One dominant belief about what it means to be transgender is that transgender people do not have joyful relationships with their families. This can be true for some trans people. As Tomás, a Latinx trans man, told us, “Stuff with my familyis fucked up. My brothers won’t speak to me. My parents have disowned me.”
However, this is just one of many experiences that transgender people can have with family. For example, of the 27,715 respondents to the U.S. Transgender Survey, 60% of those who were out to the family they grew up with reported “that their family was supportive of them as a transgender person.” There can also be joys in being a transgender parent.
We interviewed a diverse group of 40 transgender people and asked them, “What do you find joyful about being transgender?” As we detail in our recent article in Social Problems, the most common theme that people mentioned when asked about trans joy – the joy of being transgender – was “connection with others.”
Counter to common narratives about trans people, many folks we spoke with mentioned family as a source of joy, particularly families they have created. Several interviewees discussed how their families of origin had not supported them being transgender. However, that form of family rejection made space for them to create new kinds of families with friends and partners who loved them for who they are. Moreover, they attributed the ability to meaningfully connect with others to their trans identity, stating that they now had a loving, supportive chosen family because they are transgender, rather than despite being trans. As Ben, a white trans man, explained:
Sources of joy? I don’t know, I kind of feel like a lot of my life is a source of joy. I was really lucky; if I hadn’t come out to my parents at a young age, I wouldn’t have met these amazing people who are now my family. And there’s so many people that I’ve met because of my experiences. I would definitely say the people I have gotten to interact with are my never-ending source of joy (laughs). I am so appreciative that I have gotten to meet so many of the people in my life, and I wouldn’t have met any of these people without this aspect of my identity.
Julian, a Latinx genderqueer person, had a similar experience, saying:
Things feel good when I feel like I’m in a community where I can make sense. Having room to move around and play with gender is really fun. And, kindness, looking out for people, and almost like family. That shows up in a lot of queer community and I have access to that, which I wouldn’t if I didn’t have this experience.
As Ben, Julian, and other trans people we spoke with revealed, being transgender was a source of connection with others, rather than a deterrent to feelings of kinship and togetherness.
Social connections offer access to vital resources, better health outcomes, and social support. Traditionally, scholarship on marginalized groups has focused on how discrimination hinders these valuable connections with others, particularly for groups like transgender and LGBQ+ people whose families of origin do not usually share their identities.
Due to the tendency to focus on exclusion and discrimination, scholars, activists, and the general population often fail to observe how being from a stigmatized group is a source of joy and can facilitate connection, including through gaining membership to a community with those who share your identity. Though focusing on “joy” may seem frivolous to some, it is actually a vital form of resistance to oppression.
Although many of our interviewees described feeling alone when first coming out as transgender, the majority shared that the story of coming out does not end in social isolation. 70% explicitly mentioned connections with others as one of the joys of being trans. Thus, rather than resulting in exclusion, being transgender helped them connect with others, bringing them joy. Moreover, that connection often felt like family to them.
Bailey, a white gender fluid person, told us about how some members of the eco-activist community they were part of rejected them when they came out as trans. However, after leaving that group, a friend introduced them to trans community. They explained how that community:
Have come to feel like…family? That word is so much and can be so violent. But they are like my family and have supported me in ways that my former activist community never could. And never did. So I find joy in having this community who has brought me in and fed my soul and helped remind me that I am cared for.
For Bailey, although coming out as trans meant rejection from one community, it also facilitated a closer connection with a group of people who nurtured and supported them for who they were.
Chloe, a white transgender woman, echoed this, saying:
I find generally in trans communities more acceptance and like I have to do less explaining….I just feel like a kinship and like a family. Like the people who are in my chosen family have pretty much been gender variant or trans so yeah, that’s where I’ve ended up and where I feel good so that’s the joy.
Thus, even if being part of a marginalized group may reduce access to some sources of love and support, such as from one’s family of origin, it can provide access to others. As the people we spoke with revealed, rather than reducing joy, being transgender facilitated tremendous amounts of joy, including through the creation of chosen families and communities. It is vital to highlight these aspects of trans life, since trans joy is key to resisting oppression.
Laurel Westbrook (@LaurelWestbr00k) is a Professor of Sociology at Grand Valley State University. They are the author of Unlivable Lives: Violence and Identity in Transgender Activism. Stef M. Shuster (@stefshuster) is an Assistant Professor in Lyman Briggs College and Sociology at Michigan State University. They are the author of Trans Medicine: The Emergence and Practice of Treating Gender.