Managing the emotional load of being open about my gender identity
August 2, 2016 6:55 PM   Subscribe

I'm AMAB nonbinary (probably) and working towards being open about my gender identity, both online and in real life. It's going about as well as could reasonably be expected, but I'm exhausted by feeling unable to stop thinking about gender. Advice would be appreciated.

It's been very clear to me for a long time that I'm not really cisgendered, but I'm also not binary identified, and for years I've struggled to accept that the way I feel is legitimate. For the longest time I've worried that it's just something I made up to feel like a special snowflake (nonbinary erasure is a real thing, I guess), and it's only very recently that I've been able to come out to myself. Having reached this point, I've realised I the status quo is unsustainable, and I need to be a little more open about my gender. My primary concern is that the closet is very stressful and my kids are picking up on it: my emotions are too visible and too raw. Even though my distress is never directed at them I think it makes the kids anxious, and I'm really not okay with that. That's the big reason for doing this - parenting concerns have sort of forced my hand here.

The thing I'm struggling with right now is the emotional toll of the process. Obviously, a natural way to address this is to seek professional assistance, and I'm looking into my options on that front. It'll be a little while before I can start with that though, and I really want to be able to get a little self-control back, if for no other reason than it's making me less effective as a parent and in my work.

To give a sense of what's happening, I've started allowing small hints of feminine performance into my behaviour and appearance, but because the norms about male presentation are so very narrow, even the tiniest hint of femininity draws a lot of attention and occasionally hostility (e.g., I made a mistake a little while back, forgot I've partly dropped the male camouflage and nearly got assaulted on public transport). All my old terrors about being at risk of violence from men are coming back, even though I know that most men are totally safe. On top of that though I'm finding that the little hints of femininity that I'm allowing into my presentation are causing women to treat me differently too. They'll start conversations with me, occasionally make physical contact (definitely not sexual, it's just friendly), share more than they otherwise would, etc. It's not their fault either, but that has me really rattled too. Partly because I'm super angry that these are the same people who would have been aggressively lecturing me about male privilege before I started coming out, but also because this sudden friendliness from strangers brings back some uncomfortable memories and is provoking a fear response that probably looks really weird to the people around me (I mean, no-one expects men to be scared of women, and no-one really expects terror to be the response at tiny physical contact). Thankfully at least it's only terrifying when it's a total stranger - I haven't been having that response when my friends and acquaintances are friendly to me!

So there's a lot of fear and anger here, and I'm exhausted and off-balance trying to control it. One thing that I've found really helpful is the fact that I recently outed myself to a few cis people largely by accident, and they were supportive and not especially interested in my gender identity per se. Like I'm not exotic or interesting, just ordinary and boring. Which is kind of what I'm aiming for, and it's really helped to counterbalance the alienation I'm feeling in almost every other context.

In any case, what I'm looking for here are tips about how to manage this emotional load (besides the obvious "get help" point, which I'm already looking into). There are a lot of different aspects to what's happening here, and it's wearing me down. As much as I'd like to have the luxury of going easy on myself and taking the time I need to get myself together, my job still needs to be done (I'm so fucking useless at work right now) and the kids still need parenting. I really need to stop thinking about gender so much, otherwise I'm going to end up creating new problems for myself. How have other people addressed this when coming out about gender identity? Are there any non-obvious tips for managing this or is this yet another one of those "just keep muddling along, it gets easier" things?
posted by the existence of stars below the horizon to Human Relations (9 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Do you have trans/queer friends to talk thing through with? And/or put on eyeliner or paint your nails with? It's not clear from reading how many folks you have in your life who you're "out" too (to whatever degree), but I've found it's a lot easier to play with gender with friends than alone (also helps with the public safety thing, too).

If not, maybe looks into trans/non-binary support groups in your area if those are options? If that's not an option, maybe try journaling through some feelings, either in an actual journal or online? There are diff. pockets of non-binary folks on the internet you might find community/friendship with, too. Mine's on Tumblr, but it definitely skews younger.

Sending you good vibes! Feel free to PM me if you want to chat more.
posted by kylej at 7:15 PM on August 2, 2016

Can you mive up your timeline for counseling? Therapy coukd really help your process these emotions.

Meditation could also help you navigate these uncomfortable feelings without getting overwhelmed. It sucks our society has such a narrow view of masculinity.
posted by Kalmya at 8:07 PM on August 2, 2016

Best answer: AFAB non-binary person checking in. I highly, highly recommend finding a group of fellow NBs/enbies to talk with regulary, in whatever mode makes sense for you: in-person, online, by phone, whatever. If you can't find other enbies, a more general trans support group may also be helpful. (I've found binary folks say and do things that make me want to shake them by their collars. As a result, I can't relax in those spaces. YMMV.)

Another thing that was helpful for me was finding forms of entertainment where I could see / hear / read about characters with atypical genders and gender expressions. Steven Universe is all the rage with the trans/enby youth I know. I cried with happiness when a secondary character in the Seraphina book series explains their culture's six recognized genders. Just being able to see myself in these stories (and not as a tragic figure) had a much bigger impact that I could have expected.

Unfortunately I don't have any tips for how you can think less about gender. I think about gender all the time, every day, because the world is full of reminders that we are not supposed to exist. Having people to talk to on a regular basis definitely helped me manage how overwhelming those feelings could be. Whenever something happened, I'd roll my eyes and think to myself "I can't wait to talk about this in group." This first couple of weeks I was constantly on the edge of tears. After a month or so, by the time group came around, I'd have forgotten most of what had happened that week and was much less stressed.
posted by zebra at 8:36 PM on August 2, 2016 [5 favorites]

As a parent, I can tell you, your children's needs come before your own. Your relationship with them will affect future generations. Get counseling immediately so that you can shift your focus to them. They do not need to be burdened with adult issues. You do sound depressed and like you may be suffering from ptsd. Medication and therapy can help with both of those things. Getting yourself healthy is the first step to feeling okay about who you are.

Not everyone is going to like you. This is true for everyone and not at all gender specific. You have to find accepting, loving people to be in your life and ignore the haters. This takes time and is nearly impossible to do while you are suffering from depression. Medication and therapy first, and then things will fall into place.
posted by myselfasme at 6:17 AM on August 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh gosh, I am a big fan of medication and therapy, but nothing about what you're saying makes you sound depressed per se, or like you have PTSD - your reactions are perfectly normal and healthy ones to a stressful situation. That doesn't mean that you don't have some mental health stuff going on, of course - lots of people do, particularly people who have to deal with highly stressful situations - but I'd be very careful of trying to pathologise your responses to things or reaching for medical solutions over practical and environmental ones. I agree you need other trans and ideally NB people to be around. I can't recommend tumblr enough as an environment where being nonbinary is normalised and, in fact, super common. I wouldn't necessarily go for the specifically trans or social justice corners - it's much better to find the little pockets where you can talk about your favourite books or tv series or whatever. If you're particularly into philosophical debate* and discussion I'd gently nudge you towards the rationalist-adjacent segment of tumblr as a place where I know for a fact that there happen - for reasons that aren't very clear to anyone, really - to be a whole load of AMAB trans folks of various degrees of binariness. But yeah, otherwise just go for what you like - for my part I mostly hang out on the section of tumblr that obsessively talks about [name of cultural work redacted] and sure, there are cis people, just... not many.

*look I don't know how to summarise the interests of this group really. It's not at all the same as the rationalist community you've probably heard about, although it grew out of that.
posted by Acheman at 7:22 AM on August 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Counterpoint: put on your own oxygen mask first, so you can take care of your kids. Are your kids already in a supportive environment? One reason I joined a local UU church was because I wanted my kids to have support regarding gender and sex issues (not conflating the two, but both separately are addressed well in supportive community). I wonder if helping the kids get plugged into a supportive environment that normalizes nonbinary gender expression would help them feel more grounded and more able to support you.

And, though I came into the thread to say "put on your own oxygen mask first," I will also say that if you're looking for distractions from thinking about gender all the time, pouring energy into your kids (or fostering dogs, or volunteering, or whatever floats your boat) might be an effective way to retrain your brain away from always gender, all the time.
posted by instamatic at 7:26 AM on August 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

because the norms about male presentation are so very narrow, even the tiniest hint of femininity draws a lot of attention and occasionally hostility

I know this is true in general; do you also live in a very socially conservative area? If yes, if it were me, I'd be thinking about moving somewhere less rigid about enforcing traditional gender roles. If not a different city, a different neighbourhood. (I'm a slightly tallish [cis] woman with just short hair right now and a preference for a certain style of clothes; when I visit my parents in the land of long blonde layers, I definitely get certain kinds of looks; have been misgendered, in uncomfortable ways, when I've worn jeans and loose-fit tees without makeup. I swear, it is just the hair that is causing people's wires to short-circuit there. It's not like that where I live, which is one reason I live here. No one cares.) Think about moving somewhere the social pressure won't be as intense.

Re being frustrated with strange women being nicer, the hypocrisy you sense: the thing is that people don't know your whole history, they just know what you present to them at that moment. Until now, you've presented as the kind of person who might (on a balance of probabilities, depending on other factors) engage in the type of violence you yourself fear. And you know why you fear it, it's because it's scary. Now, you're signalling that you're (probably) not a threat in that way. For whatever reasons, a lot of women do feel freer to talk openly and intimately with men who display more culturally feminine behaviours or signs. And I think there is a kind of (stereotyped, obviously) template for those exchanges - more touching, etc. I think a lot of men who've lived in the habitus you're entering have got years of negotiating it behind them; if they don't want to follow the template, they know to assert boundaries (e.g. physically stand back, disengage politely, cut it off early). Practice those kinds of techniques.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:23 AM on August 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

My primary concern is that the closet is very stressful and my kids are picking up on it: my emotions are too visible and too raw. Even though my distress is never directed at them I think it makes the kids anxious, and I'm really not okay with that

Have you explicitly told your kids "It's not you"?

My kids knew from the get go that bad things happened in my childhood. By the time I felt comfortable specifying it was sexual abuse, they had already figured that out for themselves. (Most anticlimactic conversation of my life. Me: "BIG DRAMATIC REVEAL!" Kids: "Yeah, we know, mom. Was there anything more you wanted to tell us?" Me. "Um. No. That was it." Kids: "Okay, conversation over. We have video games to play.")

When I was put on steroids for health issues and became ill tempered and shreiky, I just told my kids "Ugh. It isn't you. It is a drug side effect. Ignore it." And then my kids knew how to navigate the situation.

I had very clear boundaries concerning my personal baggage. My kids did not feel burdened by my crap. I just made it really, really clear that "Mom has personal issues" and communicated enough for them to know how to cope with me. That did not require me to get into "adult" topics that I felt were inappropriate.

Some other examples of setting boundaries with my kids:

"I do not think it is realistic for you to have a career in X. I think that is a childish fantasy that you will outgrow. But feel free to prove me wrong. Don't let my lack of vision stop you."

"I have the worst headache. It is okay to bounce, but do not do it within ten feet of me. That will get you in trouble."

It is possible to walk around trying to figure out how to sort your crap without hanging it on others every step of the way. That can give you time to fumble around and be imperfect without damaging the kids.

posted by Michele in California at 12:05 PM on August 3, 2016

Response by poster: Thank you all. This is helpful - I think it's clear that I need to find (or create) a few spaces where I can grumble about gender without having to manage the feelings of cis (and other binary) folks at the same time as I sort through my own worries. That would probably buy me a lot. Counselling will probably help there too, once I finally manage to get it going - there are some external constraints involved here. On the parenting side, yes, the kids definitely know that it's not them, and I'm pretty open about saying "daddy is feeling sad right now" and trying to provide an example of how they can handle their own emotions (with mixed success - it mostly works but I'm just a little too raw right now to do it cleanly, hence the need for some other outlet). Where I'm cautious is recognising their limitations - young kids can't be expected to be circumspect, so if I'm out at home then I have to be willing to be out to the neighbourhood, and I need to make sure that doesn't have blowback for the kids (or for me!). No-one wins if the kids get bullied or I get assaulted. On the plus side, I live in a pretty lefty area and one well-known for celebrating weirdness, so I'm reasonably optimistic that this can be managed. It's just a slow process. Again, thanks.
posted by the existence of stars below the horizon at 4:18 PM on August 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

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