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#844: “Bracing myself for when conservative relatives find out about my gender transition.”

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.

Thanks,

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).

Love,

Your Dad”

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.

 

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56 comments
  1. Clodia said:

    No advice from this cis chick, just wanted to wish the LW happiness in their transition! Hugs to you, hugs to your parents, and hugs to your friends.

  2. solecism said:

    If your aunts have a tendency to dump their feelings all over your mom for her to manage, maybe talk to your mom about screening/hiding their phone calls/texts/emails/FB comments/wevs. Or redirecting them to your dad, their brother, so he takes on some of the emotional labor for his asshole relatives. This might be a good opportunity to reevaluate and shift family dynamics overall, not just as a temporary measure.

    Congratulations on the transition and generally positive and supportive response! Sounds like you are rocking your agender life (from someone who feels pretty androgynous but hasn’t done much than haircuts about it).

    • If I were the LW, I’d even consider blocking and giving her mom time to block them from reaching her or her mom, so the aunts don’t dump baggage and 101 questions on them, and must instead direct their comments directly to your dad, who is their kin. Let your supportive dad help! He may welcome the chance to do so. You know best if this is a practical option.

      And LW, I support you. ❤

      • rhythla said:

        I’m pro-blocking preemptively.

        My mom blamed my cousin for a lot of things that she considered “behavior/attitude problems” in me and my sister (which were obviously not my cousin’s fault), so whenever she was mad at us, she would send a nasty email to my cousin. She even sent the nasty to my cousin’s mom once. After years of therapy (her father, my mom’s brother, is a terrible father and an asshole), her therapist asked her, “well, what do YOU get out of that side of your family?” My cousin finally realized “not enough to tolerate that kind of behavior any longer” and blocked my mom’s email.

        She rarely comes to family events, or she will only come when my sister or I are around to buffer (which we gladly do because we love her). My dad was lamenting that my cousin isn’t “involved” with the family anymore, and I snapped saying, “why should she? Aside from me and [my sister], no one else has been kind to her in years! And mom has been nothing but nasty to her, blaming her for things that are not her fault in any way.” He pulled the “but faaaamily” card, to which I replied, “she HAS a family – her FIANCEE and her mom’s family. She doesn’t need this/our family that treats her like crap.” It finally hit him and he talked to my mom about it, whose “feelings were hurt,” but I just don’t GAF.

        Anyway.

        Yes, your mom should block your aunts in advance. And your father should buffer you and your mom and your aunts should choose to behave like decent human beings if maintaining “closeness” is so important to them.

  3. roramich said:

    I really appreciate the Captain’s reframing in her answer regarding who needs to be responsible for appropriate behavior. It’s not all on you, or your mom, LW. Congrats and good luck!

  4. MoragLachlanMaclachlan said:

    LW, I wish you all the best. I’m so glad your parents are supportive. 🙂

  5. Congratulations on your new sense of freedom. It is a wonderful thing that you have so many on Team You.

    I find myself crafting gaslight scenarios where your Mom & Dad say things to the nasty relatives like, “What do you mean? LW hasn’t changed a bit!” Photoshopped baby pictures. And so forth. But gaslighting is never a good thing.

    This is not just a bridge too far for them, it’s a whole continent. And it is beyond the abilities of anyone to “manage this” in any way that will get them to not be nasty.

    So I love the Captain’s approach which is designed to deflect the bad feelings they want to inflict on you. Remember, if they make you or your folks feel badly, then they have succeeded in their evil plan.

    Thwart all evil plans. SHIELDS UP. Activate your Shrugging Deflector and the Tractor Beam of Laughter, which brings us all closer.

    • LeighTX said:

      The Photoshopped baby pictures idea made me laugh out loud.

    • Adrian said:

      It’s not gaslighting to say “What do you mean? LW hasn’t changed a bit! She’s still the same kind, generous person we raised her to be.” (Or perhaps “as good an engineer,” or “as talented a piano player” or whatever your thing is.) It’s just another deflector.

  6. This is all really good advice! I also have a few of the Mean Female Relatives who will do an end-run around any men to heap emotional responsibility on the nearest person of any other gender. IME if your dad can place himself as a firewall between your aunts and your mom, there’s a good chance they’ll just…stop, rather than be nasty to him? Like if they call or email your mom, the best outcome might be for her to pass them directly back to your dad, who can say exactly the same things your mom would (we’re happy for our child, they’re (/your pronoun) doing great, no one else sees this as a problem, etc), but get less pushback for it.

    I also medically transitioned quite a while before coming out to my less supportive extended family, and I’m happy to say the end result was anti-climactic. They’d realized *something* was up from my appearance, and it was eventually more of a relief for me to not bother tweaking my presentation to visit them anymore, and for them to stop biting their tongues with questions about my deepening voice and increasingly hard to hide stubble. Now we’re just as awkward and not close as before I came out! But with less effort on my part!

    Good luck to you, LW.

    • Kelly said:

      Yeah, my reaction was that Dad needed to act as a buffer. Any calls from then should get picked up by him (even if it’s her cell phone) and any emails should be forwarded to him and he should respond. His family, his responsibility to deal with them (assuming he’s the one who wants them in their lives in the first place)

      • Solestria said:

        I also think it’s worth mentioning that if he fails to act as a buffer (and he should be that buffer!), then 1) nasty aunts’ reactions to LW’s mom are something that LW can’t control and has no responsibility to whatsoever, and 2) Mom can still shield LW from those reactions. Managing their extended family’s reactions toward their parents isn’t something LW should ever have to try to do.

  7. B. said:

    I really like the suggestion of having your dad act as a buffer. As they are his sisters, he really has more leverage than either your mom or you in getting them to listen.
    I also second that the relationship between your parents and the extended family is out of your ability to control. It’s theirs to manage, and nothing you say about your gender can be blamed for strained ties. There’s usually a fair bit of pressure on LGBT* people to stay closeted so as not to “rock the boat”, but it’s not your fault how they choose to react to new information. Everyone involved is an adult provided with a package of Manners and able to conduct themselves civilly in a conversation.
    That said, if anyone proves to be incable of basic respect, I like this script:
    Them: “Rudeness”
    You: “Wow, that was really rude”
    Say it in a flat/disaproving tone, as if you were correcting a toddler’s gross misbehaviour. Keep a disappointed stare fixed on them and let the awkwardness *strecht* over the conversation.
    Good luck, LW! 🙂

  8. LeighTX said:

    LW, I have nothing to add to the awesome advice already given, I just want to say I wish you all the best, and I hope everyone in your life is as supportive and kind as your parents and coworkers have been. This must have been a difficult road for you at times and I hope it’s very smooth from here on out!

  9. Dear LW,

    How excellent a Team LW you have!

    I’m with the Captain and other posters in suggesting that handling the mean aunts shouldn’t be your problem. I’m not as sanguine as the Captain about getting your father to do his own emotional work however.

    I suspect that you (and maybe your mother) will be less close to these aunts for a while. Unless I’m wrong, and they just ignore any changes in presentation.

    Good luck to you.

  10. Jynnan_Tonnyx said:

    As a non-binary person myself, I wish you luck, LW! I’m not really entirely out to my family, either (and being that I’m DFAB, it definitely seems to be a bit easier to fly under the radar, so to speak, even as my presentation has become increasingly masculine), and for much the same reason as you. Most of my family, including my folks, are very religious and socially conservative. So no real advice here, just lots of good vibes!

    • nottakennotavailable said:

      Same boat here in the DFAB-now-nonbinary, only my family is culturally Jewish (read: mostly atheist) and liberal, so I do kick myself every so often for struggling to come out. Probably I’ll just try to avoid the conversation entirely unless someone asks me about it.

      • Majikkani_Hand said:

        Don’t kick yourself too hard! My family members are straight-up atheists who claim (mom kind of isn’t) to be very LGBT-friendly, and were fine with their DFAB child being a lesbian, but my (admittedly haphazard) attempts at identifying as non-binary have been met with…just…ALL the resistance. There’s a very “get back in your box so you can be successful” vibe, and while I understand that practically speaking, it’s harder to present in ways that aren’t cisnormative (if that’s the right word) and still be, say, hired, even in a state where discrimination on those grounds is illegal, it’s still really irritating to have them slap those barriers down even in private family interactions and just essentially pretend it’s a phase and I never said anything. I really hope your family is better about it, though–there ARE lots of supportive people out there and they might turn out to be in that category!

        (Actually, mom did the same thing when I insisted that no, actually, I liked vagina, thanks. It took years and a girlfriend before she finally caved. She still does stuff like mocking queer women’s haircuts on television and saying they’re ugly pointedly at me as I’m clearly admiring them, even while most of the time she treats my sexuality like no big deal. Isn’t family great?)

        • Majikkani_Hand said:

          (Realized right after I posted that “queer,” while it’s a fairly powerful word that denotes a lot of pride and inclusiveness in my geographical area, might still mean bad things to other people. Sorry if I upset somebody that way!)

      • It’s worth mentioning that my family is also culturally Jewish, and mostly atheist/secular. Religion hasn’t come up at all in any of my gender conversations with family, even with the couple of religious ones.

  11. Myrtle said:

    LW, your Dad chose to step away from the repressive, suffocating “values” his siblings are demonstrating when he chose your Mom.
    Chose.
    Sending you best wishes love and happiness.

  12. Jenny Islander said:

    I am cis myself, so grain of salt for this. I have heard secondhand that some people react positively, or at least less negatively, to a script like this:

    [Original first name of child] has suspected for some time that there was something not quite right about being known as a [assigned gender]. A doctor has confirmed that this is correct, and that our child is really more [actual gender]. [Correct gender pronoun] has undergone treatment for this mixup and we are happy to report that the treatment was successful! [[Correct gender pronoun] has chosen the new name of [new name goes here].] We are so proud and happy that our [old gender relationship term] has become our [new gender relationship term].

    This may be easier to understand for people who have been taught to get mad and stop thinking when they hear talk about coming out and transitioning.

    • Kai Y. Lowell said:

      Wow, I actually kind of like this. May I save it for ifwhen I eventually start the medical portion of my own transitioning?

      • Jenny Islander said:

        I didn’t come up with it, but sure!

        • Kai Y. Lowell said:

          Oho! Mind if I ask where it came from then?

          • Jenny Islander said:

            Somewhere…online. Years ago. Sorry, memory availeth not.

          • Kai Y. Lowell said:

            No worries. Just thought I’d ask. 🙂

    • Irene said:

      I’m confused about “a doctor has confirmed.” What would there be for a doctor to confirm? Why would that be necessary?

      • I think it just helps to get a resistant relative to grasp this as “legitimate.” It doesn’t have to be super-literal, it could just refer to the doctor who’s assisting with a transition (if that’s happening). Of course it can be left out if the individual isn’t comfortable with it!

      • Senri said:

        I took it as a white lie to discourage further questioning, not that a doctor had actually had the final word on anything, necessarily.

      • B said:

        I guess if they had surgery or hormone therapy or other medical tretment that would require a doctor to at least confirm they’re an appropriate candidate for it (but kinda leaves those who aren’t interested or can’t do that SOL)

      • maggiebea said:

        From my perspective, I have a number of relatives who won’t take my word for anything — after all, I’m younger so what would I know? But a Certified Expert, now — wins every time. “The doctor said …” or “My real estate agent said … ” or “My lawyer thinks …” all end the whole we-know-better-than-you conversation every time.

        • Flynn said:

          Yeah, this. “I have X issue that is clear looking at literally everything in my entire life” gets heard as “I am looking for excuses to explain a thing I have always been like, because I always liked to pretend I felt/did certain things certain ways as excuses” (let us all facepalm in unison here), *unless* I wave a doctor’s note, at which point it just Is and the discussion shifts from ‘whether I have it at all’ to ‘what does that mean’. I think people mentally assume you just walk into a doctor’s office, they scan you with their X-Ray vision eyes and print a list of all your anomalies out their mouth and its unarguable fact and from that point forward, you Have X.

          (Genderqueer here, with some neurotypical & health issues that I’ve been painstakingly self diagnosing, and watching a trans* friend go through their own early coming out process. Trans* stuff has WAY more stigma and trouble with acceptance and the reactions are much stronger, but a lot of the parallels really struck me).

          So yes, this sort of framing:

          – sidesteps all the cultural baggage, because it may take them awhile to even realise it *IS* they thing they might have Issues with, because honestly, if they knew what they were talking about, you wouldn’t be worrying about telling them
          – tells them it is an Official Thing (which does require Officialness) so skip straight to dealing with it as a thing
          – gives them a cultural context for reacting (as it’s not stuck over in it’s own vague ‘weird gender’ category, but under ‘health/family’

      • Impasto said:

        And ‘doctor’ can refer to therapists, too, not just MDs.

    • justlurkingasusual said:

      Use their ‘respect for authority’ against them! That’s awesomely devious!

  13. LW, I agree that it’s totally unfair to your mother than your dad’s relatives dump on her like that. Your dad needs to shut them down.

  14. So what’s the protocol for letter writers to write comments on their own letter?

    There’s some helpful stuff here, both in CA’s response and some of the comments. I’m not comfortable with putting the onus on my dad, though.

    I think I’ll provide CA’s suggested letter to both of my parents, and then continue with my original plan of a mass coming-out email. Hopefully it’ll be a non-event.

    Thanks, everyone.

    • JenniferP said:

      You are very welcome to comment. And to use only what (if anything) is useful to you! Mass emails are smart, but please don’t buy into the idea that a mean reaction from your aunts means that you have somehow failed at “closeness.” 💜💜💜

      • Thanks. I’ve never wanted to be close to these particular aunts, but it’s the familial fallout to my parents that I’m concerned about. Oh, and I forgot to mention we’re planning a family reunion in June, so there’s that…

        • Gaby said:

          In the grand scheme of things, I hope your parents love YOU more than your dad’s (asshole) sisters, so even if there is a falling out, your parents will still come away with loving and supporting their child, you, the family they chose and made together and raised to be a wonderful human being. Best of luck!

        • Fish said:

          😦
          I understand the concern about familial fallout upon your parents. I think it’ll happen, and your parents will have to manage that. And, it’ll probably suck extra for your mom. But, doing this is still worth it.

          An alternative approach could be to just do what you’re already doing with the mass email, but be extra nice to your mom for a little while to pick up some emotional load off of her if your aunts end up behaving as expected.

          Congratulations on your coming out!! 🙂 That is a wonderful point to reach.

        • Are Transition Announcements on fancy stationery a thing? If not, they should be! 🙂

          • DameB said:

            OMG yes.

          • That is a golden opportunity right there! Like birth announcements but cooler!

            I’m sure there’s something available online.

          • Izzy said:

            I read a clickbait story once about how this one trans teenager’s parents ran a birth announcement when he came out that said something like , “16 years ago, we had a daughter. But we just found out we were wrong! We have a son! This is great! We’re very pleased to announce $KidsName!”

          • Jenny Islander said:

            @Izzy: Was that the one that ended: “We love you very much, [correctly gendered name]. Now go clean your room.”

    • solecism said:

      Thanks for checking in and the update! Totally understand not wanting to put the onus on dad. OTOH, he may want to take on that role, and it would be his choice to make. Dunno, you know your own family best. I guess I am just suggesting don’t fall into the trap of making other people’s choices for them because you are such a burden. Nope. Not a burden. Sounds like there’s a lot of love in your family, from your parents. I am glad they’re with you in this. I too hope that the whole coming out to extended family turns into a nonevent and that the reunion goes swimmingly from your perspective.

  15. Katie said:

    This shouldn’t be your responsibility, LW. Your dad should be stepping in to regulate his family, and your mom should be preventing the hate runoff from reaching you too. You’ve got a lot on your plate just with the microaggressions and ignorance that even well-meaning family can perpetrate. It’s awesome that you want to protect your mom, and you’ve chosen as an adult to do so, which is your right. I just want to stress that your family has apparently overlooked their bigotry and abusive behavior for years, and you as the most vulnerable person in this situation don’t have to fix their behavior while dealing with your own public transition. Please do avoid them, block them, or whatever works for you. Sending you all the best.

  16. Mel said:

    Possibly a bit late, but I have what I hope might be a useful story from my own family. My brother transitioned some years ago, and our father never did manage to accept it. To keep the family peace, my brother stayed away from family things where our father was involved and Dad skipped things that Brother wanted to attend – there was a weird negotiation of schedules, so that (for example) our parents came to help when my partner was sick, and my siblings came to her funeral. As a result, his first appearance among my parents’ friends was at our father’s funeral. And… nothing happened. A former colleague of my mother’s (a conservative state politician) asked “I thought you had two sisters?” to which I replied (as my brother had said he was happy with) “Oh, I used to, but [former name} transitioned ages ago. That’s him over there, with his wife and baby.” “Oh,” he said. “His daughter’s adorable!”

    We had all been braced for trouble, and there wasn’t any. There wasn’t any fallout in our mother’s social circle, the thing our father had so desperately feared. I hope you have an equally non-eventful coming out!

  17. BigdogLittlecat said:

    LW, more love and Jedi hugs, if acceptable. I’m so glad you have a good team on your side.
    Jedi hugs for your poor mother too.
    Perhaps she can learn the art of redirecting to the person the whiners are whining about: “LW is my child and I love and support them. If you have a problem with LW, then talk to LW.”
    You of course will have blocked them on all forms of media, so when they call your mother to complain about *that*, she can say, “Well, that’s still between you and LW.”

    I don’t think you’re putting the onus on your father to deal with anything, since your father has the choice to engage with them or not, same as you and your mother do. How much is your father willing to put up with to be “close” and whom does he value more, his child or his angry sisters?

    Best of luck and I hope you have a great new life!

  18. One of my nephews wasn’t even three years old when he first said he wanted to be a girl. By first grade he was lobbying to wear “girl” clothing* to school. (Fortunately the principal and teachers have been supportive.) B mostly wears dresses now, at home and elsewhere, puts barrettes in his hair, paints his nails and plays with dolls.

    Some of our conservative relatives were horrified. One of them said he didn’t know if that was “the kind of thing” he wanted around his grandson (whom he’s raising due to the mother’s drug issues). I said, um, the kid’s not a CONTAGION. He just is who he is.

    (Incidentally, the two boys played together and things were just fine except for a moment when B wore his pink sneakers. His cousin screamed, “Those are GIRL SHOES!” I responded, “What makes them ‘girl’ shoes? The fact that they’re pink? Did you know that pink used to be considered a ‘boy’ color?”** He was briefly startled to hear that, and life went on.)

    What I thought about later is this: Not that long ago, it would have been illegal for his grandson to have been born at all because he’s tri-racial — and even today plenty of people think they know all that they need to know about young N because of the way he looks. They dislike or fear him on sight because of his appearance. They might even wish to do him harm because they consider him bad or wrong.

    I’d like him to think about that and also to have a conversation — a real one, vs. harrumphing and bringing up the way things have “always” been — about why B’s choices bother him so much. I’d also like to point out, gently, that some people in the world might want to jeer at or even attack his grandsom (whom he adores) because of the way he looks.

    Me, I just want a world where my nephew can be whoever he is without fear or shame. His mom is getting him counseling — not to change the course of the river, but to teach him to navigate it safely.

    *B has an older brother and at one point I said to him how glad I was that he didn’t tease B about wearing girls’ clothing. Without batting an eye big bro said, “There’s no such thing as ‘girls’ clothes’.” Bless his heart.
    **http://www.npr.org/2014/04/01/297159948/girls-are-taught-to-think-pink-but-that-wasnt-always-so

  19. Update! Nearly everyone in my family has gotten back to me now. Of the two aunts I was worried about, the politically-conservative one said that my gender identity is just a passing fad (which I think is hilarious) but the religious one is being quite accepting. Everyone else has also shown an amazing level of support and acceptance, and my parents sent out a wonderful email to everyone with their thoughts on things as well.

    Life is good. 🙂

    • radiator said:

      That’s wonderful! I’m so pleased for you.

    • solecism said:

      Yay! Champagne (or effervescent beverage of choice) for everyone!

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