My husband is transgendered. How do I tell my parents?
August 13, 2009 4:07 AM   Subscribe

My husband will probably be starting hormones and this may eventually lead to gender reassignment surgery. I fully support him, however it goes. There is a lot of advice out there for how transgendered people should tell their partners or parents, but very little for how supportive partners should tell their families. Any advice? (longer story inside)

Some background: both of us are in our mid-30s, we have been together for 6 years, and I've known about his identity since before we started dating. I (female) identify as gay/bi -- well, I thought I was entirely interested in women before meeting him, now I'm not sure what you'd call me, nor do I really care that much. Our relationship is extremely happy, our sex life is great, and I love him (call him Chris) dearly; he is the bravest and strongest and funniest person I know. [I am calling him "he" because that is the pronoun he usually uses nowadays, even though "she" is closer to the emotional truth.]

He has spent the last 7 years (ever since telling me) doing a combination of hoping that he could ignore it, and then eventually (as it became clear that that wasn't working) slowly doing lots of painstaking psychological work on himself. Over the past two years or so he has come to the conclusion that he really has to do something more than just internal psychological work: i.e., visiting a therapist, starting to take hormones, and include as a possible end-goal having a sex-change operation. He is quite miserable with this aspect of his life as it currently stands. I am fully supportive of whatever option he chooses to take. The money for surgery, should it come to that, won't be an issue, nor will his job situation.

I'm writing because we both really feel like I should tell my parents. He told his a year ago, and (though it threw them for a loop) they responded about as well as you could possibly expect: telling him they love him still, will support him, etc, even though they are made obviously uncomfortable by it (and I expect that once he starts showing physical changes will be more so, but they will probably be able to work through it).

My parents, though, are much less worldly and open than his ... they are impressively open-minded for their cultural background, but also have fairly rigid senses of what is proper and what isn't. When I came out to them, the result was two years worth of extremely awkward silence on the entire topic of relationships, though they did not shun me in general or anything, and it was quite clear they still loved me. Eventually, when I had been dating a woman somewhat seriously for a while, my dad gave me a little speech about how whoever I fell in love with was fine with them, and things got somewhat better; but we still didn't talk about it much and they were still enormously, transparently relieved when Chris and I started dating. I obviously didn't give them any of the transgender backstory at the time; I publicly identify as bi to them, but we really don't talk about it. They really, really like Chris, and not just because he seems like a guy to them.

I am fairly close to them (even though we don't talk about some things), and I truly like and admire them. I also live quite far away, so really only see them a few weeks out of every year. I want to tell them about Chris because it's starting to feel like a huge secret to keep, and it's going to come out (no pun intended!) at some point soon anyway once he does start with the hormones, and especially if surgery and living full-time as a woman becomes a realistic option. The sooner we tell my parents, the more time they have to get their heads around it.

An additional complication is that they live in the town I grew up in, which is very small and fairly conservative. My parents are very well known and many people know and still ask about me. So even if they were okay with things, Chris getting a sex change would put them in many difficult social situations; in fact, I think they would probably have more social fallout than we would (we live in a fairly open-minded metropolis, and many of our friends either know already or will probably be okay with it when we tell them). I feel bad about this, but don't see any way to stop it.

Anyway, a few questions.

1. If you were my parent, how would you want to be told? What things should I emphasize or downplay? I plan on saying that I still love and support him, and that it wasn't something he did "to" me, and that our situation is stable, with friends, etc. Other thoughts?

2. How should I play this, long-term? I was thinking of telling them, and then backing off entirely and giving them several months to process it before saying anything more on the topic. Then I would slowly raise it casually in conversation (e.g. "Chris saw the therapist for the first time today") and gradually require more out of them in terms of talking about it, etc. But I don't really know. We just visited and probably won't see them in person again for many months.

3. How explicit should I be of our expectations for them? What I really hope is that they do their best to inform themselves about what it all means, and (even if they don't understand) try to accept Chris as he (or maybe eventually she) is. And make it so that I can bring Chris when I visit without horrible awkwardness. But should I give a timeline? Is that too dictator-like? Will that alienate them even more?

4. Why am I so nervous about this? It's almost worse than when I came out myself, even though it's not me facing a personal rejection this time.

5. Any other general advice? We both don't really have a lot of perspective on this at this point.

Thanks, and sorry this was so long, it just felt like all these details were important.

My throwaway email is:
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I think you're nervous because you love Chris so much and it would hurt you terribly for him to be hurt by your parent's rejection. I understand completely. Absolutely normal protective instinct.

As a parent myself, I would have one question first and foremost in my mind.... "Will they still have children?" I should imagine that even though it's nobody's business it will be something that will worry them. If you could bring that up reasonably soon in the conversations it might stop a lot of anxiety. Even if the answer isn't one they want to hear.

All the best to you and your true love.
posted by taff at 4:24 AM on August 13, 2009

Honestly, if I were your parent I would worry that you were "putting on a brave face" and trying to accept something that you didn't originally sign up for. I'd want you to emphasize something you said here, that you've always known about his identity and it's not something he "did" to you. It would make all the pieces come together for me, too, if I knew that actually you identify yourself primarily as gay, but bi only in the case of Chris, who actually is a female who got the wrong private parts.

As a parent who really likes Chris, I'd also have some worries about the meds and surgeries for Chris, wanting to know how it will affect his long-term health. And, I'd want to know that Chris will be ok at his job (won't be ostracized at work, or lose his job).

I'd want to have the door open to some follow-up questions. I mean, I'd want you to say it's ok to come to you with questions, and that no question is dumb. For example, I might be confused that he's trying the hormones, but is not yet decided about the surgery. Or I might have questions about the timeframes involved. Things like that.

I think I'd want to be reminded that it's ok to be surprised, but that love and acceptance is of course what's wanted. But, I wouldn't want to be given a deadline for getting there, as I'd want you to trust me that I would get there, and pretty quick. It would just take me a few minutes (or maybe days) to get my head wrapped around the whole thing -- not because it's a "bad" thing, but because it's a surprising thing.
posted by Houstonian at 4:47 AM on August 13, 2009 [19 favorites]

I don't have any answers for you, anon, but just wanted to pop in and say 2 things: One, that you sound remarkably emotionally mature about all this, which is obviously not an easy thing to go through - I wish you the best of luck and really hope it works out for you both. And two, that I agree completely with Houstonian - those are exactly the questions I'd want answered as a parent, plus the grandchild question of course.
posted by widdershins at 6:04 AM on August 13, 2009 [3 favorites]

If I was your parent, I would be concerned for the future of your marriage as the whole thing played out. For that reason, I think it would be helpful to postpone telling them until it is a done deal and he starts taking hormones and living as a she. Knowing that my kid is OK with it as a done deal would do a lot for me. Otherwise, the will-he-or-won't-he thing would cause me (as your fake parent) some distress.
posted by crazycanuck at 6:27 AM on August 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

My experience with this is that parents are unpredictable. I thought my parents would freak out when I told them my partner was transitioning, and they totally took it in stride. Of course, he was FtM, and so, for them, that moved us into a more conventional relationship which they have seemed more comfortable with, but still...

One thing I learned both from coming out to my parents as a lesbian and then years later telling them about my partner's gender transition is that it can be important not to talk too much too soon. When I came out a lesbian, I had this whole thing of wanting to tell them everything I thought they should know, and it was too much for them at that time, and made them think I was telling them how to feel. So when I told them about the gender transition, I started with just the basic facts, made it clear I was open to further discussion, and went from there. We haven't discussed it in depth, ever, but we have had a couple of conversations about it over the years.

One reaction I got from lesbian friends was the assumption that I would leave him, and in some cases pressure to do so. Over time, as they saw how happy and well he was, and how strong our relationship was, everyone came around and some even became trans advocates. So one thing I would say is that, whatever happens in the short term, keeping the relationship going on the best terms possible in the moment can lead to great things in the long term.
posted by not that girl at 7:40 AM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Dear Anonymous,

I think some combination of carazycanuck and not that girl.

Your parents are far away. I maybe see some scenario where Chris dresses conventionally on those infrequent visits to your home town, yet as he physically transitions, things finally get to a point where you must raise the topic with your parents. By that time, they'll have noticed a marked difference in Chris, but also that your relationship is still very happy, and the whole thing will be a lot more natural and a lot easier to accept. Similar, I imagine, to the process that is going on internally and externally for you and Chris at the same time.

Hmm. Synergy. I like that!

One step at a time. This is what I counsel.

Also, you have no control over what your parents' friends think, or what your parents decide to tell them. I think that worry is something for your parents to wrestle with, and not you. I have no doubt they will do/say whatever makes them most comfortable. Have some faith! They raised you well, after all:) They can handle it all when the time comes.

posted by jbenben at 11:10 AM on August 13, 2009

An additional complication is that they live in the town I grew up in, which is very small and fairly conservative. My parents are very well known and many people know and still ask about me. So even if they were okay with things, Chris getting a sex change would put them in many difficult social situations; in fact, I think they would probably have more social fallout than we would (we live in a fairly open-minded metropolis, and many of our friends either know already or will probably be okay with it when we tell them). I feel bad about this, but don't see any way to stop it.

This is going to likely be a big factor for them to wrap their heads around. And honestly, they'll very likely scared that they will find Chris's appearance embarrassing, and they won't know what to do. Plus, they'll be anxious about answering nosy questions while figuring out their own feelings. They likely have very little idea of what MtF will look like, and popular culture is not kind on this front.

Head it off at the pass. I would recommend that you give them some sort of sign that they can give you when they want to ask an embarrassing or possibly rude (to their mind) question.

Good luck. Hopefully they will quickly realize that of all the things in the world that could occur in the life of their healthy, happy, loved daughter, this is not "that bad."
posted by desuetude at 10:09 PM on August 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I just watched a great documentary (streaming from that link, in whole, without commercials) which might help your conversation. It's about defining gender, and what makes us "male" and "female". It goes beyond the specific scope of male-to-female gender reassignment surgeries, but it is engaging, sympathetic, informative, and accessible. It might be just the thing to forward to your parents, to help them put all of this in a bigger context and understand some of the medical and legal thinking about transsexualism.
posted by Houstonian at 3:52 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

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