It makes me simultaneously really frustrated and sad when I hear cis folks talking about a sense of “loss” or “mourning” a loved one who’s come out as trans* to them. Sometimes I feel like this narrative of loss takes over the discussion entirely; I want to give people the space to feel whatever feelings they have and not shame them for what they feel, but I also really struggle to have patience and compassion when this comes up. I really do. Because what happens is that I find myself turning into a Honey Badger of Gender where I just don’t give a shit how mournful my identity might make someone else feel, and I don’t really like being that person. But that’s who I am, especially when I feel like this mourning narrative starts to take space away from trans folks’ experiences.
I recently saw this happen in a play which followed the stories of several trans characters; two of the storylines focused on characters’ cisgender parents, and their mourning/acceptance process, more than the on characters themselves. I left the theater wondering why we had to experience two characters mostly through the filter of their parents, and not through their own words and actions (one of the characters was off-screen in surgery during most of her parents’ scenes). That processing and yes, maybe mourning needs to happen, sure, but not on our time. Not in our space.
In the first few months after I came out (or was forced to come out; it’s a really awkward story) to my parents, things were pretty tense between us. At one point, though, I was talking to my dad and he said something like “I am feeling some loss and sadness, but [and here he interrupted me trying to apologize because that's what I do even though I wasn't feeling particularly apologetic] those feelings aren’t about you, they’re mine to work through in my own time and I’m working on it.” That was all he said about it, and that was the first moment since coming out that I felt like I could relax a little around him. The fact that he took his own space to process those feelings instead of doing it with or in front of me made a huge difference in our relationship from then on.
To me, that’s a really important part to being an ally – it requires some work on your own time, whether that’s doing research or practicing the language you use or working through your complicated feelings. Because relying on the person you’re supposedly trying to support to do that work for you, or to excuse your slip-ups that go unaddressed, really defeats the purpose of being an ally at all. It can become a situation in which a trans person feels like it’s their responsibility to turn around and comfort you because you’re weirded out by or uncomfortable with their gender. And that’s not a position they should be in! This post from the Captain Awkward archives does a great job of explaining why “it’s just so hard for me!”and similar comments made while trying to change one’s behavior are unhelpful in situations like this.
The Gender Spectrum conference in Berkeley two weeks ago was really fantastic. I learned a lot that I didn’t know about how hormonal intervention has changed since I first looked into it ten years ago, heard from a lot of folks who are devoted to helping gender non-conforming youth get support and resources, talked to some parents doing great supportive work with their kids, and overall felt like it was a really positive experience. I took a lot of notes, and came back with some good new information and a list of family resources to share with Scarleteen users who might find them helpful.
But a lot of the attendees, even those who were clearly trying really hard to be supportive, often made comments about their children that were really tough for me to hear. Which meant that by the time I’d gotten to the second parent making an “I’m still mourning my daughter…” comment at Gender Spectrum, I felt really short on sympathy (especially since some of them were also making language slip-ups and laughing them off or otherwise not seeming to take them seriously, which is really not ok in my book). This is a conference aimed at helping parents and caregivers, so it was a more appropriate setting to talk about those feelings, to be sure. But on a personal level, I still really struggle with hearing about it.
First off: it seems pretty disrespectful to talk about the “loss” of someone who is still a part of your life; they’re not dead! When I hear this comment from parents, I get the feeling (or hear directly) that the sense of loss here is often related to an expected or planned future for a child, but… don’t cis children defy their parents’ expectations all the time? I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone talk about mourning the loss of their lawyer or doctor or sports star, even though plenty of parents set up various career expectations for their children’s future regardless of their own wishes. They may feel disappointment, sure, but I haven’t heard that sort of “loss” story around such a thing. I realize I have zero experience as a parent here, but it’s still incredibly frustrating to me. Your child is going to feel differently than you do, and make different choices than you would, about all sorts of things you might not want or expect! Why is gender so different from those other things that you feel like you’re losing an entire person?
Do you know what you’re gaining in your life, when someone comes out to you? You’re gaining a more authentic connection with a loved one. You’re gaining their trust as they share a deeper understanding of themself with you. That doesn’t sound like a loss to me, or something to be mourning. I think changing the way we talk about processing feelings of surprise, hurt, or loss that may come up when someone comes out can really help people who aren’t yet ready to do so, or who haven’t quite sorted things out for themselves yet. Can we possibly, instead, try to CELEBRATE the positive changes that can come with transition? Even if there’s some initial confusion or some missteps in adjusting to that? I’d love to hear parents talking more about that, instead of their sense of loss, at the conference next year.