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Coming Out

A teacher I work with requested a short story, by a trans* person, about "coming out" to use with a group of LGBT high school students. I was not able to recommend one (this may well be because my memory is bad, if you have a suggestion, please leave it in the comments and apologies if I am overlooking your work). I can heartily recommend a number of YA novels by and about trans* people that address coming out, and there are some brilliant short stories by and about trans* people, that don't directly address coming out. So I wrote him something. I'm also sharing it here:


I’m reluctant to tell a coming out story, in part because which one would I choose? There are so many coming out moments. I’m also reluctant to tell a coming out story, because there is such a cultural fixation on stories of starting to transition. The media likes to focus on the big reveal, the moment of first coming out, “the shocker”, “the betrayal”. My life is not a day-time TV special episode. “Transition” is presented as full of drama, but focusing on the one moment hides that we are all still daily making decisions to come out, or not. They make transition into the biggest events of our lives, and while for some of us that might be true, for many of us, we would like it to be a non-event, a time that is past, and we would like people to pay attention to our accomplishments, our writing, our work, the way we support our friends, the way we create our families, the things we imbue with meaning. Many of us would also tell you that there is no single moment of transition – it’s a process, and it takes time.

The other thing is that there is no single story.

Some of us never get to come out. Some of us are outed long before we know words like “trans” or “gender” and well before we can put them together as something we might be. Some of us come out on our own terms as part of a transition, and stay out for the rest of our lives. Some of us come out as part of a transition process - become who we know ourselves to be, and stop talking about our past. Some of us find that we have to come out, all the time, to everyone, as we carefully explain that neither “he” nor “she” is accurate, and that “they” or “ze” or no pronoun at all would be better. There are perhaps more ways to be out than there are to be trans, and there are many, many ways to be trans.

In 1973 coming out gay or lesbian stopped also meaning you were coming out as mentally ill. Coming out as trans has just maybe stopped meaning coming out as mentally ill. The Diagnostic and Statistic Manual V (basically a catalogue of mental illnesses) was released in May of this year and no longer considers all of us to have Gender Identity Disorder. It replaced that with Gender Dysphoria. It’s not clear how well that’s understood. I know an awful lot of trans* people who would say it’s not their gender, but their body they feel disphoric about.

For some of us, who were told we were girls, as children we were seen as strong girls, and good feminists. We were seen as athletic, resisting sexism and perhaps, as tomboys. We might have even been encouraged in that identity until we hit puberty. Then we were encouraged to learn about make-up, “act more lady-like” or “put a sexy wiggle in our walk”. As our bodies betrayed us with breasts, and periods and hips, our families betrayed us with skirts and bras.

For some of us, who were told we were boys, the kindest thing we were called as children was “sensitive”. We were told not to pick up the toys we most wanted, not to wear shiny, beautiful, or colourful things, not to swish, not to dance, not to be friends with the other children most like us, not to like pink, not to wear jewellery, not to be. We were punished.

For some of us, we were allowed to be who we are. Some of us had support at school but not at home. Some of us had support at home, but not at school. Some of us had some family who celebrated us, and others who stopped talking to us. Some of us told our family and were celebrated, but seldom encouraged. Everyone of us has a different story.

Some of us saved coming out until after high school. Some of us waited until we were away from the people we had grown up with, until we were not living in the same house as our parents and guardians, until we were somewhere we could try out a different name, a different pronoun, different hair or clothing away from people full of memories of us being someone else. Some of us selected a university program not for the courses or programs, but for the health plan. Would hormones be covered? Would electrolysis? Would any surgery?

When someone comes out as gay, all it needs is words. You can fill in the Canada Census form the next day reporting that you are in a same-sex relationship and they will take your word on it. When you come out as trans, the government wants other people to confirm this for them. You need a doctor’s letter to change any ID – you don’t get to come out to the government and say “actually I am a __________” you have to come out to your doctor, and then they have to out you to the government. Your self knowledge is less important than their assessment. Other people will demand to know “if you take hormones” and “if you have had the surgery” again, as if these medical procedures are more important that your self knowledge. Let me be clear, your self knowledge is the most important thing. You are your own expert, and the person who knows you best, governments, doctors and other strangers be damned.

Some of us come out and want to make changes right away – but nothing is fast, and nothing is free. Clothes cost money, and while a hair cut is quick, growing it long can take forever. If we want hormones, we need a doctor’s approval, and that might take weeks, or months, or over a year of visits, showing up in the doctor’s office, and coming out time and time again. We may need to find a new doctor, we may find after several visits that the doctor we have been seeing will never write us a script anyway. And when we start hormones, the changes we want, those too will be slow. With hormones and time, transguys will find themselves having the option to come out to friends who ask about our colds, worried that we sound hoarse. Transwomen weigh who they can come out to safely, who will respect their privacy, who will welcome them to womanhood, and who will be clouded by prejudice. Coming out can feel dangerous, and we might worry about losing friends, losing family, losing access to the bathroom, the swimming pool, the knitting circle, our sports teams, our place of worship, our jobs, any promotions, our lovers, our children. We all know too many stories of people who came out, or were outed and were met with violence, and we fear that too.

Before I identified as a man, I identified as “other”. I came out in a cartoon I drew for my campus’ newspaper. In the cartoon, I described how when my sister and I were small, we use to play “fat or pregnant” looking at people on the street and trying to guess[1] if the people we saw were fat, or pregnant. In the next panel I described how eventually the game became “male or female” and how we would then try to guess who was a man and who was a woman[2]. In the last panel I described how I now play “male or female” with myself, and how I no longer see these as a binary. I was not thinking about the cartoon on a Friday afternoon when my parents came to pick me up from school. My parents arrived early, and my dad picked up all the campus newspapers and read them while he waited for me to come out from class. When I got to their car, my mum greeted me with “You were a normal child you know.” My mum felt that me coming out was an indictment of her parenting, and cried. The car ride was uncomfortable and my dad was silent for a long while. Finally, he said “I think nationality is stupid, but I was born in Britain, and now I’m Canadian, it’s kind of the same thing isn’t it.” I nodded. That felt close enough to true.

But all those are pre-transition or early-transition “coming out” stories. If transition is what we want, ideally we go on to have long lives on the other side of our transitions. Post-transition, our histories never go away, our pasts never truly disappear, and being trans presents a life time of coming out possibilities. It’s the moment, years ago, working retail at Mountain Equipment Co-op, when Paul Abel came in and looked at me – “Hey,” he said “Hey, you went to O.T didn’t you? I use to run cross country with your sister.” Paul Abel use to run cross country with me, but seeing me, the male me, he’s rewritten his memories, and I have become my own brother. I have to choose, do I come out, or do I help him find the item he is looking for? How much of  conversation do I want to have with him about who I was, and who I am, in public for $12.50 an hour?

Some of us have to come out in medical settings. Some of us have legal names that are not our real names. Our real names are the ones we choose, the ones that belong to us, the ones we feel good about, our real names are welcome in our ears. In waiting rooms reception staff call out our legal names, and everyone else who has nothing to do but wait looks around to see who Philip might be, as Sophia walks up to the desk. You can bet they listen in as she explains, again, that Sophia is her name. They keep listening as the receptionist asks, “If you are Sophia, why did you give me Philip’s health card – we have to see your health card.”

Many of us have had experiences of showing up in emergency rooms with urgent conditions, and being asked about our gender or our sex before getting treated “as it is just so fascinating” and “we don’t get many transsexuals here”. I know transmen who have had to come out to explain what might be causing their abdominal pain, or to request a pap test. I know a transwoman whose wife was going through fertility treatments, using the transwoman’s sperm, and every time she went to the fertility clinic she had to come out as trans, again, to access her own sperm. I know another transwoman, who does not want to come out, whose husband desperately wants children. She is struggling to explain why she is infertile.

As the world becomes more interested in security and I.D. if we have not changed, or are not able to change our documents, we have to come out in more and more places. It’s the big official locations like international borders, immigration and police checks, and airport security, and the small ones, like trying to get a library card for the first time, or rent a DVD. It’s being pulled over for speeding with an extra level of fear. It’s choosing to come out on a resume and be “the trans candidate” or not and having a much shorter employment history. Some of us have been able to change some of our I.D. but not all of it, leaving us vulnerable to charges of fraud, coming out won’t help you now.

Post-transition, some of us never want to come out again. We are “just men” or “just women” and our history is none of your business. We may choose only to come out in intimate relationships, and for some of us, not even then. Our trans* experience has no power to harm you or change your sexual orientation, and our choice to keep it confidential is the one that feels truest to us. Stop judging. This is not about you.

So. If coming out is so challenging, so frequent, and so unpleasant, why do some of us choose it? Because we exist. Because we are worthwhile. Because we want to be able to talk about our whole lives and our whole selves. Because we have enough safety or privilege that we are able to do so. Because our history is important. Because we want you to know we exist. Because we are storytellers. Because we want to change the world. Because we want to find others like us. Because there are experiences and insights, that only we have, and we want to be able to share them. Because we want to be able to tell you to your face that our trans* experience has no power to harm you or change your sexual orientation, and our choice to be out is the one that feels truest to us. Again, stop judging. This too is not about you.

[1] Don’t do this. It is a terrible idea. Judging other people’s bodies is never a good plan. We were very young at the time and did not know better. I regret this now.
[2] This is also a terrible idea. See above about judging other people’s bodies. Now I have a firm policy of not making assumptions – most of the time we don’t actually need to know, and on the occasions we do, politely and discretely asking is usually the best way to go.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
17th Sep, 2013 16:51 (UTC)
This is beautiful. May I share it, perhaps as a distributable printed resource, with the Trans youth (middle and high school age) support group I work with? With credit, of course, and including the URL, unless you'd rather that be left out.

(As an aside, I wondered if there's a typo in the second to last paragraph: should 'our history is none of our business' be 'our history is none of your business'?)
17th Sep, 2013 16:57 (UTC)
Thanks - yes, what a difference a "y" makes.

And yes, feel free to share with credit.
17th Sep, 2013 17:03 (UTC)
Thank you!

ETA: Forgot to ask: Should I credit as j wallace, or as ishai wallace? And may I share it with other youth groups/classes/etc. if the need arises, not just my Trans youth?

Edited at 2013-09-17 17:12 (UTC)
17th Sep, 2013 21:44 (UTC)
I go by j wallace. I'm hoping to have this up on my website (www.juxtaposeconsulting.com) as a pdf later this evening. I've had a surprising number of people ask about using it. Once it is up, feel free to download it and use it wherever.
18th Sep, 2013 00:44 (UTC)
Perfect! Thanks so much. :) I'm not surprised you've had so many people asking though. It really is a beautiful piece (which my subconscious initially typed as 'peace', which feels apt).
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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