Walk With Me (#46): Talking About Gender Transition

an advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do

Dear Asha,

People ask me how a family member’s gender-expression transition is going from time to time. But I don’t actually know; in as much as I feel like that’s personal, medical stuff and I would be happy to be told, but don’t feel it’s my place to ask. Am I being overly discreet?

BBN

Dear BBN,

Is your question whether or not you are being overly discreet in not asking your family member who is transitioning how things are going, or whether or not you’re being overly cagey in not offering any information to the person asking you about your family member?

I think the answers to both questions are similar in some respects and different in others.

There are so many different levels of the process of gender transition: whether or not the person transitioning is engaging in any medical steps at all, which they may or may not be; changing pronouns, names, and public physical presentation (how they dress, wear their hair, etc.); navigating family relationships, work or school environments, and public spaces. There are legal aspects to the process, in regards to official name changes, as well as changes to gender markers on birth certificates, driver’s licenses, and passports. Finally, there are a whole host of emotions that the person transitioning has to work through in order to deal with all of the changes, logistics, and relationship dynamics.

As a family member who presumably cares about the person transitioning, I don’t think you are out of line to ask that person general, direct questions about how things are going. I would agree with you that the medical aspects of their transition are never your, or anyone else’s, business. Questions about their mental health may also be out of bounds depending on how emotionally close you are to this family member historically. However, I think asking generally how they are and how things are going, couched always in a clear expression of your support for them, communicates to the person transitioning that you care about them. Even if their response is a non-specific “fine”, the care and support get in. This matters.

For folks transitioning, particularly young people, knowing that their family cares for and supports them can be the difference between life or death.

As for the person asking you about your family member, it’s unclear from your question what the nature of their question is. If I were you, I would want to know what they’re specifically asking about. Are they asking about medical transition? I think medical and mental health information is out of bounds, and I would encourage you to make that clear.

But maybe their question is really about how things are going in the family, or at work or school? Are they curious how things are going with changes to names, pronouns, or physical presentation? Are they concerned about how your family member is coping emotionally with all the complications of the transition?

If their questions are about anything other than medical or formal mental health diagnoses, you have an anecdotal sense of the answer, and they seem to be sincerely expressing care and concern, I’d stick with generalities and be clear about what you don’t know. Say, “I don’t know all the details of what’s happening, but the family is being supportive”, or “I know they’ve transitioned to their new name and pronouns at home, but I don’t know how it’s going at school”, for instance.

Every person is surrounded by a web of connections. Some folks are closer to the person on the web, and some are farther away. My experience is when a person is going through any kind of major life transition many more people are aware on some level of what is going on, or at least that something is going on, than just the folks who are closest in that web. And sometimes folks who are a little further away still feel some care or concern about the person dealing with whatever they are dealing with, but they don’t feel “close enough” to ask.

So they ask the next person in, so to speak. Sometimes they’re just gossiping — digging for information, looking for drama, feeling like they’re “in the know” when they don’t need to be. Don’t participate in that sort of behavior; it’s toxic. Sometimes, however, folks sincerely care but don’t want to impose on the person who has enough on their hands already dealing with whatever they’re dealing with.

If I am closer to the person than the person asking me about them, my tendency is to keep any information I offer pretty broad regardless of how much I know. I might say, “I think she’s struggling”, or, “I think he’s basically okay”, or, “ Yeah, shit is tough for them at the moment”, followed by “I can let them know you’re thinking of them, if you like.” That both redirects the person asking to remember that it is the person being asked about who is important, not me or my interpretations as the intermediary, but also potentially stimulates a conversation between me and the person in transition in which they get a chance to realize how many people care about them.

Even if they can’t respond directly to the original person expressing the care because they’re too busy in their process, they get the chance to feel held in a wider web of community.

Ultimately, what does or doesn’t get communicated to the wider web of a transitioning person’s community must be up to that person. The only way you will know what they want is to ask them. I would encourage you to check in with your family member. Let them know that you support them. Let them know that if they ever want to talk to you about their transition you’d be happy to know how it is going, but they don’t have to if they don’t want to. Ask them what they would prefer you to tell anyone in the wider web of community you all share who asks about their transition.

My trans son is pretty open to me telling anyone I like about his transition, particularly in pursuit of educating them about trans kids, but we still check in regularly about what is and isn’t okay for him. He always gets to decide, and he always knows I have his back. That is the most important thing.

If nothing else, take the time to explicitly express your love and support to your family member who is transitioning. Expressing love is never wrong.

Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.

XO, Asha

Do you have a question about relationships, sex, parenting, politics, spirituality, community? Send them to me at ashasanaker@gmail.com with the subject line “Walk With Me”. Let’s walk each other home.

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