COMES NATURALLY #82
April 9, 1999
Copyright © 1999 David Steinberg
TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE
"Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else." -- Judy GarlandI have just finished an exquisitely simple, yet complexly wonderful and moving book. The book is a collection of personal stories, written by relatives of transgendered people. Ostensibly it is about the various ways each family has dealt with the shock of learning that one of their closest family members was no longer going to play by the most basic rule of conventional society: that each of us has one and only one gender, male or female, a gender that is irrevocably determined by the anatomy of our bodies at birth. More fundamentally, though, the book is a celebration of the possibility for all of us -- transgendered or not -- to embrace the full reality of who we are and, with loving acceptance, to create meaning and joy in a world full of fear and meanspirited condemnation.
"Trans Forming Families: Real Stories About Transgendered Loved Ones" (Mary Boenke, ed., Walter Trook Publishing, 276 Dale Street, Imperial Beach, CA 91932) was published with the specific purpose of offering support and perspective to families adjusting to the awareness of loved ones who are transgendered. Its 31 contributors tell wrenching but overwhelmingly positive stories of how they have learned to accept, appreciate, and positively delight in their children, grandchildren, parents, spouses -- each of whom shattered their lives by affirming their true gender in place of the one imposed on them by society or birth anatomy. Of equal importance, the contributors describe how letting go of their traditional gender assumptions enabled them, as well as their transgendered relatives, to experience new levels of emotional depth and to discover new aspects of their own personal natures.
Some of the transgendered people in these stories are transsexuals: in Boenke's usage, "people profoundly unhappy in their birth sex who seek to change, or have already changed, their bodies to match their gender identity." Others are what she calls transgenderists -- people who, without altering their bodies through surgery (some even without hormonal treatments), nevertheless live full-time in a gender different from the one assigned to them at birth. Still others are intersexed people, born with ambiguous genitalia, people usually surgically altered in infancy to visually better conform to familiar male or female anatomies.
All are people so burdened by socially imposed gender that they have chosen to risk the condemnation and rejection of everyone around them in order to bring their public lives into alignment with their internal, private realities. As the brother of one transgendered person puts it, for some people "the only choice is to suffer or follow one's identity to its logical conclusion."
The stories in "Trans Forming Families" are as traumatic and cataclysmic as they are inspiring and uplifting. We are told of the profound disbelief, grief, and anger of parents when they learn that the child they have always known as their daughter is in the process (or has already completed the process) of physically becoming their son, or of sons who will now be their daughters. Each of these parents has been called upon to let go of the wealth of gender-based images, conceptions, hopes, and plans they have had for their children, to redefine as fundamentally as gender defines all of us in this society, who their child really is. Some of these parents, having long witnessed their children's deep unhappiness, have been able to accept the radical changes in their children with remarkable ease. For most, though, the demand that they separate their children from years of gender identification proves understandably difficult and disturbing.
"My first reaction was 'NO -- this is NOT going to happen -- not in my lifetime!'" writes Barbara Lantz, a Seattle Health Information Manager. "There was a sense of betrayal -- my daughter didn't want to be my daughter.... It was my fear, my struggle, my nightmare, and [ultimately] my rebirth."
Many come to understand that their children have been of the other gender all along, but have taken most of their lives to recognize this reality and then to find the courage to affirm, rather than deny or suppress, their real gender in the name of "normalcy." For some parents, the moment of transgender confrontation comes when their children are quite young. (One apparent girl declares herself a boy at her third birthday party.) Other parents hear nothing about gender change until long after their children have left home and built adult lives as conventional husbands, wives, and parents. (One man is fifty when he breaks the news to his mother that he has decided to become a woman.)
Equally moving are the stories of spouses who learn that their husbands have decided to become women (or their wives men), and of children who have had to wrap their minds around the notion of having women for daddies or men for moms.
"I wondered why this had happened to me," writes Ann Coven, a Massachusetts nurse, whose husband had come out to her as a crossdresser. "I was a devastated shell of a person; my world had crumbled. The issues are so complex that I can really understand why a wife, husband, partner or significant other would not be able to deal with this situation and could just walk out the door."
"I am trying to understand what you are going through," 15-year-old Emma writes, in a letter to her father who is becoming a woman but anguished by the turmoil his transition is causing his wife and daughter. "It will be very difficult with you not being my dad... [but] I have decided you should carry on with your treatment because I know how important this is to you, and I want what is best for you.... I will be able to get through this, with your love and support," she assures him, before adding, "Please, will you get me professional help?"
The contributors to "Trans Forming Families" detail the disorientation, upset, disbelief, confusion, and general horror they experience when the known worlds of their homes and families are suddenly and fundamentally overturned. Yet, in story after story, the flexibility and love of these challenged family members triumph over their fears, prejudices, and presuppositions. In time, acceptance comes to replace initial rejection.
"My son has become my daughter," writes Barbara Lister, age 85. "It is still difficult for me to understand how the need for a gender transformation can be so compelling as to cause a person to risk rejection in her job, her church, and in some cases, the loss of spouse and children. I, however, have come to feel respect and affection for all those who, because of their feeling of incongruity, are willing to face so much pain in order, as they say, 'to have their bodies match the selves they are within.'"
Indeed, many of the contributors to "Trans Forming Families" have come to feel that being forced to deal with the gender issues of their loved ones has, in the end, been much more of a gift than a burden. "The experience of dealing with any special circumstance has the potential for difficulties, but also possibility for many positive results," writes Anne Giles, an occupational therapist whose husband came out as a crossdresser to her and the rest of his family at the age of 57. "The Chinese character for crisis also means opportunity."
As these parents, children, and spouses welcome what they know will bring their loved ones happiness and peace of mind, many find themselves grateful for the opportunity to have their lives grow beyond the limitations of traditional gender models and expectations. Each of these people has been able to transform the trauma of upheaval into a sense of adventure and growth, to convert their initial embarrassment and repulsion into fierce love and respect.
"We think [Allen] is enormously brave, admirably honest to self, friends and family about who he really is, and ever so commendable for the grace with which he has jumped off the seeming edge of the world into a brand new life," editor Mary Boenke writes of her son. "Thank you, Allen," her husband, John, agrees. "Thank you for insisting on being who you are, and opening our eyes to greater truths than we knew before."
"I feel a joy and peace deeper than I have ever known," writes Jackie Greer, whose husband, Michael, has transitioned into Stephanie. "I have been tested and proven. I have taken love beyond pretty words spoken in a white dress, taken it to the level of helping someone with a penis pick out dresses and select the right makeup colors.... I have gained a great freedom. I have discovered strength, endurance, and commitment I never thought I possessed. I am finding the courage to build my own world."
Of course, this is not always the case when families are confronted by children, parents, or spouses who go so radically beyond the ways we are all taught things are supposed to be. Transgendered people are more likely to be spurned and reviled by their families than to be embraced and welcomed. Boenke acknowledges in her introduction that "these happier family stores may be an uncomfortable contrast to the experiences of many transgender persons." But she has intentionally chosen to publish stories of successful family adjustments to remind readers of the best of what's possible, "to make available some positive family role models for those families who are struggling, in pain, with transgender issues."
The importance and value of "Trans Forming Families" extends far beyond its primary goal of assisting transgendered families. Anyone who identifies with the deep desire for authenticity -- who feels the importance of being and becoming their most personal selves, even when that core identity clashes with social propriety and who the people around us think we are "supposed" to be -- will find powerful encouragement and support in the stories collected here. Transgendered people who have found the courage to affirm and defend the full reality of their existence are pathfinders not only for other people struggling with gender issues, but also for every familiarly-gendered person who must choose between personal affirmation and the expectations of friends, family, and society. For some people, the core issues of conflict have to do with socially ingrained gender roles, rather than gender itself. For a great number of people, it is the issue of affirming their real sexual feelings, desires, or fantasies that conflicts with what society deems proper . For others, the rub between self-acceptance and social acceptance has to do with sexual orientation.
Taken most broadly, the issue raised by the stories in "Trans Forming Families" is acceptance and celebration of diversity, as opposed to demands for homogeneity and social conformity in the name of some fixed set of moral, political, or religious beliefs. For all of us who would like to see a thousand flowers bloom, "Trans Forming Families" provides a welcome shot in the arm.
["Trans Forming Families: Real Stores About Transgendered Loved Ones" is available by mail from its editor, Mary Boenke (180 Bailey Blvd., Hardy, VA 24101) for $13.95 postpaid. Discounts are available for quantity orders. Make checks payable to Mary Boenke.]
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at firstname.lastname@example.org. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
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