Smash Talks: Transition within the Tribe

Dear Smashera,

For most of my life I’ve struggled with my gender identity. Biologically, I am female; but I only feel comfortable if I live and behave as though male, and until I learned about LGBTQIA+ theory and history sometime in my early twenties, I felt utterly “unwelcome” in my body. Once I acquired the new concepts, confided in some trusted friends, found a sympathetic therapist, and got “top surgery”, problems like depression, anxiety, and disordered eating patterns all but disappeared. Still, at 27, I feel…not quite right: I never got FTM hormone therapy. Honestly, I’m afraid to CHANGE right before the (somewhat-to-likely) disapproving eyes of my coworkers, teachers, and especially parents–the last, because while they say they support me, they show every physical sign of disapproval–indeed, disgust–when I raise the subject of HRT. So, I want to take hormones and be happy as I can be, but I wish to avoid relational difficulties. So, should I decide against HRT, live a “good enough” life, and avoid upsetting the apple cart?

Minding the Apple Cart

Dear Apple,

It sounds like there’s an intense push and pull inside of you. On one hand, there’s the desire to fully blossom and be truly yourself. On the other hand, there’s a sense of loyalty and the urge to keep your family in homeostasis. Before jumping to a life-changing decision, it’s important to acknowledge all the moving pieces, namely the family system and the art of projection.

A family is more than the sum of its parts—it is an emotional system. This means that all of the characters are pulled together by an incredible, enduring bond. This is true even in the most dysfunctional, effed-up versions of families. Maintained even when contact is cut and ties are severed. We still carry old patterns and messages, keeping us firmly planted within a system.

Pioneer marriage and family therapist Salvador Minuchin makes some excellent observations on the family system. Systemically speaking, he posits that a healthy family is able to endure changes and stressors while maintaining the identity of “Us.” This means that its members can age, have children, and make decisions about their life direction, and the family, as a system, will adjust to it. Change is always a little bit scary, but the bonds of shared experience and kinship help to weather the transition.

I mention this to put your change in context. As you grow, your family system undoubtedly morphs with you. Your changing is not isolated to your gender transition, but also to you growing from baby, to adolescent, to teenager, to young adult. Shifts have to be made at every step of the way in order for each member to move into new roles, while still maintaining a sense of hierarchy, safety, and identity.

But not every family is healthy, and change isn’t always smooth.

A family with diffuse boundaries won’t foster healthy leadership within the members, so when changes happen, everyone panics and it dissolves into chaos. Other families have rigid boundaries, with members hell-bent on keeping their place immutable. This too causes distress when Life happens—a member loses a job, or falls ill. Suddenly, there’s an intense push to KEEP THINGS JUST THE SAME. It’s unrealistic, unhealthy, and causes all sorts of turmoil.

It’s important to consider how your family has adjusted to shifts in the past when considering how you will share your decision-making with them. Have they held to rigid structures despite evidence that they should make concessions? Or have they taken major life events in stride? Do they scatter during distress?

To add to the mix, Dr. Murray Bowen builds off the concept of relationship health with the theory of differentiation. Without launching into a graduate level course on family systems, I’ll condense this theory and relate it to this situation.

A person’s level of differentiation is reflective of their ability to find “me” and “we.” It’s the ability to discern between a thought and a feeling, and know that neither thoughts nor feelings are facts, but to understand that they do color our perspective. A differentiated person feels their feels, but won’t go full caveman on someone when they get angry. No one is completely differentiated, as we’re all human and have loyalties, reactions, and animal tendencies.

When one member of a family begins to differentiate themselves, the other members don’t always appreciate this, because it means a change in the system. It is arguable that questioning one’s gender identity and taking the necessary steps to change is an act of pure differentiation. After all, the questioning person (in this case you, dear writer), is saying, “I’m not who you say I am.” That can be deeply disconcerting for others. Internally, they might ask, “if you’re YOU and not US, who am I?”

But nobody ever says it like that. It usually comes out as disapproval, or “if you change you will hurt me,” or “our family doesn’t do that.” It’s typically not about the person going through the change at all, but instead about the other person’s fear of something hidden within themselves.

Which leads us to projection.

Sometimes (many times) it’s easier to make other people into a scary thing than to acknowledge that fear rests within ourselves. In this situation, without meeting you all face to face, it’s possible that this can go both ways. From your parents: “If you change we will somehow lose you and our own identities.” But you could be projecting, too. How do you know they are disgusted by your proposed change? If they’ve straight up said, “don’t do that, it’s bad,” then that conclusion is warranted. But if they’ve just seemed wary or uncomfortable, there could be a whole lot more going through their heads that you’ve assigned as “disgust.”

When you say, “I’m thinking of starting hormone replacement therapy,” and your parent shifts in their seat and makes a confusing face, it sounds like you’re reading that as “they disapprove.” Which could be the case, but we’ll never know unless the question is asked and the conversation is had. Their body language could also accompany concern that HRT would cause negative or unwanted side effects, or display their discomfort in not knowing what that future looks like for you. It could be them sitting with what’s been said and simply processing.

To get to the root of this, it could be very helpful for you to meet with a supportive family therapist. Having a neutral party can act as a Rosetta Stone for what needs to be communicated (hopefully love and support, but also acknowledging fears), and slow down the conversation before it takes a sharp turn into hurtful territory.

As for your choice, that is completely up to you. I’d like to point out that you’ve already made some significant changes in your gender presentation and so far, it doesn’t sound like you’ve lost your place in your family. They may have more capacity to support you than you anticipate. When it comes down to it, when you’re reaching the end of your life, what story do you want to tell? The one where you “kept the peace” and sacrificed yourself? Or the one where you lived your truth, whatever that looks like?

No matter what you decide, make the choice for you. Seek support, practice self-care, and give some of that love you have to yourself.



Related Smash Talks: