What to do When You are Skeptical of Someone’s Transition

Every trans person, when they start their transition, has to deal with at least one person who doesn’t quite buy it. Someone will think it’s a phase, or a plea for attention. This is overwhelmingly unlikely to be true. Less than one percent of people who transition go on to regret it; of that number, many don’t even regret it because they are not really trans, but because of the overwhelming prejudice trans people face. I once knew a trans woman who had tried to transition earlier and had to detransition because of how shitty people were. When I met her she was in her fifties and transitioning for the second time.

So it’s a bit surprising that during the year I began my transition, not one but two of my friends also began to identify as FtMs, and then changed their minds. This shaped a lot of my thoughts around this issue, so I thought I should share the story, and what I learned from it.

The first thing I think people should know is that who actually transitioned and who didn’t spectacularly failed to line up with the conventional trans narrative. Hailie and Madison (not their real names) were both significantly more masculine than me. Hailie was a classic butch lesbian, deep voiced, athletic, fond of beer and belching. She had her first crush on a girl back in kindergarten. Madison was bisexual and punkishly androgynous. I am sensitive, shy, artistic and exclusively attracted to other men. I had a lot more people shocked at my coming out as trans than either of them, yet I’m the only one who was really transgender.

Lesson one; you don’t know. There is no way to tell from the outside whether somebody is really transgender or not.

A consequence of the first point is that of the three of us, I received the most resistance to my transition. I was actually kicked out of my house, and stayed with Madison’s family until I could afford my own place. Madison’s family was a little nervous, because she was famous for identity crises, but they were still fully willing to feed, clothe, shelter and love her, as well as provide her access to gender therapy and transition services. Hailie’s family was much the same; nervous but willing to be supportive.

Lesson two; there is a school of thought that says the best way to help trans people is to be a gatekeeper. You need to put a lot of obstacles up to make sure they aren’t just confused or whatever. Insert something vague about tough love here to justify making people prove they are really transgender. That’s bull. People in a supportive environment can still figure that they aren’t really trans. People who are trans don’t need to be picked on.

So what did happen to make Madison and Hailie realize they weren’t trans? Well… mostly nothing. They experimented with gender for a little bit, and they figured it out.

Hailie had been assaulted and raped a short time before she came out as trans. Her sister was worried that this was some big unconscious fight to avoid thinking about the rape, rather than an honest transition. When Hailie insisted this wasn’t the case, her sister backed off.

For a few months, Hailie went by a boy’s name and male pronouns. Then she quietly told me that she was having second thoughts. Then, a while later, she said she wanted to go back to female pronouns. A little while after that she said her sister had been right. Hailie had felt dysphoric because of the physical trauma she had just been through. She had needed something other than the rape to worry about. She wasn’t trans. Honestly, I can think of worse ways to deal.

Madison’s story is a little more complicated. Have any of you ever had the experience of being accused of causing drama, or known people who were accused of it when they were trying to draw attention to legitimately awful stuff? Did that experience make you think that people need to just stop making that accusation, because it seems like it’s only ever used to silence people with real problems? And, after thinking this for a while, did you ever run into somebody who would milk every drop of sympathy to their own advantage, who always had to have the biggest crisis in the room, who was every “you’re just causing drama for your own ends” accusation made real? And you tried really hard to be compassionate, but inside you’re just screaming “you! It’s all because of you! We could just ban the word drama entirely and take everybody in the whole world seriously, if it wasn’t for asshats like you!”

Yeah, I didn’t realize it at first, but after living with her for several months, that was Madison. At first I was hopeful that gender dysphoria was the thing that was wrong with her all along, and being trans would solve all the things, but I did start to suspect something when the only thing she ever did to transition was talk about it. We picked out our new names and talked excitedly about them. I did the work of finding out how to legally change one’s name and print all the documents out. I printed out two copies and left one out for Madison. It stayed on the fridge with a magnet for months and was eventually thrown away. She got her letter from a therapist that would give her access to hormone therapy, and the name of a good clinic. I got my prescription filled as quickly as possible. She never did. Her transition only existed when she was coming out tearfully to somebody, at which point she could use their sympathy to control them, of course.

Her parents handled it perfectly. Instead of obstructing her transition, they gave her responsibility over it. She had a part-time job, and with her parent’s insurance she could afford to use pay for co-pays and fees to change her name herself. She had a driver’s license and could drive to doctor’s appointments herself. They gave her all those responsibilities.

Lesson three; if obstruction is the worst of both worlds, responsibility is the best of both worlds. A genuinely trans person will see responsibility as a wonderful gift and act of trust (provided you aren’t giving them so much “responsibility” they don’t have a chance to actually transition. This level will vary depending on the age of the trans person, but you know, use common sense). For a person who isn’t trans, realizing they like the idea of transitioning more than the work of it can help them figure it out.

And, piggybacking on that, lesson four; I think probably most people who think they are trans for a while, when they aren’t really, are in some way either a Hailie or a Madison. Either they are going through something else that is awful and need some understanding and respect, or they are that once-in-a-while asshole… in which case what they’re really after is for you to not understand them, so they can blow up and use that to control you. Show them understanding and respect from the start, and they’ll have nothing to work with. They’ll have to move on to something else.

I don’t know how people realize what their gender identity is, any more than I know how you know you’re in love, or that your new house feels like home. And I say that, having been through all those experiences. I just know that when you know, you know, except once in a while you think you know but you don’t. But hey, those moments of not knowing that you don’t know are just part of being human, and they don’t generally last as long as really knowing you know. You know?

Anyway…

I wonder at how afraid we are to let people experiment with their gender identities. There’s no harm in it. I think obstructing experimentation causes a lot more confusion than just letting people play around, not to mention pain for people who genuinely transgender.

So in case I wasn’t clear, if you aren’t sure whether or not someone’s transgender, just respectfully back off. You might be right, you might be wrong, but either way it’s their job to figure it out.

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2 thoughts on “What to do When You are Skeptical of Someone’s Transition

  1. I’ve had a few experiences with friends who questioned their gender in part because (as you mention) experimentation with gender is pretty frowned upon. The two friends who I talked to the most both talked about feeling dysphoric sometimes about their gender and wondered if any dysphoria at any time meant they were in the “wrong” gender.

    In both case reading, learning, and being with friends who were comfortable with gender fluidity (and/or gender fluid themselves) helped them to realize that they felt gender fluid and that the felt most themselves when they could decide on a day to day basis what they wanted to present as. In the case of jobs, one has to present as one gender or the other, but she could play enough with clothing that it felt good. The other is a freelance person in a funky field and they can present however they want, whenever they want.

    I do believe (and hope) that gender slowly becomes more and more acceptable as yet another thing that people can do anything from “play” with to whole-heartedly change. I’m a cisgendered woman, so I don’t know what it feels like to feel that your gender is the wrong one. I do know what it feels like to feel like you’re hiding a part of yourself and being false in other ways. I had to hide both my bisexuality and my agnosticism growing up. Going to church weekly and being expected to do things like pray when getting absolutely no sense of a Christian God (or angels) listening was extremely disheartening and miserable. Having to go to Christian youth group gatherings that turned into screaming mobs as a person on stage shrieks out “I have good news! Believe and you are saved!” is absolutely terrifying.

    I think giving more and more people the freedom to be themselves can only add to the happiness in the world.

    Also, having dealt with several of the Madisons of the world, one thing that I currently mull over is what to do when faced with a Madison as an adult. I’ve known a few of them and they just…the amount of trouble caused by them is both frustrating and heart-breaking, in terms of what it does for people who legitimately have the problems that they co-opt and use to feed their attention getting.

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  2. Thanks for your comment. I’m glad your friends could find a space where they felt free to explore.

    I do suspect that if trans people became broadly accepted, it would also become more common to experiment with gender, including some more people trying trans on for size and deciding it doesn’t fit. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I have met two people who thought they were trans and then decided they weren’t, and that my circle of friends at the time was very trans-accepting. Personally, I’m totally okay with that. Experimentation and phases get a bad rap; they’re an essential part of figuring yourself out, and gender should be out there as something everyone is free to play with.

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