Sunday, July 17, 2016

On coming out: It does get better

Coming out to friends and family can be one of the most difficult steps when one begins to identify as transgender.  I wanted to write some about my experience coming out, in hopes that it might help others.

Before coming out, I first had to begin to identify as being transgender.   This sounds like an easy step, but it took me a long time, and the help of a very good therapist. I grew up with the desire to be female always in my mind.  While I've said before that I kept those feelings buried, they were actually fairly close to the top of my mind.  The desire to be female was always there, and it surfaced constantly.  I just did my best to ignore it.  For years, I prayed it would go away.  It took a bout of severe depression and a skilled therapist for me to admit to myself that I wanted to be female, more than anything else. In a sense, my therapist helped me come out to myself first.  For me, that first step was a huge relief.  I finally realized that my feelings had a name, and there were a lot of other people like me. With this realization, came a lot of self-acceptance, and the desire to transition.  Before telling anyone else, I spent the next few weeks talking privately with my therapist.  She wanted to make sure that this was a real identity issue, and not just a passing desire to wear women's clothing. 

Coming out to those close to me is where the story becomes more dramatic.  I came out to my wife two weeks later.  We actually had the discussion in the therapist's office, and the therapist proved to be a big help.  After I told my wife that I wanted to be female, the therapist was there to encourage discussion and to listen to my wife.  For me, that was the right setting; I tend to get quiet and wrap up in myself when I feel that my words might hurt someone.  It was great to have the therapist there to lend a hand.

So, telling someone is only the first step in coming out.  In the case of my wife, it took several conversations over the next few months before she began to be accepting.  The therapist explained to me that my wife would go through a grieving process, and we talked frequently about the 5 stages of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  I've seen most of these phases with my wife.  She was initially in shock that something like this could happen to her.  There was a lot of denial, mixed with anger during the first few weeks after my admission.  4 months later, I've started to see some bargaining and acceptance. The tone of our conversations has changed recently.  My wife has begun to ask me friendly questions about being transgender.  We've decided to separate, but we're able to have good talks about how life will be post-separation. I'm optimistic that we'll come through this with a pretty good friendship.

So, here's my advice about coming out boiled down to a few bullet points:
  • Realize that coming out to one particular person is a process rather than a single event. For those closest to you, it will take a several conversations as they work through the grieving process. You can notice the stages of the grieving process in the conversations you have with them.
  • The friends who work through the grieving process are most likely to remain friends through your transition.
  • You may have some difficult or uncomfortable conversations with friends while they work through their feelings.  It's best to not avoid these conversations.  I've found it helps to reassure friends that this is a decision that you have made, and one that you are happy with.
  • You will undoubtedly have some personal ups-and-downs as part of the process.  I've had a really good experience coming out at work, where people have been very accepting (I'm the only transgender person at the lab where I work.  My friends and close co-workers have been very supportive.  Others are good enough to respect the lab's anti-discrimination policies.).  I've had a harder time with closer family members and friends who may disagree in principle with my transition.  I had a difficult purge after a particularly challenging day with my wife.
  • Look for  a support network.  A good therapist helps.  You can also find help from LGBT organizations in your local area.  If you cannot interact with a local group for whatever reason, look for online support. My family situation has kept me from attending support groups in person, but I have found friends by contacting other online bloggers through email.
  • Be patient with yourself and others.

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