There are a decent number of resources available to help people navigate the experience of transitioning from one gender to another.
But what if your sister became your brother? Even if you were happy for them to live this new life, change is hard! How would you handle it? Are you allowed to mourn the loss of your sister while celebrating getting a brother?
Today, Megan is sharing her and her brother Jake’s story. (Names and identifying details have been changed.)
Tell us a bit about yourself!
Hi there! I’m Megan, a late-twenties marketing professional living in the Midwest.
My great joys are cooking delicious meals (and sharing with friends!), reading piles of library books, working on projects at the local makerspace, practicing yoga, and going on outdoor adventures. I have a really weird cat and a really awesome boyfriend.
Growing up, what was your sibling like?
My younger brother Jake was assigned female at birth. He was the ultimate renaissance child: He always had a new hobby, a new obsession, a new catchphrase.
His sense of style was no exception. He regularly experimented with new looks, everything from classical feminine to more tomboyish, and his hair changed drastically a few times. I don’t remember him being consistently hyperfeminine or hypermasculine; if anything, I was the bigger tomboy between the two of us.
He came out as Jake in late 2016, in his twenties. He started experimenting with an amalgamation of Jake and his given name about a year beforehand, and he came out as queer maybe two years before that.
In the context of the two years leading up to his transition, it really wasn’t that surprising. In the context of his whole life, it was kind of a shock. From what I’ve read, many trans folks show very early signs of being trans, but Jake really didn’t.
How did your family react to the news?
Overall, our immediate and extended family is very supportive of the transition itself. A few folks don’t fully understand what it “means,” and many were hurt that they found out via social media, but no one loves him any less just because he’s a boy now.
How are you supporting your “newly minted” brother?
I support him by normalizing it in a way. At a family gathering shortly after he came out, Jake had a headache and excused himself from the table. Our mom made the common family joke: “Oh, good, now we can talk about him behind his back!” I leaned forward and said, very faux-seriously, “You guys know he used to be a girl, right?”
It broke the tension by acknowledging the elephant in the room, making people laugh, and giving our relatives space to ask some questions they weren’t sure they could ask of Jake.
Also, I wrote the family Christmas letter that year, and instead of making a big deal about his transition, I just referred to him once as “Jake (the artist formerly known as [his old name]).” He got a kick out of it, and it saved him a lot of conversations.
I do the “big sister spoiling” thing. Probably 80% of Jake’s wardrobe needed revamping, and our mom and I had a great time picking out new clothes for him for Christmas that year. He loved both the new clothes and the chance to talk about his new style.
If you’re struggling to find masculine clothes to fit a feminine body, or vice versa, ask a salesperson. A young woman at Levi’s found the perfect jeans for Jake after I explained what I needed, and a tailor didn’t bat an eye when fitting Jake for a suit. Kind people are so eager to help you.
There are lots of resources out there for trans people, but fewer resources for the people in their lives. What books/websites/tools have helped you and your family navigate this?
I wish I had more books and websites to offer! I do recommend seeing a counselor if you’re able. I am 100% supportive of Jake’s transition, but there is a natural grieving process that comes with it.
No longer having a sister has been tough for me, and seeing a counselor gave me a chance to acknowledge and work through those feelings—without it turning into resentment directed at Jake. Very important!
My parents and other brother have also been very supportive and validating since they’ve faced similar conflicting feelings. I believe they’ve seen counselors as well. My parents also found value in reading books written by trans people and by befriending other parents of trans kids.
Also, follow Ellen from now on on Twitter. Lots of great information, plus she tweets a lot of pictures of her super cute cat.
What surprised you most about this?
This is such a small thing, but I was surprised by which things came easily and which didn’t. Using Jake’s new name and pronouns felt totally normal almost right away, but for some reason I constantly slipped up when it came to referring to him as my brother rather than my sister!
This is more delicate, but I continue to be surprised by how much I miss my little sister sometimes. In a lot of ways, Jake is pretty much the exact same person. In other ways, he is completely different from the little girl I grew up with.
Before he came out, I wasn’t very sympathetic for people who felt this way about the trans people in their life, because it struck me as unsupportive. But now I really understand. I’d be lying if I said I never missed that little girl. Those feelings are very real—but they do not mean that I don’t support Jake! I do, 100%, and I love him just as much now as I did back then, if not more!
These sentiments can coexist without negating each other. (Note: While these feelings are real, I don’t share them with Jake. Even though they don’t come from a place of being unsupportive, that’s still how they would make him feel.)
What advice would you give to others who have a friend or family member who is transitioning?
A few things come to mind:
1. If you slip up and call your loved one by the wrong name or pronoun, don’t make a scene. Just self-correct and move on. In my experience, trans people understand that slip-ups are inevitable and unintentional and tend to be quite forgiving.
But when you get overly apologetic and try to explain how hard it is, you’re not only making it about you, but you’re also putting the burden on them to comfort you over something that really isn’t a big deal.
Yes, it’s hard, but it’s not as hard as what they’re going through. So just self-correct and move on. Bonus: When you do this, it teaches other people to do it, too!
2. It’s best not to ask questions about the medical nature of their transition. Other people’s junk isn’t your business.
If they want to talk to you about it, they will. If you absolutely must know, say, “Are you comfortable answering some questions about the medical part of your transition?” If they say no, honor it and move on.
Additionally, protect their privacy when other people ask you about it by saying, “Hm, it’s really not my place to share that kind of private information about someone else’s body.”
3. Get the support you need. This is crucial. You are going to have some capital F Feelings about this, and it’s very important to work through them rather than stuffing them down.
See a counselor, join a support group, read books, talk to a friend, do what you need to do, for as long as you need. And know that it’s totally okay and totally normal to have complicated feelings about this! That being said…
4. Don’t make your trans loved one responsible for your emotional support needs. Your job right now is to support them. They are going through way more challenging and scary shit than you or I could possibly imagine.
It can be really tempting to tell them how hard it is for you to deal with their transition, but it’s kind of unfair to expect them to shoulder that burden along with everything else they’re facing right now—and it can come off as very unsupportive. Get the support you need outside of that relationship, so you’re able to have their back.
5. Do ask questions from a place of loving curiosity. As I mentioned, Jake didn’t show a lot of early signs of being trans, so I asked him if he could share with me how it played out for him internally. He was so glad for a chance to share his story, and it offered our whole family a ton of context and insight and helped us to understand his many years of mental health challenges much better.
So much of a trans person’s journey is internal. Give them a space to talk about it, and really listen. It validates their story, you’ll learn a lot about them, and it can lead into an even more important conversation about what you can do to make them feel supported.
What have you learned from this that ANY of us could apply to our daily lives?
Everyone’s feelings matter. Everyone’s feelings are valid. Some emotional needs need to be managed and prioritized differently than others, but it hurts everyone when we ignore feelings that are deemed less important or less real.
Gender matters but it also doesn’t matter. My relationship with my brother Jake is different than the relationship I had with the sister I grew up with, and guess what? That’s okay.
If I still treated him exactly the same way, I don’t think I’d be fully honoring his change. I think it’s kind of a disservice to reality to say that gender has zero impact on the nature of your relationship with someone. This will be different for everyone, but the fact of the matter is that our relationship has changed a little, and that’s okay.
That being said, there are a lot of things about our relationship that haven’t changed at all! We have the same inside jokes, we still annoy each other, we still text each other stupid memes all the time, we still share a super weird sense of humor with our other brother.
And, most importantly, Jake’s gender is completely irrelevant to my love for him. I loved him when we were little, I love him now, and I will love him always. Period.
Thank you so much for sharing your and Jake’s story, Megan. Have any of you had family members or friends transition? Were you surprised by your own reaction?
P.S. If you have less-than-open-minded family members, this might help: How To Deal When People Disappoint You
Photo by Niv Rozenberg on Unsplash