Compassion needs to go both ways.

When a person comes out as transgender, particularly if they come out after they’ve reached adulthood, it can be very difficult news for the family. Of course, their trans relative deserves their support, understanding, and compassion, but I think all too often the LGBT community forgets that those closest to a trans person need love and support, too.

I want to use my mother as an example.

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This is her and me from back in October of 2016.

About six years ago, I sat down with her and my father and admitted to them I was gay. At the time, I believed what I was saying. My understanding was that lesbians were woman who wanted to be men, and were attracted to women. I hadn’t had much exposure to the LGBT community, and didn’t understand that my feelings weren’t properly reflected by the label I’d assigned myself. However, my mother knew.

When I told her I was a lesbian, my mother took a pause and gave me an appraising look.

“I don’t really see you as a lesbian,” she said, “We always thought you’d come to us one day and say you wanted to be a boy.”

She was right, of course. Without going into the wealth of details about me as a person, all the signs were there. From the moment I developed a personality beyond infancy, it was clear I was different, and it was clear to her how.

Still, despite her knowing the likelihood of me being transgender, it was still difficult for her when I began to process of masculinizing myself in recent years. She resisted me cutting my hair, she grew frustrated and tearful when I began dressing in men’s clothing, and generally worried about me and how I was presenting myself.

I’ve come out to her, and my family, in fits and starts. I’ve taken it slowly and been very patient in allowing them to come to terms with who I am. I needed time, too. It’s not easy to accept that you’re trans. Doing so is freeing, true, but it also yolks you with a huge burden. So many important questions suddenly demand answers. How far do I take my transition? What affects will a transition have on me medically, professional, socially, emotionally? It’s difficult. But as much as I’m asking myself these questions, I never forget that my loving mother is agonizing over them.

She told me not too long ago that she could no longer imagine me any other way than I am now; my sort of elflish, androgynous self. She could never see me as a feminine person again.

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Here’s a picture of my sister and I, circa 2011, for comparison (I’ve come a long way since then, and so have SmartPhone cameras). This is how my mother had known me for 19 years. However, at some point, the switch flipped for her. She can’t point to when, she just knows it’s true. She said that if I tried to wear make-up or a dress now, it would be jarring for her.But as much as she loves me, accepts me, is open to this strange blend of a person that I represent, it’s still so difficult for her.

I asked her recently, “When you look at me, how do you see me?”

She told me, “Well, I see you as a boy.” But as much as she sees me that way, she isn’t sure she could ever see me as her son. I am her daughter. I have been for so long.

She told me it’s like her daughter is dying. “It’s like I’m mourning you, but you’re still here. It feels like one person disappeared and another took their place.

“I know that’s not true!” she assured me, “You’re here, you’re the same person, but you’re also…not. Do you understand?”

How lucky am I that my mother is the one worried about being understood in this situation? Usually, it’s the trans child struggling to explain their feelings to their family. My mother made a concerted effort to accomplish that feat of understanding early on, and now is worried that I might misinterpret her struggles with my identity as lack of acceptance.

Too often I think there are loving parents out there who just need their child to reach back at them from across the table and reassure them. Being trans is a burden that your family carries with you. It’s difficult. It’s scary. A good family won’t condemn you for who you are, but they might still worry and battle with themselves about it.

Some people claim that the family of a trans person needs to drop everything and support their relative, without question, without reservation. Many LGBT people I know demand it, and are hyper-critical of any parent that struggles to do so. The weight on the trans person’s shoulders is so heavy, they say, they shouldn’t be responsible for helping their family and friends sort out their “issues.” Those are personal problems their family members need to take care of on their own, and quickly, or they’re bad people.

I disagree.

If you’re trans, you’ve got a big struggle ahead of you, but so does your family. If, when you begin to transition, your father doesn’t know what to say, your mother is tearful, or your sibling is confused, it doesn’t mean they don’t love you or accept who you are. Just like you had to come to terms with who you are, they do, too, and they are at the disadvantage of not being inside your head. You’ve lived with you your whole life. Transition might just seem like the next logical step for you, but for your family, they are watching a person they knew turn to ash and be reborn again. They are mourning the death of a certain set of expectations they made when their little son or daughter (brother, sister, grandson, granddaughter, etc) comes into the world. I’ve heard trans people say, “Well they need to just get over it, this is me!” I think that’s damaging. Try to put yourself in their position. This isn’t an easy process.

If you’re the immediate family member of someone who is trans, I want you to know that you deserve their patience, compassion, and mutual support . If you are struggling, I understand. If you are confused, I understand. If you worry for their safety, or what your extended family might think of them or you, I understand. You deserve time to adjust. You deserve to be able to ask your child questions, even if they are awkward, and receive  patient, thoughtful responses. If you are not informed about what it means to be trans, certainly try and educate yourself, but you should engage your child in that process, and they should be receptive. Be each other’s guides. I promise, you will become so much closer as a family because of it.

That’s all (I say, 1,000 words later).

Thank you so much for reading.

Much love,

Oliver*

If you are transgender or the relative of a trans person and need to talk to someone, I’m happy to help. I am not an expert and I am only one voice, but I’m here for you.

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