Ironically, when I came out as transgender, it seemed to be the people who’ve known me the longest who began to feel like they knew me the least. Similar to the dissonance I’ve felt throughout the majority of my life (resulting from gender dysphoria/transgenderism), many longtime friends and loved ones seemed to feel a cognitive miasma—a mental repulsion—when presented with this idea that I “am a woman trapped inside a man’s body.” (Trans female community, please forgive me for phrasing it that way.)
Really, it’s not that binary trans female folks are women trapped inside men’s bodies. They are women! And as the result of fluctuating hormone levels during our gestational lives, our bodies have developed genitalia not consistent with the majority of the cisgender, cissexual female public at large.
SO WHY IS IT SO DANG HARD TO WRAP THEIR MINDS AROUND IT?!
Quite simply put, the cisgender, cissexual public—male, female and intersex (stepping away from a binary gender spectrum)—are cisgender, cissexual, or both. When the parent or a longtime friend is posed with this concept that “By the way, I no longer want you to view me as male,” it sends their brain into somewhat of a tailspin. Much the same way many people’s minds act to survive in a high-stress/life-threatening situation, you have just given them inputs they either don’t understand, have likely never experienced, and/or cause a kind of fight or flight reflex.
During fight or flight, according to Wikipedia (it’s correct in this case), “the fight-or-flight response (also called hyperarousal, or the acute stress response) is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival. It was first described by Walter Bradford Cannon.” Imagine that when you decide to come out to your friends and loved ones—a process you will probably think about for years and years before it happens unless you’re like Jazz Jennings (who came out to her wonderfully supportive parents by age 3 or 4)—they could do anything from hug you to experience stupor or confusion to cry to fight with you about it.
I’ve personally had the entire gamut of reactions. They fall on a spectrum just as we fall on a spectrum with our gender identities. Admittedly, everyone’s experience is different; and as we progress as a society, younger generations show promise in departments such as acceptance and support of LGBTQ individuals (see The Next America, by Paul Taylor and the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan comparison of ideologies and behaviors reported by samples of four generations of Americans) as well as a greater likelihood to come out at an earlier age.
I also don’t speak much on gender fluidity or nonbinary gender identities (sometimes called gender queer or androgynous; see this amazing source at Human Rights Campaign’s site) because I have a differing experience. I’ve also studied a lot more about my particular identity: trans female.
Unfortunately, despite the numerous books and other credible sources I resort to, I cannot superimpose my experience onto, say, the minds of one of my cisgender, cissexual parents. Even one of my longtime friends—the only person to know about my unique gender identity a decade and a half before I came out—seemed to abandon her support of my medical and social transitions a few months after they began.
This isn’t to say she may someday pick up where we left off; but her mind, like many will, began to experience that cognitive dissonance
Basically, people with trans identities and people with cis identities experience life from intrinsically different bodies and minds. This doesn’t mean transgender individuals are confused about their genders and cisgender people are not. My best advice for a cisgender friend or loved one struggling with coping is to try and imagine your trans loved one is as reasonable, self-aware and set on his, her or their identity as you are on yours. It can certainly feel like Who is this person and why are they either lying to me now or, worse, Why have they lied to me all their lives? And that’s fair. But after you’ve processed, hopefully it will become clear why they’ve kept it a secret all those years. A little benefit of the doubt can go a long way.
Whitney is a Member of Lehigh Valley Transgender Renaissance
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The leading organization for support and education around transgender issues in Eastern PA and Western NJ, our focus is on helping transgender individuals as they work through their journey to become their authentic selves while helping the community at large learn more about what it means to be transgender.
Note: The opinions in this article are those of the author and not necessarily that of Lehigh Valley Renaissance or the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center.