A Guide for Transitioning Families

Clara Barnhurst

When a family member comes out as transgender, there are inevitably feelings and questions raised. Whether you’re fine with what’s happening or upset about the change (most are somewhere in between – or both at once!), it’s important to keep a few things in mind. As a support worker at a charity that assists transitioning families and individuals, I get asked many questions. The process is highly individual, but here is a general guide to start the process.

They are not transitioning, you are.

The process of assuming a gender identity that matches oneself is a process of actualisation, not transition, for the individual. They explore their expression and retain what works for them. Those around them are the ones that have to get used to the idea and make an actual transition. Remember, they’ve probably felt this for a long time (though that is by no means a universal truth). They know what they are. You don’t. You’re all learning, but your process is transitional where theirs is one of self discovery.

Work on your own feelings.

However you feel, you’ll feel something. Make sure you have someone to talk to that isn’t the loved one. They’ve got all that other stuff happening; they may not be able to help you. They may be overloaded with questions. Some things only they can help you with, but make sure you have an outlet that filters what you absolutely need them for. This can be a therapist, another loved one, a friend; it doesn’t matter.

This is beyond your control.

You can’t control other people. If you’re struggling with accepting your family member, just remember that they will change and the inevitable result of your lack of support will be your role in their life diminishing or even ending. How much or how little you want them in your life is entirely up to you, but if you want to stay close to a person then you’re going to have to accept that this isn’t something you have any control over and make the appropriate changes as things become clear. Let it happen and do what you can. You can’t stop what’s happening.

Follow their lead.

There will be a lot of experimentation. Not all of it will stick, but the only way your family member will know is if you can take it in your stride and treat them accordingly. Your loved one may be absolutely certain about where they want to go or they might not. They might start certain and end up questioning. The single best response to a change is to agree and try your best.

Don’t make it about you

Nobody gets it right the first time. Nobody goes through a transition without slipping into old habits, using old names or pronouns, or having friction about the changes. It’s going to happen. Whether you are angry at them for changing or angry with yourself for not changing, just note the mistake and move on. Simple acknowledgement is best: apologise or correct and move on.

No transition is the same, but keeping these principles in mind will make it a lot easier on you and your family member. By examining your own feelings, you address your own biases (we all have them). Understanding that people will grow and change as they will allows you to let go; we learn how to deal with those changes rather than resisting them. Following their lead and avoiding emotional outbursts when mistakes happen keeps them in the centre of the process. There is no such thing as an easy transition, but doing those things will make it a lot easier.


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