Dear Jean Marie:
I’m planning on seeking a therapist and surgeon so I can begin a sex change. But I am worried about how to tell my family and current girlfriend. Do you have any advice?
Salt Lake City
I’m no expert, and what worked for me in my situation may not work for you. So I went to two people who are experts, Gerald Ramsey, M.D., Ph.D., author of Transexuals: Questions and Answers, and Gianna E. Israel, counselor and co-author of Transgender: Care: Recommended Guidelines. Here is their advice:
First, they both agree that there is no “one-size fits all” approach that is guaranteed to produce successful results in every case. In fact, they caution that no matter how careful your approach, some people will probably reject you and never be able to accept your change. However, you can expect a more positive result if you have accepted yourself. If you are not comfortable with who you are, other won’t be either, and it will color their reaction.
Schedule a Time to Meet
Don’t just bring up the subject over dinner or in the midst of a casual visit. Most people don’t react well or positively when taken by surprise. Making an appointment and telling them you want to discuss something important to you can help prepare them for a serious disclosure. It also shows your respect for their feelings and needs.
Validate the Relationship
Don’t just start out talking about you. Take a few minutes to talk about how important your relationship with the other persons is. Touch on the support and affection that underlies the relationship. If your transition isn’t something you plan to share with everyone just yet, ask the others to respect your confidence and not repeat what you are about to say.
Admit Any Fears of Disclosing
If you are like most people, you will probably feel very nervous beforehand, and may even experience fear and panic. To get started, you may want to begin by just explaining how you feel and how difficult it is for you to talk about the “subject” even to them. The result may surprise you. Instead of a negative reaction, you may discover that the other person understands and is sympatric.
“Just the Facts Ma’am”
Your need for a sex change is a big subject, and quite an emotionally charged one, that you could probably talk all night about. When you begin telling someone about it, it’s probably best just to give a brief overview. First, explain simply that you have always felt different, and suffered because you have hidden that difference from the world. Then say that to correct that problem, you are going to get a sex change, because you have never felt comfortable as a male and have always felt you were a female trapped in the wrong body. Conclude with the fact that you feel this is an absolute necessity for you to keep your sanity and for your continuing to live. Then say you hope the other persons will support you in this and invite them to respond. Don’t overwhelm them with detail the first time you present the issue that can trigger a negative reaction even from someone one who might otherwise be supportive.
Take Negative Reactions in Stride
Some people will react positively and support you rejecting. Still other will fall somewhere in between, neither supporting you or rejecting you one hundred percent. If the idea of your sex change upsets the persons or they reject it and you, don’t make a bad situation worse by reacting negatively or becoming upset in turn. Remember, the others has just as much right to their feelings as you do yours about being a woman. You show your recognition of this fact by listening to their feelings with the same respect you would like from them, you keep the situation from becoming explosive and remain on terms with them that may allow the two of you to reach a better understanding later. Whereas a disagreement over the issue now may prevent the two of you from having a rapprochement later.
Thank the Others for Listening
No matter how they react, restate your affection for the other and tell them you appreciate their response and that they cared enough to listen.
Learn from Your Mistakes
Review what happened. Look for anything you might have done better. Don’t put yourself down over any mistakes that you feel you made. Instead, make the emphasis positive by looking for ways you can improve your presentation and handling next time.
Here are a few other tips from Ramsey and Israel.,
Telling Your Family
If it is your family you want to tell, it’s best to wait for a block of free time, when there are no major stresses and those involved are more likely to be relaxed and receptive. Since family members have different schedules, and you may feel closer to some than others, you may find it more practical to tell one or two individually, rather than gather everyone together in a large group. Ramsey says that it “not uncommon for a sister or mother to be told first, with the more sympathetic female later breaking the news to the father or brothers.”
Positive Responses Outweigh Negative
Though it is natural to be worried about how people will react, and some do react negatively, you may be surprised to discover just how many positive reactions you will encounter. According to Dr. Ramseye the most commonly reported responses from friends and family members include:
“I always knew there was something special about you. Your refusal to play with dolls or wear dresses, your upset stomach each afternoon you had dance lessons! Knowing this answers a lot of questions for me. Now it all makes sense.”
“Honey, I’ve known this all your life. Inside, you’ve always been a girl. It breaks my heart to think about all the pain and loneliness you must have endured.”
As Dr. Ramsey notes, only a “very small group of transsexuals see their worst fears realized and are, in fact, shunned by or cast out of their biological families. In some of these cases the parents feel that they must choose between their religious faith and their child. Most parents and siblings, however when they realize that their choice is between accepting (on some level) the transsexual relative or losing him, do opt for acceptance.”
Telling a Girlfriend or Spouse
When it comes to coming out to your lover spouse, the situation and outcome can be very different from that with most friends and family. Your friends and family don’t live with you in sexual intimacy and their definition of who they are and what they respond to in bed is not challenged by your need to be a woman.
One good rule here is said to be, listen to your heart in deciding when and how to come out to a lover, potential lover or spouse. Be as considerate of, and sensitive to, their feelings as you would like them to be to yours. As corny as it may sound, the Golden Rule still works best.
It’s a good idea to test the waters before coming out. Begin by dropping hints or bringing up topics related to gender and sexual tolerance. If the response is encouraging and the other person displays tolerance and sensitivity and compassion, it is an indication that the reaction to your coming out will be positive. If your lover or spouse displays prejudice against gays, lesbians, and/or transgender people put the breaks on. Consider terminating the relationship if you are dating. If you are married, seek the help of a trans-friendly therapist and/or local transgender support group.
If you have been in a relationship for some time, expect the ‘other person to experience a sense of betrayal and to respond in hurt or even rage. She will have formed and maintained the relationship based on one set of beliefs about who and what you are, and now she is learning that you are someone completely different. Even when you explain how hard it has been to discuss these issues, she is likely to feel that you have unfairly hidden them from her till now, when you are setting them off beneath her like a bomb.
The fact is no matter how you tell a spouse or lover, they may not be able to accept you as a woman. Sadly, many partners disappear when they find out. However, as Ramsey points out, others are able to cope with their initial feelings and try to look beyond the body to the person they love and continue the relationship – usually with the help of a gender friendly therapist.
For many heterosexual women, this means coming to terms with any homophobia they have about lesbianism. It means redefining themselves sexually in the face of their previous view of themselves and in the face of family and social disapproval. It also means having to revision sexual acts most never imagined themselves actually doing.
A Final Warning
If you have doubts about whether or not you should come out or over who to come out to, get advice. Ask an objective, empathic friend who already knows, or consult a counselor or therapist specializing in transgender issues. This may help you avoid emotionally damaging situations like coldness and rejection or angry confrontations.
By Jean Marie
This article was originally published in Transformation 53 2005