Fear and Grief: The Emotional Impact of Transition on Close Family Members

In March, the Vatican launched a year of reflection on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) about family. To ensure that LGBTQ perspectives and dimensions are included in our church’s discussions of this document, Bondings 2.0 is publishing a series of theological reflections over the year.

This month’s installment comes from Dr. Claire Jenkins, a trans woman and convert to the Catholic Church. She holds a PhD from the University of Sheffield for her research into the effect of transitioning on the family members of transsexual people. Subsequently she has advised a number of research projects, is actively involved in the pastoral care to LGBT Catholics, and belongs to a small working group which advises the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales about transgender issues. To read a previous Bondings 2.0 reflection from Claire, click here.

As a Catholic transgender scholar, it is difficult to reflect on Amoris Laetitia from a transgender perspective since the apostolic exhortation had nothing to say about families with transgender people. This is not surprising since little is known in the church about transgender people, let alone their families, by church leaders. In this post, I would like to enrich Amoris Laetitia’s chapter six ‘Some pastoral perspectives’ by considering transgender binary transitions (male to female and female to male) and intimate family responses to these situations.

The material in this post is based on an abridged section of my doctoral study involving 15 families (25 participants, 13 trans and 12 cis).

In 1999 I was still married to my wife and was a father of four children. When I changed sex and gender, we became estranged. We were all distressed by this event which reflected nearly half of all binary transitions. The experience impelled me to critically investigate transition in a familial context. Such investigations have been neglected and overlooked in heterosexual and non-heterosexual studies of familial intimacy, also, and have not yet been really considered by the Catholic Church.

The trans people I interviewed had discovered as children that they were different from their cisgender peers; fear and shame caused them to hide this self-knowledge. For example, Melissa was 42 years old when she had started her transition, but she had first heard of being transgender when she was about 6 or 7 years old in the early 1970s.  She had become aware of the media story of the famous English transsexual woman, April Ashley. Melissa said her mother’s reaction to the story was, ‘it was disgusting that men pretending to be women. Her mother made it explicitly clear that transsexual women were disgusting and began criticising and punishing Melissa’s feelings when she was a child.  The effect on Melissa was similar to that of other trans participants and like them her mental health was adversely affected and continued to be so for many years post-transition. She told me that, ‘I still have some sleep problems, with quite violent dreams … One of the really positive things for me about transitioning was that it was a huge weight that had been lifted from my shoulders’.

Melissa was punished as a child because she transgressed the usual understandings of sex and gender. Melissa previously told me that not only was her mother disapproving but that her father had been extremely violent because of her childhood gender transgressions from his normative expectations. Revealing her feelings and transitioning was a relief but the trauma resulting from keeping them secret for many years continued post-transition.

Melissa’s issues and fears resonated with the findings of other research on transgender people which shows, ‘many expressed concerns about how the news that they were transgendered would affect those close to them’. They were forced to consider either transitioning or risking the fear of losing family love.

Of the 15 families studied, 13 (87%) of these showed direct evidence of grief. Kaitlyn is the mother of a trans woman and was forthright in her views of her situation, expressed in an email to me which encapsulated much of what she had told me in a subsequent interview:

“Kaitlyn: I have only recently learned of my son’s transition, at 29, to female. The impact was very fresh, and I was still emotionally reeling from the disclosure. Participating in this study seemed to be a means of expressing my feelings, hopefully in a cathartic manner, as well as at least symbolically reaching out for support and acceptance.

“I found in the days after learning of his/her decision, that there was no easily obtainable support network or consistent information that I could go to – and found myself floundering in the internet. Added to the fact that shortly after her disclosure I returned to residing in a foreign country, I had only recently moved to, and I was isolated from my long-term friends and family support network, it was especially difficult.

“I was also concerned about my trans-daughter’s sister, who was also separated from family in another state (Kaitlyn had come to London before I interviewed her but was from the United States where her daughters continued to reside) and who had been so close to her sibling, yet also in complete shock over the news. Having finally found an internet group, I felt somewhat ‘comforted’ that there were others in our situation, but it still didn’t truly minimise the impact.

“It’s a bit like trying to convince someone that what was always up is down; black is white. It is a total change of paradigm for all the memories and experiences you have had with the trans person; as a parent, a sibling, a friend, or mate. Incredibly surreal and generally unbelievable, amongst a million other feelings- mostly negative. Which is a terrible way to feel about someone you love?”

I was struck by the extent of the loss she felt, the sense of which reoccurred throughout the interview. Kaitlyn’s deep feelings of ongoing grief over the loss of her son, were demonstrated by emotional turmoil, cognitive disorganisation and a yearning to make sense of what had happened.

Kaitlyn felt isolated because of the stigmatised and unfamiliar nature of a son becoming a daughter. Shame prevented Kaitlyn from talking to others in her (London) social circle. Furthermore, she was isolated geographically from her family from whom she might have received immediate care and support since they lived in the United States. She desperately needed to tell me the story and make sense of her loss and confusion. She was isolated in London and not able to grieve freely and this constraint may have been emotionally damaging. In her confusion she metaphorically regarded her son as dead which she expressed in this utterance, ‘My late Paul’.

She tried to make sense of her memories as she identified as the mother of her son Paul. Kaitlyn searched for consistency and continuity. However, she was trapped in the everyday fixed sex/gender understandings of male and female.  Nevertheless, Kaitlyn felt that she needed to care as a mother would, about a possible future for her new daughter:

“Kaitlyn: Will he ever have a relationship? He has struggled with relationships all his life. How is this going to make it? It is not necessarily going to make it any easier. Gay women will not want to be with him, straight women probably won’t and gay men; it just seems it’s wiped out so many options.”

She was disorganised and confused because of her sense of loss and grief.

These brief extracts show that trans people and their families are struggling.

My doctoral study showed that pre-transition transsexual people fear rejection so they adopt various strategies to begin transition. In 86% of the transitions studied, cisgender people grieved their loss of identification with the trans person’s pre-transition sex/gender identities as Kaitlyn clearly demonstrates. This is a crucial finding of which the church needs to be pastorally aware. The various strategies used by both trans and cis intimates to preserve relationships post-transition were discussed in the research, alongside situations where the new sex/gender identities became unrecognised as was the case with Melissa’s parents.

Amoris Laetitia seems to illustrate an unawareness of transgender families’ plight as they are extremely vulnerable. The Church needs to grasp the opportunity to follow Jesus in its pastoral care – to radically develop its practice in a way that is merciful and releases tenderness and love towards all transgender people and their families.

Source: Shapiro, E. 2010. Gender circuits, bodies and identities in a technological age, New York and London, Routledge.

Claire Jenkins, June 28, 2021

4 replies
  1. Loretta
    Loretta says:

    I welcome these reflections to help me put real faces and stories on a term that I really only know by definition. Thank you.

    Reply
  2. Rev. John M. Lee, C.P.
    Rev. John M. Lee, C.P. says:

    Thank you for this informative article. We need more information about the lives and strivings of Transgender persons in order to aid us in assisting them when we become aware of them among us.
    They too are persons loved by God…

    Reply
  3. Fr. Clarence Heis
    Fr. Clarence Heis says:

    This was indeed a powerful gift to the Church. As a People of God, we don’t get to choose who we are or how we want to be, we just are! It is the responsibility of all Christians to accept and “love our neighbor” as ourselves. The latter begs much work to be done by many people.
    I know personally a woman who transitioned and fought for acceptance and love, and a man who is fearful of transitioning because of certain rejection by his family.
    “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do unto me, and whatever you fail to do…” Please, accompany…

    Reply

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