Trans Summer School: When Things Go Wrong
We wish we could say that exploring your gender, coming out, and transitioning (if you want to) were smooth sailing across untroubled waters. Unfortunately, we also have to be realistic: it’s not always easy to be trans, as you know from glancing at the media and talking to other trans people. In the long term, trans people all over the world are fighting to make the world safer and more inclusive for trans and otherwise gender nonconforming people, but that’s not always helpful when you’re facing problems like getting kicked out of the house, having trouble paying for transition, or dealing with transphobia in the workplace right now, not in the abstract future.
We’ve assembled a guide with some common issues that come up, and how to deal with them, in very broad terms. If you’re having difficulties, know that there are people out there who are ready and willing to help you, and often they’re a quick Google search away: if you’re struggling, you’re not alone, and you should reach out.
Without further ado…
What should I do if…?
Being outed can be extremely stressful, and sometimes fatal. While people are growing more accepting of the LGBTQ community in many regions of the world, there’s a reason many choose to remain closeted. That’s magnified by about a million when you’re transgender, especially if you’re a trans woman. There is nothing wrong with wanting to remain fully or partially closeted. You do not have to explain or excuse that choice to anyone, and you aren’t “cowardly” or “letting people down” if you make a calculated decision for your own safety.
Outing can happen early in transition (or if you’re not transitioning at all), during transition, and after transition. In some regions of the world, it’s safer to be more open about being trans, and people living in “deep stealth” are on the decline, but it’s still not cool to discuss the fact that someone is transgender unless that person has clearly indicated that it’s okay and has said when and where it’s acceptable. People can talk about Caitlyn Jenner’s gender identity because she’s a widely-known public figure and she outed herself. You, not so much (unless you’re Caitlyn Jenner, in which case, call me).
As you start to talk to people about being trans, make your stance on conversations about your gender very, very clear. Stress that being outed can be dangerous, especially in some situations, and if a friend seems like a potential person in your corner, ask if they’re willing to support you if you’re outed, and talk about what that might look like. Tell them that they shouldn’t mention your gender (or nongender) to anyone else without your explicit permission. As you open up to more and more circles, this can get really important — your teacher at a new school might not see a problem with telling another teacher or student, but, guess what, that’s a problem. Some people take a pretty relaxed stance about being out, ranging from actively talking about being trans to not making a secret of it but preferring that people not talk about it, to remaining in stealth. You can pick your own comfort level.
So what happens if you get totally categorically really super publicly outed and there’s no going back, as for example if it starts to get out at school? Start with damage control: find the key people involved, explain why this isn’t okay, and be proactive about next steps. For school, that might include stressing that the administration needs to treat you respectfully, and that includes telling other students to behave reasonably. You may also want to prepare to answer some questions, and to know where your boundaries are: be willing to talk to people about what it means to be transgender, for example, but feel free to tell them that the contents of your pants are not their business.
Sometimes, it helps to just send out a big ole letter: “Hi, yes, I was outed, I am transgender, I am the same person, this is the name and pronouns I use, if you know my old name/pronouns please don’t use them. This is what it means to be transgender (it can help to compare yourself to a high-profile trans person in the media to give people some context and a relatable comparison). Please treat me like you would anyone else. If you have additional questions, you can email me at this address although I also encourage you to check out these useful online resources. Thank you and goodbye.”
Okay, but what about a specific situation, like a family event, or a party with friends, or a study group, or Hebrew school, or any number of other settings? Small, specific situations can sometimes almost feel scarier, because you’re face to face with people you know well and have relationships with, and things can escalate quickly. Gaining control can seem hard when 10 faces are all looking at you expectantly, and it helps to develop a script so you’re prepared.
“Although I wasn’t planning on talking about it this way, Junio is correct, I’m transgender. I’m the same person, I’m just living as the person I really am, rather than the person society wanted me to be. If you have questions, I can answer them, although I also really recommend checking out the internet for resources.”
If the situation is unfriendly, hostile, or dangerous, get out as soon as you can and get to somewhere safe. If you have to call for backup, do it. Sometimes that means walking away from people you thought you knew well in a context that you know means you might not see them again, and that is scary, but you need to look out for your safety, not stick around in a setting that endangers you.
Ultimately, you might be surprised by the results of being outed: sometimes, people brace for the worst and end up getting thoughtful, supportive, friendly questions and comments from the people around them. You may also be startled by who reacts positively and who doesn’t. Transphobia often stems from a lack of knowledge: people don’t know anyone who’s transgender, or at least they think they don’t. Once they find out that’s not true and they’re confronted with a real live trans person who’s actually pretty ordinary, they can be surprisingly chill about the whole thing. Humans are adaptable!
A scary but unfortunately still possible outcome of coming out as trans or otherwise gender nonconforming is that you could be kicked out of important spaces. LGBT youth (data collectors aren’t great at breaking it down more specifically than that) make up forty percent of the youth homeless population, which means trans and otherwise gender nonconforming people are at a greater risk of being homeless than their cisgender peers. Which sucks, big time. If you find yourself amongst those who have been kicked out of their homes, what are you supposed to do?
The first step is to be proactive if you think there’s a chance the people you’re living with (like your parents) will kick you out. Of course, you can’t always predict people’s reactions, but you might have some sense of how accepting or unaccepting they’re liable to be. Make a list of allies you could go to if you’re thrown out. That could be safe family members (aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings who no longer live at home), friends, or even a romantic partner. These won’t necessarily be people you can stay with indefinitely, but people who can offer a couch to crash on for a day or a week, or even just give you a ride to somewhere you can stay. If you can, actually talk through the logistics of what would happen if you were thrown out with a few of your allies, so you’re all on the same page about what kind of help you’re expecting from them.
Another proactive step you can take, if circumstances allow it, is to build an emergency fund of money. That could be from an allowance you get, a paycheck, or the money people send you on your birthday. The more you’re able to squirrel away, the more resources you’ll have to pull from if you’re forced to leave.
If you get kicked out, here are some things to grab if at all possible — and make it fit in a satchel or backpack if you can.
- Any identifying documents (driver’s license, passport, birth certificate, government identification)
- Any money you have tucked away and/or your bank passbook or account access information
- Important medication
- A contact list with important information
- Phone — remember, your guardians may shut your phone off, so consider carrying or getting a pay as you go phone as well
- One or two items of sentimental value
- A few changes of clothes, including uniforms for work and/or school
- Anything you can’t stand the thought of losing (irreplaceable photographs, jewelry)
- Your pet(s) if possible
If you have temporary housing (at a friend’s, family member’s, etc.)
Once you’re safe, sit down with whoever you’re staying with and do your best to hash out a timeline. How long are they able to help you for? Are there other limitations you need to be aware of?
The next step is to use the time that you do have to try and locate more permanent housing. If you’re under eighteen, you can see if there are youth specific shelters available. If you’re a legal adult, there might be slightly more options open to you. If you’re employed, save what you can in case you need to do something like make a deposit on an apartment. The more research you do, the more likely it is you’ll have somewhere to go when your temporary housing ends.
If you have someone who can take you in permanently
In the event that you move in with someone, early on you need to have a conversation with them about any expectations or details of your tenancy. Will there be an expectation of you paying rent, even if it’s a token amount? Are there things you’re able or expected to do to help out around the house (cooking, child care, housework, etc.)?
Once the ground rules are laid out, you can decide whether or not you want to try and retrieve your remaining belongings from the people who kicked you out. If it’s safe to do so you can send a message saying, “I will be coming to collect my stuff on X day at Y time and will be bring Z person to help me out.” If you don’t think it’s safe for you to go back to your previous home to get your possessions, see if you have a friend or two who can act as go-betweens and get them for you. It’s possible that people may refuse to allow you or a representative to retrieve your things, or may claim they have thrown them out or given them away. We know this can be devastating, and it may make it harder to rebuild your life, but remember this: you got out, and you got away.
If you have nowhere to go
It may be that you’re kicked out and have no one safe to go to. If that’s the case, you may still have some options. If there is a YWCA near you, or within reach of your transportation, they may be able to help you find emergency housing. If you’re looking for somewhere explicitly for trans and otherwise gender nonconforming people, you have a few options. One is the Trans Housing Network, an informal organization that tries to connect trans and otherwise gender nonconforming people in need with other queer folks and allies who have a couch or a bed to spare. As of now it focuses primarily on the U.S. and Canada. While this network can be a lifesaver, there are a few considerations to keep in mind. One is that there’s no guarantee that you’ll find someone who can take you in. The other is that while the network does its best to be vigilant against people with bad motives posting about their extra couch, there is always some risk in meeting with a stranger.
If the Trans Housing Network is not an option, there are still some shelters that are specifically for LGBT clients. The Ali Forney Center has a list of U.S-based LGBT shelters.
There are some international resources as well, including:
There’s another form of exile that, while it doesn’t rob you of material resources like housing, can be painful to experience: no longer being welcome in your religious or spiritual community. If you’re a trans or otherwise gender nonconforming person of faith, that rejection can make you feel like you’re being forced to choose between two important aspects of your identity. It can also make you feel as though there is no place for someone like you in the religious community, which can trigger all sorts of negative feelings about yourself and your worth as a human.
Luckily, a growing number of faith communities are vocalizing their support of trans and otherwise gender nonconforming members. They may not be exactly the same as the community that rejected you, but they can at least offer people to talk to who can offer alternative interpretations of religious texts that will make you feel welcome instead of excluded. Online communities are also great ways to find inclusive faith spaces, and can give you a way to connect with people if you live somewhere rural or otherwise isolated.
If you’re not sure how to get started finding trans and otherwise gender nonconforming faith spaces, this is solid round up of resources. If you’re Jewish, there’s also an awesome project called Trans Torah. And for trans and otherwise gender nonconforming Muslims, there’s the excellent Coming Out Muslim.
When people think “harassment,” they usually think of sexual harassment — which includes not just attempts at sexual touching, but inappropriate remarks about your body, gender, sexuality, or partners, among other things. In fact, though, harassment is much bigger than that: it’s anything that makes you feel unsafe, unwelcome, or excluded. That includes misgendering you, calling you by the wrong name, making non-sexual but still inappropriate comments about your gender, sabotaging you at work or school, and a host of microaggressions. Bullying is a form of harassment. Sustained abusive campaigns, like repeatedly leaving nasty notes for you, or making a point of outing you at every meeting, is harassment.
Transition can be a stressful period. Many trans and otherwise gender nonconforming people experience harassment (including both physical and emotional) during transition, and this may continue after transition as well. Unfortunately, the better you “pass,” the less likely you are to be harassed — but you shouldn’t need to feel like you have to hide who you really are just to avoid hassling.
If you’re a guy, that probably means being listened to and taken more seriously, even though you’re the same person. People may treat you with more respect, and you may realize that what you do carries more weight — if you say something about someone else, for example, it could be taken more seriously than you realized. Women may be nervous around you when they weren’t before, or may be less open to being approached if you’re in a casual public space. You’re going to benefit from a strange flavor of male privilege, and it may feel awkward, upsetting, and frustrating. Being conscious of the power you hold can help you avoid abusing it. If you’re a man of color, you are likely to encounter a new flavor of racism — like beliefs that you’re automatically dangerous because of who you are, which can be a particular issue in interactions with law enforcement in many countries.
If you’re a girl, that means just the opposite — you may be accustomed to being treated respectfully and given attention when you speak, but you’re going to enter a world where that doesn’t happen anymore. Things that you say and do will be devalued, ignored, and not taken seriously, even if you did precisely the same things when people thought you were a boy. You’re likely to encounter harassment you haven’t before, including sexual harassment. The everyday frustrations — people thoughtlessly cutting you off, talking over you, making sexist comments, and much more — can be a real struggle.
You aren’t alone in being frustrated by sexism and narrowly defined gender roles. Asserting yourself (or stepping back, when you need to) can help combat the ins and outs of daily sexism, but it’s often an uphill battle. People who transition later in life say it can be more of a struggle, while younger people are more adaptable — but sexism isn’t something you should have to adapt to, or get used to. It’s okay — and good — to fight back and challenge the people around you.
In many regions of the world, harassment is illegal, depending on the the setting and the context. If you’re being harassed, you don’t have to accept it as “the way things are done.”
At school: If you are harassed because of your gender, or any other reasons, your school may have a conduct policy that specifically covers inappropriate behavior. Seek out a teacher, staffer, or counselor you trust to discuss the situation and find out what kinds of actions can be taken. If you feel unsafe with any member of your school’s staff, talk to a trusted adult and enlist their help. Make sure to document everything — in the event you need to prove your case or file a suit, you should have as much supporting material as possible, including examples of the harassment you’re experiencing and a paper trail showing who you approached to report it, when, and what happened next.
It can be frustrating to deal with harassers on your own (which is how they get you). That’s where friends can come in handy. They can create a buffer so you’re not alone (and viewed as a weak target), and they can also show by example when it comes to how to treat you. Whether it’s your pals walking with you into the bathroom in a casual group so your presence isn’t remarkable, or someone pointedly using your actual name around a teacher who won’t stop deadnaming you, friends can be worth their weight in gold. People who want to harass you will find it challenging to target you, but they can also become victims of inertia: when you’re integrated without comment or fanfare, it gets harder for them to pick at you.
Surrounded by clueless people? You might find our creating safer schools guide useful. If you’re not getting traction, contact a trans legal aid group in your region or nation. Most can refer people to helpful resources and may be able to offer a free legal consultation to discuss options, and if your case mushrooms into something larger, they may be able to assist you with pro bono (free) representation. This is especially true in situations with litigation may set an important legal precedent, like guaranteeing access to bathrooms, sealing old school records, or asserting your right to play on sports teams.
At work: Depending on where you work, your options for dealing with harassment may vary. If your work doesn’t have a strong conduct guide, encourage your work to consider adopting an anti-harassment or conduct policy sooner rather than later. Project Include has a guide geared to the tech industry that’s relevant in lots of other places as well. Starting with work-based policies is often the best approach, because if your work says it’s committed to ending harassment, you can approach a manager or the human resources department to explain what’s going on and ask for help. Your offending coworker should be warned, and if the problem persists, your employer should think about ways to separate you or terminate your harasser’s employment if the harassment is substantial and chronic.
If your work doesn’t have a harassment policy, or doesn’t have a good one, you may need to turn to another option: the law. Your nation should have a variety of laws pertaining to employment and conduct, and many countries (and sometimes cities as well) have specific laws that may entitle you to file a claim. Be warned that legal protections for trans people in the workplace are pretty slim, and you may need to talk to a lawyer about getting creative when it comes to pursuing this route. This can also be a lengthy process that drags on for years, so what do you do in the short term?
If you can, enlist a friend at work who’s willing to get your back — someone to run interference when possible, to take your offending coworker aside and explain that their behavior isn’t acceptable, and someone to back you up if you have to go to a manager. Talk with your friend about the outcome you want to see: sometimes intervention can make harassment worse if someone senses that they’re getting on your nerves or thinks there won’t be real consequences. Your friend will need to be diplomatic, but firm, and should clearly outline problem behaviors, present alternatives, and refuse to argue. (“You keep using incorrect pronouns to refer to Cindy. She prefers to be called she or her.” “Where Greg goes to the bathroom isn’t really your business, so please stop challenging them.”)
Your friend can also model good conduct for coworkers. For example, if someone deliberately or accidentally uses the wrong pronoun (“Oh, that pie he made was just the best!”), your friend can make a polite correction by example (“Yes, she makes really good pies.”). You may find that it gets exhausting or frustrating to have to stop and have a public correction every time something like this happens, and it could make you uncomfortable, like maybe you should stop saying anything because it’s so disruptive. A friend to politely lead by example can be really helpful — issuing a correction, without having to pointedly draw attention to the fact that something inappropriate just happened.
At a public place: Whether you’re going to the movies or curling up with a book in the library, you’re going to be trans in public. A lot. And that provides a lot of opportunities for harassment, like snide remarks from clerks, catcalling, people stalking you, people hassling you in the bathroom, and more. Traveling in packs can help you weather harassment more safely, even though it sucks to have to round up an escort to go somewhere.
When you’re on your own, the best response is highly situational. Sometimes a “Pardon me?” or “That’s none of your business” can work like a charm. At other times, you may need to get more specific or confrontational, which can feel scary, especially if you’re small and/or on the femme end of the spectrum. It’s frightening to be cornered in a bathroom, or to realize that someone has been following you for several blocks, and to be aware that harassment can get violent very quickly. Getting somewhere safer as soon as you can is critical: maybe that’s locking yourself in a bathroom stall and calling a friend for help, ducking into a coffeehouse to avoid a stalker, or hopping on a bus to get out of an area.
Unfortunately, not everyone is your friend, even when you’re trying to evade physical danger: you may tell someone that you’re being threatened, and that person may not offer assistance, while your emergency contact might be too far away to intervene in a bad situation. Get familiar with entrances and exits. Look for several people who might be sympathetic if you need help. And if you ever see someone who’s being harassed, don’t sit by in silence, step up and make it clear that they’re not alone.
A note on misgendering and deadnaming: Misgendering is the pits, and unfortunately, it’s one of the most common forms of harassment trans and otherwise gender nonconforming people experience — including from their own friends and family. It can feel exhausting to repeatedly correct people when they use the wrong name or pronouns for you, but you have a right to make those corrections. You don’t have to tolerate misgendering and deadnaming to be polite, or because someone’s known you so long by a different name and/or pronouns, or for any other reason. You are a human being, and you deserve to be referred to in the way you prefer.
Early in transition, people tend to slip up, especially if they’ve known you for a long time. It’s often not out of malice, but out of autopilot — though sometimes you correct them and they say things like “Oh, to me you’ll always be Shveta,” or “but you’re a boy really,” and that’s when you find out it’s malicious. It can help to do some role playing and practicing: “Oh, actually it’s Iikura now,” or “actually, I use female pronouns.”
Some confrontation tips:
- Try to avoid saying “I prefer,” even though it may feel like it’s softening your language to make it sound less confrontational or aggressive. You don’t “prefer” to be called Maria. Your name is Maria. If a cis person called Maria was called “Marian” all the time, would that person say “oh, actually, I prefer Maria”? No. She’d say “actually, it’s Maria.”
- Don’t apologize. If someone can’t get your name and pronouns right, that’s not your fault. That means no “sorry to have to say this, but…” or “I know it’s hard to remember, but…” or anything else. Again, what would a cis person do or say if they were misgendered or someone used the wrong name?
- Do be understanding...within reason. If someone hasn’t seen you in ten years, she might call you by the wrong name and/or pronouns or be confused, and it’s fine to say “it’s been a while, so you might not know…” If she keeps using the wrong name and/or pronouns for the rest of the night, stick to a simple correction.
- Consider asking your friends to help not just when you’re around, but when you’re not, because that’s often where misgendering happens and gets entrenched. Make sure your friends know that you’re okay with (and perhaps even appreciate) having your name and/or pronouns corrected. When using the right name/pronouns for you is normative, it starts to spread — your friends correct people who kind of know you but not really, they start using the correct name and/or pronouns, and so on and so forth.
- If your “friends” insist on misgendering you, they aren’t your friends. Friends embrace and love each other for who they are, and when someone deliberately misgenders you or makes harassing comments about your gender, that person isn’t a friend. They’re a jerk. Don’t be friends with jerks.
- If members of your family are doing it, things can be much tougher for you, depending on how close you are, whether you live with them, and how much economic or other control they have over you — e.g. Cousin Mickey who visits once a year is much less of a problem than Uncle George who lives with you and also controls your trust fund. If you can, find friendly members and ask them for help, and keep correcting. Make it clear that this is your gender and it’s not going to change. Tell them you know the difference between an innocent pronoun slip from someone who changed your diapers and a malicious attempt at denying your identity. This may require a lot of exhausting “my name is still Alice, and I use they pronouns.” Sometimes family members are this way out of transphobia, but it’s often newness and confusion (“What is a trans person? How does this even work?”) or force of habit — hold your ground, and don’t be afraid to be “that person,” you know, the one who makes dinner table conversations awkward. All the best people are “that person.”
Sexual assault is another awful phenomenon that disproportionately affects trans and otherwise gender nonconforming people. For the purposes of our discussion, sexual assault is any instance in which someone makes you engage in a sexual activity that you don’t want or consent to. That can look like direct, physical force, threats or coercion (e.g. you’ll be fired or they’ll break up with you if you don’t do it), or doing something sexual while you’re asleep or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. If someone has assaulted you, it’s not your fault. It’s theirs, and you deserve the support and resources you need to heal from the experience.
Reporting: A decision many survivors grapple with is whether or not to report the assault to law enforcement. There are good considerations on either side of that question. On the one hand, reporting can help some survivors feel as though they’re taking back control or doing what they can to punish the perpetrator. Reporting may also help a survivor feel safer, especially if the perpetrator is someone they see frequently. However, survivors can also face secondary victimization at the hands of law enforcement, usually in the form of victim blaming or disbelief. If you’re trans or otherwise gender nonconforming, you also have to factor in the possibility that law enforcement will treat you poorly because of your identity. Ultimately, whether or not you report is up to you and what you think will make you feel best.
There is a misconception that going for medical care post-assault means you have to report the assault to law enforcement. Whether or not that’s true depends on how old you are. In the U.S., if you’re under eighteen the hospital staff is mandated to report the incident. If you’re over eighteen, you get to decide whether or not to report.
While we’re talking about reporting, we need to discuss what mandated reporting is and who has to comply with it. If someone is a mandated reporter, they are required by law to report any instance of current or ongoing abuse or assault of someone under eighteen. They’re also required to make a report if they believe someone is in danger of hurting themselves or other people. Common mandated reporters include counselors and therapists, doctors and nurses, teachers, coaches, clergy, and school administrators. The person reports by calling in to a hotline, usually one attached to Child Protection Services. In some cases, like when a minor comes into the hospital for a sexual assault exam, law enforcement is automatically alerted.
You may be afraid of speaking with a mandated reporter. Common concerns we see are that the perpetrator will be immediately punished to full extent of the law which, if the perpetrator is someone you care for, can be a frightening prospect. Another concern is that the report will spark retaliation from the perpetrator. If you have those concerns or any others about reporting, discuss them with the mandatory reporter ahead of time so that your worries can be given the consideration they deserve.
A benefit of mandatory reporting is that if you’re scared or unsure of how to report the assault to the authorities, you can tell a mandated reporter and they can take it from there. That can take some of the pressure off of you.
If you’re unsure of what you want your next step as a survivor to be, or you want support but either can’t or are afraid to access in-person help, you can call a hotline. Here is a list of international hotlines that rape survivors can call for support. A similar resource can be found at Pandora’s Project.
If you decide you’d like in-person help or resources, the best place to go for those is a rape crisis center. Those organizations may not always go by that exact name, but if you do an internet search for “rape survivors resources + my city” you should be able to find the nearest available one. But what does going to a rape crisis center look like? What can you expect from a visit? We’ve outlined some basics of what a visit to a rape crisis center involves. Keep in in mind that these are general patterns and each center may approach the process slightly differently.
- If you’re not comfortable seeing a counselor face to face, are afraid of being seen going to center, or have issues with transportation or mobility, check to see if your local rape crisis center has a helpline that you can call. That way you can get support with having to visit the office. If you’re under 18 and are worried that you might be subject to mandatory reporting, a phone line offers you some anonymity while still connecting you to support.
- If you’re concerned about a rape crisis center being friendly to trans or otherwise gender nonconforming clients, you can try several strategies to find out. One is to see if they have a website and look to see if they talk about services for trans clients (they’ll almost always put those services under an LGBT heading). Also keep an eye out for signals that the space is trans friendly. Rainbow stickers and phrases like “safe space” aren’t perfect shields against transphobic service providers, but they’re a sign you’re on the right track. You can also call (or have a supportive friend or family member call) and directly ask, “do you serve trans clients?”
- Let’s say you’ve chosen an organization and are going to meet face to face with a counselor. In your first appointment, be prepared to spend at least a little time on paperwork (consent forms and intake forms). You and the counselor should also discuss what you’re hoping to get out of future appointments, and if there are any constraints you need to be aware of. For instance, some crisis centers focus on short term counseling instead of counseling that spans years.
- Know that you won’t have to go into detail about the assault right away, or ever. You get to decide what parts of the story you’ll share.
- Many rape crisis centers will offer services beyond one on one counseling. These can include support groups, legal and medical advocacy, and referrals to other resources.
Finally, there are some sexual assault and domestic abuse survivor’s resources that are explicitly trans and otherwise gender nonconforming friendly. These organizations are great places to find information as well as support for yourself as you move through the healing process.
- Love is Respect
- Pandora’s Project
- Compiled list of centers in U.S., Canada, and U.K.
- Right here at Scarleteen, including our message boards
Not being able to access transition services can feel like a heartbreaking barrier in your journey, whether you can’t afford them, are being told you’re not eligible, can’t transition because of social concerns, or any number of other reasons. Having your parents in your corner can really help when it comes to working with clinics and insurance companies and fighting for benefits, but we know that’s not always an option.
In many nations, minors aren’t eligible for any, or many, transition services, and that’s something we unfortunately can’t help you with — that said, at the very least, you should be able to access puberty blockers. Depending on where you are, policies may be more or less flexible in different places, as well. Some clinics won’t prescribe estrogen or testosterone to minors, for example, while others will. Most won’t perform gender confirmation surgeries on minors, but some may make exceptions, especially if they are tied to other health issues, like offering a hysterectomy if you experience debilitating periods.
If your barriers are based on being uninsured or stymied by insurance exclusions, you have more options available. Many nations have low-cost transition clinics that provide basic services on a sliding scale, including to youth, and some can offer assistance with more complex transition needs as well. At a minimum, these clinics should be able to help with hormones and counseling or therapy. Some also offer sexual health care and counseling. Try Googling for your region plus “gender clinic” to see what comes up, and peruse their websites to learn more about the services they offer, whether they see minors, and whether they have a sliding scale or cost assistance option.
Some people opt to seek crowdfunding for help with paying for transition, whether it’s a tip jar on your blog or website or an organized crowdfunding campaign. Crowdfunding can get tricky when you’re a minor, as you may violate the service agreement of some sites by using them while underage, in which case you may need to enlist the help of an adult — but know that the account will be linked to their bank account, so it’s a good idea to consider opening a dual signature account to make sure the money doesn’t disappear. If you do set up a crowdfunding campaign, think safety forward: don’t use your full name, use a post office box as your address, and be careful about disclosing identifying details like the region where you live. While crowdfunding campaigns are more successful with images, video, and personal stories, make sure to think about who might see it (family, friends, school, internet creeps) and how that information might be used. Even if you’re pretty comfortable being out, be aware that people running crowdfunding campaigns can become the target of internet harassment, so think ahead.
If you’re having trouble finding a clinic in your area, you may need to go to the closest urban region to find a clinic. Care providers won’t work with you remotely — you will need to arrange transit to the clinic. However, they’re often understanding when patients have to travel long distances, and they can try to bundle appointments and do phone followups when possible. If you’re in this situation, call the clinic to discuss your situation and whether they can accommodate you before making an appointment.
Struggling with parents? If you’ve come out to your parents and they’re supportive, that doesn’t always mean they’re on board with transition services, and some parents are more hesitant than others (or completely resistant). If your parents are transphobic and very resistant to any kind of conversation about being trans, use the old contradiction technique: say you want to see a therapist who specializes in gender issues to talk about your feelings, and provide a list of suggestions. Starting soft can encourage your parents. However, if your parents start to suggest therapists of their own, research them carefully: they may be relying on lists of bogus health care practitioners who specialize in “reparative” or “conversion” therapy designed to “turn people straight” or cis, as the case may be. In some regions, this kind of care is actually illegal, and you can pursue legal options to protect yourself, like calling child services or the agency that licenses mental health providers.
It can help to provide your parents with some basic mythbusting when you’re approaching them to ask about going to a gender clinic:
- Going to a gender clinic doesn’t mean you’re going to start transition immediately: it proceeds at a measured pace when minors are involved.
- Hormone blockers are completely reversible. If you start taking blockers and change the way you identify and present your gender but it feels uncomfortable or wrong, you can stop taking them. This isn’t an irreversible decision that will completely ruin the rest of your life.
- If you’re considered for estrogen or testosterone therapy, it’s not going to be right away, and it will likely be low dose to start. You and your therapist will have a lot of time together to decide when and if it’s right for you. While hormones can cause some irreversible effects, you can also stop taking them, and many of the most obvious effects will wear off within a few years. But, studies on transgender youth also show very low levels of regret when it comes to hormones, partially because youth wait a while to make sure they’re a good choice.
- Surgery at your age is pretty unlikely. If it’s even on the table at all, you’ll likely only be approved for surgery after a lot of conversations and careful thinking — this isn’t going to be a rash, easily-regretted decision.
- Research shows that most kids are pretty aware of their gender identity by age five, which means this isn’t a made-up whim, phase, or period of play. It’s who you are.
Being trans or otherwise gender nonconforming can come with significant mental stress, especially for youth. Research by organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness in the United States consistently shows that transgender people are more likely to experience depression, substance abuse, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder. Suicide rates are also disturbingly high in the trans population. You are not abnormal, weird, or freakish if you and your brain are having a hard time — what you’re experiencing can be a common side effect of living in a culture that isn’t accepting of people like you, especially if you are in a stressful home, school, or social situation. You also aren’t alone. Many trans people have been where you are, and there are numerous resources for people who need mental health services: there’s nothing to be ashamed of if you’re having mental health difficulties, and you’re going to feel much better about yourself and the world if you get some help.
For starters: If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide, whether you have a specific plan in mind or not, you should immediately contact a suicide helpline in your area, and if you have one, a trans-specific hotline like the Trevor Project in the US at 866 488-7386 or the Trans Lifeline at 877 565-8860 in the US and 877 330-6366 in Canada. Suicide.org maintains an extensive list of hotlines from around the world.
If you’re hurting yourself, or thinking about hurting yourself, you also need to get immediate help. That includes cutting, scratching, burning, hitting yourself, or anything else that’s intended to inflict pain, whether the goal is the pain, or the feeling that comes afterwards. One exception to this is engaging in consensual, informed, mutually enjoyable BDSM activities that cause pain. As long as those activities are done with an eye towards pleasure, exploration, or connection with a partner in addition to the pain, they would not be considered self harm. However, be aware: BDSM can become a masking or coping tool instead of a facet of your sex life, and if you find yourself engaging in BDSM in response to anger, sadness, or other strong emotions, you may be doing something unhealthy. Communicate with your partner, and if you have concerns, seek out a kink-friendly therapist to talk to.
Not feeling suicidal, but feeling weird or crummy? If you feel out of sorts for a few days, that’s pretty normal. But if you have symptoms that persist for more than a week, it’s time to contact a local mental health organization to talk about a referral. You might be surprised: what you think of as “mental illness” can sometimes actually be a sign of a physical illness, or vice versa, which is why it’s so critical to get evaluated.
Some warning signs that you may need to talk to someone:
- You have a very elevated mood, or a very depressed mood, for more than a week.
- You feel invincible, and take risks that you might not ordinarily take, or that attract concern from friends and family.
- You’re hearing voices (even ones that seem to have good advice!).
- You’re convinced that someone is following you, conspiring against you, or trying to ruin your life/something you’re working on.
- You’re experiencing a lot of negative feelings about yourself: You’re fat, you’re ugly, you’re stupid, you’ll never succeed at anything, you’re a big faker and everyone knows it, you’ll never be able to live as yourself, everyone hates you, you don’t deserve your partner, you can’t do anything right...
- You find that you have trouble focusing and staying on track, and you’re less interested in things, especially things you used to like — maybe you can’t seem to finish books anymore, or the thought of exercising is really repugnant, or you can’t get into episodes of your last favorite TV show, or this quick knitting project has gone on for months.
- Activities of daily living — like showering, eating, keeping on schedule with medications, getting to school or work on time, maintaining a normal sleep schedule, and keeping your environment the way you like it — are extremely difficult. Maybe you’re sleeping too much or too little, eating way less/more than you usually do, or routinely missing your first period math class. These are all bad signs!
- You’re using alcohol and other drugs more than usual (or at all, if you’re typically a teetotaler), especially if you find yourself using them for self-medication when you feel angry, stressed, panicked, or upset. If you realize that you need alcohol or other drugs, whether you feel bad when you don’t use them or you’re making them a part of your daily routine, that’s also a bad sign.
- You’re way more (or less) sexual than you usually are, or you’re taking sexual risks like not following safer sex practices, meeting up with strangers for sex, or letting partners push you further than you want to go. If you find yourself deliberately pushing past your boundaries out of a disregard for your own feelings/needs rather than an enthusiasm for exploration, you may want to talk to someone.
- You’re having intense spikes of panic or anxiety, whether they’re related to something stressful or not. Maybe that’s waking up with your heart pounding, or having a big reaction to something that shouldn’t be that stressful. Does the thought of a pop quiz make your mouth go dry while you can barely swallow? Are you so freaked out about talking to one of your parents that you’ll do anything to avoid it?
- You feel like your reactions to everything are a little overstated: you get mad about the most mundane stuff, you’re thrown into tears for no apparent reason, your anxiety skyrockets about something pretty minor. If you lost your favorite spoon and you get furious and start slamming all your drawers, or fall down on the kitchen floor and sob, those are warning signs that something is wrong.
- You may also be having issues that are specifically related to your gender and to transition concerns: feeling like you’ll never “pass” or be “trans enough,” worrying about expenses, fear you won’t be accepted socially, stress about becoming intimate with someone, upset about encounters with transphobia, and other negative emotions. You might think of these as “social problems” or “something you have to deal with,” but a mental health professional can help you manage them more effectively.
So you think you might want to see a mental health professional because one or more of the things on this list struck a chord with you. Now what? The first thing to know is that lots of different kinds of people work in the mental health field. That includes not just psychiatrists, but also psychologists, some social workers, nurses, counselors, therapists, and sometimes general practitioners, depending on what you need. They all have strengths and weaknesses and all provide different services. If you are looking for a health care provider who can also help you access transition services, or think you might want to maintain transition as a future option, you’ll need to take extra care when picking a provider to work with. Depending on where you live and the clinic(s) where you want to be seen, you may need a letter from someone with specific qualifications, usually a psychiatrist, MD, or licensed clinical social worker. If that’s an issue for you, bring it up at your first appointment so you can decide together if the person you are seeing is the right fit for you.
Most mental health professionals will want to have a talk with you while they assess your needs, which can include:
- Medication, either temporary or long term, to help you manage chemical imbalances in your brain. Psychiatric medication isn’t an “easy way out” or a “cheat”: it’s medically necessary and can help you stay stable. It’s also not a conspiracy of Big Pharma or something sold to people that doesn’t have any real effect. If it works for you, you are experiencing an effect. It can take several weeks for medication to work, and not all medication works the same way, so if a given medication or medication combination isn’t working (it’s not helping you feel better and/or it has terrible side effects), talk with your care provider. Often, medication provides the space you need to breathe while you work through things.
- Therapy, which takes a huge number of forms. Maybe you’re heard of Freud and psychoanalysis, but there’s also cognitive behavioral therapy and a whole lot of other options. These can also include things like hypnosis, which may sound dorky, but some people find it really helpful!
- Group therapy, which can be really useful if you’re in an area that provides it. Working in a group gives you a chance to interact with people who are having similar experiences. It can help you make friendships and connections, exchange tips for coping skills, and have a safe space to talk about issues.
- For people who are really struggling, and not getting relief from other therapies, your doctor may discuss brain stimulation (nifty magnets are involved) or electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which has a bad rep, but has progressed a lot since the days when it was used dangerously and inappropriately. While both might sound like weird pseudoscientific methods, they actually aren’t: they’re quite effective in some patients. However, your doctor isn’t going to leap to either therapy as a suggestion — these are “you’ve been in treatment for several years and you are not responding” options.
- Acupuncture, Tai Ch’i, reiki, ayurveda, meditation, massage, traditional Chinese medicine, or other forms of “nontraditional” (by which read “non-Western”) therapy. Some people find that their mental health benefits when they integrate physical health care, energy work, or spirituality. While these aren’t for everyone, they may be worth exploring as an adjunct to your mental health care.
Because mental health care can be sensitive and delicate, don’t assume that you have to go with the first doctor who will take you, or the first person your insurance will pay for. If you feel uncomfortable or think your therapist is a bad match, ask for a referral! A responsible mental health professional can suggest a colleague who might be a better fit. Obviously a transphobic care provider isn’t a great idea, but you may also feel comfortable with someone who prefers different modalities (not all therapies work for everyone), a person of a specific gender, or someone who has more experience with trans patients. Or someone just doesn’t “click” with you — this could turn into a long-term relationship, so if you get a bad vibe on the first date, say “it was nice to meet you” and move on.
Word of mouth is often the best way to find trans-friendly therapists specifically. If you don’t know anyone who’s seeing a therapist, or none of your friends sound that thrilled about theirs, cast your net further afield. Local LGBQT resource centers are often a good start, and in some countries, mental health professionals have professional organizations filled with people who actually specific focus on transgender care, and you can use a directory to find the right therapist for you. If there’s a clinic in the area that treats trans youth, they often have therapists on staff who can work with you.
If you’re worried about your parents, you may be in a bit of a bind. Your therapist appointments will show up on any insurance paperwork or bills, and you may need to pay out of pocket to avoid alerting your parents to the fact that you’re seeing a therapist. In some areas, free or low-cost services are available for people in need, sometimes from people who are still in training. But don’t feel like you’re the guinea pig. These mental health professionals are supervised, and if you feel like someone isn’t working out for you, you can request someone else. Free-low cost clinics for the general public may require proof of income, residency, or other support paperwork, so call ahead to ensure you bring what you need.
If you’re okay with your parents knowing (or if they’re supporting you!), you are still covered by doctor-patient confidentiality in most cases, which means that while your parents may know that you’re seeing a therapist, they don’t get to know what you talk about. Depending on where you live, your healthcare provider may be required to report specific issues, usually regarding credible threats to yourself or others and evidence of abuse, especially if you are a minor. Before you enter into a relationship with a care provider, ask them to fully explain if, when, and how they will share information. If you’re worried about a specific issue, ask.
Traveling while trans or otherwise gender nonconforming can be tons of fun — whether you’re seeing the world and meeting new people, uniting with old friends, attending trans-oriented social events, or anything else. But the actual travel part can be stressful (anyone who hangs out on Twitter has probably noticed the periodic horror stories from trans or otherwise gender nonconforming travelers, usually women). Security agencies and law enforcement aren’t exactly known for being socially progressive, and they tend to lag behind the times, which can be bad news for people who don’t fit social norms.
Ultimately, even with all the great advice in the world, you may end up in a situation where the officials you are interacting with are just plain jerks. Just know that it’s not you, it’s them.
However, there are some steps you can take to make traveling less stressful.
If you haven’t legally changed your name and/or gender, the information on your identification may not match what you look like. Although it can be painful to out yourself, you may find it necessary to briefly explain that you are trans or otherwise gender nonconforming, and that’s why your ID doesn’t quite match up. If you’re traveling in a conservative area, you may unfortunately have to consider modifying your gender presentation just to get through security — we know it’s not ideal, but pulling your hair back in a ponytail or shaving or wearing a neutral pants/casual shirt outfit may be your saving grace in security even if it feels awful.
If you are taking hormones, pack them carefully, and include their original packaging with your prescription information. If you take injectable medications, it’s a good idea to carry your syringes in a case (with their prescription information) along with a travel sharps container. Medication should always go in luggage you carry, and you are legally allowed to carry medically necessary supplies into the cabin of an aircraft or your personal train compartment in most countries. If you get stopped and officials ask to search your luggage, explain that you are carrying prescription medication and that the drug labels are all present. If you have needles, specify that, tell the security personnel where they are, and indicate whether you have any used sharps in a travel sharps container. Remember: your prescriptions don’t say why you’re taking a medication, so if you get asked about it, you can say it’s hormone replacement therapy (accurate!) without adding details.
If you’ve had surgery and security officers ask to perform a patdown, tell them about any tender areas you might have. Security personnel performing patdowns are often very thorough and can be quite invasive, and they will ask questions about “anomalies” they find — such as binders, or bulges where they don’t expect to find them on the basis of what they’ve assumed about your gender. For this reason, if possible, request a private screening so that you can make any necessary disclosures in a safer area of the security checkpoint. It can help to learn about policies ahead of time — for example, in some countries, it is illegal to ask that people reveal or remove prosthetics, which includes binders, packers, and breast forms.
Depending on where you are, if you are mistreated at security, you may have a variety of options. You can report it to supervisors and the transit hub (airport, train station, port), and you may also be able to report it to a human rights commission or similar agency. It can be helpful to look up this information ahead of time and carry it while traveling in case you have a problem.
In some nations, there are legal penalties for being LGBQT, up to and including death. If you need to travel to these regions, you may need to make some personal compromises for your safety, such as dressing and presenting in a way that matches the name and gender marker on your identification. We know how painful this is, but we want you to stay safe, and sometimes you have to make tough choices when it comes to balancing being who you are against your immediate personal safety.
You may have heard the saying that to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs. That’s a pretty dismissive way of describing something that can cause a lot of pain: as you come out and start interacting with the world as who you truly are, it’s possible that you may encounter nasty attitudes from people you thought were your friends, and some of those people may abandon you altogether.
So let’s start from the top:
Homophobia and related beasts. It happens. A lot of people can’t separate out gender from sexuality, so if you’re, say, a trans girl who likes guys, you may have people saying that you’re really gay and just covering up for it. (Or guys saying they don’t want to date you because they’re not gay, which, great, okay, you’re not a guy, what’s the problem here?) Or you’re a trans guy who likes guys and people are telling you that you’re not “really” gay. Or a genderqueer person who likes no one, but you’re not asexual, you’re just repressed! Or that just because you’re trans, you must also be queer, even if you’re actually straight. Or...you get the picture. Somehow, people have trouble wrapping their head around the idea that your gender and sexual orientation are related, but not actually the same thing, and that transitioning doesn’t necessarily change who you are attracted to or magically shift your sexual orientation. Things can get really complicated when you yourself aren’t really sure about what’s going on with your sexuality: it’s fine to be questioning or trying to figure out who you really are, and to say that.
If people are confusing your gender and sexual orientation, it might be because they don’t really understand, or it might be out of malice. It’s often pretty easy to tell — a short conversation can usually get to the bottom of things quickly. And it helps to have a little script memorized for dealing with it, whatever that script looks like for you — and it should probably include a gentle suggestion to hit the internet to learn more about gender and sexuality. Whether you are or aren’t queer, think about how your response might inadvertently reinforce homophobic attitudes — make sure people understand this is about you specifically, and your relationship to gender and sexuality. (“Just because I’m trans doesn’t mean I’m queer!” versus “While some trans people are queer, I’m actually straight.” “I’m actually still exploring my relationship to my sexuality — I’ll let you know when I know!”)
What about transphobia? It’s all around you in society and pop culture, but it can strike closer to home as well, and it hurts. It helps to separate out two different forms of transphobia: ignorance and malice.
Ignorant transphobia comes from people who haven’t really been exposed to trans people or culture before, and their comments and attitudes come from a place of confusion, unfamiliarity, or lack of understanding. It’s not your job to educate them (the internet can hook them up with details), but you can get pretty good at telling when someone is just being clueless, not mean. Sometimes it takes them a while to get it, and you don’t need to hold their hands every step of the way, especially when they’re being jerks, but you can keep recommending that they hit the Google for more information. Ignorance often includes a lot of invasive or obvious questions, which you can choose to answer or not depending on the person, the question, and the context.
Malicious transphobia is a more vile form: people who know exactly what they’re doing, and hate trans people because of what they’ve been taught to believe about them. Those people may make ignorant-sounding comments, but there’s hate behind them. The best way to deal with them is often to run, don’t walk, to the nearest exit.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate the difference between the two is with an example: “I don’t understand why transgenders want to use the other bathroom.” versus “Transgenders endanger children and I would never feel safe in a bathroom with one.” Both may use an offensive turn of phrase, but one is about puzzlement and confusion from someone who’s never thought about the issue, and the other is just cruel and vindictive.
When people you don’t know, or don’t care about, are transphobic, it’s socially harmful and awful and annoying, but it doesn’t come with the cut of transphobia from people you know and care about, especially if you have to deal with it constantly. Having a script here is helpful as well: “I can see how you might think/feel that way/believe that, but actually…” “I don’t really have the time to talk about this with you, but there are some really good resources online.”
Not everyone loses friends when they come out, but it definitely can happen, and it feels terrible when it does, especially if you’ve known someone for a long time. However, someone who wants to unfriend you, virtually or literally, just because you’re trans was never really your friend. You’re a great and cool person, and you deserve to hang out with great and cool people. Transphobes? Not great or cool.
If you’ve just lost a friend that probably feels a little hollow, and we feel you — we really do. We’re not going to spout some trite line of ageist patronizing crap about how it “gets better” and “you’ll survive” and “everything will be fine” because it feels horrible to lose a friend, and it is okay to feel horrible about it. It can make it much tougher to open your heart to people in the future or to feel secure and trusting. The only thing we can tell you is this: your people are out there. Maybe they’re around the corner, maybe they’re across the country. But they’re there, and they’re ready for you when you are, even if it takes you a little while to find them.
This can be especially awkward when you have mutual friends who may feel like they have to pick sides. You’re going to have to decide how to navigate those relationships on an individual basis, but it’s not unreasonable to ask that people avoid creating situations where you and an ex-friend will be in the same place at the same time. You can also tell people that you’d rather not hear about what your ex-friend is up to, and that you’re prefer that they not share details about you and your life with your former friend. Sometimes people may attend to mediate between you, and if that’s not welcome, you can draw a firm boundary and explain that while you know they mean well, they aren’t actually helping.
Sometimes people get freaked out by something new and a little scary, and they may bail on you, but drift back later. It’s up to you to decide whether to take them back, depending on the level of bad blood involved, but remember that you do actually have the right to refuse to accept an apology, or to accept it but stay you still don’t want to have anything to do with someone. On the other hand, if someone comes back to you and you’re genuinely happy to have them in your life again, don’t let people tell you that you shouldn’t make up because they behaved badly in the past. You get to make your own choices.
Are you exhausted? We definitely are, and we barely scratched the surface. But hang in there just a little longer, because the last day of school is almost upon us...