By: Lorelei Erisis*/TRT Columnist–
I have previously addressed in this column the dilemma of “coming out” to one’s immediate family. But what happens beyond that? Once you are “out” as trans to your family, community, co-workers, Facebook friend list, etc., there can still be a lot of “coming out” situations that a transgender person will have to deal with.
Let me lay out the scene for you. It’s summer, the time for family gatherings and homecomings for the more distant fringes.
Now, as it happens, I grew up in a beach resort. I’m close enough to a native Cape Codder that my actual first words were “G-ddamn tourists.” I grew up down there, but all of my close family members on Cape have either moved or passed away. So, when my mother said she was coming up from Florida for a week to stay with a cousin of hers who has a place on Cape Cod, I jumped at the invitation to come and visit.
For all intents and purposes, I’ve been “out” as trans to my entire circle of family and friends for at least five years. However, this is extended family. The sort of people I’ve known my entire life, but only actually met on a handful of occasions, about whom my Mom will say, “Oh, you know so-and-so. You used to play together.” Well, yes, but the last time we actually saw each other, people were un-ironically listening to Rick Astley.
Basically, the only major detail these people know about my life is that I used to be (or appeared to be) a different gender. I prepared as best I could. I tried to pack clothes that were unlikely to scandalize anyone, but not so conservative that I would look like I was going to church. I’m an artist, so I get a bit of leeway there that others might not. Still, I ditched the miniskirt and wore comfy flats.
The question to ask is, what sort of gathering is this? Is it a somber situation, like a funeral? Something celebratory like a wedding? A drunken BBQ? What might any of the women (or men, for you transguys!) in your family wear to this sort of gathering? What sort of behavior is expected? Take “trans” out of the picture and look at the simple dynamics of what to expect.
In my case, a relaxed family summerhouse, likely to be filled with family and family friends looking to get some shopping and beach time in. I expected family already “in the know” and also folks who had no idea that they were about to meet a bona fide transsexual.
After a three hour coffee-fueled drive across the state, and an hour in traffic getting over the Bourne Bridge, I arrived at my destination and burst into a room full of strangers and almost-strangers, declaring my rather urgent need to urinate! Everybody is going to have questions and some will be more than a little surprised, but life still has its mundane needs and rituals. People may find a 6’4” transsexual hard to identify with, but everyone understands having to pee really, really bad after a long drive.
It’s important to remember that while there’s this big pink elephant in the room that’ll need to be addressed eventually, ultimately people will react how you lead them to react. If you are comfortable with yourself, your family will feel more comfortable. I find it advantageous not to ignore the fact that I am transgender, but to refer to it like you might refer to any other quirk. Like being a card-carrying Tea Party member or a committed vegan. Everybody knows about it, but no one really knows how to broach the subject.
I will make sly references or brief comments about my gender status. It breaks the mood a little and helps folks to relax by showing that I am relaxed. It also allows me to most effectively find little moments to segue into answers about my transition, for the questions I know they are thinking.
If your family is anything like mine, there will be a bit of drinking going on. Whether it’s morning coffee or evening cocktails, this is an ideal time to talk. Your family will be at their most relaxed and engaged. By just slipping in a bit at a time, you will avoid “the speech.”
Keep in mind that while you have been dealing with your gender questions and issues for most of your life, it is fairly new to the people around you. Be patient. Be kind. Be proud and direct.
You will have to simplify complex issues and then simplify again.
Your family is going to make mistakes. They will screw up your pronouns over and over. They will need time to absorb it all. Ask yourself if you really think they are trying to be mean or if they are just having a hard time making the tweak to their language.
Correct them politely when you can’t take it anymore, but try not to correct them every time. I know I flinch inside every single time anyone misgenders me, but I know it’s going to be more effective if I’m patient with their learning curve. Correcting a person every time they make a mistake can easily make them feel adversarial, which will not help.
Most importantly, be yourself. Help them, but never apologize for who you are.
If all goes well, when you leave, your family, like mine, will have a much better understanding of your journey. There will be just that many more people in the world who are inclined to accept transgender people and treat us all as regular folks, not so very different from them.
*Lorelei Erisis is Miss Trans New England 2009. Send your questions about trans issues to her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.