By definition, change can be challenging for any of us. Change creates anxiety at some level because it is new, unfamiliar, different; generally speaking, the more significant the change, the greater the anxiety. When change is initiated by someone else, it can create further responses such as resentment, disagreement, a sense of loss of power or control, passive aggression, denial, or refusal to respond to the change.
Transition is a series of changes – big changes for the individual transitioning and their partner(s), friends and family. The possibility of resistance is high and there are many varied ways it can be ‘acted out’ or demonstrated. This can be more than frustrating for the person transitioning or, in some instances, even for those who transitioned years ago.
There are ways to minimise, respond to, and resolve resistance… though there are no guarantees!
Reaction or resistance?
Perhaps a good starting point is to clarify the difference between reaction and resistance to change. People will have different reactions at different points throughout your transition – when you disclose, when your appearance changes, when you change your name, when your voice changes; or perhaps around significant dates such as birthdays or anniversaries. Reaction – or needing time to get used to change – is not resistance; it is a usual or normal response to change. Therefore, it’s important that you expect and allow people’s reaction to your transition. But for how long is long enough? There is no yardstick that we can apply here – each situation and individual is different.
Dynamics, power & control
The dynamic of the relationship between you and your significant others may also help clarify if someone is reacting, resisting… or perhaps something more. As I mentioned above, your decision to transition may be experienced by others as challenging their sense of power, control and type of relationship with you.
Family members in particular can find transition challenging as it changes the nature of the relating. Individuals who do not understand, agree with or support transition may hold on to ‘old’ terms as a way of voicing their discontent; others might do it to get a reaction from you; or others may do it to keep alive a relationship that was important to them that they (may) fear will be lost. This isn’t necessarily a conscious choice on their part.
Personal check in
Before you take action it is wise to get clear about your expectations and your emotional response to the situation. Are you feeling angry, frustrated, annoyed, furious, hurt, sad; disappointed, at your wit’s end, about to end the relationship?
The more aware you are of your intentions, the more able you are to ‘hold’ yourself, the more effective your response will be. Know what buttons are being pushed; check if it feels ‘familiar’- the way resistance is expressed is likely to be similar to other reactions you’ve seen in the relationship over time. For example, if someone is responding to your transition with ‘poor me/us’ or ‘why me/us’, it is unlikely to be the first time they’ve asked this question. It is more likely their pattern of response than your transition.
So what are some strategies that you can try? Here’s a few – some you may have already tried, some you might need to try again.
This is a common strategy used to inform a larger number of people about what’s happening and what you now need from them. It is often used at the start of transition.
Clearly state what you expect from them – what your name is, how you’d like to be referred to, that they might make mistakes for a short time and how they can correct themselves if they make a mistake… and perhaps how you’ll correct them if they continue to forget. Don’t be too shy about asking for what you would like – and also be sensitive to their needs too.
From Saturday 23 March, I will be legally known as [insert name] and would like all those around me to use that name. It might take a little while for you to get used to calling me that or referring to me as he. I’d really appreciate you making the effort to get this right – and I’ll remind you when you forget or make a mistake.
If you are still responding to continued resistance well after transition, you may want to reissue such a letter noting that a number of people continue to use inaccurate names and that it is causing you great distress. You can acknowledge that they may still feel unsure or uncomfortable with what has happened… and again re-state what you need.
Since Saturday 23 March 2006, I have been legally known as [insert name]. I’ve been living my life for the past three years as the man I’ve always felt myself to be. Some of you continue to refer to me by my old name. It doesn’t fit, it’s not my name… and I really need you to stop using it. I get that you might not understand what I’ve done or why I’ve done it. I’m not asking for you to understand what took me lots of time, pain and commitment to understand. I’m asking you to respect me and my decisions and refer to me as [name]. I will no longer respond to any other name.
If you have a particular person in your life that is causing you problems, you could have a one-on-one discussion with them – but only if you think there is capacity to listen, share and negotiate. You can still write out a letter or points you want to cover. What will be important is to not get into too much discussion about why you’re transitioning, whether it is the right thing, or how difficult it is for them. The conversation is an opportunity to express to them how uncomfortable, distressing and inappropriate their language (or attitude) is… and how you’d like that to change. You can offer all the support and encouragement you can. You might also be able to find out what it is that is so difficult for them (if you don’t know that already).
Broken record technique
This is a very old fashioned assertiveness technique – the idea is that you have a ‘message’ and you repeat it over and over and over again. It might be something like – ‘I no longer answer to that name, please don’t use it, my name is [name]’, or ‘you mean [name]’, simply repeat your ‘name’ whenever the ‘old’ name is used.
If the resistance is more about the difficulties you have created for others, you may be able to say something like ‘I did not transition to make life difficult for you, I did it to make life more real for me’.
Another possibility is a parent or family member reinforcing the gendered relationship or qualities that they see as feminine – when they refer to you as ‘you’ll always be my daughter/sister’ or ‘but you’re so beautiful’… you can respond with a simple statement you always respond with – ‘I will always be your child, now I’m called [name]’ or – ‘I’m pleased you think I’m beautiful, I just ask you call me [name]’.
The idea with this approach is that people will tire of hearing you say the same thing over and over again and change their language. You will need to be consistent in what you say and how you say it.
A public announcement requires the strength and compassion to do say what you say in a letter in public, for all to hear. It should be used wisely as some people may find it confronting or aggressive.
Often times, resistance from one is maintained by the resistance that it creates in the other – sort of like two magnets constantly repelling each other, neither moves but there is pressure and tension between them. Not responding to comments or judgements, not reacting to jibes or disrespectful statements means the conflict doesn’t continue. You may need to set a limit for yourself at which time you leave the room or environment – but not in an aggressive huff – it can be useful to set this limit with a supportive other who can be your ‘reality check’. For example, leave the interaction if your old name is used more than ten times – go to the bathroom, go outside, walk the dog, make a phone call; when you return to the situation (if it’s the same event), start counting again.
Unfortunately, sometimes resistant individuals will try to inaccurately ‘correct’ someone else who is using the right pronouns and name. This is particularly difficult if it involves young children. You can help children in this situation by giving them a broken record to use – ‘I love [name] and that’s his name so I call him that’ or ‘no, his name is [name], that’s what I call him’.
The frustration that can come with others not respecting and abiding by your requests can be very strong. It confronts us with our powerlessness. We are unable to change others… we can only request, support and encourage. The tension resistance and disrespect create can get to a point where you may want to cease contact – you may begin to avoid them, or in anger, you may threaten to not see them anymore. Maintaining respect, even in the face of conflict, is a great skill and powerful teacher. If you need some help with managing your reaction, talk with a supportive friend or seek the assistance of a counsellor.
Sinnott, V (2009). Resistance, Torque 9(1), 3-5.
Vikki Sinnott is a psychologist in private practice in Melbourne with a strong interest in gender identity and its expression (among other things) and has worked with gender variant people of all ages, their partners and families for over 15 years. She can be contacted on 0417 365 960 or firstname.lastname@example.org