I’ve been thinking recently about the ways that encourage–and don’t encourage–me as I go through my gender transition. Transition is a slower process than I’d like. I’m doing better at being patient with it, but I still am not the world’s most patient person. Yesterday I watched a Goofy short in which Goofy was an impatient driver who, while stopped at a red light, complained, “Nooo! That’s 30 seconds of my life I can never get back!” and sometimes I still feel that way.
Anyway, it seems like my whole transition has been a matter of learning that I am a guy no matter what the outside looks like and I don’t have to wait for other people to notice it. However, it started out that maybe people would see me as the man I am if I had a shorter haircut. Then I started dressing more masculine. Then I put on my binder for the first time. Then I got contact lens and masculine glasses. Then I started hormones.
And still sometimes get misgendered, although it’s better than it used to be.
I wonder if this obsession with what others see me as is an Aspergers trait. I know who I am and so if someone doesn’t see it, they just don’t see it, and I’m learning to look in the mirror and validate myself. I know my partner sees me as I am and she doesn’t care if my body is female or not and that helps too. I’m learning to trust that so that when the timeline catches up and we’re together I won’t be insecure or nervous.
Anyway, all that is a preamble to what I really want to talk about tonight, and that’s encouragement. I think a lot of parents and other adults who interact with transgender teenagers (or people like me who, in a certain sense, go through adolescence all over again when they begin to transition regardless of their age) want to encourage and support the transgender people in their lives, but really don’t know how. So I thought I’d talk about some of the things my parents and others in my lives have done that I’ve found encouraging.
First of all, when I’ve had a bad day and am frustrated that the whole world seems to see me as female and/or question my ability to know who I am, it really helps to come home to people who say unquestioningly, “I see you.” and treat me absolutely as the man that I am. That seems to restore some sanity and make me feel like at least there is one other person in the world who knows who I am and that possibly there are more.
Sometimes, though, people who mean to support trans people have a hard time doing this. For whatever reason, our birth genders are permanently etched in some people’s minds. I guess they’ve seen us that way for so long that it’s harder for them to switch gears and see what is so obvious to us. Part of the problem is that there’s kind of an amnesia effect to coming out as trans, or at least there has been for me. Now that I’m out and it seems so much more right to be a guy, I more or less have forgotten the months of questioning and doubt and thinking maybe I’m genderqueer and maybe I can live with a female body as long as someone calls me “he” once in a while and maybe I’m a masculine woman and so on. Once I finally crossed that threshold and admitted I was a man, there were other decisions to be made. What name to use and where to use it and how to dress and who to tell first and whether to get on hormones and do I want surgery and all that.
Well, at this point I’ve been out to myself nearly a year, settled most of these questions in my mind, finally began asking everyone to call me Jack, am on hormones and am leaning towards surgery. And now I want the whole rest of the world to get that I’m a man…when it took me a year to get to the point where I was comfortable enough with myself to know who I was and what I wanted in this respect.
So stretching that empathy muscle, I imagine it’s probably hard for parents and other people who’ve known me all this time by my birth name and gender to see me as the man I am and even when I have my full beard and deep voice (and btw my voice has been cracking so the voice is coming soon) it’s likely sometimes they’ll see me as a girl with a beard and deep voice.
So the question for trans supporters is “What do you do if you want to be supportive but you just don’t see the trans person in your life as hir target gender?”
My suggestion is to make a point of looking for ways that the trans person does match the gender s/he is on the inside. See, even if someone looks completely like your birth gender to you, there are some ways that they match their target gender–and it really really helps to hear it from people who are important to you. One day while I was visiting a couple of weeks ago, my mom said to me, “You know, you look like your brother.” I’ve also been told that I look like my father. Even if you mean something like that in the sense of, “You are a girl who looks like her brother,” saying that a trans guy looks like his male relatives is very validating and empowering. Of course, you don’t want to be ridiculously specific and embarrass the trans person. A friend on Facebook pointed out that she would feel silly saying, “Your cheekbones look very feminine today!” or something like that to a trans woman, and she’s right. But if you do notice something that is particularly masculine (or feminine, depending on the trans person’s gender), you can always find a way to say it that is sincere.
The other reason to look for the ways your child or friend looks like their target gender is that making a conscious effort to see them as the gender they see themselves as will make them seem more like that gender to you. The things we focus on and notice tend to influence our perception more than the things that we ignore or dismiss. So if you’re having trouble seeing your son as the man he is or your niece as the woman she is, looking for ways that their body matches their gender will help you see them as that gender. I don’t know if this exercise can completely override your former memories of the person as their birth gender, but I do think that it will help bring your vision of them in line with their vision of themselves.
And that’s what it’s all about, really. If you want to support a trans person, you want to support their quest to be seen as they truly are. And so in a way it doesn’t matter if their body screams “girl” (or “boy”) to you. Just as you remember to use their correct name and pronoun, it’s important to treat them as the gender they are and encourage them rather than discourage them when they feel like their body is impossible to deal with and that nobody in the entire world sees them the way they see themselves.
Now, there are some people who might say that you wouldn’t say to a cis-gendered (nontrans) person that they look particularly feminine or masculine, so you shouldn’t say it to a trans person either. And while this may be true in certain circumstances–I certainly wouldn’t want someone who I just met to go out of their way to say, “Wow you look manly today. I’d never have guessed you were trans if you hadn’t told me–” I think that when we are trying to be seen as we are and having trouble, it helps to know that people see us as we are. I’d love to hear all of your points of view on this though.