I recently took a trip to visit my family. It was the first time I’d seen them since beginning gender transition one year earlier. The previous visit was miserable for me. I was going through an intense period of life trying to figure out how to deal with my gender dissonance, and I wasn’t able to share the experience, or call on them for support. At that time, I felt an acute sense of disconnection. There was a perceivable chasm in our relationship, which was extremely difficult and painful for me.
A lot has shifted for me in the year following that trip. I’ve figured out a lot about myself, and what I need to be happy and whole. Connection is a big part of that. In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, Brené Brown defines connection as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgement; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” She points out that research in neuroscience has shown that the human need for connection is biological and says, “From the time we are born, we need connection to thrive emotionally, physically, spiritually, and intellectually.” Because this innate need for connection is so essential to who we are, the fear of disconnection can exert intense pressure limiting our ability to be open and honest with others and ourselves.
In my experience, this felt like a double-bind. I was distraught that I didn’t have the connection I desired with my family and others, but I was afraid that exposing my truth to them would only divide us further. I was afraid of being judged; afraid of being cast aside because they wouldn’t be able, or willing, to understand and accept me.
As I made progress in the few months following that visit, I came to a point where I felt that I needed to take the risk of coming out to my family and everyone who didn’t already know that I’m transgender. I recognized that I wouldn’t be able to fully integrate and express my true self until I could accept and love myself for who I am, and getting to that point would be difficult, if not impossible, if I kept parts of myself hidden.
I came out at my job in February, and found much more support and acceptance than I had ever believed possible. Even though this was scary, I knew that it would ultimately be okay since I work at a progressive non-profit in a very liberal city.
In March, I sent a long letter to my parents (in case you hadn’t noticed yet, I can be long-winded because of my strong desire to be understood). My parents are kind, generous, and loving people and, not unexpectedly, they responded immediately expressing their unconditional love, and I acknowledged how grateful I am to have it. They also let me know that it was hard to take this information in. I let them know that they could take time to sit with it and told them I was ready to talk about it whenever they were.
We didn’t end up talking about my transition much in the intervening months between my letter and visit in October. We did resume with our usual check-in calls every two weeks or so, and it didn’t feel like anything had changed. I wanted to be able to answer the questions I presumed they must have, and explore their thoughts and emotions about my transition, but I soon realized that it was unlikely to happen until we were together in the same place.
A few weeks before this trip, I decided that I needed to open the conversation and start setting the stage for further discussion. I wanted to plant some seeds that would have time to germinate before I arrived. I talked to my mom first. We had a constructive dialogue and I appreciate that we were both able to listen to, and hear, one another without either of us overreacting or becoming defensive of our positions. She shared some things with me that I needed to hear to understand where she was at, including the fact that she felt hurt and lied to because she had never seen any clue that my gender identity was anything other than male. It makes sense that she would feel this way, but I hadn’t thought about it from that perspective before. I shared with her what it means to me to embrace my true gender identity, and why I had to change. I reframed the negative analogies she had associated with my transition, offering different perspectives from my vantage point. By the end our conversation, I felt that she had softened, and was beginning to understand me.
I talked to my dad next, and I was able to let him know that I wanted us to talk more while I was there. I invited him to be honest with me about his feelings. My dad is a wonderful man who goes out of his way to protect and take care of others, and I know that he doesn’t ever want to do or say anything that will hurt me. Because of this, I explicitly offered him a safe space to be real and say whatever he was thinking and feeling, even if he thought it would hurt me. I assured him that I can take it.
I felt good about that call, and although it was less than it had been, I still had a fair bit of anxiety going into the trip. As we approached, I felt I was going to start crying on the plane. I held back, but was sure that I would lose it as soon as I saw my parents in the terminal. To their credit, they made it easy for me by welcoming me, and my partner, the same as they always have, and acting as if nothing was different. I didn’t end up feeling as emotional as I imagined.
Early on in my visit, my mom and I were able to dive into a discussion about my transition. I was so happy to have the opportunity to share my experience with her. I was surprised and elated to find that our previous conversation had enabled a shift in her position. Her compassion for me had expanded. She had been putting lots of time and effort towards coming to terms with my changes, and made it clear that she wants to understand and accept me. She was curious to know about aspects that she was uninformed on, and/or that confused her. It felt safe to answer all of her questions. This is what I wanted. In that moment, I felt connected to her like never before in my adult life, and this feeling has grown more since then.
It was tougher to have the conversation with my dad, and it wasn’t until my last night there that I got him to talk. Since he hadn’t opened up about this earlier, there were more difficult emotions built up that needed to be released. Thankfully, we were both able to remain present with each other and work through this challenging, but crucial, encounter. I’m proud of him for being able to expose his rawness and be vulnerable in that moment. As we ended, I told him and mom that I needed to say what I want from them, which is to be called by my chosen name (that I’ve been using for over 10 years now), and to be referred to with female pronouns. I let them know that I wasn’t pressuring them to give me this. I was leaving it up to them to do whatever they wished with this information, and they could choose to comply if and when they ever wanted to. Immediately, my dad said that he would try, with the caveat that he may forget at times. I was stunned and delighted that he offered this so readily and so early after hearing my request. I’m grateful that we made significant progress that night and re-established our connection.
I’m excited for how my relationship with my parents will develop now that we’ve been able to be open and honest with one another. This outcome is far better than what I feared could have resulted from making myself vulnerable earlier in my process. I think it’s a testament to the love that I was raised with, and that my parents can still offer, even in difficult times of change such as this.