Shortly before my gender assignment surgery in 2002, my father told me that he was grieving the loss of his first-born son. My first impulse was to comfort him. We talked about his feelings one afternoon and I reassured him that he wasn’t losing me. I thought this was my duty; after all, he had supported my transition, defending me against bigoted relatives (even as he stumbled over my pronouns and told me I needed to be less argumentative if I planned to live as a woman).
Still, I counted myself lucky that he and other members of my immediate family didn’t reject me, which an estimated 50 percent of trans people have experienced. So I listened, even as his words were tough for me to hear. He lamented that I could no longer bring honor to our Filipino family or be his rightful heir — gender expectations I couldn’t fulfill and had grown to resent.
It was also hard to listen to because I was dealing with the losses of real relationships of my own: my then-partner, close friends, work colleagues. But I couldn’t tell him or the rest of my family this because I didn’t want to lose their tenuous support.
I’ve heard other trans people tell similar stories of absorbing their loved ones’ grief, of seeing the depiction of such grief in media, of having the eerie feeling that they are providing solace to people who mourned as though they had died.
There was the trans man whose parents continued to display pictures of him as a beautiful girl all around their house, or the trans woman who described how her transition was a celebration for her but was a funeral for her wife. There are personal essays, podcast episodes and articles that focus on the reactions of spouses, partners and family members of trans people grieving over their transitions.
What is often left unspoken is that a trans person is expected to provide emotional support through this grieving process. My father has repeatedly said I should always be grateful he supported me when other parents wouldn’t. Yet I’ve come to find it deeply unfair that trans people are often left with the burden of assuaging their loved ones’ grief.
Not only does this expectation posit that being transgender is a trans person’s fault, but it also fails to account for the fact that transitioning is likely to be many times more difficult for the trans person than for any loved one. Most important, grief as a reaction to transition is a form of transphobia; it reduces a person’s very being to their gender, and reveals that a loved one cares more about a phantom image than for the trans person they supposedly love, who is right in front of them.
We often have to tolerate these expression of grief, knowing well that we would not receive the same level of empathy for our struggles, because we live in a world that affirms the feelings of cisgender people while rejecting our own.
The first step toward just consideration of trans people is for our loved one to deal with their negative feelings about our transition as far away from us as possible. Whether they seek solace from their own friends, a support group or a professional therapist, it is ultimately their responsibility, and not ours, to deal with their grief. Expecting us to comfort them promotes the transphobic idea that cisgender people’s feelings must be prioritized over ours, even when we are clearly dealing with so much more, and those expressions of grief are harmful to us.
An even better step is for loved ones to reframe their feelings over a trans person’s transition. The person they’re mourning is a projection of someone who didn’t really exist in the first place. And the person sitting next to them on the couch is finally taking the steps they need to be happy. (Often, one of the biggest factors holding them back is their worry that their loved ones’ will react negatively.) So families and friends should celebrate, rather than mourn a trans person’s transition. That would be one of the greatest sources of support and it’s also one of the best ways to show the person that they are truly loved.
My father returned to the Philippines in 2011, and we’ve grown estranged, in large part because of our conflicting expectations of each other, the messiness of having belonged to two countries and, in my case, two genders. I receded from his expectations; he wanted me to be compliant like a good Filipino daughter, yet also help him financially like a first-born son.
Now I realize that the origin and core of our rift is my disappointment in having to absorb my father’s grief about my transition. He unfairly expected me to bear his emotions because he supported me, unlike many other parents. If we come to a mutual understanding of who should have been responsible for his emotions, it may be what I need to feel ready to take on my expected responsibilities as a good Filipino child, regardless of my gender.
Meredith Talusan (@1demerith), a journalist, is the author of the forthcoming memoir “Fairest.”
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