite sex — some parents might think this is something that's just developed, and might therefore go away, which, of course, isn't true. Anything you can do to help them understand who you are and what you're going through will help speed along their acceptance. In the meantime, contact your local support group again, or anyone you've talked to about coming out, and tell them what happened. Don't go through this alone.
Andrea James runs an excellent website for transgender teens at www.tsroadmap.com. On it, she offers some words of wisdom gleaned from her own and others' experiences of coming out as transgender to parents. "Many [transgender people] spend so much of their lives trying to please others that they don't take the time to look inward and do what would please themselves," she writes. Remember — no matter what happens before, during and after you come out — to be kind to yourself. The real world can be tough. Take care.