We spoke to transgender activist, Dr Anastacia Tomson, to find out how she worked through the murky waters of coming out and how transgender teenagers could find their own resources to do so.
Dr Anastacia Tomson is a medical doctor, activist and author of Always Anastacia: A Transgender Life in South Africa, who says that she didn’t have the necessary tools to come out when she was a teen and so only really began that journey when she was about 29 years old.
“I realised I was different from a very young age, but I didn’t have the tools or the resources or the vocabulary, or the representation or the role models to understand what it was that made me different and a lot of the energy that I spent in that time was trying to avoid attention from the outside world rather than exploring and unpacking my own identity,” she says.
Firstly, there’s no "guide"
There are many guides on the internet telling people how best to do certain things from hairstyles to relationships, even coming out, but Anastacia says there isn’t really a form for this because coming out is different for everyone.
Especially in communities that are heterosexual or cisgender, everyone likes to conceptualise coming out as one event in your life, but if you’re queer, especially if you’re trans, coming out is not just a once off event.
"You come out multiple times to multiple different people. It’s not this singular turning point in your life. You come out to your family, you come out to your friends, sometimes you have to come out to your doctor or your nurse or whatever it is," says Dr Tomson.
As a medical professional herself, she is well aware that if she were ever admitted to hospital or instance, she would have to out herself as trans to the staff as it’s part of her medical history.
Decide first if this is a good option for you
Trans children, and their parents, now might have more access to more information about what it is to be transgender, but the process of coming out is such a unique and possibly dangerous experience
Dr Tomson says you need to decide for yourself if coming out is the best option for you in your circumstances.
"I think the process around coming out is made difficult because it changes the way that society sees you and that changes the way that society interacts with you and that’s a condemnation on our society," she says.
"You don’t have to come out as straight; everyone just assumes that you’re straight. You never have to prove it,” she says. "And that’s the difference when your lived experience is queer or trans."
"I think given that the effects can be unpredictable, it’s terrible to say that you have to safeguard yourself against it because in an ideal world this just wouldn’t be the case,"she says, "but I think people definitely need a good support structure in case things go wrong."
Come out to a close friend first
If you have someone who is really close to you and understands you, then you might want to come out to them first so that they can be a part of your support system when you need to discuss it with more difficult family members.
Dr Tomson says this often happens over time anyway, it isn’t very formalised, but this person is aware of the process you’re going through and they see and recognise your struggles.
“But it depends on the kind of people you’re surrounding yourself with,” she says.
Make sure you have a strong support group
She recommends having a lot of support whether that be a good circle of friends, trusted relatives, a support group that you are a part of, a psychologist, or even an online friend who you trust with your story.
Dr Tomson says to keep in mind that: “when you come to terms with this process, you have to keep an eye the sustainability of whatever decision you make.”
“So if you come out, how does that decision become a sustainable one and if you don’t come out yet, how does staying in the closet become sustainable for you or what do you do to manage that? There’s no passive approach.
Every action here is an active decision that has consequences.”Whatever you need to do to feel safe and healthy is the right decision for you.
It is a deeply personal experience
“Coming out is this deeply personal experience every time it happens, and just as identity looks different for everyone, there’s no right or wrong way to be trans,” says Dr Tomson.
“It doesn’t matter if you identify as a trans man, you’re not more valid if you have more beard, more muscles, or more tattoos, or bench press more kilograms.
It’s different for everyone.
”Remember that you need to prepare yourself for the reaction to your coming out, your family or friends love you, but while you’ve been thinking about this for a long time, possibly years, they’re only just learning about it and also need to process this information."
Dr Tomson recommends that while you arm yourself with resources for how to live your life as a trans person, also find resources for your loved ones that might help them understand you better.
Where can I got to for support?
There are various organisations and online support spaces for trans people across the country, but if you live in an area where there isn’t one, Dr Tomson says that doesn’t mean there isn’t a community there and you could possibly reach out to other groups and ask them to help you start a new group in your area.
These groups include:
Germain De Larch has a list of resources for trans people on their website.
Forge Forward also has a list of transgender support groups across South Africa.
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