A transgender woman shares her advice to her younger self.
People ask a lot of questions when they know you're transgender and that you're transitioning. One of the most common things I was asked was,
"What if you regret it?"
That question is framed by the thinking that gender transition is some sort of choice; that being transgender is something we're not sure of, that we might be mistaken about. Maybe it's something we're doing because we've been pressured into it, or just because we think it's "trendy".
At its heart, that question reveals the struggle inside the head of someone who isn't transgender, trying to fathom why we can't just be happy remaining the way we were born.
With the benefit of a lot of hindsight, I'm now able to reflect and say that I do indeed have one regret about gender transition. It's a big regret, a HUGE regret - but it isn't about choosing to go ahead with it. What I regret is that I waited so long to transition; that I didn't have the tools or the support to push for it to happen so much earlier in my life.
Today, I've been transitioned for well over a decade. I'm married to an amazing man and I have a great job. But I still dwell on that regret and everything it means. If society had been a little more progressive when I was child, would I have been able to transition earlier?
Growing up prior to the 2000s in New Zealand meant that there weren't really any resources for trans youth to find. I'd known that I wanted to be a girl from the age of 5. But I knew just as surely that there was just no way to safely express that to anyone, that to do so would mean ostracism and abuse. At 16, when my parents did find out I was gender-variant, I was simply told to "stop it". My mother lamented that society had moved on too much from the "good old days" when people like me would be locked away in psychiatric institutes.
Those words are burned indelibly into my memory.
If I could give my younger self some advice, if I could send a letter back in time, I'd have a lot of advice to impart about how to handle that hurt, and warnings about the familial betrayals that would happen further on down the line. I'd tell myself to run; to leave home as soon as I was able, to seek out the trans-supportive communities in Auckland or Wellington, somewhere far away from rural Hawke's Bay.
If I'd been born 10 or 20 years later, I'd be able to tell my younger self to talk about my transgender feelings with my family doctor, so that I could ask for appropriate treatment. Then I'd have been better supported to push for my parents to allow me to socially transition, and to see a specialist with experience treating transgender youth.
There would have been real options; if it was deemed medically and psychologically appropriate, I could have been prescribed puberty blockers to stave off the ravages of the wrong teenage hormones on my body and progressed, in time, to cross-sex hormone therapy.
People say that dwelling on the past can be harmful, but in this case, along with the pain of regret, it gives me the tools to pass on knowledge to the kids today who are like me. When a friend of a friend approaches me for advice about their potentially trans child, I know exactly what to say, because I know what should have happened to me. I tell them above all to listen to their child, then to seek the best medical and psychological help possible – and to listen to the experts in the field.
It's easy to find "advice" on the internet from the anti-trans crowd; people like my parents, or worse – those parents who physically or mentally abuse their child to make them desist. The problem is that while these shonky blogs and hateful little forums confirm the prejudices of those who seek them out, they are not, and never will be, offered by experts in the field of transgender care.
Nor do they hold the child's well-being or happiness as paramount, they are only concerned about ensuring that their child conforms to their rigid ideals of how boys and girls should behave, and that their child doesn't embarrass them by being one of those "confused freaks".
Writing this, I've thought of another regret. I don't feel like I've done enough to change society, to show that trans people are just as valid, just as loveable and just as human as everyone else. Maybe that's exactly why this needs to be written.
I'D LIKE to share with you two contrasting stories, about how two different parents reacted to their child coming out as transgender. The first story is my own. From what I've already told you, you can probably work out it isn't a happy read.
I called my parents on September 2, 2007, firstly to talk to my dad on Father's Day, and secondly to tell my mother that I was going into work the next day as a woman, for the first time. My mother was distraught. The first thing she said was that she was concerned about what the neighbours would think of her. The second was that she wasn't going to tell my father and I shouldn't either. The third thing she said was, "I could handle this if it was anyone else's child but mine."
In the months that followed she made it very clear that she didn't support me, that she didn't want to speak to me again under any circumstances. If anything bad happened to me, it was due to my own choice and I should wear that alone.
The last time we spoke, the last time she hung up on me, was in 2008. She told me angrily that she had adopted a boy and that I would always be male.
I hope it's obvious that this is NOT how you should deal with your child coming out to you as transgender.
The second story is a friend's experience. He came out to his mother around the same age as I did. Initially she was upset, worried for her child but also grieving her own potential loss, beginning to process it in much the same way as my own mother had. At her local chemist she happened to run into the doctor who had delivered her baby and confided in her, telling her that her daughter was transitioning and becoming a man.
"I'm so excited for you," the doctor said, "that you get to embark on this amazing journey with your child."
That overwhelming positivity surprised her. She thought about it a lot and decided she wanted to be that person too; to be a positive force in the world where her son was concerned. He was already facing enough negativity from society and adding to that would only make things worse.
So she became that positive force. She supported him through discrimination at work and through several surgeries. And she got to be there for the good times, too. Unlike my own mother, she was at her child's wedding and is a big part of his life. She's in her 80s now, and continues to surprise him with how unrelentingly supportive she is.
It's thanks to people like her that the stories that should be heard are becoming more common. Where my family tried to keep my transition a secret, out of shame and fear, she openly celebrated her son for having the courage, fortitude and confidence to be who he was supposed to be. You don't need to tell the whole world that your child is trans and make a public announcement, but when people you know ask after them, be honest. Explain that they now identify differently. Channel your love for your child, not your fear about what people might think. Leave them no room to doubt that love.
Shamefully deflecting questions, obfuscating, or plain lying about it (as my parents did) makes you look like a terrible person when people inevitably find out. Some claim that being transgender is a "choice". It's not. What is a choice is treating someone like an outcast and a pariah for something that is beyond their control, or choosing to treat them like another human being.
That it still happens, that it's still acceptable to treat transgender people like pariahs just for existing is something that eats away at me. I didn't want to be transgender. I didn't ask for this, and I'd trade it away if I could. It's something that makes life more difficult than it needs to be.
But most of the things that make it difficult can be changed by good people. The people reading this article have the same choice my mother made. You can choose to be a force of negativity, to make the lives of transgender people even harder, to add more pain and shame. Or you can choose to be a positive force; to make our lives a little bit easier, to make the world a less fearful, shameful place for gender variant people to exist within.
I want you to know that I'm not a remarkable person. I'm an ordinary woman with the same stuff going on in my life as you. Job stuff, relationship stuff, money stuff, family stuff. It's easy to see trans people as caricatures, as exotic objects, or fearful things that are somehow separate from ordinary life. But I'm just as real and as human as you, and I have all the same worries, dreams, thoughts and fears.
All I'm asking is that you don't make our lives any harder than they already are.