A Difficult Question To Answer

When we finally decide to come out as transgender to friends and family, we might have a portfolio of explanations and arguments on hand, ready to answer all the questions people will launch at us. “When did this happen?” “Are you insane?” “Is this your way of getting attention?” These are only some of the questions we have to contend with, and there are a hundred more where those came from. But there is one question that we are usually not prepared to answer: “What can I do to help?”

While this question conveys the kind of open-hearted response we all want to receive, it’s a hard question to answer if we’re not prepared for it. “What can you do? Um… I don’t know. Nothing, I guess.”

In fact, there are plenty of things our friends, co-workers and loved ones can do to support us on this journey, so here are a few ideas:

  1. “I need you to be there for me.” While this may seem obvious, it’s a good place to start when putting your needs out there. Being there for you does not mean trying to “fix” you or change your mind. It just means being present with you as you navigate this unfamiliar terrain.
  2. “If you have questions, just ask me.” Many people are afraid to ask questions, for fear they might offend us. And to be fair, there are some trans* people who get very defensive when questions are asked. This would be a good time to talk about what kinds of questions you welcome and what kinds you would rather not answer. Remember, the more questions they ask, the more comfortable they will probably feel with your transition.
  3. “You could read this book…” There is no better way to help someone than by educating one’s self about the issue they’re dealing with. Find a book or two that you think would be helpful for someone who has questions, and then be ready to recommend them. You can also direct them here, to TransFormation Ministry, where they can read some blogs and write to us with any questions.
  4. “Just be careful not to ‘out’ me. I want to share this news in my own way.” It is important for your loved ones to work through their own feelings about your transition, and in order to do that they might need to talk to someone. But talking to people you have not yet come out to could cause more harm than good. You might recommend they talk to a therapist or trusted friend who can maintain confidentiality.
  5. “Check out the local PFLAG chapter.” This is a great resource for someone who might be struggling with your transition. If there is not a PFLAG chapter in their area, you can suggest they find a PFLAG group on Facebook, anywhere around the world.

These are only a few ways you can answer when someone asks how they can help. If you have more ideas, leave a comment and tell us how you would want someone to help when you’re in the process of coming out. This might help others be more prepared for the one question they were least expecting!

Taking My Own Advice

“I need someone to tell me what to do.” Callie stood by my pickup truck with a frown wrinkling her forehead, her teeth worrying her lower lip. A big decision lay before her, one that had the potential to change the entire landscape of her future, and the implications paralyzed her. She had sought counseling from her pastor and advice from a friend, but no one was giving her what she really wanted – permission to say yes. She wanted someone to tell her that she should put her money where her mouth is and go for it.  She wanted someone to say that God would open doors for her and pave the way with road signs. She wanted someone to convince her that saying yes would be like the explosion of a starter pistol, and that the gates would fly open and her life would take off down the track, leaving doubt and hesitation in the dust.

But no one was saying those things. Her pastor laid out some steps to guide her in discernment; her friend said he would support her, whatever she decided. And when she asked God… well, God was even worse! God wasn’t painting any billboards as far as she could see! What was wrong with everybody? Couldn’t they see she just wanted to get a simple yes or no answer?

In the book, Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer talks of leading retreats. “From time to time participants show me the notes they are taking as the retreat unfolds. The pattern is nearly universal: people take copious notes on what the retreat leader says, and they sometimes take notes on the words of certain wise people in the group, but rarely, if ever, do they take notes on what they themselves say. We listen for guidance everywhere except from within.” Later he says, “We need to listen to what our lives are saying and take notes on it, lest we forget our own truth or deny that we ever heard it.”

If you are like Callie, you search high and low for someone to tell you what decision to make, and you are anxious to hear what they have to say. This is a positive first step and one that can affirm your initial quest for feedback. But once you have asked others for their opinions, the person you really need to listen to is yourself. You probably already know what you need to do, but maybe you don’t trust yourself to make this kind of decision – one that carries life-changing implications. You want to talk to a professional, someone who can swoop in and organize all the clutter in your brain, stuffing random pieces of your life into neat stackable storage containers, color coded and adorned with sticky labels. Once your brain is organized, maybe then you will see the signs you’re looking for to guide you in the right direction.

The thing is, you are the most qualified person for this job. Make an appointment with yourself and have a notebook handy to take notes. Ask yourself what your passion is, what your strengths are, where your weaknesses lie, what challenges you, who motivates you, what you want to do before you die. What you tell yourself will be very important, so don’t miss a word of it. Just for a moment, stop asking other people for advice and start attending to the advice you would give yourself.

The thing you are called to is authenticity. When you allow yourself to answer that call, you will not only discover the sense of fulfillment you are looking for, but you will also find your path to authentic purpose in the world.

Transgender: Vegetarian and Gluten-Free

Do you know anyone who is intentional about their diet and nutrition? I’m talking about the ones who eat organic foods and avoid products such as meat, dairy, eggs, and preservatives. Sometimes we think of them as the crunchy-granola type because their diets are high in nuts, grains, and other healthy foods. These people make conscious, educated decisions about what they eat and why.

Then there are those who are put onto special diets by their physicians due to food allergies or medical necessity. It is not a diet of their own choosing, but one that is imposed on them for medical reasons. It becomes a diet of necessity. These range from low sodium, low fat, low carb, soy, sugar-free, yeast-free, gluten-free. People who live on these diets learn to read the labels of everything they consume, which becomes a consuming process in and of itself!

I bring this up because it reminds me of a sector of the transgender community who do not pursue physical transition, maybe because of a conscious decision, or maybe due to medical restrictions. The “vegetarians” do not transition because they believe in natural remedies or simply do not desire the “preservatives” of hormone therapy. Those on the “gluten-free” plan might wish they could transition, but cannot due to restrictions imposed on them: maybe they have a pre-existing condition that prevents them from undergoing certain medical procedures; maybe they do not have a stable enough income or access to health care that can provide the hormones and surgery they desire.

Yet, there remains a debate whether this part of the transgender community is really transgender. Those of us who so desperately fight against oppression often become the oppressors, judging others by the standards we set instead of letting others set their own standards like we did for ourselves.

Why are we so divisive? We live in a world of vast cultural differences, and each of us is unique in our own right. Transgender people in America live in a different context from our transgender friends in South Africa, who in turn live in a different reality than those in India, Australia, China, Iceland, or any other country around the globe.

There is a spiritual proverb that I have clung to in my own faith journey that says: Judge not according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment. This has been a tattoo on my soul for most of my life. It is easy for me to think that I can quickly sum a person up by an external appearance, by an off-the-cuff remark, or by the values and beliefs they uphold. But this life phrase reminds me that I must not judge by any outward or superficial judgments, but by God’s worth and by the gifts and graces of God’s spirit in them.

So, let’s stop assuming that every person who is transgender will or should pursue the same route or wind up at the same endpoint in order for them to be considered authentically transgender. Our bodies are different, unique in every way. We all make decisions that are best for our own lives, whether it is in our diet or our transition process. Let’s focus on seeing the people around us through God’s eyes, and not through our own.

~ Julie Walsh

Coming Out With Respect

Coming out to my parents was hard enough, but I had a lot of explaining to do when I told my friends I was going to come out by way of email. “Why don’t you just tell them in person? Are you afraid of what they’ll say?” some friends wondered. “It’s so impersonal,” others complained. “I’d at least call them on the phone if I were you.” But that was the thing… they weren’t me.

Coming out is often a difficult conversation, and there are a number of reasons I choose to address difficult conversations in writing. First, when it comes to this kind of thing, I write much better than I speak. When I get nervous, I stumble around my vocabulary, bump into awkward phrases, scramble for misplaced words, and choke on emotions that crawl up my throat and make my eyes water. What’s worse, if I mess up and have to correct myself, I come across as uncertain and apologetic, which is not at all the display of confidence I want to exude. When I write, I take my time to collect just the right words; I line them up like soldiers on the page, in exactly the order they need to be. If any get out of line, I whisk them away with the delete key, and no one even knows they existed. By the time my words reach their destination, they’ve been tweaked and polished and they march in step, all the way to the end of the page.

Second, when a conversation takes place in person, there is a lot of opportunity for someone to interrupt me, especially if I’m busy searching for words. I might have practiced my speech in the mirror a hundred times, but as soon as my loved one interrupts with a rebuttal to something I say, my prepared speech is out the window. Now I have to put my speech on pause in order to argue a point, and who knows if I’ll ever get to say the things I prepared. When I deliver my thoughts in written form, they all arrive intact and on time. If my loved one needs to stop reading for one reason or another, my words will wait in perfect formation until my loved one is ready to look at them again.

Finally, when I’m talking to someone in person and they start to cry, it completely derails me. It makes me wonder if I should step away and let them have some privacy. If we’re in a public place, my loved one might feel embarrassed and ashamed of their tears. When I came out to my parents, I wanted them to be able to express whatever emotions came over them. It was important that they be allowed to grieve and to process this information at their own pace and in their own way.

My decision to come out via email had nothing to do with fear or cowardice. My friends thought I was being disrespectful in my “impersonal” method, but the truth was I was showing respect the best way I knew how. It was showing respect not only to my parents, but also to myself. I wanted to respect my own strengths and give myself the best chance to say everything I had to say.

It’s your coming out. You need to decide how to make it work best for you. In the end, what matters most is not how you come out, but that you respect yourself in the process.

Are You Sure…?

When I first announced my decision to transition, some of my well-intentioned friends and family responded with shock and uncertainty. They had never heard me talk about my gender; now I was telling them I was going to have a sex change. Understandably, they worried I was making a rash decision. But many had no idea what to say or how to say it, and they wound up saying the first thing that crossed their minds before considering the appropriateness of their comments: “This is so sudden; don’t you want to think about it for a while? Have you considered counseling?”

They might have been trying to help, but the questions only made me defensive. It seemed they wanted me to get their approval before I followed through, and in some cases I felt I had to defend my mental clarity. In reality, many people have thought about this decision for more than twenty years before doing anything. It may seem like a quick decision, but it rarely is.

Others feared that transitioning was a response to traumatic experiences: “Are you transgender because you were abused as a child?” They might have been asking from a place of deep concern, but it doesn’t come across that way. While it is true that some transgender people have been abused as children, it’s also true that others have not. Approximately one in four people have experienced abuse – a percentage far greater than that of the transgender community. There is no correlation between abuse and gender identity.

With many living as lesbian or gay before deciding to transition, some people are tempted to ask, “Why don’t you just keep living as a gay/lesbian? It’s easier that way.” I presented as lesbian until I was 32, and while I truly enjoyed being a part of the lesbian community, I just did not feel right inside. I was a man, and in some ways I felt like an imposter. It sometimes seemed like I was misleading people into thinking I was someone I was not. The easier road is not always the most authentic one.

So how can you respond when someone tells you they want to transition? First, try not to jump to a fear-based reaction. If you are uncertain what to say, try, “Tell me more about how you’re feeling.” This allows the transgender person to open up without feeling defensive. When you feel genuinely concerned about the suddenness of the decision, you could say: “I’m glad you told me about this. How long have you been feeling this way?” This will give the person a chance to share their internal experience and process with you.

If transgender issues are foreign to you, it’s okay to admit that. You don’t have to know all the answers. You can simply acknowledge, “I honestly don’t know what you’re going through and I’ve never dealt with anything like this before. But your journey is important to me. Let’s keep talking so you can help me understand.” Ultimately, remember to focus on affirming this person you care about and frame your questions with care so they will feel respected, valued, and loved.

~ Brent Walsh

Going Stealth

Going “stealth” is a term often used to describe someone who transitions to their true gender, and then slips into the fabric of society, rarely revealing that they are transgender. No one knows to ask, and they don’t care to tell. In some cases the people who have gone stealth are criticized by those who are more visible; they are perceived as selfish for not offering up their experiences as a guide for those who would transition after them. “Everyone starts somewhere,” the opponents argue, “and you could be an integral part of the support network for someone who is considering transition.” Others point out that one’s transition has a huge influence over the person they are, and they should celebrate it instead of hiding it.

But there are many reasons people choose not to be out about their transition. Some have said that they invested so much time, money and energy in becoming the man or woman they have always wanted to be that they don’t want to live the rest of their lives being known as transgender. “Being transgender does not define me,” a friend said to me once. “I’m just a guy. I’ve always been a guy. Sure, I had to do a bit of redecorating to appreciate what I see in the mirror, but a lot of guys do that and no one expects them to tell the world about it.” They see this label as putting them in a box they don’t want to be in.

Some people have negative experiences related to their transition, and they don’t want to make themselves vulnerable again. Attacks can come from strangers or family, employers or religion. One person equated it to a cancer survivor who doesn’t tell anyone she ever had cancer because she wanted to be known for much more than surviving a disease. Assumptions are made when you tell people something like that; they treat you differently whether those assumptions have any merit or not.

Sometimes people go stealth because they don’t want to be a lifelong educator about trans* issues. They don’t want to be the go-to person anytime someone “knows a friend of a friend…” who might need someone to talk to about their gender. They don’t want to field uncomfortable questions about their genitals, which suddenly seem like fair game because they are of immense interest to well-intentioned supporters.

Recently my friend, Jessica, noted: “Being born trans is one of the most difficult realities that any human being can face.  Some people are shaped by their scars to become fighters.  Others are shaped to become diplomats.  Others may simply need to huddle in the background in stealth mode because they are just too injured to do much else.”

It’s true that we need many people to be open about their transition experiences. If we do not educate society about transgender issues, who will? But it’s also true that not everyone is intended to fill that role, nor is everyone gifted to do so. The reason we fight so hard for transgender rights is so that people can just be who they are. We are judged enough by society; we should not impose more judgment on one another, including those who prefer going stealth.

~ Brent Walsh

Game Changer

“I’m not your husband anymore, I’m your wife.” The words filled the air like tear gas, billowing from a twirling canister. Sarah didn’t want a wife. She wanted the husband she had married seventeen years ago and with whom she had three children. She wanted to run from the room to escape the gas-like effects of these words – tears streaming from the eyes, nasal discharge, disorientation, dizziness and restricted breathing. But her partner sat before her, expecting Sarah to say something. What is she supposed to say? What could she possibly say that would encapsulate all the fear, anxiety and grief she felt, but that did not sound accusatory and hurtful?

In many cases, initial rejection can simply be an issue of grief and concern, and often turns to acceptance once the person comes to terms with the “new you.” But I believe the partner’s process is different. A spousal relationship that survives a gender transition is by far an exception to the rule because of how personally the transition affects the other person. When Sarah’s husband decided to transition from male to female, it changed the entire dynamic of the relationship. Sarah identifies as heterosexual, so it would be very difficult for her to live the rest of her life being seen by society as a lesbian. This would put Sarah into the same agonizing position from which her partner is just finding freedom. In the same way that Sarah’s partner shouldn’t have to live out the rest of her life in a man’s body, it’s also not fair to insist that Sarah give up her inherent sexuality for the sake of the relationship.

This is also true of a lesbian couple I know. Gail and Abby have been together for over a decade, have been raising children, and have no desire to separate. If Gail becomes Gary, Abby will be faced with a decision she does not want to make. Would she stay with Gary for the sake of their love and their kids, but at the expense of her own sexual orientation? Or would she put her own needs on the table with everyone else’s? She doesn’t want to lose the support of her tight-knit lesbian community, which would be in jeopardy if she stayed with Gary. But she also doesn’t want to lose her family.

There is no easy solution to this dilemma. There is no operator’s manual that can lay out the answers to all the complex relationship questions that arise when one person transitions. It’s like changing the rules in the middle of the game. When Sarah married her husband, he was the man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with; the only problem is that her husband wasn’t really a man. That’s not her husband’s fault, but it is a game changer. When Abby fell in love with Gail, she was falling in love with a woman. Abby is not attracted to men, so if Gail transitions, Abby will not feel the same connection she feels now; it would be a game changer. Some might argue that the trans* person is still the same person with a different look, but I disagree. A lot of things change inside a person when new hormones are introduced to the body, so the partner would need to get to know their spouse all over again.

While those of us in the transgender community are working so hard for the rights of trans* people around the world, let us not forget the rights of the partners. If a break-up needs to happen to validate the sexual orientation of the partner, let’s put ourselves out there to offer support instead of judgment. A breakup does not equate to rejection. It just means that everyone needs to do what is right for them. They need to maintain authenticity in their own life, which is all we can ask at the end of the day.

~ Brent Walsh

A Parent’s Grief

It was with a trembling finger that I pressed the “send” button on the letter I had written to my parents, coming out to them as transgender. This letter represented weeks of scrutiny. Every phrase was analyzed for its effectiveness. Every sentence was examined for structure. Words were tried on like clothes on a department store rack. If they didn’t fit, they were tossed into a pile on the dressing room floor. By the time I was done, the “delete” button grumbled at being overworked. But its moaning went unnoticed because this letter had to be perfect. My voice, once associated with a woman called Brenda, was starting to deepen with the onset of testosterone when I started constructing this letter, and I couldn’t get away with the head cold act much longer.

“Maybe they’ll be okay with having two daughters and two sons,” I wondered aloud. Then just as quickly, “Or maybe they’ll disown me.” I was expecting the second option to be much more likely than the first. My parents are Baptist and it was hard enough for them to get used to the idea that I might always be a lesbian. I knew they always wanted me to be straight, but this would not have been their idea of how to accomplish it! This would set them over the edge, I was sure. The “sending” icon seemed to twirl in slow motion before the screen announced, “email sent.” That was it. It was done.

It seemed like years before they replied. Finally, I got a letter from my mother and father separately. They had different ways to process their emotions, but they both expressed their grief for the daughter they had lost. At the time I didn’t understand why my transition had to be considered a death. I was still alive! I insisted that I was not becoming a different person, but just putting on a new look. I was angry and hurt that my parents couldn’t just embrace me and tell me that they were happy for me. I decided they were being selfish. They didn’t really love me – not the real me. They only loved the version of me that they were most comfortable seeing. But as time has gone on, I have learned new insights into the involuntary transition that the people around me had to go through when I starting taking testosterone.

It has been seven years since my transition began, and I can testify that much more has changed than just my look. Yes, the onset of testosterone has indeed changed my appearance. My voice is deeper, my skin is tougher, my hair has migrated off my head and onto my back, my excess fat has shifted from my hips to my gut, and my facial hair needs regular attention lest it take on a mind of its own. But other things have changed, too. In order to survive the constant disconnect between mind and body, I was different than the kind of person I am now. I’m more settled, more rooted, more content in my own skin. People relate to me differently as male than they did as female, which has changed the way I relate to them in return. The daughter my parents knew was a bubbly, emotional woman who cried at the drop of a hat. Now I am a sensitive, even-tempered man who can’t find a tear anywhere when I need one.

The relationship that my parents have learned to build with Brent is much different than the relationship they had with Brenda. And none of that could have been possible if they did not put Brenda to rest. It took them several years after receiving that letter to mourn the loss of their daughter. All the hopes, dreams and expectations they had for me needed to be buried, and that is hard for a parent. If that wasn’t painful enough, it felt worse because no one came to the funeral but them. They couldn’t tell their friends that their daughter died; she still lived and breathed. There was no gravesite to visit; no memorial service to attend. She was just abducted out of thin air and replaced with a stranger.

Our relationship is better now, building in strength with every passing year. There are new joys to celebrate and new dreams to dream. I’ve had to learn that grace goes both ways. I wanted them to offer me grace to be who I was, but I was not offering them any grace to respond to it the way they needed to. If your parents are not responding to your transition the way you expect, just remember to give them some time and space to grieve. Only then can they get to know the person you are today.

~ Brent Walsh

Born Again

Do you ever celebrate your transition? Have you taken the time to celebrate who you are?

In our family we do. Every passing year we celebrate the first day that Brent began HRT. Even though he has always felt intrinsically male, taking his first shot of testosterone was the day he came alive and experienced life with new meaning. The hormones barely had time to move beyond the injection site and take physical effect on his body, yet he perceived himself and the world in a fresh, new way. The colors became more vibrant, people seemed friendlier, and life in general seemed more inviting. He was suddenly free to fly when only minutes earlier he had been living within his own prison. Even within the faith that he was so strongly rooted in, he felt born again and A New God was revealed.

People who experience a spiritual rebirth, relinquishing the life of the past and professing a new faith, are said to be born again. They will often come to a place in life where there is a strong recognition of the need for renewal and a chance to start fresh. Some may struggle to fully embrace this faith and to surrender traditional ideals, so they put off the decision for months or years. For others, the decision comes easily and they jump into it eagerly. At some point they make an intentional decision to become a follower of this new spiritual path, and they declare it publicly in the presence of friends and family.

In a similar way, there comes a day when a trans* person decides to intentionally begin living with salvation. You shift male pronouns to female (or vice versa.) You introduce yourself with a name that better matches your true gender. The doctor injects you with your first dose of hormones. And you make a public declaration to the world that you are officially following a new path in life.

You are born again in the truest sense of the word. Born into reconciliation. Born as a new creation – internally and externally. This calls for celebration!

If you are trans*, what day seems most significant for you? What day did you make the intentional decision to follow your heart and your mind? The day when you finally pursued your dream of expressing yourself as your true gender? The day when you were born again? Mark that day and make it a “new-birth day” celebration!

Happy 7th Birthday, Brent!

~ Julie Walsh

“Don’t Confuse the Children”

“How will we explain this to your nieces and nephews? They are so attached to their aunt. Why would you rip that away from them and expect them to call you uncle?”

Have you heard this before? Or maybe you’ve heard something similar, in reference to other children in your life that are important to you. The fact that you love the young people around you and don’t want to confuse them might be enough to keep you from going through with your gender reassignment. But let me ask you to pause for a moment and reconsider the real implications of your transition on the children in your life.

When a parent or significant adult care giver is afraid of something, it’s likely that the child in question will adopt those fears. If the adult is afraid of thunderstorms, tight spaces, heights, snakes, clowns… then the child might consider these things worthy of fear. But if the adult teaches the child how to interact with these things with care and respect, the chances the child will fear them are lessened. When I was a child, I knew plenty of children who were afraid of bees, but because my father was a beekeeper, one of my favorite pastimes was to rescue the bees from our kiddie pool in the back yard. With a little education about how to respect the bees, there was no reason to fear them.

Similarly, when something has the potential to be confusing, it only takes a simple explanation to set the child’s mind at ease. Pregnancy and childbirth, for example, have enormous potential to confuse a child. The way to satisfy their curiosity is to tell the truth in a language they can understand: “This bump? It’s a baby, and when the time is right, Mommy will go to the hospital so the doctor can take the baby out. Then we’ll come home with your little sister. Isn’t that exciting?” There is no fear in this explanation and no indication that it should be confusing. So many young children will simply accept it as something that must be normal – even though it may be the most ridiculous-sounding concept a child might hear.

Don’t let people use the argument about children’s “fragile sensitivities” as a tool to manipulate your decision. More than likely it’s the adults’ discomfort that everyone is so worried about. If there are children in your life who have to make the switch from aunt to uncle, from brother to sister, from mom to dad, or from grandpa to grandma, just explain it in age-appropriate language. Maybe it sounds ridiculous to the kids, but they are usually more open and resilient than their adult counterparts. Just act normal and you might be surprised.

~ Brent Walsh