From the time they are born, children are taught that there are girls and there are boys. But our history books, like our communities, are rich with people who have blurred, blended or crossed those lines.
While gender is traditionally presented to us as either male or female — mutually exclusive and unchangeable opposites — the truth is that gender is a rich, broad spectrum that comes in as many forms as there are people.
For many, expressing gender is unconscious. It’s as simple as styling your hair or tying a tie. It causes no angst or uncertainty. But for those whose gender identity or innate sense of their own gender doesn’t match with that assigned to them at birth, unraveling and expressing it can be complex and difficult. Many of these individuals come to identify as “transgender,” an umbrella term that describes a wide range of people who experience or express their gender in different, sometimes non-traditional ways.
Those of us who identify as transgender must make deeply personal decisions about when and even whether to disclose and be open about who we are with ourselves and others — even when it isn’t easy. We express that openness by being our full and complete selves among our friends, our family, our co-workers and, sometimes, even strangers. Each of us makes decisions about meeting this challenge in our own way and in our own time. Throughout the process of self-discovery and disclosure, you should always be in the driver’s seat about how, where, when and with whom you choose to be open.
Because of societal restraints, being out as transgender is not always easy, but it’s also the only way to educate others about gender identity and expression. Facing possible rejection and even violence, transgender people must continue coming out to friends, family, co-workers and community members so that they can, in turn, become more accepting and supportive.
The Human Rights Campaign Foundation hopes these resources, along with our Transgender Visibility Guide, help you meet the challenges and opportunities that living as authentically as possible can offer to each of us. While this guide is primarily for transgender people who are in the early stages of disclosure, some of us may confront the issue again after transitioning, among new friends, family and co-workers.
Coming Out as Transgender to Oneself
From birth, most of us are raised to think of ourselves as fitting into a certain mold. Our culture and often our families teach us that we are “supposed to” look, act and carry ourselves in certain ways.
Few of us were told that we might have a gender identity that differs from the body into which we were born or that we might feel compelled to express our gender in ways that aren’t traditionally associated with the gender we were assigned at birth.
That’s why so many of us are scared, worried or confused when facing these truths in ourselves. We can spend a lifetime attempting to hide it, hoping against hope that it’s not true or that it might someday simply go away.
There is no one moment when it’s “right” to be open with yourself. Some transgender people have long struggled to live the lives they think they’re supposed to live instead of the lives they know they were meant to live. And some come to question or recognize their gender identities and expressions suddenly.
Transgender people come out during all stages and walks of life — when they’re children or teens; when they’re seniors; when they’re married, when they’re single; when they have children of their own.
Some transgender people come out simply by having the courage to be different. This can range from women who express themselves in traditionally masculine ways to men who do things that are generally considered feminine. For them, there is often no question of disclosure. They live openly and authentically by simply embracing their difference.
Throughout the disclosure process, it’s common to feel:
Coming Out to Family as Transgender
There are some similarities between what transgender people and gay, lesbian and bisexual people face when coming out to family members. Both groups are likely to fear that their parents will reject them after they come out. If you’re still living at home, you might be afraid that they will throw you out of the house or stop paying for college. Family members might tell you you're immoral, end communications or simply stop loving you.
While it's true that many parents are shocked when their children come out to them, it is also true that for many parents, it's very hard to permanently reject their children. Parents might react in ways that hurt. Some cry, get angry or shut down emotionally. Some try to send their child to counselors or therapists in attempts to change their child. Many go through a cycle of anger and loss that for some eventually turns into acceptance.
Remember that your parents grew up in a time when some of the misperceptions about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people were more prevalent than they are today, and many of those that concern transgender people still persist. Remember, too, that they probably think they are trying to keep you safe from something they don’t understand. It’s important to give your family time to adjust to the news. There's really no set schedule for how long it takes parents to adjust. Some take months. Some take years. And, of course, some have known all along.
Many people will have questions when you come out to them. You might want to be prepared by having information about gender identity and expression to give them. Researching local support groups for parents and families of transgender people is helpful, too. Many communities have local chapters of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, which has a PFLAG Transgender Network called T-NET. T-NET is not a chapter of PFLAG, but rather a special affiliate that focuses on promoting the health and well-being of transgender people and their families and friends. They produce a booklet, Our Trans Children, that your parents may find helpful in understanding what you have just told them.
After coming out to their families, some transgender people find that their relatives can be some of their most supportive and dedicated advocates.
Coming Out in the Workplace as Transgender
Some transgender people who wish to disclose this truth about themselves to others have reached a breaking point in their lives where it's too difficult to hide who they are any longer. Transgender people often feel compelled to share who they are in order to build stronger and more authentic relationships with those closest to them. This is particularly true at school and at work, where we consistently spend a majority of our waking lives with certain other people.
While there are benefits, there can also be serious risks and consequences involved. The decision is yours and yours alone. It's important to weigh both risks and rewards before making a choice to tell others.
Some benefits of disclosure:
- Living an authentic and whole life
- Reducing the stress of hiding our identity
- Being more productive at work
- Developing closer, more genuine relationships with colleagues, customers and clients
- Building self-esteem from being known for who we really are
- Having authentic and open friendships with other transgender people
- Becoming a role model for others
Some risks/consequences of coming out:
- Not everyone will be understanding or accepting
- Family, friends and co-workers may be shocked, confused or even hostile
- Some relationships may permanently change
- You may experience harassment, discrimination or violence
- You may lose your job
Remember, there's no right or wrong way to disclose being transgender or to live openly. It may not mean you have to be out at all times or in all places. You have the right and the responsibility to decide how, where, when and even whether to share your identity with others, based on what's right for you.
It's important to take inventory of the risks involved with being out at work. Coming out on the job has the potential to affect your livelihood, since there is no federal law that protects you from being fired because of your gender identity. However, many states, cities and counties have laws or ordinances that prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and expression. Additionally, a number of other states interpret their existing non-discrimination laws to protect transgender people. It's important to know the law in your city or state before coming out at work.
Additionally, more corporations and businesses in the private sector are beginning to cover gender identity and expression in their non-discrimination policies. A growing number of private sector employers include gender identity in their non-discrimination policies, including the majority of Fortune 100 companies.
If you are transgender, you may wish to discuss your personal situation with a trusted manager, supervisor or human resources professional before coming out to co-workers.
Marriage and Coming Out as Transgender
One of the biggest reasons transgender people don’t disclose being transgender is fear of how a partner or spouse will react. They wonder if their spouse will ask for a divorce or if their partner will suddenly stop loving them.
The good news is that love is hard to stop suddenly. But even a relationship built on the strongest love may confront insurmountable challenges when a partner discloses being transgender. In these cases, separation may be inevitable. A husband or wife may find it difficult to trust a spouse who has kept their feelings secret, or that they’re no longer able to have a romantic relationship with a partner who is transitioning. But there are many others who discover that they can. More and more couples and families are staying together through transition, and disclosing that you’re transgender to those you love the most doesn’t have to lead to separation.
Before disclosing to a partner or spouse, it’s important to remember that they’ll need time and patience — just as you’d expect time and patience while working through your own feelings. Counseling can be helpful to many couples, as can talking with other couples who have been through similar situations.