A reader writes: “I have a hard time coming out as trans to people. I would rather be called by female pronouns and the wrong name than deal with the awkwardness of the conversation and all of the explanations I’m afraid I’m going to have to make.
“Part of the problem is that I have no idea how to bring up the topic. I mean… It seems like it would be a little awkward to blurt out ‘Oh, by the way, I’m trans. Please call me ______ and he from now on.’ But that’s the only thing I can think of to do.
“So I guess my question is how do you come out to someone? And in particular, how do you come out to people who might have no idea that trans people even exist? (I am part of a guild that is attended by ladies in their forties through nineties who usually grew up on farms, and I have no idea how to explain it to them.)”
Many people think of “coming out” for a trans person as coming out after transition to people who know you only as your “transitioned” self. But that is only one type of coming out, and coming out prior to, or in the early stages of, transition to those who only know you as your assigned birth sex is another type of coming out, and it has its own difficulties.
It is particularly difficult to come out to those who have no idea what “transgender” or “transsexual” mean. There are many non-trans people who equate “transsexual” with “drag queen” or “a man in a dress,” and that’s about as far as their “knowledge” extends. There are others who don’t even have that (utterly incorrect) framework, and the word does not even conjure up a picture in their head.
But farmers and small-town residents often get a bad rap. The women you speak of might be more savvy than you think – when I went to my 30-year class reunion in a very small (population 12,000) Iowa town that still has a very rural reputation and a lot of farmers in and around the area, I was completely accepted by my classmates, even those who had remained in the town. They were adults, they were knowledgeable about the world, and they were quite open-minded. That doesn’t mean that everyone will be – but give them a chance.
I agree that saying, “Oh, by the way, I’m trans. Please call me ______ and he from now on,” is a little blunt, particularly for those who might not have any understanding of this, or even a vague idea of what you’re talking about. It’s going to mean nothing to them. So I think you have to ease into this, giving them an opportunity to understand this as you go.
I have some thoughts, and I know that readers will have more, so be sure to check the comments section. In all cases, my personal opinion is that if you act like this is a tragedy, it will be perceived as one, and if you act like it is a fantastic thing that you will finally be able to align your body and your gender identity, it will, for the most part, be perceived as a fantastic thing for you. You have to decide how you want this to be perceived by others.
Given that, here are some ideas:
> Although I really hate the fact that I even have a “diagnosis,” and I would prefer it if we didn’t need one, but the fact is that, if we are transitioning, we usually do have one, and it can be handy as a fallback position when starting from square one with people.
You can sit down with the women in your guild (or with anyone else) and say, “I need to let you know that I have been diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder. What that means is that my gender identity is not in alignment with my physical body (or however you want to describe it). The treatment for this, for many people, is to transition, and that is what I am doing. What that means is …” and then you describe what that means for you – physical changes that will be taking place over the next few months, name change, pronoun change, and so on.
How much detail you give is up to you. They will be concerned. They will ask questions. You can answer the questions you want to answer, and if you want to be gentle about not answering certain questions (such as surgery plans), you can just say, “I don’t know yet. I’m taking one thing at a time.”
> If you don’t like the “diagnosis” aspect, you can take it from a slightly different angle. My memory may be completely off on this, and I hope someone will clue me in as to the exact wording, but I believe that in the film You Don’t Know Dick, James Green said something like, “I have been told by my doctor that I am a candidate for sex reassignment (or gender reassignment or gender confirmation or transition – forgive me, James, I can’t remember the wording). Because of that, I will be doing this and this and this.”
Again, this is a complete paraphrase, but I believe that he said “I am a candidate for …” I really like that, although it could be confusing for some people (I think he was saying this to an employer). But the general idea is there, regardless of what words you decide to use. “I am a candidate for …” could be replaced with “My doctor has determined that I need to …” or “I will be undergoing medical treatment for …” or whatever is most comfortable for you.
> Books are great for explaining and demonstrating, and although you can’t carry a book around with you everywhere you go (unless you always carry a backpack), it can be very useful for specifically planned coming-out times. I still champion Loren Cameron‘s Body Alchemy: Transsexual Portraits, because it gives a visual representation of what you are talking about. I brought this book to work with me when I started coming out there.
Because the book also has some photos of chest and genital surgery, if you don’t want to go there, you could remain in control of the book and just show the photographs, including the before-and-after photos, to help give the women at the guild, or anyone else, an idea of what to expect with regard to your physical appearance.
> For situations where you are unable to “set the stage” or plan for a long discussion, such as when you run into someone on the street, you can say, “A lot has changed since we last saw each other. I’m going through transition from female to male (or however you want to describe it). My name is _______ now and I use the pronoun ‘he.’ I know that’s going to be hard for you to remember at first, so forgive me when I correct you from now on.”
Other things I would advise you to remember:
> Use humor when possible and appropriate – it relaxes people and makes them more comfortable.
> Even the most supportive people will make mistakes. The name will come first, and the pronoun will come later. Many people will use your correct (male) name along with female pronouns for a time. You will be able to tell the difference between a slip-up and intentional disrespect.
> Don’t enter any situation with a preconceived idea of how people will respond. They will almost always surprise you. Those who you think will be the most negative, the most freaked-out, or the most confused will often be the most understanding and supportive. Age, occupation, religion, political affiliation, and geographic location are not always good predictors of how a person will respond.
> Again, how you present this to others is generally how other will perceive it. If you want others to see it as a bad or sad thing (to generate sympathy), present it that way. If you want others to see it as a good, positive, or reaffirming thing, present it that way, and they will often feel happy for you.
You also might want to check out my Coming Out FAQ. Good luck – and check below for reader input! Readers?