Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Finding the balance

I asked Helen for a topic to write about, and she sent me the following suggestion: How to help someone who is not transitioning "come out" in ways that are healthy but still respectful of their possible concerns re: privacy.
Whether a person transitions physically or not, the issues remain the same. Is it stealth, or is it a closet, if a person chooses to not disclose their journey? Can a person retain their self-esteem and sense of self-worth if they feel compelled to keep the fullness of their true selves a secret? The differentiation to make is between privacy and living a lie. There is nothing wrong with being private about how we live our lives; this is another way of saying there is nothing wrong with having boundaries.
However, boundaries are about behavior. There is nothing wrong with a person being private about precisely how they have sex with their partners, for instance. However, if they are gay/lesbian/bi, to never share their sexual orientation with others, to live in the closet, is being private about one's identity rather than about behavior, and this is something to examine closely. Is the point of such privacy maintaining a job, or being able to earn a living? Or is the point more to do with shame, or guilt? Are there valid contextual reasons for being out in some arenas and not in others? The motivation for not being out is critical. A motive based in shame will probably lead to feelings of low self-esteem and depression, while motives based in privacy and maintaining healthy boundaries may enhance self-esteem. In this day and age, it's hard to tease apart, but the process of taking oneself seriously enough to consider being out can itself enhance self-esteem.
A number of my clients self-describe as "genderqueer," and the issue of disclosing their gender identity has been tricky for them to navigate. They are primarily young (usually closer to 20 than 30). Most are either working their first jobs, or looking for their first job, bumping up against workplace expectations of gender conformity. What most conclude is that compromising on their dress in order to earn a living is acceptable, as long as they differentiate between compromising on gender expression (behavior) as opposed to compromising on their gender identity. This allows them to retain self-esteem, and to gain experience with boundaries.
Within personal relationship, the boundaries are different than in a workplace context. I advise my clients to establish good communication with their gut. I tell them, "If you tune into the message, that place in the pit of your stomach will let you know when it's time to tell someone your true identity, when you've reached a point of closeness in a relationship that to go further without disclosure will feel dishonest." Many friendships are casual and never reach this point of intimacy. But for those that do, to maintain the illusion of gender normativity is a barrier to true intimacy.
The language people use for disclosure can disarm many negative reactions. There is such cultural misunderstanding and negativity associated with terms like "transgender" or "transsexual" or "cross-dresser," it can be helpful to explain one's identity without resorting to words that may trigger some knee-jerk reaction. For instance, I don't say, "I'm a transsexual" when I'm disclosing to someone new in my life. I lead up to the disclosure, using language such as, "When I was born, I was assigned a female gender. But as I grew older, I eventually realized that wasn't the right gender for me, so I've transitioned to male." I said that to a classmate when I was in grad school, and she looked confused for a moment, then said, "Oh, you're a transsexual." Most people, however, have such misperceptions of what "transsexual" means that they still don't apply that label to me even after the explanation. I may eventually use that term to describe myself to those folks, but only after they've gotten to know me, so they don't apply their misperception of "transsexual" to me and never move beyond that.
Some of my clients have come up with creative self-descriptive language. One of my clients is a cross-dresser who dresses female the majority of the time, yet has no intention of transitioning physically. She describes herself as femme of center. I tell people that I didn't transition from female to male, I transitioned from female to not-female. I call myself a guy, but not a man. It can be helpful to move beyond the standard terminology of gender and find a self-description that captures one's essence. Not only can this be helpful in disclosure, but also allows each of us to define and describe our gender journey on our own terms.

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