When a person transitions, what becomes of her or his or their prior life? For perhaps the first half-century after surgery became available for males to transition to female, it was most common for them to scrub their past, almost as if they went into a witness protection program, because of how unacceptable would be their transitioning and how difficult their new life if the world knew (save for the rare public person, such as Christine Jorgenson). So, they would move to a new town, create a new history, hide or burn their old photos.
Today, while there are plenty of trans folks who are able to transition so effectively that they blend in as their desired sex, and both desire to and are able to live in a way that they don’t have to reveal their past, most either do not blend so effectively or, even more, remain right where they were, transition publically in their family, in their work, in their school, retaining the life they had built.
The question then becomes, how do they refer to themselves pre-transition, and how might they want others to do so? Does a genetic male, now a transwoman, take to referring to childhood as “when I was a girl”? Does a genetic female, who has given birth, now go by “Dad”? When a young child transitions, with very few years of history, do their parents act as if there were not a pre-trans life?
You can easily imagine that there is no one answer to this. Indeed, how trans folks see their past is as unique as each person.
For me, this was a no-brainer. I transitioned so late, and built a thorough life as a guy, my life prior to transitioning would remain Greg and male. I was blessed with a good life, so I continue to embrace it, where too many long to shed their prior life because of how terribly they were treated (see my post, “Dead Name”).
For those who blend well, who do not let on that they are transgender, it is assumed that they will change how they speak of their historical self. A transwoman would not want to say to a co-worker, “Oh, yeah, when I was a boy I wanted to be a fireman.” While she might continue to admit that she wanted to be a fireman, or fire fighter, she might now say “when I was a girl,” but she also could avoid the question entirely by simply saying, “When I was young,” or, “When I was a child.”
My sister now refers to me as her sister, and she is lovely to do so. Besides, especially on Facebook where I am Gina, it makes sense to switch from brother, and it might save some questions should one of her friends not know much about us. That’s purely practical. Many decisions are made by us, and about us, for purely practical purposes; don’t create a problem or raise questions where none exist.
How about when one is a parent? I never was my children’s mother. They have a wonderful mother and splendid step-mother. Besides, I love that I am the father of my children. I told my kids I still want them to call me “Dad,” and they do. The writer, Jenny Boylan, transitioned when her two boys were young. One son brought up that “Dad” no longer fit, but that she wasn’t Mom, either—Jenny and her wife remained married—and so the son mashed “Mom” and “Daddy,” to come up with “Maddy.” It worked, and it stuck.
I know a transwoman who transitioned when her kids were really young. For the kids’ sake, switching to “Mom” was easier personally and most helpful socially. Can you imagine the trouble that would be given to middle-school-aged kids using “Dad” for this person who looks like a woman? Kids can be very mean, and some of them would pick on these kids just terribly.
What if you are not sure how to refer to the pre-transitioned life of a trans person? Again, I refer to a previous article, “Rude Questions.”
If you do not know the person very well, I would suggest never switching sex/gender on them in any way. Retain their current pronouns for their past, until and unless they correct you. All historical references should be in the sex and gender in which they are now living. If they notice and want to correct you, they have the ability to do it. “Oh, hey, it’s okay to say that I grew up as a girl. That’s how I think of myself and talk about my younger self.”
If you know the person well enough to talk about personal things, and you have found yourself unsure about this, one would think it would be fair and right to ask in a respectful manner—in private; not in front of others—something like, “Jenny, I know your kids call you ‘Maddy,’ but I’m not sure how you think of yourself before your transition.” I am confident that, said this way, Jenny will not only gladly answer but will appreciate that you didn’t make an assumption.
Even more, if you know that the person is transgender, and you are in a group where some folks might not, or you don’t know if everyone does, you will want to take great care not to say anything to reveal it. If the group were talking about when they all were young, you wouldn’t want to say to your transman friend, “I’m really curious what you were interested in, since you were a girl back then.”
That’s the ultimate thing. You never want to expose a trans person who does not want it known. If you had some deep secret, which you didn’t want everyone knowing—say, when you were young, you did a foolish thing that found you a convicted felon—how would you feel if a friend, who knows your past, exposed it?
Sadly, for the transgender person this is more than a personal/social issue. If one is exposed, when that person has successfully kept it unknown, it could cause trouble for them on the job, where they live, and more. Work opportunities—promotions and raises—can be adversely affected. Jobs can be lost, because trans women and men do not have protections in many places. The same goes for where they live.
Even for trans folks who have successfully transitioned and are doing well, many things can trip them up to create trouble where it need not have existed. Please, don’t be the one to trip anyone.