Let Me Save You Some Time: A Field Guide To Avoiding Transition By Family Committee
The Golden Bough for plausibly-deniable transphobic delay
Over the years in my various capacities as an advice columnist and trans person who knows other trans people I’ve had repeat encounters with a family dynamic I call “Just To Be Safe, Let’s Transition By Committee.” No one family will contain every type listed below or role-play all of these scenarios, however, the presence of one scenario or type is a strong predictor that others are soon to follow. Plenty of families will reject a would-be transitioner immediately, and some, I am reliably informed, are supportive or even enthusiastic; I have little to say about either of those types. I am speaking now of that great watery middle portion of families, whose initial reactions are usually described, tentatively, as “A little better than I expected!” or “You know, I think everything might be sort of okay,” or “It’s not like I expect them to start using a new name for me tomorrow,” but whose every subsequent reaction after that is incrementally and relentlessly worse, without anyone ever coming out and saying so frankly.
They know that to reject the transitioner spells an end to the game, which is the last thing in the world they want. This family is unlikely to ever come out and say “Yes, we fully and forever reject your transition,” because out-and-out rejection forestalls the otherwise-pleasurable games of Scapegoat, We Need To Talk About Kevin, After Everything I’ve Done For You, Just One More Question…, I Don’t Remember It That Way, Get A Load Of Her, etc.
The idea is not to explicitly and for all expel the would-be transitioner from the family circle, but to provide the rest of the family members with an ongoing opportunity to play Doctor, Rescuer, Spurned Lover, I’m Only Trying To Help You, and Council of Elders.
When one is a member of a social aggregation of two or more people, there are several options for structuring time. In order of complexity, these are: (1) Rituals (2) Pastimes (3) Games (4) Intimacy and (5) Activity, which may form a matrix for any of the others. The goal of each member of the aggregation is to obtain as many satisfactions as possible from his transactions with other members….In colloquial terms, an individual whose script is oriented toward “waiting for Santa Claus” is likely to be pleasant to deal with in such games as “Gee You’re Wonderful, Mr. Murgatroyd,” while someone with a tragic script oriented toward “waiting for rigor mortis to set in” may play such disagreeable games as “Now I’ve Got You, You Son of a Bitch.”
—Games People Play, Eric Berne, 1964
This particular psychic superstructure may not apply to your family, of course, and besides which, you ought to be able to transition whenever you like and at whatever pace suits you best. But if it does, I might be able to save you anywhere between six months to fifteen years of wasted motions, years that could instead be allocated for silent sustained reading or free swim or count towards a class pizza party.
But It’s A Family Name/The Fall of the House of Usher
Say a transitioner comes out and announces their intention to start going by “Kat.” Rather than respond with, “No, I reject this, you must not transition,” which has no corresponding countermove, a relative (usually but not always a parent) suddenly becomes deeply invested in the long-standing family tradition of passing down the same name with Jr, III, and so on appended to it. This is delivered with all the state pageantry and solemnity of a Hapsburg coronation, as if the transitioner were interrupting a glorious thousand-year genetic dynastic in Helictical Byzantium, rather than just “having a few Karls in a row.”
The pretense here is that the relatives would bless the transition if only they weren’t so committed to maintaining a family tradition that underpins society itself, also known as the Henry VIII position: If only we’d had a spare, you might be able to live as freely as commoners do, but you are the sole remaining heir of the Tudor line…heavy is the head which wears the crown…
Did Everyone Sign the Card?
You thought you’d done the full rounds of your Top Surgery Apology Tour when you get an email saying your great-aunt’s sister has some feelings about it, and that starts the whole process over again. Much like a new assistant attempting to deliver a birthday card to a departmental colleague in a large company, there is always a surprise new person whose signature is required before proceeding. A related corollary is Psst: Someone You Don’t Know Is Mad At You, whereby family members begin privately informing you that someone else (not them!) is cross with you either for withholding certain information about medical procedures (real or imagined, imminent or merely hypothetical), and that you must find a way to soothe their injured feelings without betraying the confidence of the relative who told you they were angry in the first place. The primary role here is of the Busy Bureaucrat and the primary scenario is Sorry, I Just Work Here, I Don’t Make The Rules.
All Of A Sudden You’re Mother’s Darling
Relatives who never previously evinced the barest awareness of your gender are suddenly saying shit like “I’m so proud of the woman you’ve become” and “To A VERY Special Nephew” and “But your breasts are such an integral part of what it means to be cousins, I’ve always thought.” A sibling who perhaps had previously paid the transitioner little special attention might discover within themselves a passionate attachment to the idea of “brotherhood” and insist on reinforcing this attachment with repeated invitations to axe-throwing bars or camping trips.
Subtypes can include a parent who formerly never had a kind word to say about feminism all at once discovering they are in fact so incredibly committed to the movement that they couldn’t possibly allow your transition to proceed a moment longer without a good old-fashioned consciousness-raising rap session; a sudden interest in psychology (particularly sixty-year-old studies about wire mothers); a newfound commitment to the gendered sanctity of bachelor parties (do not be surprised if you are suddenly inundated with corrective invitations to baby showers and other, usually-infrequent single-sex events; you may very well lead to a sudden rash of marriage-and-baby ceremonies among your social set merely by expressing curiosity in the possibility of transition).
But I Was Going To Run Errands Today
A classic dodge. The problem isn’t what you said but when you said it; weddings and christenings and illness in elderly relatives are especially popular justifications, but so are upcoming vacations or plans to return to school. The aim is to introduce the idea of a rota into the scenario, whereby each relative might be allowed to do something that pleases them so long as they take their turn in the queue and don’t inadvertently cut in front of another relative who might have been waiting to self-actualize ahead of them.
When Were You Going To Tell Us?
A backwards maneuver – whenever you came out, it should have been earlier. Either delivered tearfully (“I wish I had known sooner, it breaks my heart that you might have been in pain but didn’t tell me”) or briskly, which usually segues into the next strategy:
Team of Rivals
From Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer-winning biography of Lincoln’s cabinet (particularly Seward and Chase, both of whom ran against him in the general election), prized among a certain type for prolonging civil disagreement into a permanent state of relation. “There ought to be a committee, we ought to be on it, and if you really valued democracy, we’d spend the next fifteen years taking straw polls.”
What Else Have You Been Keeping From Us
Sometimes leads into Where Were You The Night of April 18th? Wild speculations, accusations, hypotheticals to follow. Lots of if/then statements. The goal of these games is increased surveillance, ideally increased self-surveillance and unprompted admissions of various guilts from the transitioning member.
Who’s Going To Tell Grandma?
Followed by You Can’t Tell Grandma and sometimes even You Can’t Tell Grandma That We Know That She Knows Now; very often Grandma surprises everyone by taking the news with delight, and mentioning an interesting sort of fellow she knew in the 50s.
It’s Up To You, Just Promise Me You’ll Never Do ______
“You can go to a restaurant, so long as you promise not to talk to any waiters.”
Old As The Hills
Usually but not always the refuge of a parent, can sometimes be found in a sibling or cousin of the same age group but who immediately digs into their identity as “old” and therefore slow to change. “So you’re trans! How interesting, how even rather lovely. I am suddenly old. I am defined entirely by the time and place in which I was born. I was born in a certain place, at a certain time, and as a result of this immutable fact about me, I may never comprehend you. I am ancient and unchangeable, like the hills, and you are fresh and new as the dawn, which I might appreciate but can never respect as an equal.”
The Check Is Due, Motherfucker
Takes your coming-out (rightly) as a show of vulnerability and leverages the opportunity to publicly list your past shortcomings, failures, and errors, which they have been mentally cataloging for some time. “How can you think of _____ when you still owe me money from that semester you dropped out of school?”
A relative might be seized with the spirit and feel moved to confess something equally (or even more) shocking but wholly unrelated, also known as the No More Lies maneuver, as when Jack admits to dating a Democratic Congresswoman in season two of 30 Rock and is met with a series of shocking admissions that culminate in “I murdered my wife.”
If It’s Me, It’s Okay (Backstage Pass)
Someone who expects to be made an indefinite and singular exception to transition on the strength of their unique connection to the would-be transitioner: “We’re so close, I don’t have to follow any of the same arcane rules and procedures as the rest of you – really they’re just loyalty tests of the kind I myself passed decades ago.” Sometimes the relationship in question has been historically close, but just as often this comes from an indifferent parent or distant uncle.
Do You Remember When…
Relatives may become suddenly so plagued with nostalgia that they cannot see you without bringing up the most anodyne long-ago anecdotes, which provide plausible cover for leaning heavily on a former name: “That was how I knew you at the time, of course. That was a very special trip to the Stop & Shop, and I’ll always remember it because of your birth name.”
Ow, My Leg — No, It’s Nothing
Expect frequent newfound references to an old wound (either physical or psychic), an indistinct tragedy in the not-so-distant past, a great but vague loss, etc – anything to intimate that the speaker is struggling to bear a great, unrelated burden, about which asking further questions would be terribly uncouth and invasive, and expecting them to take on any new tasks unthinkably rude.
Just One More Question…
The Columbo approach: “I promise I’ll go away, you’ve been very patient, I’m sure I’ve been an awful bother these last few days. Before I go, I just had one more question about what specific event from your adolescence led to this shocking catalyzation…” There will always be one more question, and there will never be a denouement.
You Wouldn’t Hit A Guy With Glasses At Your Own Funeral
“You can’t speak to me like that – I’m in mourning!” A neat little trick whereby the transitioner becomes both the dead figure around which the funeral comes together and simultaneously a disruptive presence during the service, who must be corralled and ejected by the “appropriate” mourners.
I’ve Been Trying So Hard
The classic ur-game, upon which all other transition-deferral games depend. “I’ve been trying so hard” is never followed by “…and here are some wonderful results from the effort I’ve put in,” or even with specific examples of endeavor and progress. In this way it is remarkably close to Ow, My Leg.
The “I’ve Been Trying” party conceptualizes their relative’s transition as a withdrawal from the family bank of shared credit, and cannot understand why the transitioner is not offering the family something of equal or shared value to make up for the lost balance. “Look at how hard I’ve been trying to allow you to transition. When are you going to offer me something in return?” This type of “trying” does not result in improvement, and does not expect to; this is effort for its own conspicuous sake, designed to call an old debt into collection.
While this list is hardly exhaustive, it does provide a fairly comprehensive cross-section of the most common early-stage parries and deferrals a would-be transitioner might expect from the type of family that historically avoids direct conflict and avowal in favor of negation, substitution, and emotional bartering. I do not here offer specific counter-strategies since reactions can vary widely from family to family depending on size, history, cultural context, personal preference, etc; I merely attempt to outline the geography of the scene so that the wary transitioner might choose their own path(s) of least resistance. Remember that these scenarios are designed primarily to delay you, and proceed at your own chosen speed, to dodge or barrel-roll where you will. Good luck!
Special thanks to Mattie, James, and Calvin for helping to shape and refine this list.
While I have never transitioned, some items on this list of reaction gymnastics are very familiar. They are the same as I've heard from my dad after I've made requests such as, "Please stop having prolonged discussions with me about my body and how bad or good you think it is today," "You hurt my feelings in this specific way and I wish you'd apologize," "I am going to hang up the phone because your haranguing makes it clear you're not able to talk about this sensibly right now and I have to go back to work," etc.
As someone who's parents engaged in a rapid-fire version of all of these years ago, and who has since fully cut contact (for a wide variety of reasons, this among them), reading this really helps me feel less shame over the choice to stop contact.
Despite all the unarguably good reasons to have made the choices I have, I still sometimes feel the pang of cost-benefit guilt that, "sure, they're assholes, but what if they SOMEDAY came around to my transition! Then I'd only have a dozen reasons to not talk to them, instead of a dozen and one."
I intuitively grasped the truth of the matter - they were never going to 'get better,' they're just waiting for me to get past my Condition. But feeling it is different from seeing someone else put it into words and crystalizing the experiences. Thank you for this, every time I feel some pang of guilt for an Ow My Leg or a When Were You Going To Tell Us I'll come back to this.