“There is no such thing as a Human Owner’s Manual.”
I say those words at the start of every talk or training that I give. I do so because it’s true: we have no big book filled with answers that we might resort to in times of self-doubt or uncertainty or fear.
Because of this, we’re often left to figuring things out through our own fragile devices. I call it “reading tea leaves” — if tonight’s moon is full and the North Star extra bright, and tomorrow’s temperature won’t exceed 43 degrees at the airport, then for sure I will make that big decision.
If you’re transgender, not having a Human Owner’s Manual has particular significance. After all, most of us have no idea how to handle gender dysphoria (the incongruity between brain and body) or how to deal with those who refuse to accept us as our “true” (brain-unified-with-body) selves.
It’s the latter quandary that I’ve been thinking about of late, largely because of a recent audience member’s question, to wit: “What advice do you have for a transgender person who’s lost people in their life?”
We trans humans commonly lose people. I can go to any gathering of transgender folks and simply ask, “Who have you lost?” and everyone will know that the question isn’t about loved ones or friends who have died. Rather, the common understanding would be this: who among the trans person’s family members, friends, or work colleagues has chosen not to recognize that person for whom they truly are? We’re talking about people who mistakenly believe that coming out as trans or transitioning genders is a choice; often the response is, “You’ve made a choice about being you and I’m going to choose not to accept that.”
The common modality is that those who refuse to accept us simply stop communicating, hence they become “lost.” When this happens, it hurts. A lot.
I’ve heard about many parents or siblings who’ve turned their backs. Sometimes it’s an adult child or a best friend. Always, it’s someone close, a human who mattered and whose rejection now — at this critical time in the trans person’s life — is particularly difficult to accept or handle.
When I transitioned in 2009, I lost many people: my sister, my best friend in Cedar Rapids, and an across-the-street neighbor who also happened to be a federal magistrate (and as a trial lawyer who regularly appeared in federal court, that was particularly problematic).
Most importantly, as I’ve written before, I lost the light of my life, my oldest daughter (who was then in her late teens). We didn’t see each other for two-and-a-half years and went months without talking by phone. Email and Facebook communications were nonexistent.
Losing my daughter broke my heart. I can’t even begin to count the tears or describe the feeling of desperation.
And then, with a great deal of work on both our parts, as well as yeoman-degree assistance by several therapists, my daughter came back to me. So much so that she’s now pronoun proper and perfectly accepting. It is, as I once wrote, the greatest gift I could ever ask for.
So, my advice for trans people who have lost someone?
As I see it, you have two choices. One choice is to react back just as you’ve been reacted to; because the other person’s closed their heart to you, you can reciprocate by closing yours to them. I call this tit-for-tat hurt; you’ve hurt me, so I’ll hurt you back.
While this helps to stem bleeding of the heart (albeit, the wound never closes entirely), I don’t see this as a good strategy for one important reason: people change. Indeed, with more and more humans coming out as transgender, society as a whole is quickly becoming more accepting of trans folk. This means that people whom we’ve lost might reconsider their decision to shut us out.
Rather than closing your heart, I recommend keeping it open. For sure, that’s far more work and hurt since the wound and vulnerability remain. Yet, staying open — in effect keeping the door to reconciliation unlatched — makes it easier for the other person to come back. This is the epitome of compassion for another human; you’re recognizing that they, too, lack a Human Owner’s Manual and are willing to help them make their way back to you.
I can attest that the open heart strategy works. Apart from my daughter, other people I had lost have now come back (including my sister). It sure stank while there were gone, but in the end, I have these people in my life again, accepting me.
For that, I am extremely grateful.
(Note to readers: in last month’s column, “Gavin Grimm,” I mistakenly referenced the Supreme Court sending Gavin’s case back to the original trial court. Instead, I should have written that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals will re-hear arguments on the case. I apologize for the mistake and appreciate the ACLU clarifying this for me.)
Ellen (Ellie) Krug is the author of Getting to Ellen: A Memoir about Love, Honesty and Gender Change (2013). She speaks and trains on diversity and inclusion topics; visit www.humaninspirationworks.com where you can also sign up for her newsletter. She welcomes your comments at [email protected].