One of the first questions asked by people discovering their gender identity is “how do I come out? When do I tell people?” and it’s probably one of the most difficult questions to answer because there isn’t one answer that works for everyone. We all lead different lives, we all have different families, we all react differently to the reactions of the people we trust with our secrets. At best, those of us who have been through it can offer our stories, tell others what worked for us, and warn against the negativity we may (or may not) have encountered. But, there are generally some basic guidelines you may want to follow that might help keep the possible resulting “drama” to a minimum. Before I get to that, I’ll share a bit about my coming out. Maybe someone will find something of value in it.
The first person I remember telling was my girlfriend (now ex) and her reaction was really disheartening. She told me in no uncertain terms that I was “not allowed” to transition, that she was a lesbian and if she wanted a man, she’d go find one. Needless to say, that relationship did not last. My mom was the second person I told. I grew up without my dad around for the most part, and I was extremely close to my mother. When I told her, I said it very casually. Probably something like “I think I am transgender…” in the middle of a conversation. I remember my mom clearly saying “uh… Ok. What does that mean exactly?” And I briefly explained. She didn’t freak out or anything but she wasn’t exactly supportive. She basically told me it was a silly concept, and I needed to make up my mind about who I was. I had originally come out as bisexual, then lesbian, and finally trans. So she probably figured I was just confused about life. I didn’t have a name picked out, I didn’t request a sudden pronoun change, I just let that idea float out there for a while. Slowly I started telling friends, one by one. Just putting it out there and making no demands. One of my favorite memories of coming out was telling my high-school boyfriend, who I was still very close with. His only response was “whoa, so I can say I’ve had sex with a dude?! Awesome!” After I passed along this new information to the important people, I started considering names. I picked one I felt was right and started going by it. Leaving pronouns out still. I met with some resistance from a few people, some had a hard time adjusting but tried, others just seemed set on not bothering. My father never once called me by anything other than my birth name (he’s an unpleasant man in general and is no longer allowed in my life) but I just kept pushing and reminding. Eventually most people got it right and those who refused were cast out of my friends and family. Next came pronouns. By this time I was dating a girl who supported my transition and she was the first to pick up correct pronouns. And one by one other people caught on. The only person who didn’t know anything about my transition was my maternal grandmother. While I loved her dearly, I was concerned she just wouldn’t accept me. I couldn’t tell her… I just couldn’t. So I asked my mom, who had finally come around and was quite supportive, to tell my grandmother for me. I will never forget her response (on speakerphone) “well that’s good! If she dates women, then maybe she is a boy.” Though slightly misguided, that was an extreme show of support from a woman who was raised in Mississippi in the 30’s. She never was consistent with my name or pronouns but she tried and dementia was taking its toll. The last Christmas card I got was addressed to my birth name and the note inside said “I’m sorry I can’t remember you’re new name… Merry Christmas, I love you.” That’s the best memory I have of that cursed dead name, and my 80 something grandmother was proof that EVERYONE is capable of acceptance and respect, but I’m not naive enough to think everyone will have it as easy as me. I know that’s not how the world works. But maybe someone will read this and see that hope is still very much alive. Patience is key. I know that’s difficult and makes us want to make rash decisions about coming out. Which brings us to my next topic….
How not to come out.
The first thing I want you to consider is your safety. If you are already in an abusive environment, it may be unwise to come out until you can remove yourself from that situation. I’m not going to tell you when to come out, but please consider your mental and physical safety before jumping into that conversation.
I recently saw a Facebook post from someone who wanted to out themselves at a grandparents (90th…i think) birthday party because the whole family would be together and they could tell everyone at once. Here are the problems with that idea. First, you may save time and energy by announcing it to everyone right then and there but that also means you have each person in the group to answer questions for, to possibly defend yourself against, and there is a chance things could get ugly. The next problem is the lack of respect for the guest of honour. If the event is a birthday, wedding, anniversary, graduation or any other celebratory event centered around a specific person or couple, it’s not a good time to come out. The focus isn’t you, and it shouldn’t be. Don’t take what is a celebration of someone else and turn it into your coming out party. Do you really think that’s appropriate? Imagine it’s your aunts birthday, the whole family is together honoring her. You decide it’s the right time to announce your transition and while your aunt may be totally accepting (or not), a few people might freak out and make a huge scene. Is that fair to your aunt? Is that how she should remember her birthday? Don’t steal someone else’s special day, even if all you get is positive comments and acceptance, that day is not meant for you. It’s just disrespectful.
Whether you come out to everyone at once, or tell people slowly, your tone and wording are exceptionally important. I can’t tell you the right words or tone for your individual situation but I can probably tell you a few of the wrong ones. It’s likely unwise to speak with any anger or attitude. I’ve seen people who were troubled by having to keep their identity secret and when it comes out, it’s angry. It’s accusatory, and it’s used to explain away all of their current life problems. You may have a fair amount problems in life related to being Trans*, I’m definitely not going to dispute that. You need to be honest with yourself though. We ALL have issues that are unrelated and if you have yourself convinced that transitioning will make your whole life perfect, you are going to be extremely let down. Own your other issues and don’t make them a part of your coming out. Don’t put blame on anyone, that is not going to gain you any acceptance, even if there is some valid reason to place blame. Leave that alone for the process of coming out. You can get to that later. Don’t make demands of anyone. It is their choice to accept or reject your transition and you can’t make anyone do something they don’t want to do. I’m not saying you have to tolerate misgendering or any negative reactions. You are entitled to respect, but if you don’t get it try to be calm, educate, offer places to find information and be prepared to walk away. Reacting with anger only makes things worse and gives people an opening to accuse you of being irrational (regardless of whether you are or aren’t.) Don’t expect anyone to be ok with this new information right from the start. A lot of people will be, but don’t expect it. There is an insane amount of misinformation about Trans* people out there, and there will be times when a person reacts negatively based on that misinformation. Be patient and educate.
Another less than stellar way to come out is during an argument. If you are already fighting with someone it’s wise to save the Trans* disclosure for another day. I have known people who basically dropped a “well fuck you! I’m Trans*!” bomb in the middle of a fight. Firstly, no one is going to be in the right frame of mind to actually be rational and the person you are fighting with may use that new revelation to say hurtful things they don’t really mean. Or worse, you may have just told an angry bigot you are Trans*. A bigot is hard enough to deal with, let alone one that’s already angry about something else. Just don’t do this.
Coming out on social media can be an easy way to address a lot of people at once and remove any immediate threats of possible violence. It’s certainly less personal though so consider that when deciding how and when to come out. One thing to be cautious of, something I have seen happen in the past, is poor wording when coming out through text in any way. We all want immediate validation and support, but that may be a bit of a stretch for some people. I would personally refrain from posts like this:
“A lot of you don’t know yet, and I feel it’s finally time to put it out there. I am transgender. I will no longer tolerate the use of *insert dead name* or *insert wrong pronoun* when referring to me. My name is________, and I am male/female. If you can’t deal with that, unfriend me right now. If I find out you address me wrong, you will be instantly deleted”
This is fair if, and only if, you can remove the first part. If you are just telling some people for the first time then this post would be totally unfair to most people. People will make mistakes, people will have a hard time understanding, and people will have questions. Don’t just start casting off friends and family because they struggle to comprehend at first. Be open to questions, be ready to educate, don’t overreact to those who are having a hard time processing. Again, patience is key. However, if someone is being blatantly disrespectful and bigoted and you are reasonably certain that will not change, then by all means stand up for yourself in whatever way you see fit. In no way should anything I have written here be taken to mean we should tolerate insults, slurs, bigotry, misogyny, or any other form of hate. But it’s incredibly important to do things in a fair and respectful manner for everyone involved. As I have said before, if we want respect, we need to give it.