Transgender People in Loving Struggle with our Families

Lex - Posted on 09 April 2013

On the crisp August night when everything came grinding to a halt between me and mom, I found myself losing track of her cold, confusing words, feeling only the poly-blend hotel comforter scratching against my skin. “I know what you’re doing,” she argued, having collected herself after her sobbing collapse earlier in the evening. Now, she was a lawyer again, making her case about me based on the evidence she had gathered. “Just don’t. Don’t do this transgender thing.” She had always told me she loved me unconditionally, but suddenly I found myself standing, nauseous, my toes curled over the edge of the line in the sand she’d just drawn, scared I was about to crash into dangerous territory that our relationship couldn’t survive. Like a lot of other queer and trans people, my relationship with my parents strained and felt like it might break when they had to reckon with their panic about my gender.

According to a 2011 study by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 57% of transgender people surveyed experienced rejection from their families for being trans. 40% reported that a family member chose not to speak or spend time with them after learning they were transgender. 19% experienced domestic violence because they were transgender. The most powerful statistic explains that family acceptance is correlated with “positive outcomes,” and family rejection is connected with “negative outcomes.” What that really means is that people who are rejected by their families are more likely to become houseless or commit suicide.

My experience with my mom falls somewhere in the gray area between all of these numbers: no one in my family ever refused to speak with or see me for being trans, let alone hurt me physically. I don’t know if I would say I experienced “family rejection” or not. But my relationship with my mom was fundamentally changed by her feelings about me being transgender. Most of the trans people I know have had some kind of struggle with their families. Sometimes these struggles are transformative, reshaping the foundations of relationships to be more loving and honest; sometimes they are destructive, and people are disowned and forcibly separated from their families because of them. 

In the worst moments of my relationship with my mom, which came in the three years after our night in the hotel, I was afraid that we had reached an impasse. It felt like the wall between us—at first only built by rocks and pebbles that accumulated over time—was cementing into place quicker than I could stop it. My head and heart were filled with stories of trans people whose relationships with their families had collapsed under the pressures of transphobia, frozen communication, and separation. I was terrified, but I was committed to my mom—and she was committed to me. I did everything I knew how to do to hold our relationship together temporarily until it could start to heal permanently. During the time that my mom and I were shut down to each other, I was surrounded by chosen family that helped keep me afloat emotionally.

Transgender people and our families will struggle with each other as long as transphobia and gender policing are the norms in the society we live in. What the statistics can’t explain is how families arrive at “acceptance” of their trans family members, and what I’ve witnessed is that it’s both simple and difficult: it takes work. Most non-trans people need an immense amount of support to confront their own judgments, fears, and transphobia. This support can come from friends, family members, and from people who can teach on trans experiences without pathologizing them. As trans people, we need support from people who don’t question the decisions we need to make to survive and be well; we need access to respectful holistic health care; and we need allies who can talk to our families when we can’t. Many of us—children and parents—need to unlearn the ideas of separation and individualism that we have internalized, which have taught us that we don’t need our families and that we should leave them behind when it’s hard. We need to push ourselves to go back to our families to fight for healing when the time is right. Being good children, daughters, and sons to our parents doesn’t mean accepting their transphobia, but it does mean committing not to give up on each other.


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