Q. My favorite brother is coming to visit us for Thanksgiving. He is transgender, and now living most of the time as a woman. Could you tell me more about being transgender? Should I ask him questions?
A. It seems you have accepted your brother’s decision to change genders. At a time like this, he needs the support and understanding of your family. If his name is Kevin or Kate, he or she is still the same person you have always loved and respected.
As a psychologist, I know how difficult it is for people to decide to move forward with gender reassignment. It is never a decision that is made without years of exploration, psychotherapy and discussions with professionals.
Psychologists now accept that being transgender is not a choice; nor is it any longer considered a psychological disorder. Scientists believe that it is caused by a complex mixture of heredity, pre-natal hormones, and environmental factors. Many transgender people report that they were aware of wanting to be another gender as early as 5 or 6 years of age.
Before your brother’s visit, it is important for your family to understand the difference between gender and sexuality. A transgender person once told me, “Sexuality is about who you want to go to bed with. Gender is about who you want to go to bed as.” If a transgender person is attracted to a woman and becomes a woman, she will continue to be attracted to women. If the transgender person is gay and becomes a woman, she will continue to be attracted to men.
Most people who have gone through gender reassignment do not mind answering questions. Among other things, you need to know if your sibling prefers to be addressed as he or she. Does he or she have a new name as well as a new identity? The more you know, the more comfortable everyone will feel. Transgender people often want to discuss the topic in hopes that knowledge will diminish prejudice. Remember we are most frightened of that which we do not understand.
It is important to respect your brother’s privacy. Do not “out” him to others unless he gives you permission. Let him tell family and friends on his own time schedule. Be there for him, respect him, and love him, even if you now love her instead of him.
Q. My in-laws who live in another state are coming to visit for a week. They are extremely critical of my religion, politics and cooking. Please give me some advice before their arrival.
A. It is extremely painful when you are attempting to please someone who becomes critical of your actions. Since most people want their in-laws to be part of their family, it is important for both sides to work on the relationship. Following are some suggestions that may be helpful:
• Try not to take the criticism personally. Some people are critical of anyone different from them.
• Don’t discuss religion and politics. If they engage you on these topics, just respond with “we’re happy with our church” and switch the topic. If they start on politics, reply with “I’m sure there are good people in both parties.”
• If your mother-in-law complains about your cooking, ask her to make some of her favorite dishes. Put her in charge of dinner for a few nights.
• Have your husband speak with his parents about their behavior if they become increasingly annoying. They’re his parents, not yours.
• If the situation does not improve, set boundaries as a couple and tell your in-laws about them. It may help you to air some of your concerns.
During this time, be certain that you and your husband are communicating, and he is helping you deal with the problem. Remember that they will be gone in a week, and your life can return to normal.
Nancy Ryburn holds a doctorate degree in psychology from Yeshiva University in New York City. She teaches psychology at Southeast Arkansas College. E-mail your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. The questions could appear in a future column. There will be no identifying information and all correspondence remains confidential.