Helping loved ones cope with identity changes

Theo Grace Quest thought about her name during lockdown last year in Phoenix. In addition to identifying as nonbinary, Theo was born with the name Grace, but has never felt like it truly fits her. In an exile induced by the pandemic, she was able to imagine a new name (because she is not graceful).

Several issues faced by the LGBTQ community have been exacerbated by the pandemic, including social isolation, barriers to gender-affirming health care, and economic instability. Even when people struggled, they found something else: a space to express themselves and ask questions they hadn’t had before.

As if we were suddenly unavailable for our regular responsibilities, she says, “it was like we hadn’t been showing up every day.” Her employer did not need to hear about her possible name change when she clocked in at work. She didn’t have to tell her family in person since she wasn’t seeing them. Being able to think and act independently gave her freedom. It was indeed her intention to do so. As a result, she changed her name.

Though Theo made the decision on her own, the reactions of her friends affirmed her choice. After considering Theo for some months, she shared and their reactions confirmed the change. She was encouraged to embrace whether or not it would feel good for her to change her name from Theo to Thea. An acquaintance learned of Theo’s new name and dropped a package in the mail addressed to Theo Grace Quest. When Theo received it, it was the first time she had seen her chosen name in writing.

Seeing my name on a package from someone he cares about so much… [it] really clicked,” Theo says. Theo says that after her friends showed their support, she felt pressed into speaking with her parents. To tell them, Theo, a graphic designer and illustrator, created a mock newspaper announcement. A local artist changes names: A child who is considered to be anywhere between 1st and 3rd favorite now calls himself Theo Grace Quest.” Theo’s mother wasn’t receptive, but her dad sent her an email to tell Theo that he supported her. He also listed famous people who don’t go by their birth name including the singer Cher, and people her dad loves, like John Wayne.

Professor of family studies and human development at the University of Arizona, Russ Toomey PhD, says the person receiving new information can mitigate the stressors of sharing a changing identity. As someone who has shared herself with someone, I don’t think it’s a good idea to have a high level of fear of rejection. According to Dr. Toomey, friends and family can support someone by taking in the new information and making them feel safe.

Even so, Dr. Toomey says “the best advice here is to follow their lead.” For instance, if you notice a friend has changed their Instagram bio, you can ask if they should use those terms going forward. Thus, all parties within the relationship have clear information, and the ball is now in the court of the person who decided to change their pronouns and establish boundaries,” says Toomey.

Toomey says that as a person begins to get a better sense of who they are, they will have different needs and wants. Friends and loved ones have the responsibility to offer assurances that the person is safe and well supported.

When Amy realized they were genderfluid and pansexual, she was faced with the question: Should they tell anyone? The couple lives in a conservative small town and wondered, “How will people react?” Is there a certain level of quiet required?”

To tell her friends in town with marginalized identities, she decided to do so. She says it was “kind of lonely” coming out on the small scale, but they found some comfort sharing with others who faced similar questions. The ability to share that with others meant a great deal to her.

She then decided to use “she/they” pronouns on her resume, a brave step. It is Amy’s aim as an academic with a cis-gender partner and children to give strength to representation of nonbinary people – although she does not know if her colleagues see her pronouns as expressions of allyship or defiance.

They called her partner “cishet through and through”, and he was receptive to her coming out. She says he treated her with grace. His focus wasn’t on himself. He did not ask, “What are we left with?”?He gave it to me.” And, when Pride Month arrived, Amy’s partner gifted her with a pride flag. Even though she had always been an ally of Pride events, this was her first exposure to her own reflection in them. During Pride celebrations, their partner presented her with the pride flag.

«I hadn’t even realized I needed that [visibility] beforehand,’ Amy says. It was lovely and affirming to hear that.

Dr. Toomey says there’s one defining factor in caring for loved ones who are experiencing identity changes: showing your respect for the individual sharing such a deeply personal aspect of their lives with you. Following the person’s lead, respecting their pronouns and their name, and asking them for support is ideal.”

As Amy has been sequestered by the pandemic, she has had to learn new lessons about gender and sexuality. While alone, many of us have asked ourselves the following questions: “When left alone, I ask myself, ‘Who am I?'”Her response is ‘.”. “I am eager to see how it goes.”

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