My Family is Being Vile About My Cousin Being Trans. What Can I Do?

Dear Autostraddle: “So, a lot of members of my family are being serious assholes about my cousin being trans. It just sucks to feel like I can’t really articulate to them why their attitudes are so shitty. Is there anything that I could do/say? They’re all just so stubborn.”

Answer: I think a lot of “shitty” attitudes about trans people come from a SERIOUS misunderstanding of trans identities, gender dysphoria, and our transition needs. I’ve written before about how to explain these things to non-trans people as a means of combating transphobia.Other people have used analogies to try to communicate the feeling of persistent incongruence between the gender you feel in your mind and the gender expressed in your body. (I like to think of it as less of a mind/body dichotomy and more “the incongruence between one’s true gender identity and society’s perception of one’s gender.”)

I don’t think we even need analogies. This is how I explain it succinctly and simply to non trans people: If I was talking to a non-trans man, I’d say, “Imagine when you were a kid, your parents made you wear dresses sometimes and gave you dolls to play with. What if they called you Lizzie? Let’s say when you lined up for recess, your teachers told you to stand in the girls line. And maybe you got sick of fighting and wanted to make everyone happy/proud so you learned how to put on make up…. Wouldn’t you still be a man? Would any of that stuff have made you a girl?”

That’s what it is to be trans. It’s everyone seeing you as something you’re not and you living a certain way because of that grave misperception. But ultimately, you are still a man. Because after all, science, history, and experience tell us that there is far more to gender (even far more to sex) than chromosomes, genitalia/anatomy, and hormones. (See Evolution’s Rainbow for just a sample of the gender diversity in nature; while you’re at it, Wikipedia “intersex” for a general introduction to the multitude of ways chromosomes, anatomy, and/or hormones can result in unexpected or atypical sex and gender expression.)

Then I’d ask the man to imagine how he would feel if he was stuck living as a woman, being constantly seen as a woman. Even if he could live as a non-stereotypical and somewhat masculine woman, wouldn’t he feel trapped? Wouldn’t he be miserable, not having anyone see him as he truly is? Wouldn’t it be depressing to look in the mirror and not be able to see himself?

That is the source of gender dysphoria, though I have yet to be able to fully communicate just how awful it feels and how crippling it truly is. And that is why some trans people transition. Because we can no longer live a lie, no longer live as someone we are not, and we need to be able to express our true gender to the world and have them finally see it.

That’s the best I can do in explaining it to non-trans people who need to “get it” in order to accept someone’s gender identity and their steps in transition.

Best of luck with your family and thank you for caring!

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Sebastian has written 16 articles for us.

22 Comments

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    Wow. Okay so I’m the one who asked this (not very articulate) question probably a few weeks ago after a particularly ridiculous argument with a family member, as they were continually insisting he needed to essentially pretend to be two different people- his “real” self at work, and who he “wanted” to be at home.

    Anyway, thanks so much for this!

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    I agree that at least some misunderstandings people have with trans people has to do with not understanding what it means to be trans – namely, not understanding the differences between trans people, and cis people who enjoy dressing in drag. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to explain to people that a drag queen is a man who likes to dress as a woman; a transwoman is a woman trapped in a man’s body. (Though still, even if it was an issue of people just wanting more ability to dress in drag, I don’t see what the big problem is; people need to get over their obsession with policing gender roles for everyone.)

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    I really really really like the analogy. It’s similar to what I use to explain my asexual orientation, but I hadn’t made it click yet for being trans. It also serves to explain non-binary gender identities as well – it’s just that incongruence between what people SEE you as and what you ARE.

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    Sebastian, you do a really great job of breaking down trans* issues in a pretty straightforward way. I like these articles!

    However, sometimes we run across people who still have a hard time grasping these concepts, even when they’re explained in simple terms. So I thought I’d share a bit of my own experience, which someone else might find useful when dealing with certain people.

    I was visiting my step-dad’s family (his mom, sisters, and some of their kids) once and they started talking about some TV show they’d seen with a trans* person on it and they started making some really harsh comments about this person. Well, I’d just gotten my BA in Women’s Studies and was about to head off to grad school to study it more, so my head was all stuffed full of theories and facts and figures about sex, gender, and all kinds of related topics.

    I tried to make them understand, I really did. But the problem is that…well, they’re dumb. There’s no way around it. I’m not saying this to disparage them; it’s just the way things are. Like, they cannot comprehend percentages. I once spent almost 20 minutes trying to explain to one of them how lotion worked and why it didn’t “cure” all forms of dry skin permanently (I still don’t think she really understands it). They’re good-hearted people, but just not gifted with large intellects.

    Trying to explain the whys and hows was a lost cause, so I decided to take a different approach. Every one of those women has struggled with her weight and with hating her own body for not being the way she felt it should be. So I reminded them of that and said that in the end it didn’t matter if they really understood why someone would identify as trans* or would want to transition, it just mattered that you had sympathy for another human being who has to deal with some very difficult emotions relating to the body they were born into. And you know what? They still don’t understand all the whys and hows, but they could understand that kind of turmoil on an emotional level. They all agreed that they shouldn’t have been making those comments earlier and they wouldn’t do that kind of thing anymore.

    So I may not have expanded anyone’s knowledge of the complexities of gender identity and expression, BUT I did help expand a few people’s capacity to sympathize with other human beings, so I call it a win. Obviously every person’s situation is different, so if the LW’s family can’t or won’t understand the cousin’s situation when it’s explained to them, maybe try hitting them in the emotions. Maybe it’ll soften them up and make them more receptive to factual explanations later. Or maybe they’ll never understand it, but they’ll at least stop making vile comments.

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    So, if the the nascent crush I’m starting to develop on you develops further, you’re going to throw my whole sexual orientation into conflict! Darn you, Sebastian! Why do you have to be so smart and articulate on the internet???

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    Great post, Sebastian! I really appreciate your contributions to this site. They’re personally helpful and generally amazing.

    My girlfriend is genderqueer, or at least that’s what she’s figured out so far, and I can’t stop thinking of the day when I’ll have to broach the subject with my family. My immediate family will, I’m sure, be loving and accepting if not fully understanding. My extended family, however, is a bit bigoted at times. They’re impossible to reason with and I get so damn emotional, I lose all my reasoning skills. I think they’ve been reading Derailing for Dummies. I don’t know that I’d be able to get through that ‘discussion’ without crying out of frustration alone, forgetting anger and pain. They’re just so hard-headed and so WRONG.
    I can’t even comprehend how it’s possible to be thaat wrong.

    How do you keep your cool? It’s such a fundamental part of you that is being denied/trivialized/attacked.

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    Thanks for this. I’ve been reading up on trans issues lately, read a few memoirs, and got some books from the library for my roommate who may or may not be going through trans issues, and this will definitely better help me articulate myself as a trans ally.

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    Really,thank you for this article and for your blog post linked to it. I have always supported trans rights and tried to be as sentitive and helpful as possible, but sometimes I struggled to really understand what it feels like to be trans or have transitioned. Your words will make me a better person, and I am sure that they will help many people open their eyes.

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    Spot on! Unfortunately, it seems that some people aren’t the least bit interested in educating themselves about what it’s like to be trans, as was the case with my parents. It was easier for them to just pretend that I had died than to make the mental effort to critically examine their own preconceptions about people they have always written off as “freaks.” *Sigh*, and they’re Seattle-area lawyers too…

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      I’m sorry :-(

      I just can’t understand what it is about this, or say your kid being gay, or whatever that manages to override the whole ‘love your child’ drive. It’s crazy.

      Every time you write Sebastian, I’m in awe of how well you write, and you you have managed to get past all of society’s rubbish on trans stuff with a clear head. <3

      Very very glad you're writing for AS.

      You keep reminding me that (as an ally on trans issues) I both know very little and care a lot. Also, seriously helpful in reminding me to have a bit of patience with LGB-allies too, and ideas on how to explain things…

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    This is pretty good at explaining trans stuff to non-trans people!

    I’ve been recently explaining trans stuff to kids, which is a little bit different. You sort of have to go incredibly basic – stuff like ‘gender dysphoria’ doesn’t really work that well when the person you’re explaining it to ALSO doesn’t understand the concept of, say, multiplication.

    I’ve found that it’s helpful to instead approach things from a really basic level, like ‘when she was a little girl, other kids thought she was a boy, and it made her sad. So she started to make sure they didn’t do that anymore, and now she’s happier.’

    Bonus: it works on clueless adults, too, if only as a last resort.

  11. Pingback: UTILITY DOCUMENT » Transgender People, Transitioning and Those Darn Standards of Care » UTILITY DOCUMENT

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    I have a question that’s always been on my mind, but I had no one to ask. I’m actually afraid of coming off as insulting, but keep in mind I’m not doing that thing where people ask questions like “ha you don’t have an answer to this, so that means you are invalid!” I’m asking these questions wanting to get a real answer and to actually understand, not to challenge anyone. So if I do insult anyone and bring up horrible feelings or something, I really am sorry and that wasn’t my intention.

    A lot of progressiveism (which isn’t really a word apparently but totally should be) and feminism strives to say that gender is only social and there’s no such thing as a male brain and a female brain. The queer community at large also seems to agree with this. So I honestly get confused and honestly want to understand how to reconcile that fact with people who transition or want to transition or even don’t want to transition saying they always knew they were one gender or the other. If gender supposedly isn’t real–if fire trucks and dirty knees aren’t what makes you a boy because girls can like them too and you don’t have to–then how does a girl liking those things (I know it’s more complicated than this, but I’m trying to simplify just to get my ideas down) make her a boy trapped in a girl’s body?

    I feel like I’m missing a link between “gender is a social construct” and “I was born this gender.” In fact, I’m so confused, I feel like I’m still not even wording it correctly. I guess what I’m asking is, if we all are trying so hard to say that the “male” brain is just a brain that happened to be attached to a penis somewhere along the line and doesn’t necessarily like firetrucks and getting dirty and is afraid of the color pink, then why does liking masculine things make people call themselves male regardless of their bodies? To me, it seems that transgender is going back and labeling something–the brain–with a gender when we just finally got to the point of making some people realize that it doesn’t have one.

    I feel like in a perfect world, a brain will just be a brain and a body will just be a body and who cares of someone in a female body likes trucks and someone in a male body likes skirts and why aren’t we all just treated the same way anyway? Why are we even labeling the brain according to bodies? It seems like doing this, rather than breaking the stereotypes, actually feeds into it.

    So, with all that said (likely badly and confusingly and horribly-worded) I hope I didn’t insult anyone or put my foot in my mouth or anything else, and I’m sincerely interested in everyone’s responses. (I also feel like I probably broke some kind of record for longest first-ever-post ever. No more lurking for me.)

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