Dear Captain Awkward,
I’m 37 and DMAB but identify as agender tending towards feminine. I have long been socially “out” to my friends, and I medically transitioned years ago although I’ve maintained a male presentation. But that’s finally changing – as of now I am finally transitioning publicly and in my family and professional life. So far my immediate family and my coworkers are all being incredibly supportive, which is great! But one bit worry that my parents and I all have is regarding my extended family. Here are some of the issues:
- I haven’t been particularly close with most of my extended family, but my parents have been and really want to maintain a connection with them
- Most of my cousins and extended relations are fairly liberal, but I have a couple of aunts who are incredibly conservative and have expressed very strong transphobic beliefs in the past (“I hope they die of AIDS” is literally something one of them has said on several occasions – yikes!)
- So, there’s obviously a fine line to walk here. The big concern is that these conservative family members are all on my dad’s side, and they always accuse my mom of having “corrupted” everyone with her liberal beliefs. Usually when I say something that ends up upsetting my aunts, they end up emailing or calling her and heaping on the verbal abuse, and that’s completely unfair to her.
My mom and I, as such, both need a bunch of scripts for how to deal with the eventual fallout. I guess some of them wouldn’t hurt for my dad either. General tips for dealing with this situation would also be great.
The Agender Agenda
Dear Agender Agenda,
I’m so glad your parents & coworkers & immediate circle have your back, lovely Letter Writer. Unfortunately, your aunts sound like assholes and having/maintaining a close relationship with assholes is probably not possible.
I will also remind you (and everyone with a difficult family relationship) that phones, emails, planes, trains, & roads work both ways and maintaining “close” relationships requires participation from everyone in that relationship. Do these aunts ask about you? Come see you? Invite you to lunch sometimes? Remember your birthday? Know anything about you and your life? Behave in a loving way towards you and your mom, at all, like, ever? I’m really glad your parents are being supportive of you, but I think this idea of you “maintaining closeness” is an impossible condition to set, and I don’t think it’s on either you or your mom to do any work here. They’re your dad’s sisters, so why can’t your dad tell them what’s going on with you, and why can’t your dad be a shield for you against their initial reactions? And why can’t your aunts reach out to you with kindness, if they are so concerned with “closeness?”
I realize that probably reframes a lot of assumptions about how your family works and what’s easy for me to argue isn’t so easy for you to do. But I want to challenge the assumption that you have to audition for a place in your own family, or the assumptions that your parents have that “maintaining closeness” is something that’s within your sole power or responsibility to do.
If your dad wants things to go smoothly with his side of the family, I’d suggest a script for your dad that contains what you’d like your extended family on his side to know. Email or a card can work really well, since it gives people time to process privately before responding. Your dad could send something out like:
“Letter Writer (LW) has recently come out to us as agender, which means from now on they’ll be_______ (Using different pronouns/presenting with a more feminine appearance/using a different name/whatever specific stuff is useful & meaningful to you). I love LW so much and from where I’m sitting this is a very happy thing. LW recommends (links to websites that you think are useful) (BTW Buzzfeed is making some very blunt 101 “What not to say!” stuff that might head off some aggressive Aunt-questions at the pass) if you want to read more about agender & transgender people and avoid some of the common faux pas that people can make when a person first comes out. There’s nothing you really need to do right now, though I’m sure LW would appreciate hearing an encouraging word from you. We’ll see you at (next family gathering).
Maybe your aunts will surprise everyone, but if they don’t, your dad/their brother can be the first one they vent their displeasure on and he can be a buffer for you and your mom.
If the aunts do an end run around your dad and come at your mom with something insulting, her script can be “LW’s happy, we’re happy, what exactly is the problem?” Both your mom and your dad can help set expectations for what behavior is acceptable in their house and with regard to their kid, like, “Are you really going to ask a 37-year-old about their private parts and bathroom habits?” If they accuse your mom of “corrupting you” with her “liberal beliefs” then a good response is “I raised my child to be kind to other people and to not be a bigot. I hope you don’t mean that as an insult.”
Things might get ugly and gross when your aunts hear this news, but only if they behave poorly, which is a thing that they have choices about. There is literally nothing you and your mom can do to prevent poor behavior on their part, so, live your life without apology and let them come around with time (or not) as they will.