Are you in the midst of a gender transition process and struggling to communicate with your family, to get them on your side?
Or perhaps you are supporting a transitioning loved one, not sure what are the right words to use, how to keep peace amongst the other family members? Maybe you are worried that you have to "keep calm and carry on".
The intention of this article is to shine a light on understanding the impact of gender transition on all the family members and consequently offer new ways of relating to each other.
Traditionally, the gender transition process is considered as an event that happens to an individual, with the focus on supporting them through the journey. There is some recognition that those who offer support may also be affected by the change, however the need for support is acknowledged more incidentally (if they express that they feel the impact and need help).
A different view, based in systemic therapy approach, assumes that all the people close to the person going through gender transition are also in some way impacted by the process just by the virtue of being a part of the family, whether or not they report “being affected”. This approach sees families as “systems”, where all its members are interdependent elements. We expect of each other to behave in a certain way because maintaining the system depends on it. When one family member changes, the others have to adjust their behaviour accordingly, otherwise the system may collapse.
The Systemic Approach
A gender transition in the understanding of systemic approach is an event that happens within the family – and to the family. Each of the family members has to undergo a transition of their own in order to preserve the relationships within the family. Each of them has to go through changes they may not even be aware of, and when they are, they may not feel like it is fair.
It is as if the new entity called ‘Transition’ has entered the family space and everyone has to move around to make room – whether they like it or not. Everyone has to develop a relationship with Transition and recognise that its presence is also changing their relationships with each other.
Let’s look at a hypothetical family coping with the gender transition of the youngest child – twelve years old Alex, applying the systemic view.
Alex’s relationship with Transition is the closest and most intimate one. Alex didn’t choose to go through it, he just always knew that he is a boy. Once he told his parents about it he was really excited and expected Transition to become as close a friend to all his family as it is to him.
Alex’s Mum tries her best to meet her child’s hopes and be happy for him. Her relationship with Transition is ambivalent. She can see that since Transition moved in to their home Alex is much happier, but she can also see all the huge suitcase of troubles that it brought with it - medical issues, telling the extended family, all the potential threats in social life.
Transition also brought sadness and despair of losing a daughter, and guilt for not being able to be fully happy for ‘gaining a son’. She can also see that her older son and husband pretend Transition is not here which makes Alex sad and angry.
Alex’s Dad feels like Transition is a vicious enemy that not only took away his little girl, but seems to be taking away his wife. He loves them both, is desperately scared of losing them. He doesn’t understand the language of Transition and feels it is beyond his ability to ever learn it. He hopes it goes away …
Alex’s fourteen years old brother Tom is not just a detached observer as he would like to be seen. Transition spilled over from the family home and entered his school. Nobody asked Tom if he is ready to face his peers and to protect his sister, who is now his brother. In fact he wasn’t even invited for the meeting where Alex’s coming out was discussed. That left him furious and feeling marginalised by Transition, and also scared and protective of his little sibling.
Transition made him grow up quicker than he intended. Although he is not at all grateful, he can see how Transition made him aware of love and admiration for little brave Alex.
We can also imagine that Alex is veering between being happy and heartbroken: how to choose between Transition - the most understanding friend, and the Family - which means the world to him.
The scenario above is one of hundreds. We can imagine Transition entering a family space with one of the parents coming out as transgender. It will become a huge challenge and perhaps a threat for the spouse, bringing a whole range of conflicting feelings and reactions. Young children may have no difficulty accepting change of the name and function. They can see Transition as bringing sadness and fear about losing both parents as became more distant and arguing.
It is not easy to find the way forward, but the systemic approach offers some guidance. First step is to recognise that everyone in the family is finding their way to relate to Transition. There is no other way. Even if one person says ‘I have no relationship with Transition’ it is still a relationship, albeit a very bad one.
The next step is to acknowledge that love and loyalty we had for each other before Transition arrived, are deeper than the challenges it brought.
If Transition had a voice it would say:
“Guys, neither of us asked for me to be here. I come like the weather. You can’t wish me away but you can decide what you do about me. You can leave me outside and hide, hoping I go away…
But I don’t. Or you can come outside and get to know me, understand how to make the most of my presence. Because even though I do not go away, I have an ability to transform into a shape and form that will make your family stronger. If you let me, I can learn to be one of you."
For more information and helpful articles from Anna, visit Counselling Directory or Jezuira Therapy. Discover more about Gender Dysphoria, How to Support a Loved One as they Come Out as Trans, find Tips for Transitioning Teens, and check out Anna's Guide for Parents: Helping Teens Transition.