Saturday, April 22, 2017

Dear Loved Ones of Trans People: It's Not About You

I wanted to talk about a terrible Guardian article.  This was written by the ex-spouse of a trans woman, and is titled "A letter to... my transgender husband: Why did it have to be all about you?"  This comes right on the heels of that ridiculous thinkpiece by a woman insisting her child is not trans (insinuating that trans people are encouraging tomboys to transition).  I'm not going to talk about these cases individually, but I wanted to put something out there:

Cis people really, really love making our transitions about them.

And then get really angry--or, more appropriately, whiny--when we don't follow suit.

Let me tell a bit of my own story.  I came out at 18 years old.  The first three people that I told were my mom, my dad, and my boyfriend at the time, in that order.  And all three of them ostensibly supported me while making very little effort to... well, actually support me.  Constant misgendering (something I still experience from my parents--I don't keep in contact with my ex, but I assume he does as well--ten years later, calling me "she" even with an appearance that any stranger on the street would assume to be male).

After I broke up with my ex, I found a post from him on a video game forum where he was going on about what a huge ego deflation it was to find out that his very first girlfriend had turned out to be a man, as if it was somehow his love had been so faulty that it singlehandedly caused me to renounce womanhood.  The thing was, I spent an irrationally long time trying to make that relationship work after coming out, telling myself over and over again things about how he just needed time to learn how to handle it, if there was no chance of him understanding he would break up with me instead of jagging me around for months, right?

When it comes to romantic relationships, there's this popular perception out there that trans people come out to our partners and then ruin everything for our own selfish desires, like how dare we seek to end a particular form of misery in our lives if our partners don't like it.  The author of the Guardian letter makes a big deal about how she asked for time to come to terms with everything, but her transgender spouse "refused," even though it was a decision "affecting both of them."  While I would never say that somebody's transition didn't affect their loved ones, this is an extremely one-sided account of how transition works in a transphobic society.

Trans people don't just realize we're trans and immediately steamroll over our relationships.  The reality is that trans people--since we grow up understanding through the media that being trans is awful, weird, deviant, and sinister--have historically been highly likely to put off telling loved ones in order to preserve those relationships.  For many of us, we learn as children to just shut up about those feelings, and start building lives as if they don't exist, digging a hole of obligations and attachments that are harder and harder to get out of or modify with each passing year.  This, by the way, is why allowing kids to experiment with their gender identities is so important; if a child knows they are trans, and have constant medical and social barriers erected to discourage them at all points in their lives that transition is only a last resort for the truly, absolutely miserable, they bury those feelings and dig that aforementioned hole.

There is a not-insignificant number of trans people--especially but not limited to older trans women--who are so invested in preserving the relationships they've built during those closeted times that they either suppress their feelings, painfully, for years, or they resort to living double lives, with or without their partners' knowledge.  I know people whose spouses know full well they would prefer to be living as women, but are so uncomfortable with the idea that they work out a compromise, like "You can present as a woman in designated places, provided I never see you."

We put up with cis people's melodrama all the time.  I could shower in cis people tears over how allegedly mean we are, yet it is perfectly socially acceptable for them to be incredibly cruel to us.

And to reiterate:  I'm not saying it's not hard for their spouses.  I'm not even saying that it's somehow single-handedly a spouse's fault if somebody puts off transition, as there are many people creating this hellish structure.  I'm saying that, despite all the indignance and whining and pouting, most of the time any compromise made, cis people require more concession on the part of the trans person than they are willing to give.  In fact, the trans person may have been making concessions long before even telling their partner by choosing to pretend they were not trans for years, maybe decades.

Related note:  Every time somebody publishes another garbage article about how selfish trans people are with our poor helpless spouses, it is also culpable in encouraging trans people to stay miserable and in the closet, which contributes to more spouses being blindsided with the issue.

My personal experience with this, though, is mostly regarding parents, who are also highly likely to be melodramatic about their child's transition, even while trying to play the part of a supportive parent.  I see highly supportive parents more and more (an extreme relief for me), and I by no means expect immediate perfection, but there are so many things I wish I had asserted when I first came out to my parents.  I made a lot of concessions, and my silence and my tolerance of their misgivings early on is probably a part of why they put me in danger of being outed whenever we are out together in public.  I'd tell myself it was just a question of my appearance, that once I got on hormones it would be different, because I'd look so male they wouldn't be able to misgender me if they tried.  This naïveté seems silly to me now, but at the time I was really banking on my future beard and voice to try making things work out better.

This would be a thing my parents would low-key discourage for almost a decade, telling me I needed to be patient.  When I finally did make an appointment with a gender therapist, my father sternly lectured at me about how I needed to learn to wait for things because I was "always jumping into things."  This was after almost seven years of waiting, of having to hear the same people whine that it was too hard to call me the right  name--a name which itself was a concession, which I adopted from a nickname they literally gave me as a child, one I hated by the way--or the right pronouns.

Finally I went to therapy anyway, got on hormones, and this has caused me lasting relief I would not have gotten any other way.  Relief that could have come years earlier, were I not constantly being patient with and making sacrifices for the cis people in my life.

To my dad's credit, he did help me finish the therapy once I had started and my therapist abruptly increased the per-session cost.  I don't believe I have terrible parents by any means.  I certainly have friends who for all intents and purposes just don't have parents anymore, so in that respect I am extremely lucky and grateful.

But by waiting to transition, I gave up years of social development that could have (who am I kidding: would have) saved me around eight years (factoring in when I came out and when I transitioned) of being uncomfortable in my own skin, being emotionally unstable, having low self-confidence, and being stressed out, the same things my parents and school forced me into therapy for as a child, things that mostly went away after transition that were not going to be solved by a chat with a school counselor.  And I can think of so many bad things that would not have happened and so many milestones I would have reached sooner if I had sought out transition sooner.

And while this was all happening, my parents used the typical melodramatic language about how they were "mourning" the "loss" of their "daughter," how they'd "never get to see me in a wedding dress" (I was openly disinterested in marriage since I was a teenager); basically, they lost a shred of their ability to live vicariously through me and because of that this was all so very hard and they couldn't possibly use language to describe me that was respectful or understand things that are quite frankly obvious to anybody with a modicum of understanding of trans issues.

I don't have patience anymore for the idea that our transitions are markedly difficult for our cis loved ones while we're supposed to tolerate them treating us like trash.

My pity for cis people on this subject is extremely limited.  A cis person looks at a trans person who decides to transition despite the pleas of their spouse, their children, or their parents as "selfish."  I envy them for their resolve and, although I know it's not popular to say it, their courage.