Unconditional love – a journey with a transgender child

Through her own parenting experience, Christy Hegarty has become an advocate for families with transgender children. During her talk at TEDxBloomington, Hegarty shares what she has learned as the mother of a transgender child. She explores the concept that we should be able to accept that our children may be different than we expect them to be and that we should not be afraid to allow them to express themselves. She challenges us to consider the idea that human evolution is more about being human than it is about being a gender and the important role acceptance plays in our evolving world.

Trans* Jersey working with YES

Trans* Jersey is pleased to announce that it will be working with Jersey’s Youth Enquiry Service to develop a programme of talks, courses and/or workshops that can be taken into schools or youth clubs on the subject of gender, sexuality and sexual health.

The Youth Enquiry Service (YES) first opened in 2008. As well as offering a drop-in service for young people YES also provides one-to-one counselling as well as online advice on a broad range of issues.

YES was developed by the Youth Service in partnership with the Jersey Youth Trust. It was created to support young people aged 14 – 25 with any issue that affects them.

YES works with young people on any issue, for example, homelessness, benefits, advocacy work, crime, education, parenting, leaving care, drugs & alcohol, issues around sexuality, emotional health, relationships, sexual health and rights & responsibilities.

YES believe young people have a right to quality information, advice and counselling services. You can find them at La Motte St Centre, next door to the Social Security building.

If you or a young family member is questioning their gender or sexuality, YES run a confidential and discreet service that includes one-to-one sessions and/or group meetings with other young people where you can talk about similar issues. To find out more about the work of YES on this subject, click on the logo below.


An open letter to our trans partner

I am the wife of a trans woman who transitioned during our marriage. I am writing this to support partners as there are significant areas in common for us all but each of our paths on this journey may be very different. I also write to the trans person and just hope you both talk to each other. We want to keep our marriages intact.

There is no clear cut care pathway for partners here so do not be afraid to seek help and counselling. This journey can’t be done alone. Local GPs and counsellors are not specialists, so the more we speak up the more awareness will be raised. This is not a life choice for either of us; something that took me years to understand. I still ask myself: ‘why me’?

I had advanced notice before we got engaged that my husband was cross dressing since childhood. She agonised over telling me but we still got married and have now been together for over 30 years and married for 27. The prognosis for staying together is much higher if surprises and shocks are limited. We decided never to have children and life is a lot less complicated. However, it was still a shock when my partner decided to transition and, before I could understand the implications, she was self-medicating secretly. I went through hell. Women are good listeners and can be sympathetic, but I don’t like dishonesty, hiding or deception. We can detect little signs, and you may think your partner is having an affair if female clothing is found in the house which does not belong to you.

Helen and Betty 1For the trans partner: please remember that this is like a bereavement but with no body and no funeral. If you are going to throw clothes from your previous gender away warn your partner and, perhaps, allow us to keep some sentimental items – even if just for a while, so we can grieve in our own time. Acknowledge this grieving process is just like any other, it HURTS!

Keep open channels of communication at all times and also agree to stop talking if it is getting too much. My counsellor suggested we have a password to use if this is happening, and we then agree to talk later at an agreed time. So far that works for us.

The trans person may be tempted to rush into transitioning (coming out, HRT, ‘real life experience’ and possibly surgery) because it is a lifelong desire to change gender. For the partner, it is a constant ‘in your face’ tornado of selfish wants that completely ignores and threatens the relationship. The effects of HRT on the mind and the body are visibly shocking and can be upsetting for the partner who knew another person intimately. Thankfully, there are now several good books out there and web sites. Bear in mind that by ‘outing’ yourself as being trans, you do the same to your partner and they may be concerned about what others think. The partner of a trans person may worry about peoples’ perceptions: are we a lesbian couple, sisters, sisters-in-law…?

Our particular relationship has been strong enough to overcome this. My partner first attempted a kind of dual life of living as a woman outside work many years ago, but this time around its permanent and that was a big adjustment for me. In transition we now tend to avoid the same haunts we frequented because waiting staff would recognize me and wonder if I have a new relationship as we sit at the same table ordering the same favourite meals. Even in places we have never been to, the ‘couple’ in us still comes out as we say ‘we’ the whole time when talking. I have to be very blunt here and say a part of our success is that my partner is completely convincing and I doubt if I would remain if she was not. Do not ‘carry the monkey’: other peoples’ reactions are their problem not yours. Who to tell and when is up to you. We have now told all our best friends and family, but my partner’s family proved to be the most negative.

For me this is not a linear process either. I have not gone smoothly from timid enquiry, anger, depression, thinking and reading to acceptance. Some days are better than others. Several times I revisit each emotion forwards and then backwards. This is where counselling helps. You are not alone. Also, bear in mind this is no-one’s fault so try not to blame when you are at your most angry to accuse. If you think that is easier said than done, I totally agree as I am guilty of doing that often – even now. I was quite shocked in one professional counselling session in the UK to be told I had in fact married a woman all along! To be told it was all to do with conception, what happens in the womb and the brain was earth shattering. Read, read and read. I have found it quite fascinating, painful and absorbing.

Having gone through more than a woman should for love, my partner wants a Gender Recognition Certificate. In 2014 with same sex marriage legal, the process is still unclear for married people where a partner transitions and, yet, retains the same legal rights. The irony that we already live as same sex couples after surgery is lost on them.

To end on a lighter note; there have been many fun moments, e.g. I now get to buy more clothes than before as she understands the need, but co-ordinating what to wear out can be a laugh. In the end love is more important than gender.

(Photograph is not of the post author but of Helen Boyd and her partner, Betty Crow. Helen is the author of She’s Not the Man I Married.)

The transition curve

John Fisher (Leicester University) is a well-respected business psychologist whose work on constructivist theory in relation to service provision organisations produced a model in 1999 of personal change, The Personal Transition Curve, which provides us with an analysis of how individuals deal with personal change. This was updated in 2012 and represents a development of The Change Curve, widely attributed to psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and her work on the process of bereavement and grief.

Business theory may seem a long way away from gender studies but it is relevant to us when we have to manage the effect that our transition has on those around us in order to retain our personal relationships intact during our transition. Understanding Fisher’s model and the phases that individuals go through when faced with change (of any sort) can help prepare us for the reactions of those closest to us around our transition. Take a look at Fisher’s 2012 model and there are probably some phases that seem familiar to you, reactions that you have witnessed in those around you to your news.

the-process-of-transition-fisher-s-personal-transition-curve-1Let’s examine the stages and apply them to the process of gender transitioning:

The awareness that events lie outside one’s range of understanding or control. Fisher believes the problem here is that individuals are unable to adequately picture the future. They do not have enough information to allow them to anticipate behaving in a different way within the new organisation. They are unsure how to adequately construe acting in the new work and social situations.

This is familiar to trans* people. The condition of gender dysphoria and the stages of treatment that trans* people have to go through is not well understood and outside most people’s experience. This breeds a fear of the unknown – what will life be like for the trans* person and what will life be like for those closest to the trans* person?

It is up to us to reassure those around us that we can see the future and it is going to be an improvement on the present. Using testimonies from trans* people who have gone before us, such as can be found on YouTube, can help those around us visualise our future.

The awareness that one’s viewpoint is recognised and shared by others. The impact of this is twofold. At the basic level there is a feeling of relief that something is going to change and not continue as before. Whether the past is perceived positively or negatively, there is still a feeling of anticipation and even excitement at the possibility of improvement. On another level, there is the satisfaction of knowing that some of your thoughts about the old system were correct (generally, no matter how well we like the status quo, there is something that is unsatisfactory about it) and that something is going to be done about it.

Trans* individuals may recognise this phase as the moment when people say, “We always knew you weren’t like other children”, and then congratulate you on having the courage to recognise it in yourself.

Fisher says that the happiness phase is one of the more interesting phases and may be (almost) passed through without knowing. In this phase it is the “Thank goodness, something is happening at last” feeling coupled with the knowledge that, if we are lucky/involved/contribute, things can only get better.

Significantly for trans* individuals, if we can start interventions at this stage we can minimise the impact of the rest of the curve and virtually flatten the curve. By involving, informing, getting a “buy in” at this time we can help people move through the process. This is where availability of factual information can help maintain the “happy” feeling. Collect a number of different sources for your family to read that underline the positives of transitioning so they can choose the medium that suits them: health leaflets, transgender biographies, sympathetic documentaries and Internet resources. Encourage your friends and family to talk to you about your transition and accept any help that they may offer in order to involve them in your transition.

The awareness of an imminent incidental change in one’s core behavioural system. People will need to act in a different manner and this will have an impact on both their self-perception and on how others externally see them. However, in the main, they see little change in their normal interactions and believe they will be operating in much the same way, merely choosing a more appropriate, but new, action.

According to Frances (1999), fear and threat are the two key emotions that will cause us to resist change.

The awareness of an imminent comprehensive change in one’s core behavioural structures. Here people perceive a major change to what they believe to be their core identity or sense of self. The realisation that the change will have a fundamental impact on who we are, how we see ourselves and what is key in our personality to us as individuals. This is the shock of suddenly discovering you’re not who you thought you were! It is a radical alteration to our future choices and other people’s perception of us as individuals. Our old choices are no longer ones that will work. In many ways this is a “road to Damascus” type of life-changing experience. In this phase, people are unsure as to how they will be able to act/react in what is, potentially, a totally new and alien environment; one where the old rules no longer apply and there are no new ones established as yet.

It is key for trans* people to combat these two phases by being clear and concise about what is going to happen to them physically, what the timescale is for their transition, when others can expect to see physical changes, when others need to start using correct names and pronouns, etc. Being clear about what you need from those around you creates the new set of rules that friends and family can use to replace the old rules that no longer apply, giving them some stability.

An awareness of a dislodgement of our self from our core self perception. We are not who we thought we were! Once the individual begins exploring their self-perception, how they acted/reacted in the past and looking at alternative interpretations they begin to re-define their sense of self. This, generally, involves identifying what are their core beliefs and how closely they have been to meeting them. Recognition of the inappropriateness of their previous actions and the implications for them as people can cause guilt as they realise the impact of their behaviour. Another of the emotions that may have an impact here is that of shame. This is the awareness of a negative change in someone else’s opinion of you from what you think it should be. The recognition of this shift in our own and other people’s opinion then leads into the next stage.

This is a particularly resonant phase for partners and parents who may have insisted, at various times in the trans* person’s life, that they dress or look a certain way. Depending on how forcefully this was done, those around the trans* person may feel guilty about this. It is up to us as trans* people to make it clear to those who love us that we understand they could not have known what they were doing and acknowledge that they meant well by their actions at that time.

Shame is one of the most destructive emotions for trans* people, when our family and friends feel ashamed of us because they receive, or think they will receive, negative opinions about us from others. Being out and proud of ourselves can help those closest to us to see that the world, by and large, is accepting of trans* people. Recounting your positive experiences of telling people can also help persuade friends and family that there is nothing to be ashamed of.

The awareness that our past actions, behaviours and beliefs are incompatible with our core construct of our identity. The belief that our past actions mean we’re not a very nice person after all! This phase is characterised by a general lack of motivation and confusion. Individuals are uncertain as to what the future holds and how they can fit into the future “world”. Their representations are inappropriate and the resultant undermining of their core sense of self leaves them adrift with no sense of identity and no clear vision of how to operate.

For trans* people this often manifests itself with declarations from friends and family that we are no longer who they thought we were or that everything they thought they knew about us was a lie. This, of course, is untrue. We need to remind them of all the things that have not changed about us. Gender is only one aspect of a person, it is not the whole. Undertaking activities with your friends and family that you have always done together can be a way to remind them that you haven’t changed and there are still lots of things about your relationship that are familiar.

Gradual acceptance
Here we begin to make sense of our environment and of our place within the change. In effect, we are beginning to get some validation of our thoughts and actions and can see that where we are going is right. We are at the start of managing our control over the change, making sense of the “what” and “why” and seeing some successes in how we interact – there is a light at the end of the tunnel! This links in with an increasing level of self-confidence and an awareness of the goodness of fit of the self in one’s core role structure, i.e. we feel good that we are doing the right things in the right way.

Moving forward
In this stage, we are starting to exert more control, make more things happen in a positive sense and are getting our sense of self back. We know who we are again and are starting to feel comfortable that we are acting in line with our convictions, beliefs, etc and making the right choices. In this phase we are, again, experimenting within our environment more actively and effectively.

It has also been suggested that there is also actually a final (and/or initial stage) of complacency (King 2007). Here people have survived the change, rationalised the events, incorporated them into their new construct system and got used to the new reality. This is where we feel that we have, once again, moved into our comfort zone and that we will not encounter any event that is either outside our construct system (or world view) or that we can’t incorporate into it with ease. We know the right decisions and can predict future events with a high degree of certainty. These people are subsequently laid back, not really interested in what’s going on around them and coasting through the job almost oblivious to what is actually happening around them. They are, again, operating well within their comfort zone and, in some respects, can’t see what all the fuss has been about. Even though the process may have been quite traumatic for them at the time!

Annoying though this may be, especially if you have had to invest time in supporting them through the transition curve, don’t allow yourself to get angry at their denial of the effort it has taken to reach this level of acceptance of your transition. Just be grateful that they are there!

Now, let’s look at some of the ways that the transition curve can get derailed into negative emotions that go nowhere:

This stage is defined by a lack of acceptance of any change and denies that there will be any impact on the individual. People keep acting as if the change has not happened, using old practices and processes and ignoring evidence or information contrary to their belief systems. In many ways when we are faced with a problem, or situation, we don’t want, or one that we believe is too challenging to our sense of self we constrict or narrow our range of construction. In this way we eliminate the problem from our awareness. The “head in the sand” syndrome: if I can’t see it, or acknowledge it then it doesn’t exist!

This one is horribly familiar to lots of trans* people. The constant use of old pronouns and old names is a classic example of where a person is in denial about your transition. Be patient with this one. Listen to them and attempt to understand where they are at that moment. Timing is important when managing change so don’t try to move them onto the next stage before they are ready for it. You will be ahead on them on the transition curve so you will know when the time is right to move the discussion on.

You have to listen to them and attempt to understand where they are at that moment. – See more at: http://www.practical-management-skills.com/change-management-theories.html#sthash.R1FUxL3w.dpuf
You have to listen to them and attempt to understand where they are at that moment. – See more at: http://www.practical-management-skills.com/change-management-theories.html#sthash.R1FUxL3w.dpu

Fisher came to recognise over time that there seemed to be some anger associated with moving through the transition curve, especially in the earlier stages as people start to recognise the wider implications of change. This is not always present as it seems to be dependent on the amount of control people feel they have over the overall process. The focus of the anger also changes over time. In the first instance, for those where change is forced on them, the anger appears to be directed outward at other people. They are blamed for the situation and for causing stress to the individual. However, as time progresses and the implications grow greater for the individual, the anger moves inwards and there is a danger that this drives us into the guilt and depression stages. We become angry at ourselves for not knowing better and/or allowing the situation to escalate outside our control.

A lot of trans* people experience the anger of their friends and family at the changes being forced on them by the transition. Unfortunately, this anger frequently is directed at the trans* person rather than at the situation that those closest to us find themselves in. This is unfair but, if we understand why it is happening, we can recognise it for what it is and work through it. Hurtful and insulting remarks may be said in the heat of anger. We must try not to get angry ourselves and reply in kind but, instead, realise that they are not meant personally. They are a natural reaction to a situation that is out of an individual’s control.

The awareness that your values, beliefs and goals are incompatible with those of the organisation. The pitfalls associated with this phase are that the employee becomes unmotivated, unfocused and increasingly dissatisfied and gradually withdraws their labour, either mentally (by just “going through the motions”, doing the bare minimum, actively undermining the change by criticising/complaining) or physically by resigning.

The undermining, criticising, and withdrawal of support may be familiar to trans* people. Often this happens to a friend or family member who has previously seemed supportive of our transition. One way to re-engage them with your transition is to ask their opinion about an aspect of transitioning in order to involve them in the process again. It could be something as minor as asking them to go shopping with you for some new clothes and taking their advice on what might suit you, or it could be a more significant involvement such as asking them to help plan your travel and accommodation for a hospital trip.

The continued effort to validate social predictions that have already proved to be a failure. The problem here is that individuals continue to operate processes that have repeatedly failed to achieve a successful outcome and are no longer part of the new process or are surplus to the new way of working. The new processes are ignored at best and actively undermined at worst.

It is possible that some people in your life are not able to move forward and get stuck in the stages of denial, disillusionment or hostility. You may not be able to help everyone move through the change process, despite your best efforts. If this happens, your time might be better spent working with those who are moving through the curve and see your transition as a positive thing. These people can act as “champions” and may,in the long run, support those stuck in denial, disillusionment or hostility to reach the same view.

It can be seen from the transition curve that it is important for an individual to understand the impact that the change will have on their own personal construct systems, and for them to be able to work through the implications for their self-perception. Any change, no matter how small, has the potential to impact on an individual and may generate conflict between existing values and beliefs and anticipated altered ones.

To help people move through the transition effectively we need to understand their perception of the past, present and future. What is their past experience of change and how has it impacted on them, how did they cope, what will they be losing as part of the change and what will they be gaining? Our goal is to help make the transition as effective and painless as possible. By providing education, information, and support we can help people transition through the curve and emerge on the other side. Trans* Jersey has posted a page of change management tools that may help you manage your transition and the acceptance of those around you. Also, you may want to read around the subject of mechanisms for coping with change. There’s a good primer here from Mind Tools.

Each person will experience transition through the curve at slightly different speeds. Much of the speed of transition will depend on the individual’s self-perception, locus of control, and other past experiences, and how these all combine to create their anticipation of future events. The more positively you see the outcome, the more control you have (or believe you have) over both the process and the final result, the less difficult and negative a journey you have.

You can find out more about John Fisher’s process of personal transition here where the model’s history is discussed.

Change management tools

These are Trans* Jersey’s top tips for managing the change that your transition will create for those closest to you. They are drawn from business theories of managing change in the workplace but we think that they work for us, too. If you want to keep your personal relationships intact during your transition, you will need to expend some effort to do so. It isn’t enough to shrug and say that it’s up to your friends and family to just accept what you are telling them. It’s not fair to them to dump the news on their doorstep with no support to help them understand it. It’s a two-way process; it’s up to both you and them.

Because gender dysphoria and transitioning is so poorly understood at present, you will need to be a bit of an educator as well as a manager of change within your “team”. Teaching may not be a skill that you currently possess but you can take a couple of short cuts.

1) Any teacher will tell you that lesson planning is a large part of the job. For us that simply means planning what we are going to say, when we are going to say it and to which audience we are going to say it. If you aren’t good at this, before any important conversation, write down what you want to say and don’t be embarrassed to use your notes.

2) Use the educational resources developed by others. Do your research to make it easy for you and those closest to you. Point your friends and family to websites, books, blogs, etc that do the educator’s job for you and don’t forget to follow up with them to allow them to ask you questions about what they’ve read.

changemgmtOur tips (taken from a number of business publications including the Acas advisory booklet on how to manage change):

  • Act quickly, the longer the uncertainty lasts the worse people will feel. The anticipatory phase of change can cause anxiety and stress. Communication needs to be built into the planning process for change right from the very start when you decide: the issues; objectives; audience; and message you want to communicate about your transition. Connecting with your team and laying the groundwork for open, honest discussions sets the stage for a connected and collaborative change. Ideally, this first phase needs to be done swiftly so that people hear the same message at the same time and do not hear about your transition through rumour. For more information about how to achieve this, see Trans* Jersey’s page on Transition Management.
  • Involve stakeholders at the earliest stage in planning change. Your friends and family cannot realistically be involved in the healthcare aspects of your transition but you can involve them in all the social aspects. Thoroughly outline the details of your transition and communicate the high‑level types of changes that will be happening to you. Don’t lose people to “denial”. Involve them early and often to avoid some of the darker valleys of Fisher’s Transition Curve. Accept any advice they offer and, if it fits in with your plan, include it. If it doesn’t fit in with your plan, explain why. Don’t be bullied into compromising or changing your plan – you are the manager of your transition and you have the final say in how it will work.
  • Tell the truth! It can be tempting to gloss over the more damaging impacts of change. Don’t compromise your truth to appease other people. It won’t work. You will be unhappy with a partial transition and they will never learn to fully accept your change. Change can be painful so don’t draw it out for those around you. Tell them you are transitioning and then do so!
  • Build on positive feedback – some stakeholders may be relieved or even happy that something’s been done at last. There will be people in your life who always knew that you were different and will be thrilled that you have finally found a way to express that difference and be happy. These people are your champions – use them. Ask them to chat to other friends or family members who may be struggling with your news.
  • Offer reassurance. Reassurance is really important. Your key messages may well be based on your immediate objectives for your transition. However, these can seem like a big step to someone who has not caught up to where you are in the process. Provide context for your transition that makes the changes taking place meaningful to individuals, such as talking about your childhood experiences of dysphoria with people who knew you then. Those people who love us are the ones who have invested the most in our lives. A lot of their fears and worries around our transition are going to be for our health and safety. Make sure that they know it is going to be okay, that you are getting the best advice you can and that you are taking sensible precautions to stay safe.
  • Consult with stakeholders as soon as possible. Early warning of changes to your plan or new things that are happening to you during your transition can help people adjust. Hormone therapy, for example, is not an exact science. Everyone reacts differently. If your hormones are affecting you emotionally, let your friends and family know as soon as possible.
  • Be clear and consistent about the message you are putting across. This refers to good “lesson planning” again. Plan important conversations well in advance. Don’t rush them. You may only get one opportunity to say what you need to say so it needs to be clear, concise and easily understood by the person receiving the news. Try to keep your important communications short and to the point. Don’t “kitchen sink”. People can only be expected to take in two or three key messages at a time.
  • Think about the way you communicate. The more face-to-face communication you have with stakeholders the better. You may not be able to answer all questions during one session so consider using emails or newsletters to respond to queries. Always use plain English. Avoid jargon, it will only dilute your message and confuse your audience. See Trans* Jersey’s page on communicating assertively.
  • Address personal concerns and give stakeholders the chance for questions – constructive criticism can be very positive! Questions are good. It means that your friends and family are engaging with your transition and want to know more. Try to be patient, open and honest with their inquiries. If there are questions that you do not feel comfortable answering, say so but make it clear that it is fine for them to ask any question they wish, you just reserve the right not to answer.
  • Recognise how individuals feel. Taking regular “mood checks” on how people are feeling at different stages of the change will help you plan your communications strategy. Become a good listener and use the Transition Curve to help understand where people might be struggling with your transition. You should be able to work out what messages are not getting through or how to tackle any resistance to change. Be patient and try to help these people move on in their acceptance of the change. Rather than lecturing friends and family about how they should be feeling about your transition, a  better tactic is to ask questions to get them to explore why they feel like that.
  • Plan for stakeholders who cannot accept the changes and want to leave. Despite your best efforts, you may lose a friend or family member in the course of your transition. If you do, accept the loss of that relationship and allow yourself time to mourn that loss. Don’t expend energy on someone who refuses to take your journey with you. Let them go. You never know, they may realise that their life is poorer without you and come back in the future.
  • Provide training where necessary for new duties or procedures. Again, this speaks to the need to educate those around us about our transition. This doesn’t only include the clinical facts about gender dysphoria, hormones and surgery, but also includes educating our friends and family about who we are and how we want to be treated by society now.
  • Keep communicating. Don’t communicate for the sake of it but don’t be afraid to repeat your messages. Remember everyone will be at different stages in coming to terms with the change happening around them. See Trans* Jersey’s page on communicating assertively.
  • Offer strong leadership and motivation. This is your transition and, if you don’t own it, nobody will. Be clear about what you want from it and stick to that goal. To keep your transition in a positive place, inform and educate your stakeholders about the benefits of your transition and the good things that are already coming from it. You want to build confidence. Being open and positive about it will attract support from many more people than just your friends and family for what you are doing. Being shy or, worse, embarrassed and ashamed of your transition will provoke the same reaction in others. Everyone likes to be associated with success so you need to put in the work to ensure that your transition is the success you want it to be. Inspire them by helping them to visualize the future and their new role in your life!
  • Provide counselling where appropriate. For those people struggling with your transition, suggest that they go and see their GP to get a recommendation for a few counselling sessions to help them process the change that is happening. Be prepared to have this suggestion rejected – some people still have a stigma about going to see a counsellor – but make the offer none the less. The counsellor doesn’t need to be a gender specialist. Coping with change is within the remit of most psychologists. Your friend or family member should be able to get this counselling covered by their medical insurance or through the Jersey health service.
  • Set up a working group to work on specific problem areas. Where you encounter resistance to your transition, recruit your champions to help you. Ask them for their advice on how to approach the person who is resistant, ask them if they will have a chat to the resistant person for you to find out what might be bothering them, or ask them to accompany you as a mediator for your conversation with the person who is resistant.
  • Involve stakeholders in reviewing ongoing changes. There are lots of mini-milestones in transitioning where you can involve other people. Friends and family may feel honoured and, therefore, more invested if they are asked to be included at a moment that has significance for you. For example, ask them for their input when you go shopping for new clothes, MtFs might ask female friends and relatives for make-up advice, FtMs might ask male friends and relatives for tips on how to “talk sports”, take a friend or family member with you when you change your name or get your new documents, etc.
  • Celebrate successes. About a year into your transition, you will know who your supporters are and the hard work of managing your friends and family’s reaction to your transition should be behind you so make sure that you do something to thank them, maybe have a “transition anniversary” party or send everyone a personalised card thanking them for their support. Your friends and family will appreciate the gesture and it will be a way of marking the end of your role as the change manager for your “team”.

Communicating assertively

You won’t be surprised to learn that communication is really important to a successful transition. The tone you should be aiming for in all your communications on the subject of your transition is assertive – not passive or aggressive – but honest and respectful. Here are some helpful tips from AnxietyBC, a Canadian charity that helps people with anxiety disorders.

Assertive communication is the honest expression of one’s own needs, wants, and feelings, while respecting those of the other person. When you communicate assertively, your manner is non-threatening and non-judgmental, and you take responsibility for your own actions.

If you are socially anxious, you may have some difficulty expressing your thoughts and feelings openly. Assertiveness skills can be difficult to learn, especially since being assertive can mean holding yourself back from the way you would normally do things. For example, you may be afraid of conflict, always go along with the crowd, and avoid offering your opinions, and as a result have developed a passive communication style. Alternatively, you may aim to control and dominate others, and have developed an aggressive communication style.

However, an assertive communication style brings many benefits. For example, it can help you to relate to others more genuinely, with less anxiety and resentment. It also gives you more control over your life, and reduces feelings of helplessness. Furthermore, it allows other people the right to live their lives.

Remember: Assertiveness is a learned skill, not a personality trait you are born with. It is what you do, not who you are

To start, ask yourself the following questions to identify what area(s) to work on:

  • Do I struggle to ask for what I want?
  • Is it hard to state my opinion?
  • Do I have trouble saying no?

Tips for communicating assertively:

  • Many people find it hard to ask for what they want, feeling that they don’t have the right to ask, or fearing the consequences of the request. For example, you may think, “What if he says no?” or “She would think I am rude for asking”.
  • When making a request, it can be helpful to start by saying something that shows that you understand the other person’s situation. For example, “I know you probably have had a lot on your mind lately.”
  • Next, describe the situation and how you feel about it. For example, “This presentation is due next Friday and I am feeling pretty overwhelmed, and worried that I won’t be able to get it done in time.” It is important to talk about your feelings, and not to make accusations to others. For example, it is better to say, “I feel resentful when you show up late to meet me” than it is to say, “You are always late! You don’t care about me!”
  • Then, describe what you would like to see happen. Be as brief and positive as possible. For example, “I’d really like to figure out how we can share more of the work responsibilities.”
  • Last, tell the person what would happen if your request was honoured. How would you feel? Sometimes, you may want to add what you will do in return. For example, “I would make sure to help you with the slides for your presentation next week.”
  • Many people have trouble expressing their views openly. Perhaps you wait for others to give their opinion first, and will share yours only if you happen to agree. Being assertive means being willing to state your opinion, even if others haven’t done so or if your opinion is different.
  • Being assertive means that you “own” your opinion; that is, you take responsibility for your view. For example, “My personal view is that it was unfair for her to ask that of you.”
  • Being assertive also means being willing to consider new information, and even changing your mind. However, it does not mean changing your mind just because others think differently.

Tips for saying no:

  • Saying no can be difficult for you if you are usually more passive. However, if you are not able to say no to others, you are not in charge of your own life!
  • When saying no, remember to use assertive body language (e.g. standing straight, eye contact, speaking loudly enough that the other person can hear).
  • Before you speak, decide what your position is. For example, think about how you will say “no” to a request, such as, “I would like to help you out, but I already have quite a bit of work to get done this week.”
  • Make sure you actually wait for the question, and don’t say “yes” before the other person even makes the request.
  • Take care not to apologize, defend yourself, or make excuses for saying no when it is not necessary.
  • If saying no right away is too difficult, practise telling someone, “I need to think about it” as a first step. This will help break the cycle of always saying yes, and will give you a chance to think about what you really want to do.

Remember: Everyone has the right to say no!

Practise your new assertiveness skill:

  • First, think of a couple of past scenarios when you avoided giving your opinion or preference, saying no, or asking for what you wanted. How could you have handled the situation differently? What would be an assertive way to communicate in those situations?
  • Practise saying your assertive statement out loud to yourself, to get used to it. For example, “Actually, I thought the movie dragged on a bit”, “Unfortunately, I can’t help you out next weekend”, or “I’d like the dishes done before nine o’clock”.
  • Next, think of a situation that is coming up in the next week in which you could use your assertiveness skills. Begin with a scenario that is easier, for example, giving your opinion or saying no to more familiar people, and then try it in more difficult situations.
  • Try it out – how did it go? Notice how the other person reacted. Would you do something differently next time?

Remember: assertiveness is like any new skill, and requires time and practice. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you are feeling nervous, or not getting it quite right. Reward yourself when you do speak up!

Note: Sometimes people who are not used to us being assertive may need some time to adjust. Just because people may not initially respond in a positive way, doesn’t mean that being assertive is wrong – they just need to adjust to the change!

Myths about assertiveness:

  • Myth #1: Assertiveness means getting your own way all the time. This is not true. Being assertive means expressing your point of view and communicating honestly with others. You may often not get “your own way” when you are assertively giving your opinion. But telling others how you feel, and trying to work out a compromise, shows respect for both yourself and others.
  • Myth #2: Being assertive means being selfish. This is false. Just because you express your opinions and your preferences does not mean that other people are forced to go along with you. If you express yourself assertively (not aggressively) then you make room for others. You can also be assertive on behalf of someone else (e.g. “I would like Susan to choose the restaurant this week”).
  • Myth #3: Passivity is the way to be loved. This is false. Being passive means always agreeing with others, always allowing them to get their own way, giving into their wishes, and making no demands or requests of your own. Behaving this way is no guarantee that others will like or admire you. In fact, they may perceive you as dull and feel frustrated that they can’t really get to know you.
  • Myth #4: It’s impolite to disagree. This is not true. Although there are some situations where we don’t give our honest opinion (e.g. most people say how beautiful a friend looks in her wedding dress, or we only say positive things on the first day of a new job). Much of the time, however, other people will be interested to know what you think. Think how you would feel if everyone always agreed with you!
  • Myth #5: I have to do everything I am asked to do. False. A central part of being assertive is setting and keeping personal boundaries. This is difficult for many people. With our friends, we may worry that they will think we are selfish and uncaring if we don’t do everything they ask. At work, we may worry that others will think we are lazy or inefficient if we don’t do everything we are asked to do. But other people cannot possibly know how busy you are, how much you dislike a particular task, or what other plans you have already made, unless you tell them. Most people would feel badly to learn that you had done something for them that you really didn’t have the time for (e.g. writing a report that requires you to work all weekend) or that you really dislike doing (e.g. helping a friend move).

Final tip: Although it is important to test skills out and use the trial and error process, we can learn a lot from observing others. Ask yourself who you feel comfortable interacting with – what do they do (lean forward, smile, etc). Try to identify some of the things that other people do that make you feel good interacting with them and then try doing those things yourself.

An open letter to our families

We know that being the family of a trans* person is not something you sought or ever thought you would have to deal with. We know that in coming out as trans*, we are also forcing you out as the family of a trans* person. We know that you are concerned for us, for our welfare, for our healthcare, for our relationships, for our safety, for all the reasons that you have seen as headlines in the newspapers, and that makes you afraid for us. We know that you can’t be sure we are doing the right thing, maybe we are just going through a phase. We know that you will get our name wrong and use the wrong pronoun sometimes, which may embarrass you in public. We know all of these things and that’s why coming out to our families is the hardest thing we have to do. We worry so much that, if we can’t help you find a way through all of these issues, we may lose you. We don’t want to lose you, we want you in our lives. Our love for you doesn’t change when we transition but, sometimes, your love for us does.

familyIn an ideal world, when we come out to you as trans*, at some point in the process, we would like you to give us a hug and say something similar to: “That’s great news. I’m so happy that you have reached a place where you feel able to express yourself in a way that is true to the person you really are. How can I best help and support you?” We know this is a big ask, but it’s not an impossible ask.

To our mothers and fathers: when the midwife placed us in your arms for the first time and said, “It’s a …”, would you have loved us any less if she had said our real gender as opposed to the gender dictated by our genitalia? To our partners, siblings, children and wider family: when you met us for the first time and were introduced to us, “This is …”, would you have loved us any the less if you had been introduced to us as the name that we have chosen for ourselves to match our true gender? If the answer to both these questions is “no”, which it probably is, then the problem with transitioning is not our gender or our new name, the problem is that we are changing from something familiar to something that seems unfamiliar.

Nobody likes change and our transition imposes a change on your life that you did not seek. Because of the process of transition, the news of this change is necessarily sudden for our families. Transitioning is never a spur of the moment decision and coming out to our families happens at the end of a process that may take years. Our families, therefore, receive the news of our transition with none of the preparation time we have had. Put like this, as the person transitioning, we have a responsibility to help those whose love and support we value to transition with us.

As the family of a trans* person, you have a right to ask them to accept this responsibility and to give you the help and support you need to manage the change that is happening in your life. This may include arranging for you to speak to a counsellor about your concerns or finding appropriate resources to help you understand the process of transitioning and why it is not a choice for the trans* person. To this end, we have added a post about the Transition Curve – the stages that everyone goes through when faced with change – that gives the trans* person in your family some guidance on how best to do this. You may also want to read it to understand a little more about why human beings don’t like change much and react in similar, predictable ways to it.

It is in our interests to help you cope with our transition. If we want you in our lives, we must make the effort. Communicating with you is, therefore, vital to the process. However much you might not want to talk about it, expressing your feelings is better than bottling them up. Please tell us how you are feeling. If you can’t do it face-to-face, phone us or write to us. If you need time and space, say so. We can respect that. Trans* Jersey’s post on communicating assertively applies to you as well as to us. Anger is a common reaction to change, especially change that is out of our control. Get angry, but please don’t get angry with us. Gender dysphoria is not something that we chose. If you need to get angry, get angry with the change, with the dysphoria, with the situation, but not with us.

To speak assertively: at some point, you have to accept that our transition is not just a phase, it isn’t going to go away. If you want us in your life, you must make an effort, too. Acknowledging this fact is the first step to accepting our transition and that goal of giving us a hug and saying something similar to: “That’s great news. I’m so happy that you have reached a place where you feel able to express yourself in a way that is true to the person you really are. How can I best help and support you?”

To answer the question, “How can I best help and support you?”, all we ask is that you are as proud of us as you always were. Be open and honest about our transition, don’t hide it. Be as proud that you have a trans* family member as you are of the other things we have done in our lives and the other members of your family. If you hide it, you are suggesting to those outside the family that there is a reason to hide it, that it is something of which to be ashamed. When people see that those closest to us accept our transition they, too, will take that attitude. After all, if those closest to us accept us, what right have others to find it “weird”? This also maximises our chances of staying safe from transphobic attacks – one of your fears for us. If we have allies who will step into defend us, we aren’t alone.

And that is what all trans* people who come out to their friends and family fear most – that they will end up alone as a result of their revelation. Please don’t do that to your family member, they will be much more vulnerable if you do and you will be the poorer for it.