(Note: It is important for readers to recognize that I am an ally and sibling to someone who identifies as transgender*. As such, I do not speak for all types of immigrant families, nor do I speak for everyone who identifies as transgender*.)
The process of explaining your transgender* identity is difficult enough when we, as a society, tend to see gender as inextricable from biological sex and therefore permanent from birth.
Explaining the same concept to your immigrant parents can leave you literally at a loss for words.
During the winter of 2011, and again in the summer of 2012, my brother, who identifies as transgender, attempted to “come out” to my immigrant Chinese parents.
The process occurred twice because we were not prepared the first time.
It took us, as a family, several months to recover. It was emotionally exhausting, especially because we were not equipped to have this very big conversation with linguistic and cultural differences in place.
Coming out is never a perfectly smooth process, but there are some lessons we learned from our experience when coming out to immigrant parents and loved ones.
During his coming out process, my brother struggled to find resources to help him in regards to coming out to our parents. Thus, this article is particular to our immigrant family struggle.
However, I hope that this article can act as a starting point for others.
1. Communicate Feelings to Yourself First
Coming to terms with your transgender* identity can be a messy process.
Many people are initially confused or ashamed when they realize that they don’t fit into their prescribed gender box, and may also feel depressed as they struggle to be their true selves.
Most likely, your family will share these difficult feelings as well.
And it’s important for you to revisit these feelings so that you can empathize with their struggle.
By the time you officially “come out” to your family, you will likely be further along in this process.
You might be impatient for change, and you might think to yourself, “I’m ready for this change, why can’t they get on board already?”
Which brings us to number two:
2. Recognize the Barriers Your Family Must Overcome
Before beginning your coming out process, you must first recognize that it is not just about you and your gender identity.
Depending on your family’s unique immigrant background, your transition will reveal other obstacles, such as linguistic, religious, cultural, and class differences.
For our Chinese parents, we were met with linguistic and cultural pushback.
Chinese characters, like words in Romance languages, denote gender. Try having a conversation without using gender markers like “he” and “she” or “his” and “hers.” It’s more difficult than you might imagine.
But sometimes, there are ways around this. For example, Chinese characters are verbally gender-neutral, but Chinese characters are gender-specific. This actually made Mandarin conversations a lot easier than conversations in English during my brother’s transition!
Moreover, traditional Confucian beliefs rest upon yin and yang balances, as seen in light versus dark, good versus bad, and male versus female. In order to achieve balance, everyone in society must understand their role. Male and female coexist as complements to one another. One leads and the other follows. There isn’t much gray area.
Our family’s struggle to fit into the American middle class also pushed my parents to assimilate and adhere to “normal.” Growing up around other immigrant Chinese families, we knew that our parents measured their success through our successes. We were encouraged to speak English with American accents, attend prestigious schools, and date the “right” people.
All of which can create obstacles when trying to approach a subject as sensitive and complicated as gender identity.
But by recognizing your family’s barriers, you can begin to unpack these systematic obstacles.
You can help your family understand how language, religion, cultural beliefs, and class expectations have historically led us to our current beliefs.
Who made these unspoken rules? (Probably some man a long, long time ago.)
When did they come about and do they still make sense? (Not really. We don’t exactly need to “populate the earth” anymore.)
This process will also allow you to separate your family’s beliefs from what society has made them believe.
3. Help Your Loved Ones Understand
Sometimes this means doing the work by equipping them with the correct language, resources, and contacts. And taking it upon yourself to educate others can be difficult.
So do your research.
Ask yourself: What will the process be like? Who has done this before you?
Find other people who identify as transgender* and who look like you.
You may need to look to Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media. My brother, for instance, found solidarity in NQAPIA, the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance.
Unfortunately, mainstream avenues still mostly feature white men and women as spokespersons for the transgender* community. That means that your family will be exposed to those same representatives – if any at all.
Also ask yourself: What does “transgender” mean in your family’s native language?
We found out that, until recently, there was no technical term for “transgender” in Mandarin. Instead, gender-nonconforming folks are usually addressed by a term meaning “not a boy or a girl,” which is just one way that can feel publically shaming.
After some research, my brother found studies that used a newer, more technical term. When he came out to our parents, he set the tone of the conversation by using that term throughout.
Not proficient in your native language? That’s okay! Most of us born in the US are not fluent in our native languages. One thing you can try is finding someone you trust who can help you communicate clearly with your family since a lot can be lost in translation.
4. Enlist the Help of Siblings and Cousins
Siblings and cousins are closer to your age and can thus help close the generation gap.
Chances are, your siblings and cousins will be more open to your identity, because they are more exposed to LGBTQ+ friends and issues.
But the great thing about siblings and cousins is that they also understand your family dynamics, such as communication styles and conflict resolution strategies, in ways that outsiders cannot.
More importantly, siblings understand you.
As Jeffrey Kluger, author of The Sibling Effect, puts it: “Your parents leave you too soon and your kids and spouse come along late, but your siblings know you when you are in your most inchoate form.” (More on “The Gift of Siblings” here.)
As an older sibling, I was there from his birth.
I was there to witness his first (secret) crush, his struggle with labels that didn’t quite fit (Am I a “lesbian” just because I look like a woman and like other people who look like women?), and I was there for one of the first “This is my brother” introductions.
Siblings are not parents. We are there from birth, but not before. That means that what we work with what we have.
We have no preconceptions for what your future should be, because we were not there in the very beginning when all those dreams were dreamt. So it can be easier for us to adjust to the changes.
By coming out to siblings and cousins first, you can create allies within your family who are able to support you and speak on your behalf.
Coming out can be an exhausting process, and you need a strong campaign team.
5. Communicate Your Feelings Often
What are your fears? What are theirs? Is it acceptance? Your safety?
During the coming out process, people tend to retreat, because they fear that others will no longer accept them.
From my experience, this only results in more messy feelings. Loved ones could misinterpret your actions as a severing of ties from the family.
If you need to retreat for a while, be clear.
Write a letter to organize your thoughts. A letter can also allow family members time to process your words.
Are you keeping quiet because you are uncomfortable with your new voice or wearing different attire around family? Are you just not feeling good today because you don’t think you pass?
Most cisgender people cannot understand the daily struggle, because we are able to take our gender identity for granted.
So communicate often and clearly.
6. Be Patient
Recognize that this process does not change overnight.
There are a lot of barriers to overcome.
It is a lifelong process for you; thus, it will most likely also be a lifelong struggle for your loved ones.
Remember that when you explain your transgender* identity to your immigrant family, it’s not just about you anymore.
Sometimes the boat will meet friendly currents, but most of the time, you will face rough waters.
But it’s not just about you anymore. It’s no longer just you in the boat.
Amy Sun is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She currently lives in DC and rues cold weather. Amy coaches new teachers in the classroom by day and teaches graduate-level classes by night. She watches at least two cat videos each day, loves to talk about zombie apocalypse escape plans, and needs to get paid for her people-watching (because she is very good at it). Read her articles here.