Coming out is the first – and often hardest – step in transition.
Unlike being LGB, being transgender is not something you’re likely to be able to hide from people for long, especially if you intend to medically transition.
Even if medical transition is not something you’re considering, maintaining two separate identities can be a huge strain on your mental health. You may find it difficult for friends and family to continue perceiving you as somebody you are not. Regardless of how they respond, coming out to them frees you from living a lie, and allows them to see you and know you as the person you know yourself to be.
- How should I tell people?
- What should I tell them?
- How do I come out to my young children?
- How do I come out at work?
- What do I do if people react negatively?
- What if other people disclose that I am transgender without my permission?
How should I tell people?
Fearing rejection is normal, and it may help to first find support so that you are not in this alone. This support may come in the form of an understanding counsellor, the online transgender community, or close friends – online and offline – who already know you are trans and are willing to root for you and be there for you if things go badly. Talking out your concerns with them may also help ease your fears and let you benefit from any advice they may have to offer, especially if this is something that they themselves have been through before.
If you have not already done so, educate yourself on transgender issues so that you can be prepared to answer questions and concerns that people are likely to have. Most negative reactions stem from ignorance, stereotypes and misinformation about transgender people, and it would help if you have the knowledge to counter them.
When it comes to family, their reactions to other transgender people (in the media or real life) are not always a good indicator of how they might react to knowing that you are trans. Someone who often spouts anti-LGBT rhetoric may react completely differently when the trans person is someone whom they know and love; conversely, someone who seems extremely LGBT-friendly may find this acceptance severely tested when it’s their own child or partner whose transition will directly impact their life. Avoid making assumptions about how others will react. People will surprise you – in both good ways and bad.
If you are not a confident speaker or believe that the conversation is likely to be fraught with emotion, and especially if there’s a risk that they may get violent, consider coming out in a letter or email instead. This will give you more control over what you wish to say, and give them time come to terms with it, rather than lash out or attempt to shut you down before you have finished speaking. (You may want to get supportive friends to look through the letter and provide feedback.)
If you prefer to come out face-to-face, and safety is a concern, consider bringing a friend along to support you, or let others know what you are doing. Have an exit plan in mind if things look like they may turn dangerous.
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What should I tell them?
While this will differ from person to person, these are points you may wish to cover:
- Telling them that you are transgender, and what this means for you
- How long you have been dealing with this – that it is not just a whim, but something you have put a lot of thought into
- Recognise that this may come as a shock to them
- Tailor your message to address specific concerns they may have. If they might be prone to believing it’s their fault due to unusual aspects of your upbringing, assure them that this is not the case; if they are Christians and you are as well, you could reaffirm your commitment to your faith; if they are progressives who believe that being transgender merely reinforces sexist stereotypes, or might suspect you’re just gay, explain why this is not the case. If they are the intellectual sort, it may help to include some of the scientific and medical studies around transgender issues. (You can find these in our Resources section.)
- You may wish to let them know if you are pursuing or intend to pursue medical transition, or you may prefer to leave this discussion to a later time
- Make it clear if you want them to keep this information private
- Recognise that they may have many questions, and let them know that they can speak to you
- Assure them that you are still the same person and always will be, no matter what name you go by or how your body may change.
- Affirm your love and care for them, and your desire to continue having them in your life
Be honest, be open, be vulnerable. Should they respond negatively, you may need to defend yourself and stand your ground, but start out giving them the benefit of the doubt. If you’re hoping for acceptance and support, don’t close yourself off or assume that they will definitely react badly, because that may end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy. Always hope for the best, and prepare for the worst.
(An exception to this rule is if these people are abusive or violent, and you do not actually want them to be a part of your life. If this is the case, make it clear that this is who you are, and this is what you are doing for your own well-being. Avoid coming across as rude or disrespectful, in case it puts you in danger.)
If your family is religious, they may seek the advice of a religious leader. It can help if you have material to address their religious concerns. Free Community Church is an LGBT-affirming Christian church in Singapore with people who will be able to help. Muslims for Progressive Values is an non-profit organisation with chapters around the world, including in Malaysia. Soka Gakkai International is a worldwide Buddhist network with LGBT support groups and initiatives. (If you know of other local religious organisations that are LGBT neutral or supportive, please email us at contact(at)transgendersg.com.)
It is quite normal for family members to go through a period of denial upon first learning that you are transgender. Even those who are supportive may need time to process what this means for you and for them, or may grieve what seems like the loss of their ‘son’ or ‘daughter’, ‘husband’ or ‘wife’. Give them the time and space they need. In the meantime, do take care of yourself and ensure that you have a strong emotional network of support.
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How do I come out to my young children?
With very young children of pre-school and primary school-going age, keep things simple. They are surrounded by adults and friends with a binary view of the world. Pre-school children in Singapore schools are still taught to differentiate gender by physical attributes and behaviour – girls have long hair, wear dresses, are well-behaved; boys have short hair and are boisterous. Very young children tend to view the world in black and white. You can still share with them why you are making the decision to transition with terms they understand. How long a child takes to understand will vary from child to child. A comparable analogy is how an adopted child will also take time to come into their own understanding of what it means to be adopted.
Reassure your child about all the things that will not change to provide stability amidst change. As with adults, it will take time for them to switch from calling you Daddy or Mummy. For older children, as with parents, how they perceive you is more fixed, and it will be more difficult for them to call you anything else.
Children are generally able to adapt more easily to a parent’s transition if family relationships stay loving and supportive. Children have less fixed views about gender than adults, particularly when they are younger. If a child has a difficult emotional response, support them to deal with this in a healthy way. If you and other adults in the family, including a partner, have found support to deal with your own feelings, you will be better able to support your children’s needs too. Some children may also find it helpful to get in touch with other children with trans parents.
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How do I come out at work?
Please see our ‘Career‘ page for more information on transitioning in the workplace.
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What do I do if people react negatively?
Rejection is always painful, especially when it concerns something this personal and from people whom you love. Sometimes, their reactions are a reflection on them, not on you. You will also have had much more time to think about all this, whereas it is likely something new and a shock to them. While you cannot control how others respond, you can control how you react. Show them understanding, but not at the expense of your own well-being.
If you feel safe enough to do so, you may choose to address their arguments and concerns. If the discussion gets too difficult for you or seems to be making things worse, consider stopping, or talking about this at a later time. Share your problems with a supportive friend or counsellor. Many online trans communities are safe places to share the pains and joys of coming out. It can help to know of the many cases of those whose families and friends reacted badly at first but grew to accept and love them – even advocate for them – over time.
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What if other people disclose that I am transgender without my permission?
You have a right to privacy. Sometimes, people or organisations do not understand the impact of disclosing that someone is trans, and how this makes you vulnerable to discrimination. Sharing your experience might let friends know how this affects you, and improve policies in organisations so that this does not happen to others in the future.
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