Supporting a transitioning family member, when there’s an un-supportive family

Guest post by Meg
Transgender Coming Out Card from Etsy seller MAJIKATZ

To start this post, I’ll say, I feel torn. I married my husband just over a year ago, and since then, his sister told me that she is transitioning from female to a male. I was told long before the rest of the family, which made me feel good at first that I was trusted with that kind of information.

However, the rest of the family wasn’t informed, and I was asked to tell everyone before we all went to visit over the summer. To make things a little more challenging for everyone, Moe is now identifying as a gay male, which I think just confused the family even more.

Ever since that visit, things have been awkward…

My husband’s family still thinks this is a phase, and Moe* (not their real name) will just go back to being “herself” again when this gets old. They aren’t considering the fact that Moe has already started testosterone injections, and seems very set about this decision.

Thankfully, my husband is trying to be supportive of Moe, at least when they speak directly. But he still refuses to use male identifiers or pronouns when he is talking to me, or the rest of his family about it. Although, he has started using Moe’s new chosen name, so I think he is starting to come around.

My husband’s family, however, was already divided because of circumstances from years ago, and it makes me very sad to see this divide them even more. I just want everyone to get along, and I want Moe to be happy in whatever skin it is that makes him happy, whether that be male or female, it shouldn’t matter.

All the while, I try very hard to be supportive of Moe’s decision, and at the same time, I also try to be very sensitive to the fact that my husband and his family are less inclined to be supportive.

How do I remain loyal to both sides, but still support the choice to fully transition?

Anyone else have a transitioning family member? What were your experiences and best pieces of advice?

Comments on Supporting a transitioning family member, when there’s an un-supportive family

  1. Be an example to your husband and his family. They may take time to come around, but it will be faster and easier with you there leading the way. A lot of people need to see trans people and transition normalized before they can allow themselves to start accepting them, and it’s easier not to try if no one else is. Be the normalizer. Support Moe even when he isn’t around. Especially then. You don’t need to start fights over it, but continue to call him by his correct name and pronouns even if the rest of the family refuses to.

    I also recommend talking to Moe about this, if you haven’t already, and asking what you can do to be a good ally and advocate for him. I know it must be hard being in this tough spot between them, but it sounds like Moe really trusts and is relying on you, so check in with him to see what you can do to help bridge this gap of understanding and respect with his family.

    And thank you for wanting to be that person looking out for him! He’s lucky to have you!

  2. Depending on how his family continues to deal with the transition, you may not be able to play both sides. I would honestly suggest worrying more about your husband and his ability to accept his brother’s transition. A support group or therapy might help your husband accept his brother.

  3. Honestly, this is one of those situations where you shouldn’t be loyal to both sides. Your husband’s family is in the wrong, and they do not deserve your loyalty. Correct them when they misgender Moe – every time. Be firm, and be consistent about it. It will be annoying. You will feel like a jerk. But it’s necessary work.

    • You don’t know the family. You have no expertise. Her loyalty is to her husband. Her best bet (in my opinion – I have no expertise either) is to simply stand with the family and help this poor girl with her body dysmorphia. Hopefully in time, she will get the help (diagnosis and proper medication) she needs. It IS the family that will be there for her at that time. They have no agenda, just pure love for their daughter/sister.

  4. When my own sister came out about transitioning to male, I was the only member of my family who a) personally knew anyone who had transitioned, b) was educated about language and the importance of pronouns, and c) knew he would still be the exact same person, albeit way more excited about life in general.

    I struggled with fierce protectiveness over him and anger at my family’s reluctance to embrace the change. At the same time, I felt it was my responsibility to patiently (and privately) hear out their mountains of concerns… I wanted to take on that task rather than him. It was tough to explain that their deep concern and discomfort wasn’t a solution, it was in fact the main problem. There is no other possible loving reaction than unconditional support and pride in him.

    They did come around, all of them, including extended more conservative family, after lots of long, loving conversations debunking many preconceived ideas and worries. I just think that as an ally, we should be putting ourselves in the line of fire and having those hard conversations instead of leaving it to the trans, gay or queer loved one. I would suggest having that tough talk with your husband first, and hopefully he’ll be able to in turn speak with his family.

  5. To me, this falls under “his family, his problem.” You’re the new one to the family. Coming in after a year and trying to make them adhere to your ideals will only go badly. Unless you want to ostracize your in-laws and possibly cause a permanent rift, leave it alone.
    If you feel the need to correct or educate your husband in private, feel free to do that. He should love you and listen to you, just as you should love and listen to him. But don’t correct Moe’s parents or other family members. Don’t tell them they’re misgendering him or try to teach them how to behave (unless they ask). Lead by example by using his chosen name and pronouns without apology or explanation. Yes, that may make you uncomfortable. Yes, it will certainly make Moe uncomfortable. But it’s really not your place to try to change your husband’s family.

  6. “How do I remain loyal to both sides?”
    You don’t. It’s nice that you want to help Moe, but acting as the middleman between him and his family doesn’t help Moe and may harm you. Part of Moe’s transition is educating his family. You can treat him with respect and be a good friend to him but Moe needs to interact directly with his family on this issue. You can make it clear to the family you’re “Team Moe” by consistently using the name and pronouns he prefers but Moe has to advocate for himself. In fact, part of the reason they’re not treating this as a serious decision may be because he hasn’t confronted them himself.

    • Saying “Moe needs to advocate for himself” seems a little insensitive. Being transgender puts people at a much higher risk of depression, risky behaviors, harm by others, and suicide. Not having the support of family is an aggravating factor in all of those things. For all we know, Moe might need to be taking care of himself right now instead of facing what feels like overwhelming judgement and disappointment coming from his family.

  7. I’ve heard (and found this to be true in my experience of seeing my friends transition) that the transition of biological signifiers play a role in how others perceive the gender of the transperson. Right at the beginning of someone’s transition, it can be hard to recognize the transitioning person as whatever gender they’re transitioning to, no matter how educated and well intentioned you are, because phermones are telling your body that their body is whatever it was assigned at birth. As time and hormone treatments go on, the phermones shift and you recognize them on a biochemical level to be whatever gender they transitioned to.

    Obviously education and ideological support of trans rights are important, but it’s possible that a lot of the heavy lifting involved in changing your husband’s family’s viewpoint will be taken care of by time. Time to get used to the idea and time for the full transition to happen so that Moe will stop seeming like a girl in drag and start seeming like his new self.

    In the meantime, be supportive of Moe and try not to burn bridges with the rest of the fam.

  8. A few thoughts…

    1. To be honest I feel like Moe put you in a tough position, especially that you were the one telling the family about his transition. I think that he trusted you as the first person in the family to come out to is amazing but it was not your responsibility to tell the rest of the family, that was his. You could have been the supporting person in the room but ultimately he needed to tell his family. All that did was further the idea that it is “just a phase”.

    2. My aunt came out as female when I was a tween and it took my mother and her sister AGES to get used to the idea that the brother they remembered is their sister. Correct pronoun usage took a long time. My mother has told me before that it felt like her brother died and this new person was in his place. She had to mourn that loss before she could accept the change. I know that sounds extreme, although to be fair that was over 20 years ago and trans people were not so widely known as they are today. The whole family transitions with the family member going through the transition and it takes time.

    3. You can definitely continue to advocate for Moe by using his correct name and gender whenever you are speaking to him and about him. It is so important to have that validation. My husband is trans and hasn’t yet medically transitioned or changed his name so there are times when I really have to play to his masculinity in order to help him feel himself. For my husband, doctor’s appointments and other times that he is required to use his legal name and gets misgendered can put him in a real funk and positive reinforcement from me helps him remember who he is.

  9. Loyalty is not the same as people-pleasing or sharing the same opinion. Basically, the family needs to know you love them and respect them, but you do not share their viewpoint. And that you will stand up for Moe because it is what you believe is right, and you hope they will love and respect you and Moe as well.

  10. Everyone, please read this cover-to-cover:

    Full disclosure: I work for National Geographic. I also have a nephew who is transitioning from female to male and many in his extended family have been less than supportive. When the issue came out, I brought it to our family gathering so that those who were behaving in a resistant manner would have an opportunity to educate themselves. I think many found it very helpful.

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