A reader writes: “In sixth grade, I came out to my best friend as a lesbian. Since then I have embraced the fact that I am attracted to women, and most people who are close to me or at least have some sort of friendly relation with me have figured that out. I don’t attempt to hide it, but I don’t make an attempt to spread the knowledge actively.
“However, in the middle of my tenth-grade year, I figured out I wasn’t a lesbian, I was transgendered. It just clicked for me and I then slowly realized that being a lesbian and being trans are two entirely different things!
“Now almost a year later, I am faced with a dilemma: EVERYONE THINKS I’M A LESBIAN. I tried coming out to my best friend a few months ago, but he was pretty unresponsive and now still refers to me as a lesbian because I don’t think he really realizes the massive difference.
“Since then I have come to further accept trans as my identity and want to come out to close friends as trans instead of lesbian because, well, I’m not a lesbian, and it bugs me to be called that because it refers to an entirely different population. How can I try to bring it up again to my friend, and then come out to others?”
Your situation is much more common than you might even realize. Many, many trans guys have come out of the lesbian community. It might have been more prevalent before the Internet offered so many resources for young people to explore and identify what they were feeling, but I think it is still common today.
Young people (and some older people, as well) can get gender identity confused with sexual orientation. It’s pretty normal, when you find yourself attracted to girls, for your first response to be “Okay, I’m a lesbian.” It’s only when you claim that identity and realize that it still doesn’t fit that you realize there’s something else going on there and you start to look deeper.
Before the Internet, many trans guys were isolated, with no resources and nowhere to find information or answers. Lesbian communities were at least visible, and being a lesbian was the only thing that made sense, even though it still didn’t feel quite right. So you have a lot of people who came before you who moved through a very similar situation.
Look at Chaz Bono. And I do mean look at Chaz Bono, because I think that he can be your “saving grace” in this situation. Chaz came out publicly as a lesbian in 1995, and he worked for many years as a lesbian activist before coming out as trans in 2009. Chaz not only had to come out again to his friends, but to the entire country.
Because Chaz is such a public figure, his story is an easy one to use when explaining to your friends that you are trans. They can certainly visibly see the difference between photos of Chaz when he was identifying as a lesbian and photos of him now. And if they have paid any attention at all to him on Dancing with the Stars or in his other public projects, they can see that he is not a lesbian. And, you can explain, neither are you.
So I think that one thing that you could do is approach your original friend – the one you came out to initially – and start over again. You can ask him if he at least knows who Chaz Bono is (I understand that you and your friend were young when Chaz came out, but even people who were too young to be aware of him before are probably aware of him now).
Then you could say, “Well, you might not know this, but Chaz came out a lesbian and lived with a public lesbian identity for many years before he came out as trans. That’s the way it is with me as well.”
You can go on to explain that sexual orientation is who a person is attracted to and gender identity is who a person feels that he/she/ze is, and those are two different concepts, at least in Western culture and for our purposes here. You can explain that you came out as a lesbian because it was the only label and the only community at the time that made sense to you with regard to what you were feeling, but that it never really quite fit.
Now you understand that you are trans, and it is important to you that your friends understand the difference. Then explain what that difference is, as far as it applies to you.
Do you feel like a guy? Do you want to be called by a certain name? Do you want your friends to use male pronouns? You need to make that clear. If you sit down and have a heart-to-heart with your best friend and get him on your “side,” then he can help when you come out to your other friends. He can lead the way by using your chosen name and preferred pronouns, and he can help correct others (kindly) when they slip up.
If your friends say something like “Can’t you make up your mind?” or “What are you going to come out as next?”, you can remind them about Chaz and tell them that many trans guys entered the lesbian community before they came out as trans. You can tell them that this has nothing to do with “making up your mind” and everything to do with discovering your true self and your true identity.
It’s a process, and it doesn’t always all come together at once in a neat and tidy package. Identity can be messy, and discovering it can mean trying some things on before you find something that really fits.
Remember, sexual orientation is who you’re attracted to and gender identity is who you think you are. In most cases, a person’s gender identity is in sync with his/her/hir physical body, but in some cases, it is not. Trans people can have any sexual orientation. In your case, you are attracted to women. But this does not affect who you know yourself to be inside. And this is what you want to explain to your friends.
I never identified as a lesbian, so I did not have to come out as trans as a lesbian. I know that some of my trans-guy readers were in the lesbian community prior to coming out as trans, so I’m hoping that they have some advice to give about this situation.
Readers, what have been your experiences?