Notes on Gender Role Transition

Anne M. Vitale PhD

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T Note #8

Relationships: The Bane and the Promise

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April 10,1998

Relationships are both the risk and the hope for people dealing with crossdressing and gender issues. Recognition by parents, a spouse, children, significant others and friends as the gender they feel themselves to be is extremely important. Ultimately, it is the need to relate honestly with the rest of humanity that eventually forces people to admit first to themselves and then to others that they have a gender identity issue. That all should go well in making that revelation is the hope. The risk is that the almost overwhelming fear of losing friends and family and becoming absolutely alone in life will be realized.

In all my years of working with people with Gender Identity Disorder, it is clear now that those who do best realistically accept the condition on its own terms. Even if that means realizing that maintaining the character of old relationships is all but impossible. Further, they must make a drastic readjustment to every relationship they have ever had. As sad as that may sound, it is not necessarily a bad thing. Many times relationships with friends and family improve as they take on a more meaningful quality.Time and the unknowable effects of transition are the key factors in adjusting old relationships and establishing new ones.

Not surprising, the effect of opening to others is directly proportional to the extent one has to go to resolve the issues within oneself. If resolution comes through disclosure of cross-dressing, the impact will probably be localized to the immediate family and perhaps a few close friends. If, on the other hand, resolution includes taking on a completely new identity by transitioning, the effect on everyone involved in the individual's life will be profound.

For genetic males who from time to time take on a female persona, relationship issues revolve around incorporating that activity into what would otherwise be considered a normal family life style. In this situation a lot depends on whether or not the spouse or significant other was aware of their partner's cross-dressing prior to committing to the relationship. Although there is no guarantee, the spouse or significant other is far more likely to try accommodate and actually include their partner's cross-dressing activity as a plus if disclosure comes early in the relationship than if it is announced to her several years and two kids into the marriage.

If the relationship is heterosexual, the non-cross-dressing partner, if he or she has not already done so, will probably be concerned as to his or her own sexual orientation. If the notion of being gay or lesbian does not sit well, there could be an extremely negative reaction to the situation. Children, moreover, almost always have problems with the situation, especially teenagers. It is not unusual for teenagers to find their parents an embarrassment under normal circumstances; having a cross-dressing father complicates matters immensely.

One other problem which is, I suppose, no different from other more common hobbies, wives often complain that the spouse seems to cross-dress in excess of what she believes is healthy for the relationship. Wives often report that their spouse's cross-dressing has become a self indulgence that takes attention from the marriage. Family or couples therapy usually helps work out these problems.

There is yet another level of resolution that has a far more profound effect on relationships. That is when resolution calls for a complete and permanent change of physical appearance. Here I am including genetic females who hormonally and/or surgically transition to live and function as men and/or genetic males who hormonally and surgically transition to live and function as women.

The key here is appearance. No matter how supportive the friend or partner may be while transition is still in the talking stage, the first sign of physical change almost invariably forces a reassessment of that support. It may not necessarily mean a complete loss of the relationship, but as the transition progresses, the interchange between the two parties typically undergoes a radical redefinition. The new pattern usually parallels traditional patterns of same and opposite sex relationships. I have noticed, the more intimate the relationship prior to transition, the more likely the relationship will be radically changed. In contrast, more casual relationships, if they don't simply drop away from disinterest on behalf of all concerned, often take on more meaning.

Interestingly the first attempt people entering transition make at maintaining old relationships is to reassure family and friends that only their appearance will change. The problem here is that this is simply not true. Sex reassignment far exceeds a simple change of appearance. When one thinks about it, if that is all transition did, it probably wouldn't be worth the trouble. Upon starting to take hormones, people routinely report a profound improvement in their sense of well-being and the rightness of their action. This, long before they or anyone else becomes aware of physical changes. Clearly something far more profound is occurring. As their sense of self changes, their needs in relation to others will inevitably change as well.

Reassuring friends is rarely meant to reassure friends. More often it is a way for the individual going through transition to deal with fears of becoming isolated and unwanted in his or her new life. These are, of course, valid fears and they need to be dealt with in therapy. In my opinion, the problem is better solved by paying close attention to the new emerging self and following the dictates of all that a close examination reveals. At the minimum, the transitioning individual can expect personal needs and his or her expectations of others to change. In fact it is common to see the individual going through transition to be the one to abandon old friendships because they are too busy making and enjoying new ones, now that they are freed to be fully themselves.

One of the more profound and usually unexpected events is that the individual's sexual preferences may change. A genetic male who is used to being in sexual relationship with women, may realize a strong, and new, attraction to males once he, now she, is free to both look and act female. The new feelings are usually triggered by the sexual response a new presentation to the world evokes in others. When and if it happens, people report that it is too new and too interesting to ignore. Apparently a relationship unlike anything the individual has ever experienced in their old life can be upon them without their doing a thing. The individual may find themselves acting a bit awkward at first (not unlike a teenager experiencing his or her first love) but after a few mistakes and a little advice from others, they usually get the hang of it. I know of at least two of these unexpected relationships that have gone on to become long-term heterosexual marriages. One of the marriages is in its eighteenth year, the other in its fourteenth year.

There are many other variations on intimate relationships available to transsexuals. Three of the most common are male-to-female individuals who are now in lesbian relationships and female-to-male individuals who are now in gay relationships. It is also common to find two transsexuals who have met each other during transition to be very much in love and living together as a same-sex couple.

There is yet another, less obvious relationship model to discuss. In this case the individual chooses to live alone and interact with a world of friends and family of origin. As one might expect, these individuals are usually older transsexuals who have had their share of intimate relationships and are now totally involved in their professional and community concerns. I know of artists, psychologists, musicians, professors and writers who are quite content with this way of living their lives.

Clearly, looking into resolving gender issues requires a major leap of faith. However, the fear of individuals dealing with gender issues of being alone or abandoned by friends and family is largely unfounded. Time and the unknowable effects of transition have an excellent record of delivering on the promise of an improved life, complete with an assortment of new or modified relationships. The key is patience and being open to all the possibilities that come with a new evolving sense of being.

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Copyright, 1998 by Anne Vitale, Ph.D. Dr. Vitale is a Licensed Psychologist specializing in gender related issues. Her office is located at 610 D Street, San Rafael CA 94901, (415) 456-4452. This Note may be reprinted in any non-profit organization's newsletter if Dr. Vitale's name and address appears with it. Other publications must obtain written permission from Dr. Vitale. A copy of any reprints must be sent to Dr. Vitale.