Saturday, June 29, 2013

When you don't know what to say...

This is for anyone I haven't been in touch with since my transition. Well actually, to be more precise it's for anyone who hasn't been in touch with me since my transition, but still has some kind feelings towards me. It's for those who have somehow learned about what I've done and now feel in an awkward spot. 

If you're disgusted or outraged at who I am and what I've done, or if you really just have never felt any connection with me, we don't have much to talk about. We can just ignore each other and be happy. And if you're a really close friend and comfortable with transgender people like me, we've probably already been in touch, and either we have plunged on in spite of the strangeness or we have gone silent. So it goes.

Stuck in the middle

But perhaps you're stuck in the middle. I'm using that phrase deliberately, since it's a feeling that many of us trans folk know all too well. In your case, you're stuck in a grey area - you don't know what to say and probably you're not even that certain that I'd want to hear it if you did. Perhaps it took you a while to process the news and by the time you did, you felt the opportunity had passed. Maybe you're waiting to hear from me, or for an "important" reason to contact me. But you sometimes think about me and the thought of getting in touch crosses your mind.

The first few months after my transition this situation honestly never occurred to me. I was so wrapped up in the business of transitioning, which is one of the most self-centered processes in the world, that I assumed that all of those silent people, all of those people who probably would have reached out with a word in many other situations, were lost to me. I assumed that they must hate me because they were silent when I could have really used a word. I can tell you that I got many, many more messages of support at the death of Molly, the smartest dog in school and my best friend, than I did when word got out that Vern had been retired in favor of Naomi. Even putting aside the obvious truth that Molly was orders of magnitude more likable than Vern ever was, it was a striking contrast. 

In a way it was just a confirmation of what I'd always feared and expected - that coming out as trans means losing people, giving up friends and old connections. In short, it means that you are less loved. Like so many trans folk of my generation I had always feared this and now it seemed to be coming true. 

But, as has often happened in my transtion, I was wrong. Over time something surprising happened - I started hearing from people. And it's continued, a slow but steady cadence over time. Sometimes it's old friends who I thought had drifted away. Other times it's been former students I had assumed wouldn't be interested in the bizarre case of a former teacher going from man to woman. Still other times it's been former colleagues I haven't seen in years.

There was a hand written card that showed up at work one day from a former colleague I hadn't seen for a decade. There were thoughtful emails that showed up out of the blue, Facebook conversations, LinkedIn connection requests, and so on. But all of them were really the same - messages from people who really had no reason to get in touch other than they wanted me to know that the connections we had shared were still there. And those messages are treasures to me.

The more I read those messages, the more I was struck by an underlying theme. Former colleagues made vague excuses about why they hadn't gotten in touch sooner. More than one student suggested that I certainly wouldn't remember them, or maybe I wouldn't care much to hear from someone I'd known years ago when they were just a kid. But in every case there was the theme of "I wanted to contact you sooner, but..."

I think there are really just a couple of reasons that people hesitate. First, the assumption that perhaps I somehow don't want to hear from people from my past. This is an interesting spin on the trans narrative that had scared me as child - the idea that the only way to transition is to sever all ties with the old identity and those who knew it. If those are the rules you're playing by, then contact from the past would be the ultimate embarrassment, and anyone insisting on that contact would be insensitive at best. That's the path called "being stealth" and I've rejected it, but it's still a part of how people think about trans people and transition.

For my part, I never left a one of you behind because of my transition. I had to physically move away and leave much of my old life behind in order to transition, and that made me sad. But I love too much of my life before to ever renounce it. Particularly now that the dust has cleared I find talking about old times is just sweet nostalgia. Vern is gone, because he was just a persona I had to use to survive, but the same person is still here. So no one need be afraid that a connection out of my past will be embarrasing or painful.

The other reason is simpler - people just don't know what to say. Maybe you don't even know how you feel about transgender issues. Maybe you thought you had a neat solution in your head, but now that you find out you know a trans person, you're not so sure. Do you offer condolences? But clearly the person changing is happy. Congratulations? How can that be sincere when you've just lost the person you thought you knew? Suppose you say the wrong thing and offend? Wouldn't that be worse than saying nothing at all? What do trans people want to hear anyway? In the face of such uncertainty, the natural human response is to hesitate. And after a while it's hard to act.

So let me tell you how things are my side

I have to confess that I'm in a similar position. I'm not likely to contact you first, either. I'm pretty cautious about contacting people who knew me before. I'll see you get recommended to me on LinkedIN or Facebook, and decide not to add you. I'll see a personal announcement and start to respond, but then hesitate. I just don't know how you feel about trans people, whether you'd be embarassed or angry or just wonder why the hell someone like me thinks you'd want to be in touch. I hear a voice in my head saying that you probably don't want an obvious connection with me on your wall. And let's be honest - if you connect with me on the social networks it will be pretty clear you're connected with a trans woman. You'll see trans related items in my streams, you might even get suggestions that you connect with other trans people. It comes with me, and I keep thinking that most people don't want that. 

All too often I find myself thinking I need to ask permission to connect with people or to join groups or even to say hi to old acquaintances, that I need to apologize for imposing myself on people. I'm trying to get myself out of that pattern, to tell myself that I need to move past that, that I need to just move ahead and let others worry about how they'll react to me. And with people I'm just meeting, I can do that - I plunge in and let them decide how to take me. But with the ones that knew me before I find that much harder to do. 

What to say when you don't know what to say

So what I really want to say is that you don't need to worry about what to say. It's okay that it took you a while to sort out your feelings about suddenly having a transgender person you know - after all, it took me decades to sort out how I felt about it. What do I, as a transgender person, want to hear? Well, you really don't need to call out my courage. I can tell you that no person who's transitioned feels they've done anything courageous. In fact, I'd say that the ones who transitioned in middle age like me feel cowardly for waiting so long. Or at best we feel like we had no choice - is it courage to jump off of a burning, sinking ship that's about to explode?

And you don't really need to reassure me that I'm still a human being, or that I'm still smart, or things like that. I'd like to think that those are true, but making a point to mention them seems to imply that they are remarkable, and somehow true in spite of who I am.

So if you've been thinking of me and wanting me to know that our connection, whatever it was, remains, then just say that. The best messages are the ones that say hey, I've been thinking about you. I know it must have been hard, but I'm glad you're happier. And just know that I'm still here and things haven't changed between us.

And then lets talk about what's been going on with you, how your family is, what you're working on, whatever we used to talk about.

I promise you I'll be happy to hear from you and I'll respond. With joy.


  1. Wow - Very much enjoyed the transition in thought and acceptance that you have stated so eloquently here. What does one say is as important as not having said anything just accepting.

  2. I am just curious...I have read that you have a wife. Is she still your wife? What are her reactions to this? Do you consider yourself to be attracted to women?

    1. Yes I have a wife, and yes, we are still married and we intend to stay that way. In fact, the law is such that if a marriage was legally entered into by both participants, a change in the status of one or the other doesn't discontinue that marriage. So we are legally married, even though people have a hard time getting their heads around that. As to the Second question - I don't feel it's right for me to speak on her behalf and she doesn't like commenting on anything publicly online. The answer to the first question might give you and idea of the answer to second. And as to your last question - I feel neither the inclination nor the obligation to discuss that in a public forum. So that's really only one out of 3 - sorry about that.

  3. Really feel thought out piece.

    Individuals are so much less transphobic than the media would have us believe but it still holds up back from making the first move on recontacting...