COMING OUT TO YOUR PARENTS AS TRANS*
Telling your parents or your legal guardian(s) that you are transgender, transsexual, gender-variant, genderqueer, agender, intersex, or Two-Spirit can be both a rewarding and a difficult process.
Sometimes the hardest people to come out to are the ones closest to us. Because of this, parents or guardians tend to be either the last people we come out to or the first people we come out to. This pamphlet is designed to guide you through your own coming out process with your parents or guardian(s)—whatever it may look like. Some of the information and tips in this pamphlet will be relevant to coming out to friends, at school, and at work as well, though not all of it will be applicable. Please refer to the “resources” section at the end of this pamphlet and on our website for more information about coming out to people other than your parents or guardian(s).
A good place to start is to work through the following questions: Try to be completely honest with your answers, this will help you face particular anxieties or fears you may have, as well as to recognize the supports that you might have around you.
Note: There are a lot of different words that people use to self-identify their gender identity; some are more familiar such as transgender or transsexual, while others are newer such as Two-Spirit or genderqueer. The list also grows and changes every day so throughout this pamphlet we use trans* to refer to transgender, transsexual, gender-variant, genderqueer, agender, intersex, Two-Spirit, and questioning individuals. If you are, or think you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, asexual, queer, or questioning, please grab our “Coming out as GLB” pamphlet!
- When did you start thinking of yourself as trans*? What did the words mean for you then and what do they mean to you now?
- How long did it take for you to be comfortable with your gender identity?
- What do you think the word transgender means to each member of your family? Your friends?
- Who in your family do you think would have the hardest time accepting your gender identity?
- Who in your family do you think would have the easiest time accepting your gender identity?
- In what ways would your relationship with your family change after you came out?
Coming out is a difficult decision to make and only you will know the right time and process for yourself. It is important to remember that everyone is different. You are in the best position to understand how your parents are going to react to your coming out. Trust yourself, and use as many or as few of these tips as you feel you need.
Tip #1: Plant the seed
Before coming out to your parents, consider initiating conversations around the topics of gender identity and other trans* issues. Watching something on the topic with your parents and then discussing it afterwards could provide you with valuable insight into how your parents will respond.
Coming out: Things to Ponder
Everyone’s reaction will be different: Every family and every individual person is different. Most people will go through the phases covered in this resources while some may remain in one phase longer than another, or skip a phase altogether.
Understanding takes time: When you decide that you are ready to come out, you may expect your parents or friends to understand and accept you right away. This is perfectly normal, but unfortunately, sometimes when we disclose things to people, they have a harder time than we expect. Think: how long did it take you to come to terms with your gender identity? It will probably take your parents and/or friends just as long or even longer. They may need you to teach them about what coming out means to you and why it’s important to you. Further, you will need to be respectful of their feelings because they, too, will have to go through the process of coming out, only in this case as the parents and friends of a trans* child.
Try your best to be patient: You may become impatient. You may need to answer the same questions or explain yourself over and over again. Try not to get upset; your parents and friends may need more time than you expected to understand and to adjust. They may be emotional during the process and it may feel like they are taking forever to understand, but remember, that you are well ahead of them in terms of dealing with your gender identity.
Your patience will be appreciated
Some people won’t know what to expect from you or how to deal with the “new you.” For some people, shock and anger are reflections of their feelings of loss. They may withdraw, failing to realize how this affects you.
Understanding and patience on both sides will increase the chances of your relationship being as good as or better than it was before you came out. The more trust, honesty, and mutual respect on both sides of the equation will produce better results for all involved.
Tip #2: Don’t do everything at once
Many people in the trans* community may identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual or asexual as well. Because of this, there may be a desire to come out as sexually diverse at the same time as coming out as gender diverse. Resist this urge. Coming out with multiple identities at the same time could overwhelm your parents and make your coming out seem more like an earth-shattering catastrophe than the open communication that it is.
Stages of understanding
There are many stages of understanding. Although these five stages will apply to most people, there is no guarantee that your parents and friends will experience all of these reactions. No two people will move through the stages at the same speed or in the same way as every individual and every family is different.
1. Shock. Your parents may have no idea that you are trans*, so your coming out might shock them. This is a natural reaction to new or unexpected information. Their sense of shock may last a few minutes to days or even weeks.
You may want to tell them that you have not been completely honest with them and that this has put distance between you and them. Tell them that you want and need to be honest. Tell them that you love them. Say it more than once.
At first, your parents may not respond positively; they may need time and space in order for your disclosure to sink in. Don’t be afraid to remind them of the following: “You loved me before I told you, and I haven’t changed. I know it doesn’t seem like it to you right now, but I am still the same person. I just want to share all my life with you and not just a part of it.”
Occasionally, a parent will not be shocked at all. They may say, “I always knew you were different and I thought you might be transgender. It’s OK. I love you but I will need you to help me understand and accept this” or “We’ve known for a long time. We’ve been waiting for you to tell us.” Telling them in these cases will be much easier because they will have already worked through some of the stages on their own.
2. Denial. Denial is a defense mechanism. It protects us from unknown situations. It is different from shock because it is a refusal to really hear what is being said, and comes through as a hasty or knee-jerk reaction in response. Denial can be expressed in a variety of ways:
- Anger: “No kid of mine is going to be queer!”
- Uncaring: “If that’s what you choose, I don’t want to hear about it.”
- Ignoring: “That’s nice dear. What do you want for supper?”
- Rejection: “It’s just a phase; you’ll grow out of it.”
You may want to suggest that your parents seek counseling. If they tell you to see a counselor, suggest that they match you session for session. Having an outside person to talk to is always a good idea, both for you and for your family and friends.
Your parents might think that being trans* is not normal. You can explain to them that being cisgender [non-transgender] is the most common gender identity, but not the only one. In fact, there are many, many other identities out there that don’t often get talked about in larger society. Point out that not everyone is the same—some people are right-handed and others are left-handed; some people are scientific and others are creative. Hopefully these examples will help demonstrate to them that diversity doesn’t have to be threatening! However, whatever you choose to say, you need to emphasize that, by coming out, you are making a conscious choice to be true to yourself.
If their denial takes the form of “I don’t want to talk about it,” you may want to reach out to them again in a gentle and cautious manner in about a week. You might say something like the following: “Dad, I want to talk to you about this. Please don’t push me out of your life. I love you and want you to continue loving me, but I need to be honest too.”
Be prepared to deal with your parents separately. This allows each of them to process what you’ve revealed to them at their own pace. Again, your coming out is a big issue and it will help if you are considerate of their need to process through it at their own pace.
Tip #3: Bring it up at a neutral, peaceful time
Although it’s rare that there will be an “ideal” time to come out, it’s best to avoid big or emotional family events. Don’t come out during a holiday, before a big trip, or during a particularly hard time for your family (or, for that matter, during a really positive event, as you don’t want to steal a sibling’s thunder on their birthday or during their graduation).
3. Guilt. When parents feel guilty, they are focused on themselves, not on you. They may be too wrapped up in blaming themselves to see that you are a happy person or that you have new issues to deal with. Many parents see being trans* as a “problem” and ask things like “what causes it?” As such, they may think that it is a result of poor parenting. Be prepared to remind them that they raised you to be honest and that you’re being honest. You will need to be ready to teach them and to support them. An example of how you could do this is: “The truth is nobody knows for sure what makes people transgender, so there is no point in blaming yourself or anyone else. What’s important now is trying to come to terms with everything—and I want you to know that I’m here to help you as much as I can.”
You can help them come to terms in a variety of ways:
- Have a list of books they can read or websites they can refer to. These allow them to learn in private, at their own pace.
- You can encourage them to contact places like the Avenue Community Centre for support. The ACC can also put your parents in contact with PFLAG (Parents, Family & Friends of Lesbians and Gays). PFLAG members have been through much of what your parents are going through and may be able to offer support and answer questions, parent to parent.
- Check out the ACC’s collection of pamphlets for your parents’ reference and other resources explaining what it means to be trans*.
4. Feelings expressed. When it’s clear that guilt and self-blame are not productive, parents may want to ask questions, hear the answers, and accept their feelings about the situation. This is when you and your parents will have the best talks. This is also when their feelings will come out, such as things like, “I’m disappointed I won’t have grandkids”; “please, don’t tell anyone else”; or “I feel so alone and hurt—I think I was better off not knowing.”
It may seem hateful and cruel at the time, but feeling angry and hurt are the most common feelings that many parents experience when their child comes out. However, it is much worse if you don’t talk openly about everyone’s feelings and make some effort to deal with them. You may feel like you should pull back and that maybe you shouldn’t have told them, but you need to be true to yourself and to those you love, so hang in there! Remember, once these feelings come up and you and your parents deal with them, you will be able to move on because acceptance is closer now than it ever was before.
5. Personal decision making. As your parents go through these phases, their ability to cope with the situation will improve. There are several ways in which your parents may decide to come to terms with your gender identity. Here are three possibilities:
- Everything you do and say is seen as a symptom of your “problem.” In order to remove the “problem,” your parents may try removing you (i.e. refusing to let you live with them anymore). Oftentimes, it is only one parent that feels this way. If one parent takes a negative position, the other parent has trouble taking the opposite stance. This type of situation can make home life very difficult; be sure to have a back-up plan (such as friends and other family members you can live with) if you think your parents may take this stance.
- Sometimes parents will only accept your gender identity to a certain point. They will treat you with love and respect, but when it comes to your gender identity, they will want to avoid it or deal with it at an arm’s length. Don’t take this as a rejection of who you are; some people have great difficulty in dealing with a gender diverse child. Know and respect their limits on this. Gently and slowly, you can still continue in your efforts to reach out to them.
- Most parents, after adjusting to this new knowledge, will be as accepting and loving of you as they were before you came out. They will become more and more aware of your needs and the problems you face. There is a chance they will become pro-transgender allies. Some will even feel that your relationship has improved due to the honesty, trust, and mutual respect you have demonstrated to them.
These are only three of many possibilities, from worst-case scenario to best-case scenario. You know your parents best and will be able to consider their likeliest reactions. As stated above, you may need to be prepared for the worst, such as by moving out to stay with other family members or friends. No matter what happens, stay true to yourself as you continue to reach out to your parents while also knowing your limits. And remember that sometimes people take time to come to acceptance, and initial rejection does not always mean your parent(s) will never come around.
Tip #4: Have an out
If you’re worried about rejection or a fight, it’s always good to have an out. Tell a close friend or other family member what you’re about to do and ask if they can come get you afterward for emotional support (or physical support if your family throws you out).
6. True acceptance. Some (but not all) parents get this far. When asked if they wish that their child were cisgender, they respond, “I’d wish that society was more accepting of transgender people so that my child could live without fear or the possibility of rejection.” Parents at this stage begin to understand the problems that they have unknowingly created for their child in the past.
Parents at this stage begin to re-think how they have treated gender diverse people before your coming out. Some will become active in fighting against homophobia, which often includes violence and discrimination against trans* people. Others will talk to and educate their friends and other family members about trans* issues. Some will open their arms and homes to their children’s transgender friends. Others will reach out to help other parents accept their children being trans*. In short, they’ll become committed to fighting for transgender rights and acceptance in whichever ways they feel most comfortable.
Throughout it all, remember that we are here for you!
OUTSaskatoon offers a number of programs and services to help people of all ages navigate the coming out process. The biggest service we offer is peer counseling either over the phone or in person for you, your parents, and your friends. Come visit us today! You’ll find our contact information on the back of this booklet.