Is someone close to you coming out as transgender? Here’s how you can emotionally navigate the potentially choppy waters, and why it is so important to try to understand their decision
If a family member comes out as transgender, the news may come as a shock and feel like a lot to process. It may come as an even bigger shock if your partner discloses that they are transgender, and you didn’t see it coming. In either case, there might be mixed emotions with the news, and a lot of emotional material to process.
Gender identity develops independently of physical anatomy and may or may not correspond with the sex assigned at birth. However, you may feel all at sea getting to know a whole new terminology. It could prove useful to become acquainted with what the gender-related terms actually mean; there are numerous freely available information packs online that explain the terminology. Practically, it may also prove to be a struggle to describe them with new gender pronouns – and potentially using their new name.
You might be wondering if this is just a phase they are going through. However, if someone has consistently expressed a transgender identity, it is highly unlikely that this will change throughout life. Coming out can invariably represent an accumulation of stress as it will have involved months, and possibly years, of agonising. There will have been a great internal battle about what to do or when to do it. Their decision won’t have been taken lightly as they will have worried about the potential risk of rejection by those they hold dear.
The only decision a transgender person makes is whether to live authentically and honestly
It is important to realise that nobody just decides to be transgender out of the blue. The only decision a transgender person makes is whether to live authentically and honestly. Deciding to come out as trans is an important first step towards being their true self and living the life they feel they deserve. It can be an exciting and liberating experience, but coming out as transgender can also represent one of the single most challenging things that they will do in their life.
You can help them in their journey by listening without judgement. Ask questions to better help you understand what they are going through. This could assist in putting them at ease as they explain their personal life choices. It might be helpful to see it as their moment, rather than yours. Also, try to maintain your social boundaries. Asking about their love life, sex life, or other intensely private things are no-nos. Ask sensitive questions, such as “How are you feeling?”, or “How long have you known?”
Any initial confusion you feel could be eased when you realise how much happier they are once they’ve started living as the gender they’ve always known they were supposed to be. Try to keep the focus on their happiness, as this will help you to navigate a new type of relationship. This could be challenging for some people, however, your encouragement could be vital in helping them access support services. Try to help them to get the support they need if they’re struggling with aspects of their journey. Their GP could be the first port of call as they can then be referred on to an expert on gender dysphoria to arrange initial assessments.
Gender dysphoria is sometimes known as gender identity disorder (GID), gender incongruence, or transgenderism, and is very real. People can feel trapped inside a body that doesn’t match their gender identity. Not helping a loved one tackle it and become the gender they want to be (if that’s what they really want) can have many negative consequences. It’s not uncommon for addictions to be triggered during the stress of forming a personal gender identity, or to experience anxiety, depression or even suicide ideation. Their anxiety levels can be compounded by speculating about what others might think when they come out, whether they will be hated, or whether they will lose their job, friends or partner. That’s why it’s so important to try to understand why they have made their decision.
If your partner comes out as transgender, there might be an extra layer of complexity. Coming out as gay to a heterosexual partner can potentially be more clear-cut as it usually means the end of the relationship, but coming out as transgender is not so straightforward. Some relationships can deepen, but others will find it more difficult to cope with.
If you can put into words your feelings and any mixed emotions surrounding the news, you will be better able to come to terms with a new way of relating. Whatever you’re feeling, it’s understandable that you have some emotional processing to do. You could seek a creative or physical outlet that lets you release some of the stress you might be feeling. Counselling can offer a safe place to explore your feelings and thoughts about the changes affecting your family and relationship.
Noel Bell is a clinical psychotherapist, focusing on relationships, addiction, and encouraging personal growth. Visit noelbell.net for more.