Of course the question of whether to be out about our gender history or to keep this information private is impossible to boil down to an either/or question. I suspect for most of us it can be a regular, if not daily decision based on numerous variables. Are we doing our grocery shopping, seeing the doctor, applying for a job, on a date, going to school, or at the gym? Where we live makes a difference, as do the kinds of people see on a daily basis, not to mention our temperament/tolerance for regularly taking on the gender educator role. Really, there should be little debate about “The Right Answer” to this singular question but rather exploration for each of us as to the best answer for each of us at which time and in what context.
What do I do? I come out to just about everyone who spends more than 5 minutes with me. It doesn’t take long and looks kind of like this:
Them: “Hello, what’s your name?
Me: I’m Aidan, nice to meet you.”
Them: Hi Aidan, what kind of work do you do?”
Well, hells bells, that’s it! When I try to avoid the question, each answer I come up with sounds vague and evasive. Why is that? Because that is indeed what I’m doing. Instead, I take a deep breath and give them the really long version.
“I’m so glad you asked. I work with families who have transgender or gender non-conforming children. I lead trainings for anyone who works with these children including therapists, K-12 teachers and administrators, doctors, nurses, social workers, and so on. I also lead a monthly support group for these families, which includes groups for the kids and teens. I direct two national conferences every year and blah, blah, blah…”
The reason I give them the long version is purposeful.
One: I give them time to have their first surprised reaction without putting them immediately on the spot to respond in an articulate manner – they usually can’t. How many of us have witnessed this jaw-hanging, unblinking but slightly glazed-over, and generally uncomprehending expression? I talk a little longer than typical to basically buy them some time to get their face put back together.
Two: I let them know that a LOT of people are interested in getting educated on this issue. So they then realize that even medical providers or child development specialists don’t know much about transgender issues. It gives them permission to feel blindsided by this information without feeling stupid.
Three: I frame it in a way that guides them to a positive response. That looks a little like this:
“Most people don’t know much about this topic but the education I provide helps them (and their school, their practice, their organization) gain an understanding of the issues and make a few changes that allow them to support not only the transgender child (staff member, client, etc.) but make their environment a more inclusive and accepting place for all kids regardless of gender.”
By the time I have said all of this, they’ve had time to catch their breath and perhaps start to ask a few questions. Rarely, but sometimes, a person will find a way to excuse themselves and escape ultimately sparing us both from a potential negative interaction. If the person is still engaged (most will stick around), the next question often is:
“How did you get involved in this work?”
I’ve typically had enough time to read that person by then. Did their face stay flat and stone-like? No? Good! I give them a little information about my personal gender history and then start talking about gardening, chickens, the latest book I’m reading or that, omigod, my daughter just turned 21.
What happens is that I’ve disclosed a lot of information – some of it personal, most of it isn’t – then moved past it. The earth has not opened up and swallowed either one of us and they are left with a lot to think about.
I’ve chosen to be out and discuss my gender history with as many people as possible. I do not do this casually or haphazardly, but with careful forethought and deliberateness. I don’t choose an in-your-face approach but definitely an unashamed, heart-first way.
Most people have an intense fascination with a gender transition. Am I that interesting? No, I am not. But, most people are deeply curious about the concept of a gender transition; curious to the point of asking questions that they would never ask in other situations. I could get frustrated and decide that they are being tokenizing or simply idiotic. Instead, I decide to start from a place of compassion. People are interested because of what it means to them and their own identity. It can rattle what they feel is the core foundation of their lives. If you can’t count on gender what can you count on?
They need to understand me so that they can understand themselves and make sense of their world. It is that powerful and that simple. Understanding this about others has helped me to share my personal story within the broader framework of what it means for each of us to be authentic.
By coming out regularly, I’ve had the opportunity to touch millions of lives. I’ve been on the Oprah show (she called it a “ a show like we’ve NEVER done before”). I’ve been on Larry King Live, The Big Idea, tons of radio shows. Even Saturday Night Live gave a nod and spoofed Larry King’s complete bewilderment. All that fame and glory hasn’t paid the rent but what it has done is given those millions of viewers a face, a voice, and a story to which they, surprisingly, can relate.
For some, it provides the comprehension that a gender transition is even possible. People have called or written from as far away as Italy or The Netherlands to thank me for giving voice to their experience. For others, because my twin sister was often on these shows with me, it provides the possibility that, not only could a person transition, but that their families are quite capable of continued love and support. Others have told me about reconciliations with family members simply because my sister said she had no problem still loving me – why should she?
Coming out isn’t for everyone – there are still too many risks and dangers for this to be universal approach. On one hand, I’ve constructed my world in such a way that I have no secrets. This is freeing. On the other hand, some things like employment and where I live feel limited. Not to mention, educating people about gender takes up a lot of time!
That being said, I have not found anything more powerful and effective than sharing my personal story. Very few people will remember what I actually said during a training or interview but they will remember that I exist. And with that existence comes possibility – the possibility to be authentic. Our individual stories represent the universal story of finding one’s self. Who can’t relate to that?