Trans Summer School: Let's Bust Out of This Closet!
So you’re ready to start talking openly about your gender, and you want to come out of the shadows and live as yourself. Coming out stories are as diverse as gender itself and you have a whole lot of options in front of you, depending on the level of support you anticipate from friends, family, school, and the world at large. You might want to start laying the groundwork and doing some temperature checks by talking about high-profile trans people and trans issues to see how the people around you respond. Transphobia often comes from a lack of knowledge, rather than actual hatred, and connecting people with real-world examples can change the way they think about transgender and otherwise gender nonconforming people.
Maybe your country is creating space for a third gender marker on identification, for example, or a prominent celebrity is transitioning publicly. Perhaps there’s a trans character in a piece of media or pop culture you love, or maybe there’s something even closer to home. A fellow student, teacher, or family friend could be transitioning. Their experiences can demonstrate how people in your community might react, and provide a good starting point for a conversation.
Before you come out, you may find it helpful to assemble resources. We have a guide you can give to your parents, and the same guide can be helpful for adult family members and teachers as well, because it covers a lot of important information about the transgender community. We’ve also prepared a school-specific guide that you can use to educate your principal, school staff, and teachers. Trans rights organizations like the Transgender Law Center also have a lot of information about trans people and society. If you’ve been reading books and doing research, you may have found a few things that you think will allow people to understand you better.
Before coming out, it can help to get some friends in your court. If you’re already talking with members of the trans community, great! They may have some advice and thoughts on coming out, and they’re also there for you if you’re freaking out on the Big Day or a conversation didn’t go well. You can also come out in dribs and drabs. Maybe that starts with a close personal friend you feel you can trust — that friend could even be there with you while you talk to your parents, other friends, teachers, and people in the community.
While you could take out an ad in the paper to make the big announcement, we recommend a more conservative approach.
First, divide people into groups you’d like to talk to personally, and people you’d feel more comfortable emailing. It can get pretty exhausting to have the same conversation over and over again, and if you’re nervous about how some people might react, it can be easier to send them an email so they’ll have time to read and think before they see you again. Some people like to come out to everyone via email or letter, to encourage people to think, read up, and work through their issues on their own before having a conversation.
When it comes to your in-person group, it sometimes helps to set yourself up with a script to cover the basics of what people need to know, talk about what you need from them, and set some boundaries. While you can’t always reliably predict the responses you’re going to get from people as you talk to them, you’ll likely hear one or more of the following:
- What does transgender or gender nonconforming mean?
- I don’t understand why you can’t just be a girl/boy?
- Are you going to expect to be allowed to do things with the girls/boys now?
- Does this mean you’re gay?
- Are you just doing this for attention?
- Does this mean you can’t have children?
- What are you going to do now?
- What name and pronouns are you going to use?
- Are you going to get The Surgery? (You may not hear this one unless you’re a bit older, but get ready now: Cis people love talking about trans genitals!)
- I’m worried that you’ll be in danger and I won’t be able to help you.
- I’m worried you’ll never find someone who’ll love/marry you.
- Does this mean you’re like [some random trans person or trans celebrity]?
- That’s not a real thing (more likely if you’re agender, genderqueer, or another lesser known identity).
- I’ll always see you as my son/daughter/brother/sister.
- I feel like I’ve lost my son/daughter/brother/sister.
Thinking about how you will respond to questions and comments like these can help you get organized for coming out. It can also help you start to formulate a clear, simple email to people you don’t want to or can’t talk to in person, in which you explain that you’re transgender or otherwise nonconforming, ask people to use the correct name and pronouns from now on, and provide them with some links to further resources they may find helpful. Encourage them to do some reading before seeking you out for a conversation, because many of their questions may be answered online if they’d like to take a look.
—Amy Dentata, 34
Coming out to your household can be stressful, because most of the people in it have probably always known you as your assigned sex and presumed gender. Some families are warm, friendly, and welcoming, and ready to adapt to their new trans family members. Others aren’t so supportive. You may encounter some negative, confused, upset, or angry reactions from family members, especially parents, at first — but it doesn’t mean they’ll keep feeling that way. They may need some time to think about this pretty big piece of information! Other parents are less accepting, and it may take a lot longer to work with them — and sometimes, parents are simply unwilling to love their children as they are. It’s hard and frustrating when that happens, but you need to know that you are not responsible: they are.
You’re going to be spending a lot of time forcing yourself to be polite, yet firm, while answering annoying, invasive, rude, and thoughtless questions. Some people are likely going to be resistant to your new name and pronouns, especially if you’re gender nonconforming and you use nontraditional pronouns. Others may refuse to accept you as who you are (and we’ll be talking about people like that at more length in the future). Having to assert your gender over and over again can be tiring, which is one reason it’s so valuable to find community, on or offline (or both!) who will support and commiserate with you — even if it’s something as simple as creating a space where you can stop talking about gender for five seconds and focus on something else.
What’s next? You may be struggling with the answer to that question yourself. You may start living part or full-time as yourself, depending on how many people you are out to. That could include advocating for yourself at work and school, requesting uniforms appropriate to your gender, making sure you have access to the right bathrooms and changing areas, and reiterating that you want to participate in gendered activities that reflect your identity. If you play sports, this could be complicated, depending on the district’s policies and rules about transgender athletes and competition — some sports aren’t gendered, but in other cases, people may expect you to compete with people of your assigned sex (e.g. in the men’s 400 meter or on the women’s soccer team). Some districts don’t actually have policies, or haven’t updated them, and you could ask your parents and supporters to help you pressure the district into adopting a more comprehensive and trans-friendly athletics policy.
If you’re interested in medical and/or surgical transition, you can meet with health care providers to discuss your options (of which there are MANY, and we’ll be talking about them soon!). Not everyone is interested in this kind of transition right away, or ever, so this isn’t an option you should feel pressured to pursue. Depending on your age, the available options may be pretty limited, but that gives you some breathing room to think about what you want and when.
It can be helpful to have a concrete, actionable list of items to talk about with people so they know how they can support you. In the case of your parents, you might ask for help like referral to a therapist, gender clinic, or trans-competent health provider. You may find that your doctor isn't familiar or comfortable with transgender people. That's a sign that you should fire your doctor and seek out someone new! You should be able to feel safe with your health care provider, whether you're discussing hormones or seeing someone about a cough. Even if you aren’t planning to medically or surgically transition now or in the future, seeing a therapist can be really helpful, by providing a safe space to talk about issues you may experience.
As you come out, remember that you have the right to set boundaries. Tell people that if they have issues they need to work out, they should do it on their own time, not yours. Inform them that it’s not appropriate to ask about your medical or surgical transition status, and that you won’t be open to conversations about your body, your future transition plans, and related matters like whether you can or will have children. If someone says or does something that makes you uncomfortable, you have the right to tell them to stop. Being transgender doesn't mean that you are public property. If they don't stop, ask someone (a teacher, another family member, or someone else in a position of influence) to help.
Sometimes people flail when a friend or loved one comes out, because they don't know what to do. If that happens, you can explain that supporting you, affirming your gender, and making sure that other people do the same is a really good start. But you can also provide them with some actionable items. Some examples include advocating at school while you work with officials on a smooth social transition, managing names on records (if you don’t want to legally change your name yet, you can still request that the name people use to refer to you be changed on things like school and medical records), and getting assistance with things like shopping for gender expression supplies.
Coming out can sometimes be rough: You may find that you learn who your real friends and family are, and you might, as the indominable Sarah Benincasa says, need to prune a few branches from the friend tree. That's scary, but it's also okay. In the long term, you don't want those people in your life, although hopefully they will come to undersand that they behaved hurtfully, and maybe they will be more supportive of trans people in the future. In the short term, though you may lose some people, you're likely going to gain a lot more, not just in the trans community, but beyond. Being able to live as who you are, rather than having to hide behind an ill-fitting mask, tends to make you more relaxed, happy, and ready to build meaningful relationships (including those kinds of relationships, which are coming up soon...).
In the short term, though, once you've come out to friends and family, you're probably wondering how to handle a transition at work (if applicable), school, the doctor's office, and beyond. Fortunately, we've got you covered.
Previously on Trans Summer School: So I Think I Might Be Trans. Now What?
Coming up next time: Say My Name, Doc, and the Administrative Side of Coming Out