Step 1: Coming Out to Friends
As anyone who’s had to go through a coming out process about anything knows, it’s a long process. There are just so many people that have to be told. The difference between something like sexual orientation and gender identity, though, is that the latter requires more people’s knowledge. One generally doesn’t need to tell one’s workplace, or sports club, about one’s sexual orientation; but if one wants to go through a gender transition, both of these types of circles have to be informed.
During the time when I finally realized that I’m transgender — something which suddenly explained, like a Gestalt image, so much of my life — I was involved with a girl. An aspect of our relationship was that I was able to be open with her about things that I’ve never been able to be open about with anyone else. She allowed me to explore sides of myself that I’d dared not to before, at least with anyone else. And this did involve being able to express aspects of my feminine side; later I would realize that it’s more of an “identity” than a “side.”
So when I came out to her, it wasn’t exactly a shock: she suspected that my femininity was more than a “side” by then anyway. Of course, she didn’t expect that I’d come out as transgender, but she took it very well. However, it did eventually mean the end of our romantic relationship: she fell in love with the male attributes, not the female ones, and the male attributes were going to go away during the transition. I’m glad that the relationship was at the stage that it was: I really feel for people who are in long-term relationships, or even married (perhaps with children). In so many cases, the relationships don’t survive the transition: it’s hard to lose the person you fell in love with. But life goes on: our split was mutual, and we remain good friends.
Prior to coming out, though, I had spent weeks in deep thought about whether it was a “side” or an identity. Maybe I’ll post about the realization and education process. I’ll certainly be posting about my decision-making about transitioning. By the time I came out to her, I was sure: I’m transgender and I plan to go through with a transition. And I knew she was the right person to come out to first: I was confident that she’d be understanding, and that if it meant the end of the relationship, I could handle that (though, of course, I wasn’t exactly happy about that).
After telling her, I knew that the next step was to speak to a counsellor — I chose one at the university (free), expecting to be referred to a psychologist with experience in gender identity. I decided that if my first session went well, I’d come out to my roommate and colleague that evening. I discussed that plan during the session, as well as how I might go about doing it, including what I might say to start the conversation. I decided on acquiring some wine, which would help me (and perhaps him) through the conversation. By that point, my relationship with him was a little strained: it’s hard when you live and work with someone. But more than that, my relationships with males have often been strained, which I can now attribute to the gender identity issues. I rarely had male friends, and now I can understand a little better why: it’s not that I don’t like men, it’s that I wasn’t comfortable interacting with them as a male.
After offering to share some wine with him, and some small “shop” talk, I took a deep breath and told him that I had something that I needed to share with him. There’s a good scene in Hedwig and the Angry Inch (which I think is a somewhat terrible movie as far as trans issues goes, but that’s another post), where the trans person starts explaining things and the dialogue is muted, and all we hear is the whistling sound of a bomb dropping, then the sound of the bomb when she tells the other character that she’s trans.
That’s sort of what it felt like. But there was no big explosion: although it’s big news, and a big change, he was entirely fine with it. This didn’t entirely surprise me, though: I had him read as someone who likes “interesting” people, whether it’s people with odd political views, jobs, life experiences, or whatever. There were the natural questions, and honest answers where I could provide them, and then things went back to the good side of “normal,” and we went back to talking shop. In fact, a nice co-authored paper came from our conversations that night, utterly unrelated to my transition.
I decided that I’d keep coming out to my closest circle of friends before I widened it to my parents, family, and work. My friends are the people with whom I interact most, and my day-to-day social life revolves mostly around them. So they’d be the immediate support group for my transition, which means that I needed to know that they’re behind me before I made any of the next steps. Unfortunately, some of my oldest friends don’t live near me (people move away, including me from them), so I had to tell them over internet chats, but they went just fine. The next step was arranging for coffee with a friend from my local circle of friends: the central female member. I figured that having her on board would make dealing with the rest of the group easier, if it should come to needing support.
Through each of these one-on-one coming out conversations, I experienced a tremendous amount of anxiety, nervousness, and general stress. I never backed down from deciding to come out to someone; it just sometimes took me longer than I wanted to build up to it in conversation. This is somewhere that I think I have an advantage over a lot of people: I’ve worked really hard at following through with plans. I never really back down from a decision, even if I’m uncomfortable having to go through with something. Of course, this wasn’t always the case in my life. Through my years of playing poker, I’ve learned to trust my gut in situations like this, and to “pull the trigger,” as we would say: to follow through and execute plans.
All the same, it’s extremely hard, as well as emotionally and mentally exhuasting, to come out to so many people one-on-one, which is why I started doing it in groups where I could. So instead of going around to each of my friends individually, I told a few at once during a bi-weekly games night that I began holding at my house. Some in attendance already knew, and knew that I was planning on telling the others. Once again, the conversation went just fine. After that, it was a matter of circulating a letter through email for my wider circle of friends and acquaintances (nearly all of whom don’t live anywhere near me), and eventually a letter on Facebook for the widest circle.
I think that I’ve been lucky in my coming out experiences. There wasn’t a single negative response, and I’ve been continually surprised by the support and love that I’ve received from my friends and acquaintances. I’m glad that the worries and anxiety that preceded each coming out experience didn’t deter me from going through with it. It felt like jumping off a cliff each time, but it always ended up being a curb rather than a cliff.
Coming out to my local circle of friends, before my parents, took approximately three weeks. It was another month or more before everyone knew. The typical response from my female friends was excitement and support. From my male friends, it was more of an acknowledgment and a reassurance that this wouldn’t (negatively) change anything. On both sides, the first thing most people said was to ask me if there is anything they could do to help. As far as I know, I retained all of my friends (I think I actually have more now), and I think that my friendships are stronger now because of this (a topic for another post).
Next week, I’ll post about coming out to my parents and family. Eventually, a subsequent post will be about my workplace and sports club.