I was reading an interesting column, “How do you tell your family you are transgender?” in The Guardian today, when I came across an anecdote that resonated with me.
…I was more surprised that on coming out, friends and family might initially see my transition as some sort of ‘death’. Carrying on our relationships as normal soon proved that all that was ‘dying’ was my masculine façade.
Ah, yes. My old nemesis, the “your transition is like a death to me,” analogy. It’s a frustrating response to deal with because it’s unquestionably an emotionally honest reaction when coming from loved ones. But, if I’m being equally honest emotionally – hearing it feels like a dig, a cheap shot, and a guilt trip rolled into one. It’s a not-so-subtle accusation that you are taking someone precious and loved away from someone you care about. But the only person involved here is you – and you’re listening to this death talk while you’re standing right there. Like I said – frustrating!
It’s also a difficult reaction to get because you’re conflicted in how to address it. On the one hand you want to respect the emotional impact of your transition on the lives of others. You want to give them time and space to sort things out without rushing or pushing them. “It’s like a death to me,” represents a non-trivial statement relating to the enormity of emotional importance your transition represents to them. That’s not a time when you want to correct terminology, or argue over the aptness of a particular analogy. You just want to listen and understand.
On the other hand, having people tell you to your face that you’re at least somewhat dead to them can’t help but feel like an insulting refusal to accept you for who you actually are. If someone directly says “you’re dead to me,” we understand that means total rejection. The less direct version may be intended quite differently, but it doesn’t feel all that different.
Maybe this disconnect is an opportunity to illustrate how incredibly important gender is in defining a person. After all, most people talk about our transitions like they’re arbitrary choices. Even sympathetic people frequently try to talk us into less dramatic alternatives than transitioning (e.g. maybe you’re just gay, maybe you should wait until after your kids are grown, maybe you can just handle these feelings by cross-dressing in private, etc.).
But if changing our gender expression is like a death for those dealing with someone close to them changing their gender, try to imagine what it’s like to live your whole life trying to repress your own gender. What I mean is, if gender is so gosh darn important in your relationship with one another person, how can the fact that this same thing affects every relationship that person ever has not be treated with proportionally more importance? Why should your emotions about their gender be treated with such respect, while their emotions about their own gender are up for debate?
Because the truth is, we’re not becoming different people when we transition our sexual identity. From our perspective what we’re doing is shedding a mask, allowing us to finally become truly intimate with the loved ones in our life. We’re still the same people, but we’re shedding the main barrier which has kept our relationships more distant than we would have liked. Far from death, we finally feel like we can fully participate in life! We’re hoping our loved ones will enjoy relating to us as our true selves, rather than relating to our affected self-portrayal through a mis-gendered mask.
In closing, I want to express that there is clearly a grieving process involved for some people when a loved one transitions. I’ve seen it up close and personal. This is every bit as valid and natural as the feelings of the person doing the transitioning. But if we could just lay off the “death” analogy and find other terms to talk about it, it would probably be a lot healthier for the continuing relationship.