Notes on Gender Role Transition
Anne Vitale Ph.D.
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The Greatest Gift
By Grace Bock
It's hard to choose what may have been the single most wonderful event in my life. There have been so many good times! Perhaps it was the day I was married.
Maybe it was the day I received my high school equivalency diploma or college acceptance letter in the mail. Or, maybe it was the first time someone referred to me as ma'am, stubble and all, as I made my way to an electrolysis appointment.
These were all pivotal moments in my life; more specifically in my life as a trans-woman. However, I am truly unable to pick the one that stands out the most in my mind. But when it comes to the event that instilled in me the greatest level of fear and anxiety there is no contest.
Disclosing to my family that I am a transsexual, and that I was then planning my transition wins the prize as the most harrowing experience to date.
I grew up in a middle class neighborhood during the 1970's in Staten Island, New York, one of the five boroughs of New York City. To this day, memories of both my immediate and extended family bring back such feelings of warmth and love; feelings that I am sure will never fade. Although I had a few close friends as a child, it is my siblings and cousins I think of most when reflecting on my early years. When I think of family gatherings, such as birthday parties and Sunday dinners, what is certain is that I had something special as a child that many others never do. In fact, I know this to be the case. Of all the family celebrations I loved Christmas the most, for the sharing went on for several days and included every member of the clan. I suppose that from my earliest days I have always had an undeniably strong sense of family. Even years later as we all left the city one after the other, I retained a strong emotional connection to my family, as well as too the place where we all grew up. Although family reunions happen at intervals of several years, they all remain close to my heart.
So there I was, nearly 20 years old, and well aware that there was something about me that needed attention; however, I was totally unaware of the true nature of the situation or the effect it would soon have on my life. Soon enough, however, it became apparent that some day I would need to focus on what lie directly beneath the surface and had caused me such turmoil for so long; a turmoil that only I was privy to. Was I surprised when I realized it was an issue of gender! Although it took many years for this conflict to come to a head, and many more for a final resolution, I knew that sooner or later I would need to end the battle that waged deep within my soul.
As is the case with many who share the same chromosomal challenge as I, "darn, I was born a boy!", I went through a classic battle to deny the truth. I spent much of my early twenties purposely single as a defense mechanism to prevent myself from falling in love further masking the incongruent feelings I had about myself. I knew that attachment was the last thing I needed, yet; perhaps, I felt it would save me from myself. Much to my surprise I ended up falling head over heals for a recently divorced woman who was probably as needy as I was. At 26 I was married and became a stepparent. I can admit now without reservation that this was simply a ploy to avoid the inevitable. Had I known that then, perhaps I could have saved more than a handful of heartaches, and ten years as well. Perhaps I wasn’t ready in 1987 to face the truth. The truth was that I am a transsexual.
Ten year later I hit critical mass and realized that I could no longer stand the way I was living and was ready to confront my demons and consider my options. Unfortunately, the hardest thing to accept before I could work on myself was that any change would mean the end of my marriage. Yet it was a necessary step, and I got through it. Nonetheless, it hurt like hell! I was then free to think about, and, for myself. It didn’t take long to decide that to transition and live full time as Grace, the real me, was the only option that I had. And, yes, it was an option. I had the choice of remaining in the terribly unproductive life I was living, drinking more then anyone should, working a dead-end job and with no hope. Or, I could take control of my life and all that doing so would mean. My transition was a conscious choice. The choice was to live or die a slow miserable death.
Before this process could begin, however, I needed to share with my family a great deal about the hidden self they had never known. This would mean destroying the image they had held of me comfortably for 35 years. Because of my deep connection and respect for my family I felt it necessary to inform them first before any changes began. The months leading up to my disclosure, although difficult, were made easier by the support of my brother who lives in California. Our coast to coast contact was near constant for a few months, both via email and several emotional phone conversations as well. He read many books about gender issues and asked some deep, thought provoking questions. He challenged me to think hard about what I wanted and how I was going to achieve it. He really made me work! I found his encouragement incredibly helpful as I prepared to tell the rest of the family of my plans. Sharing such big news with them seemed like a potential "end all". I was so frightened that they would turn their backs and walk away, effectively leaving me alone to deal with such an emotionally charged issue. I had done enough research to know that this reaction was far from a fantasy and happens more than I wanted to admit. After all, talking about gender is what led to the end of my marriage, and although the circumstances and context of the relationship was quite different, I feared so greatly that this could be an even greater loss.
Finally, almost five years ago, I carefully crafted a letter to my mom and dad in Florida, and my sister in Connecticut. For more then a week after the letters went out I froze every time the phone rang. During this short period, tele-marketers were welcome to call. Fortunately, none of them sold me anything I didn't really need! I agonized whether or not I had ensured my own banishment from a family that meant so much to me. Then, about ten days after my letters went out, I received a response from my mom. I remember examining the envelope closely for quite some time before mustering up the courage to look inside and face the music. As I unfolded the type written letter I was astonished to read her response. All it took was the first sentence, and although I knew that some time was needed for grief and substantial healing, I was also certain that in the end my honesty would lead to a better relationship. Everything was going to work out. She poignantly said, "You sure know how to get someone's attention!"
Since that time, I feel as though I have never been closer to my parents. We have spent time alone together and little has changed. However, there are a few exceptions. Conversations between my mother and I seem now to have no boundaries. We are able to comfortably talk about anything and our time together seems more meaningful. As for my father, he and I have never spoken about my transition. He once offered in a letter that it is something that he believed he would probably never be able to talk about. Although I feel that this is somewhat limiting at times, I have accepted these limitation and I love and respect him regardless of his difficulty in talking about my new role in his life. Nonetheless, he continues to treat me as though I am one of his children. I feel loved, cared for, respected, and best of all, like I always have; like one of the family.
I know that there are many LGBT individuals who fear disclosing to their families, just as I did. These fears are absolutely justified! I know, too, that there are many whose fears of banishment will come to fruition. With these facts a reality, I feel that the LGBT community has an obligation to inform and educate those around us about what we "are" and "are not" as people. Let's use our experiences to teach acceptance, responsibility, and loyalty to those who mean so much to us; our families. We, of all people, need to support those around us whose lives are often monumentally shaken by our disclosures. Help to educate family, friends and the mental health community as well. Consider that most people in our modern world know someone who is homosexual, yet the chances that they know a transsexual are pretty slim. No, I am not suggesting that we all stand in the face of adversity and fight to the death and risk losing all we have worked for to enlighten. That might not be your style. Yet, perhaps when a willing ear is lent, we can take the opportunity to inform and educate in the hopes of dispelling the myths about those like us.
I am aware that my positive experience with family is not typical. I am aware as well that my transition has been very smooth and wonderful as compared to many others. Regardless, there have been moments that have been riddled with fear and as painful as one could imagine. Hopefully, I will never again know the terrible anguish experienced prior to disclosing to my family. All things considered, through the ups and downs, the best thing that has come from my own honesty is to have made it to living full-time with my family behind me and still calling me their own! Sometimes it is true that the greatest gains only come when we risk losing all that we have known and loved.
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