The first time I experienced a friend coming out to me as an openly transgender woman, I was stunned. I hadn’t ever known anyone “like that” and didn’t know what to think, or how to process such a bizarre (to me) and abrupt (to me) change in someone I’d always known as a man. I had known a couple of out and proud gay men as dear friends on my long path away from religious fundamentalism, and those relationships sparked a huge domino effect in my personal growth, but the concepts outside of the gender binary “norm” were still pretty foreign to me.
Please understand what I mean by personal growth here – after years of effort to overcome the bigotry caused by decades of sermons like this, I’d finally realized that no one chooses homosexuality any more than they do heterosexuality. I understood that “they” lived lives as typical as any of “us,” and that life went on without incident even when they got legally married, or ran a scouting troop, or coached a youth team. It no longer bothered me to see same sex couples interacting in public, and I really thought I’d grown beyond all of the prejudices so deeply infused into the morals and values taught to me all my life. Despite growing up seeing demons of homosexuality cast out (here’s an example), I no longer thought it was bad or even a personal choice to be gay. I felt pretty enlightened, and after all, I even watched Brokeback Mountain! But regardless of who they were attracted to, people (in my mind) were either declared men or women at birth, and that seemed clear enough to me (barring some chromosomal error or birth defect). Sure, men could be gay, and women could be lesbians, but men “becoming” women? Women “becoming” men? That messed my head right back up. You might not wake up one day and decide to be gay, but living as the opposite gender? That decision seemed pretty clear, and pretty optional in my mind.
I’ll call him Jim for the purposes of this article, but he was a longtime family friend who had known us and our kids for many years. I remember talking to him for hours at a time while he was going through a brutal divorce in another state, celebrating his kids’ birthday parties together, having family picnics in local parks, meeting his girlfriend (and eventual wife), and soon after their beautiful daughter.
I wasn’t a fundamentalist by the time he told me the news of his upcoming transition. I recall I was in my ‘spiritual but not religious’ stage (probably yellow on the Spectrum of Disbelief – see image on the right), but I distinctly remember trying to understand how something “like this” could happen. I also worried about what to tell my kids, who at the time ranged in age from infant to teens (those kids are now teen – adult). Voices whispering condemnation echoed from the wooden pulpits I thought I’d stashed far away in the dark corners of my memory. They clashed noisily with the caring friendship I’d always had with this person – his her goofy grin shone throughout our photo albums for so long. Why did he she want to do this? What about his her kids? What about mine? What do I call him her now? What did this mean for our friendship? It was tremendously confusing to me, and unsurprisingly my greatest concerns were pretty self-centered. It seemed to change everything about how I viewed him her, and while my response to him her was supportive and accepting, my own confusion couldn’t have been more obvious.
Judgment and disdain seems to be a common reaction when people view something as a choice instead of an inherent right or need being fulfilled. It’s so much easier to slip into the smug luxury of presuming WE would have chosen differently when looking at the “sin” of others, and of course we’d choose better if presented with the same situation! When something is understood to be a biological need, at least regarding the people I’ve interacted with who overcame similar prejudices, it seems a lot easier to accept even if we don’t yet understand it entirely. Homosexuality was like that for me. Once I understood the complexities behind the biology of sexual orientation, learned you can’t “fix” homosexuality through reparative therapy, and realized same-sex activity is seen throughout the Animal Kingdom, I eventually learned my lesson about how wrong I’d been all those years. But outside of hateful slurs and whispered rumors of dirty, perverted men cross-dressing, I had barely even heard the term transgender, much less understood it, so trying to even comprehend the idea as it related to my friend was an incredible challenge.
Telling my kids about Jim becoming Holly (not her real name) was beyond uncomfortable for me. I wasn’t sure what to say, or how to say it, and I certainly didn’t have adequate answers for their questions. I stammered a lot, and I felt so emotionally conflicted even though I tried to keep everything positive and encouraging. I remember they thought the idea was weird, but they were more worried about how different she would look, or if her voice would “sound funny,” or that it might be embarrassing to be together in public. I was aware of my own discomfort enough to know it wasn’t how I wanted them to feel about this, but I couldn’t quite understand why conveying that was so challenging for me. Sexuality is a tightly regulated and demonized topic in fundamentalist churches, so this surpassed any scope of my understanding. The transparency of my own awkwardness had to have been blatant to my kids at the time. After a few days the conversation was replaced by some other topic and soon it wasn’t a big deal for them at all, but it took a little time for me to get to that point. In retrospect, I bet their perceptions of her transition were a mirror of my own feelings and fears, no matter how much I tried to hide them. I just didn’t understand, and we can’t explain what we don’t comprehend. For me, though, when I don’t understand something I tend to dive into it with both sleeves rolled up, and soon I was reading everything I could find to better understand what was happening with my friend.
I found every book possible in our weekly trips to the library about gender, biology, and the brain (here are some to get you started). I read inspiring stories of transgender people, and the immense struggles they went through to make their body conform to (and therefore have society accept) who they knew they were all along. I learned with horror that the suicide rate for transgender people is ridiculously high – now known to be nearly nine times the national average, and I couldn’t bear the idea of anyone hurting so deeply – especially my friend. I realized the only choice being made by people who are transgender is the choice of if, when, and how to tell their friends and family. They can’t choose to identify as their assigned gender any more than I could choose NOT to. Their identity is one they’d known already for most of their life in one way or another inside themselves, and I began to realize this wasn’t just about “changing their gender”, it was about being allowed to finally feel whole, inside and out. This, along with my friendship with Holly, allowed me to see the errors of the awful things I’d been led to believe about people dealing with gender dysphoria. I asked her questions, and we’d chat on Facebook late into the night about this and just about anything else from kids, work, or her writings. It was a gradual progression for me to accept her the way she needed to be. In the time that followed I became friends with several other people who happened to identify as transgender, although I didn’t know this at the time we first met. Because I now had a wealth of information to overcome those nasty and judgmental voices from the past, it no longer felt weird or affected my relationship with them at all.
ANOTHER FRIEND SHARES THEIR NEWSEarlier this week a friend of mine shared her identity as a transgender woman publicly for the first time. We’ve all known her for years as “Dave”, well before she joined the American Atheists team as their PR Director. I still remember when she told me the news. It was a Friday evening and I was juggling a nursing infant while one of my little ones was sick. The rest of the kids were (as I recall) engaging in some form of “Lord of the Flies meets Battle of Helms Deep” as I made a fairly pathetic attempt to fold laundry. She texted me asking if we could talk, and that it was important. I wanted to give her my undivided attention, so I asked if it could wait and explained the current chaos, but she said it couldn’t. That worried me – my first thought was some sort of major health problem like cancer or a heart problem, and I was really concerned! I asked her to tell me via text, even though I could tell she didn’t want to, but there was no way I could get away from the noise to have a dedicated conversation. She told me the truth about who she is, and I felt this wave of instant relief come over me. I had tears in my eyes and kept replying back that I thought something was wrong, and that this wasn’t bad news at all! I felt tremendously honored that she trusted me enough to share this with me, and let her know that our family supports her 100%.
Her preferred name, as she shared earlier this week, is Danielle. Danielle was brave enough to welcome some of us into her personal journey over the last year or so, while publicly still identifying as Dave. I saw her struggles and her triumphs, and we cheered her on every step of the way as she gathered the courage to tell the world who she really is. So many times I just wanted to reach through the internet to give her a hug, buy her a cup of coffee, and just make all of the pain of hiding go away. Yet she’d pick herself back up and forge ahead, an inspiration to anyone who feels overwhelmed and isolated by the reality of being misunderstood by the world.
My older kids don’t really know Danielle at all and are grown and out of the house now, but I knew at some point I had to tell my younger kids. They’ll definitely ask when they notice “Dave” isn’t showing up at conferences or at Dr. Darrel Ray’s famously awesome Memorial Day shindigs, where we originally met years ago. This time, however, it didn’t concern me a bit the way it had with telling my older kids about Holly. After Danielle’s article came out this week it seemed like perfect timing, so I told them I needed to talk to them about something important and we started by looking through pictures of “Dave” and us at various events over the past few years. We discussed that what we know about any friend is just what they decide to share with us and the rest of the world, but that much more of their thoughts and feelings are kept private, inside each person’s head. One of my kids remembered him playing guitar, and how much fun that always is for everyone to sing together. Another remembered him with a camera, taking pictures and talking with our dear friend Josiah (of Biblename Photo).
Then I asked them who they are inside their brain, and when they each answered I asked them this:
“If you tried hard enough, could you change that about your brain? Do you think you could make your brain be a totally different person if you just put on different clothes or a costume?”
“No!” They each replied, “That’s silly!”
“Well”, I explained. “You see these pictures of Dave? Does he look like a boy or a girl?”
They all agreed he looked like a boy.
“How so?” I asked. Apparently the beard was part of the give-away, but they mentioned the haircut, clothes, and “how he talks” as well.
I then explained that even though Dave’s outside body looks like a boy, inside his brain knows that she’s really a girl named Danielle. I watched closely for any gasp of astonishment, or indication of disgust, and there was none, just nods and one question from my 6yo: “So, she’s really a girl? Why doesn’t her body know that?” I explained that we don’t know why it happens that sometimes the brain inside doesn’t match the body outside, but that’s the way it is. I told them Danielle is working with doctors to help her make it all match, but it will take a long time. My 6 year old then declared that she wanted to make a magic potion to give Danielle so it would go very fast for her body to match her brain. When I told her there were medicines Danielle will take to help her body learn to look more like a girl, she was delighted and declared that “good enough”, which must mean she’s going to delay any potion concocting for at least a little while! She said at one point, “That must be so embarrassing for her. I hate feeling embarrassed. Maybe she should dye her hair red when she gets it long and flowy! Then she’ll be a superhero!” My 4 year old declared with her eyes wide, “Boys can’t be girls! If she’s a girl inside, then she gets to be a girl outside too! Somebody better help her fix that!” as she stomped her foot, indignant at the idea that there was a mix-up in the first place. Her only urgent question was regarding Danielle’s preferred nail polish color and if she wants to borrow a favorite princess dress.
My teenager (who knew Holly from earlier in this article) was more concerned about Danielle’s feelings, and wondered if she felt weird or different because she had to go through all of this medical process to make her body match the girl in her brain. I told her that I knew it hasn’t always been easy for Danielle, but that other than the updated name on Facebook she’s the same person we’ve always known, and her response was “Well duh, I know THAT!” She said, “I just think trying to make it all match up like that has to feel really scary. I hope she has people to talk to.” She had a few questions about the physical aspects of the process (not specific to Danielle’s personal business, but about transgender transition in general) that she’s decided to research online a bit more and ask a classmate at school, who apparently identifies as gender fluid.
So there we have it. There was a time that I’d have fully supported the language and message used in the now infamous Duggar Robocall. And yet, all of my fears and concerns years ago about my kids learning someone they know is transitioning genders were pretty unfounded, it seems. It is pretty clear to me that the method of delivery sets the tone for how well the information is accepted. When I presented the information with my own baggage, I projected my own hesitations to accept our friend onto them. This time around they aren’t phased by the news that our friend is becoming her “real self” (to use the words of my teen). Most importantly, to me at least, is that they are learning these lessons in a community of equals. They don’t see any one person as having all the answers, and they see that the confidence to be yourself, combined with a caring support network, will give you the strength to blossom into the person you know you can be.
What transitions in acceptance have you gone through in your life? Share below!