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Trans and Shock

A few days ago, my wife and I watched an episode of the Dr. Phil Show that had aired a couple of days earlier. His main guests were a young transsexual woman, her wife, and the uncle who had raised her as a son since early childhood. Both wife and uncle are totally dumfounded by the revelation that she considers herself a heterosexual woman and wants to physically transition. And I cannot blame them.

There are no boundaries in our society more rigidly defined than those of gender. Until recently, gender and sex were considered identical and both were definitively determined by genitals and chromosomes. Once you knew what people had between their legs, you could infer their interests, appropriate occupations, modes of dress, behavior, and expected roles in both family and society. But now along come some psychologists and a bunch of confusing people like me who try to turn your whole world upside down.

When it is not just your world but also your individual life, as in the case of the wife and uncle on the Dr. Phil show, it is easy to understand how shocking and even devastating it could be. What is suddenly jerked out from under you is not just your assumption about your loved one’s gender. Because of the extreme importance attached to gender by society, it can seem, at least at first, that the whole person you thought you knew is really someone else. What can ultimately save a relationship is the realization that even though the person’s gender is not what you had thought, he or she really is the same person he or she always was and the same person you knew and loved. That realization is what enabled my own wife to accept and support me in the amazing way that she has. But it must be harder for some people than for others. The degree of difficulty could be influenced by many aspects of one’s own background and personality, and perhaps also by certain facts about the trans person. Realizing that I was the same person as before may have been facilitated by the fact that I do not desire to change either my anatomy or my appearance and that my sexual orientation is still toward women.

Whatever the details of our own gender experience, I think that transsexual people need to understand that our gender identity issues are not just difficult for us. They are also difficult for the people close to us. It usually takes us quite a while to understand our situation, so we should not expect others to understand it overnight. Changing people’s concept of something as deeply rooted as gender is a huge undertaking. I think it needs to be done, not only for transgender people but also for all the other people who are victims of arbitrary and unrealistic gender expectations and stereotypes. But it will be a long, slow process and it must be done one step at a time, with a sense of gratification every time we can help someone transcend one of the boundaries that confine and restrict us both as individuals and as a society.

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