Collateral Damage

The unintended consequences of transition.

If you’ve followed me long enough, I think it becomes evident that I am a huge advocate for early transition; particularly in youth. The reasons for this stem from my own battles with some very dysphoric body issues that all come as a direct result from going through puberty brought on by my natal gender. Many late transitioners have the same laments, as we are now stuck with permanent body structures that cannot be easily modified, if at all.

The ability to prevent irreparable physical and mental harm by initiating an early transition seems like a no-brainer, but there are less obvious reasons for aligning with your gender identity as soon as possible. What I am referring to is the harm brought to our loved ones.

Let me make it clear, many people of my age (or older) did not have an option to transition young because in our youth the medical establishment was more destructive to the Transgender community than it was helpful. Having been out for such a short time, it would be hard for me to really pinpoint exactly when the establishment shifted course from shame to support, but it absolutely occurred within the last 20 years.

Nowadays a child with affirming parents could expect to see a gender therapist, delay puberty, and eventually begin hormone replacement. While parents are going to grieve the loss of the child they thought they had, allowing this change prevents the suffering of countless others who would one day become friends or family to that Transgender individual. For people such as myself, we’re left looking back at a swath of damage created by our failing to live authentically, and we feel guilt. Like viewing every horrific aerial shot of a tornado’s damage path, we are left stunned by the collateral damage left in the wake of our self-actualization, and we’re wondering how it could have been prevented.

For me personally I’ve watched my wife grieve the death of her husband many times over. Had I transitioned in my youth, she would never have had to endure this suffering. Though it’s safe to say we’d never be married at all, or even be aware of each other’s existence.

What if we’d had children? Many people who transition actually do have kids. They have to concern themselves with depriving those children of a mother/father-figure that they’ve come to rely on. Older children don’t always find acceptance easy, while younger children often do. In that situation, the longer one delays revealing their truth to their children, the more distress it will likely cause. Moreover, there are the tertiary effects to the children’s lives; how will their social structures change when it becomes public knowledge that one of their parents is Trans? Will they be prevented from hanging out with their established peer group? Will the parents of those peers deny them authority to remain friends with your child? Will the child be embarrassed to have their Trans-parent take them to public spaces where they might be subject to the ridicule of their peers. Will they be bullied at school because of it? Those are just some of the negatives that can be offset by early revelation.

We can’t talk about this and ignore the fact that ones orientation can be set relative to one’s gender identity. Many people think that a Transgender person’s orientation is subject to change in transition, but I will always maintain that orientation never changes. Ultimately what changes is our comfort with being honest about that orientation. I’ve always known I wasn’t quite straight, but I’ve also known I wasn’t Gay. So, as someone who was in the closet about their gender identity and had been living as a man, I took no issue with being romantically inclined towards women; it was however, not completely honest. As a result, I had to open up about my orientation with my wife, and hope that it too doesn’t add to the damage.

This leads us to a common story among those in the Gay and Lesbian community. The one where they tried to live a heterosexual life for the purpose satisfying their own parents expectations, fitting in among their peers, or perhaps just to see if they can override those homosexual inclinations with forced heterosexuality. The result of this denial of self leads us back to broken hearted lovers, and children who will watch their parents marriage dissolve over what could have been spared by simply being true to our nature from the get-go.

So, the question becomes “why did we create all this suffering? What was the mechanism that inspired us to hide our truth from our lovers, friends, family, or even ourselves?”

In my mind, there is one answer to those questions, and it’s as simple as it is complex. The answer is “SHAME.”

I couldn’t pinpoint at what point in my childhood I came to associate homosexuality with shame. But as a kid, I didn’t see the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation, therefore I viewed them both through the same lense of shame. I felt very early on that these feelings need to be kept secret, lest I be considered deviant and become subject to some form of punishment. Whether that would have been my father’s belt, or my brother’s bullying, I wasn’t going to risk it. And if they found out, what was to stop the news from spreading?

What’s confusing for me is that shame is no more innate than racism; it is a learned behaviour. It’s a safe bet that anyone who has raised children knows that if they didn’t tell those kids to put on clothes, most would be apt to run around naked until they realized that they’re peers weren’t doing so. At which point the child learns to be clothed or face ostracization. And in this kind we might infer that even in affirming households, a child might succumb to the pressure of their peers. They may learn shame associated with anything other than cisgender and heterosexual from sources outside their affirming home.

Thus begins the process of collateral damage.

Shame is an unusual thing because as I said, I don’t know at what point I learned to feel it. I am forced to examine some obvious culprits; the church is notorious for utilizing shame as a motivator. Do this and get this. We all know that’s how you get to heaven, right? So if you do something that’s viewed as sinful, we then associate sin with shame. While I don’t recall any specific instances, I’m sure there were moments in my youth where I was probably caught with my hands down my pants and undoubtedly reprimanded for such behaviours. I likely felt shame which I equated to sin, and naturally those who sin “burn in Hell.” So I probably began my perception of shame from consciousness gleaned from church.

Surely there are many people who are not avid church goers who have ended up being parents to LGBTQ+ children whom have also struggled with shame. And it begs the question, how did they become so scared to become themselves if their parents aren’t religious. In a strange turn-of-phrase, we can probably see this as a “sins of the father (or mother)” scenario. While those parents might not subscribe to religion, that doesn’t mean they aren’t carrying latent shame programming from having grown up with religious parents themselves.

Of course religion can’t take the brunt of the blame, we are molded by many things as we grow up. Just hearing a parent make a single homophobic or transphobic remark can quickly send a child into a shame prison. It’s these off the cuff remarks that a parent might make that can become the catalyst for a life wrought with suffering.

Imagine that in the presence of their child a parent said something which invalidates another who is LGBTQ+. Assuming the child has come to the point of realizing they are a member of that community, and cannot trust that their parent will love them, what’s the destruction path look like for them?

— They emotionally shut down.
 — They become agressive.
 — They self-injure, ideate, or attempt suicide.
 — The take to addictive behaviours; food, alcohol, drugs, sex, etc…
 — They go on to marry a partner that they aren’t actually sexually oriented with; the marriage ultimately fails.
 — They had children with their former spouse; the family ends up fractured with varying degrees of acceptance and custody.
 — Family friends end up choosing sides.

It might seem like a short list of events, but the amount of actual personal and interpersonal damage that can take place among all the lives involved is truly immense. The means of preventing this level of devastation is simple. Unmitigated love and acceptance for anyone struggling with matters of gender identity or sexual orientation.

The truest act of love for any parent would be wanting their child to be happy with their life, and by proxy be supportive of the child's decisions regarding their personhood. Parents are the first line of defense when it comes to preventing collateral damage. It’s entirely possible that in an affirming family, and an affirming society, we could get to a point where the only thing left in our wake are the lives of people who love us and accepted us as the people we were meant to be; not the unwitting destroyer that shame twisted us into.

I want to close this thought with a deeper question. What if those who self-destruct, or simply commit a seemingly random act of suicide did so because of the shame? They could not bring themselves to ever utter the words “I’m gay” or “I’m Transgender.” Instead, they just killed themselves without leaving so much as a clue to the motivation. Would it not be worth saving their lives to show them a face of unmitigated acceptance such that they never need feel these desperate feelings? Would it not be worth it to not only disuade them from bringing about their own end, but to prevent the ensuing collateral damage?

We may want to blame the individual for the destruction they’ve wrought, but societally speaking, it’s the shame we’ve instilled in those individuals which triggered the devastation. We are at fault, and we need to own that before we can fix it.

The casualties left in the wake of coming out only become greater the longer we wait to reveal who we really are. There are no benefits from allowing shame to keep you in the closet. Don’t waste another day living as someone you’re not.

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