Let’s Talk About Transitions: What Is Social Transitioning?

Let’s Talk About Transitions: What Is Social Transitioning?

Happy Pride Month everyone! ️‍️‍

This is the time to celebrate all identities, genders and sexual orientations; and part of this is to keep learning about the community and the role each of us can play in supporting and affirming their journey. In this article, we are going to be covering the topic of gender transitioning, in particular, social transitioning.

For transgender individuals, living according to social norms and traditional roles can be both stressful and detrimental to their physical, emotional and mental health. While not all transgender individuals will choose to transition, transitioning can be a really powerful and empowering process that can be both life-saving and life-changing.

We had the honour of interviewing Lune Loh, a transgender activist who has dedicated her life to raising awareness and promoting acceptance of the transgender community in Singapore and beyond to share her personal experiences living as a transgender in today’s society. She is currently studying for her Master of Arts in Creative Writing at the University of London, and is also a co-founder of Students for a Safer NUS.

Note: Transitioning is a very private, personal and individualised process, and there isn’t a complete, step-by-step manual on the specific steps required to “fully transition”.

In essence, transitioning is:

The process to align and begin living as one’s desired gender.

And there are many ways to do so–whether it be via social, legal, hormonal, or medical means.

Lune: “To socially transition is to begin living comfortably in your own skin. It is the process to embody a particular gender and sexual position in society.

Social transition can also be described as a movement from a socialized position to a social position one feels more comfortable with. This movement is in the social context of gender and sexuality.”

P.S. There is a list of LGBTQ+ terminology at the bottom of this article that might be helpful!

What is Social Transitioning?

Social transitioning simply refers to the process in which a transgender individual publicly affirms their identity to others after coming out. There are many ways in which an individual can social transition, including:

    • Changing their wardrobe or hairstyle
    • Changing their name and pronoun usage  (e.g., she/her, he/him, they/them)
    • Changing their manner of speaking and tone of voice
    • Using a different restroom or locker room
    • Participating in different activities
    • Wearing gender-affirming gear
    • Coming out to others (e.g. partners, children, friends, coworkers, community members)

For example, an assigned female would be said to socially transition if this person cuts their hair short, changed their grooming habits, and was referred to with pronouns like “he” and “him.” In this case, the pronoun usage is a clear marker that this individual is transitioning.

Lune: “For plenty of trans women or trans feminine people, and trans men or trans masculine people, it usually begins with modifying one’s outward appearances. That can be the use of makeup to a feminine or masculine or even a genderbending effect. It can mean wearing a crop top for the first time going out with friends. It can be the daily use of a chest binder, or volumizing with a Nu Bra.

Appearances aside, it can also be informing your friends of new pronouns that you are using, or coming out to chosen family, requesting for others to begin referring to you by a new name you chose for yourself.

In general, to socially transition is to practice being comfortable in your own skin. You are making changes to how you relate to yourself, and consequently how people can relate to you. It can be a simultaneously terrifying and liberating process.”

If someone you know is socially transitioning, it is important to know that this can be a very difficult and intimidating period for them. For many, the process could involve the risk of stigma, discrimination, and/or the fear of rejection from society and even close friends and family.

Note: Not everyone will start with a social transition, and transitioning is not a requirement for being transgender, non-binary or any gender identity at all! In fact, some people might choose to only socially transition and never move on to medically transition. Furthermore, people can present themselves in public part or full-time in their identified gender. 

Lune: “What I understand is that many trans people like to align their medical transitioning and social transitioning along the same timeframe. Although there are likewise many other trans people like me that find social transitioning easier and more manageable to do first than medical transitioning.

I do suspect that given how opaque the administrative process to obtain hormonal replacement therapy is in Singapore, it is much more intuitive to begin socially transitioning, and thus people might usually begin with social transition.

The two are definitely not mutually exclusive. Beginning with one or the other first doesn’t make one more or less trans than another. Anyone that says otherwise is gatekeeping. I have lived as a woman fully for at least 5 years now and I still have not gone on HRT, or done my voice training, or will I ever do both at all. It doesn’t make me less trans, or less of a woman.

I have been socially transitioning for 9 years now, since 2014, and I still find it difficult. This is despite the fact that appearance-wise, I am comfortable with how I look, and that I do mostly pass as a woman. Being very visibly trans, working on my appearances and legal name, telling almost everyone that I am who I am now… that was not a struggle for me. The trickier bits are the socialization aspects of it. As a femme-presenting person, girlhood and womanhood is something that I am positioned to navigate.”

A misconception that every transgender person’s end goal is to “pass” (being fully recognisable by everyone as either male or female) as the “opposite” gender.  For some transgender people, passing can be important emotionally because it affirms their gender identity and can be experienced as gender euphoria. However, this might not always be the case.

Lune: “A common myth is that only transgender people socially transition. Non-binary and queer people do transition as well! Social transitioning comes with a paradigm shift in how one feels about their own gender and sexuality, and their social position in that context.

Non-binary people socially transition once they realize that “man” and “woman”  is a gendered dichotomy that is untenable, and work towards its dissolution from a personal sense to wider society. Queer people socially transition by refusing to fit in with cisgender, heterosexual, and even homosexual norms, understanding that there is always something more radical to gender and sexuality.”

On Gender Dysphoria and Gender Euphoria

According to The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the diagnosis of gender dysphoria is defined as at least six months of a marked incongruence between one’s expressed/experienced gender and one’s assigned gender.

This diagnosis is often utilised by healthcare providers to describe the distress, anxiety and unhappiness that transgender people may feel about the incongruence between the sex they were assigned at birth and their gender identity.

Different things can trigger dysphoria in different individuals, such as looking at themselves in the mirror, being intimate with someone, seeing an old photograph of themselves and even being dead named by a close friend.

It’s not unusual for transgender individuals to wonder whether they’re “trans enough”, and negative thoughts and feelings can take root.  Remember: There’s no right or wrong way to look like a woman, man, or non-binary person.

For some, therapy can provide a safe and supportive space for those with gender dysphoria to explore and work through their feelings. More recently, there has also been a push to welcome the concept of inviting in, as opposed to coming out. Inviting in changes the transitioning process to one of choice, and of asking people to be involved in your life and journey, rather than placing the burden on the individual to do all the work required to be out.

Some transgender people find that transitioning and surrounding themselves with those who affirm their gender can help ease dysphoria and even result in gender euphoria: the feeling of joy, comfort and certainty about your body and your identity.

Regardless, understanding gender dysphoria is essential for better understanding the challenges that people in the community face as compared to cisgender people.

Lune: “I was into cosplay first (c. 2012) before I even knew I was trans. I was dressing up as female characters that I liked and/or related to. I realized later that I was actually finding an outlet for feminine expression, a method that affirmed my gender. Singapore’s cosplay community in the mid-2010s wasn’t as accepting of trans or non-binary people as they probably are nowadays. I had to exit the community then as it became more unsafe and less understanding the more I came out as trans.

National Service was a massive obstacle to social transition. I had to present myself as male. Short hair was mandatory like in 12 years of pre-university schooling. I did come out to my BMT platoon, and my superiors and colleagues later on. If I didn’t make it clear to others that I was actually trans I would have been emotionally crippled by repressing that fact. After an 8 to 5 workday, I would hit the clubs and cafes to watch drag and open mics. I would spend an hour on a full face of makeup, try out my Taobao dresses, wear a wig, and head out.

Whenever I returned from a night out, wiping out my makeup and dressing down was a devastating process. It was like washing away what made me beautiful and glamorous. I developed my anxiety issues from needing to present as male at my sister’s wedding in 2017. It only became easier when I entered my undergraduate period the year after, making the decision to fully socially transition while I lived in a college. I grew out my hair, got discharge papers from the Singapore Armed Forces, and wore whatever I wanted every day. That helped my well-being tremendously.”

Importance of working with a therapist

The in-between stages of transitioning can be a vulnerable time for transgender individuals.

LGBT-affirming therapy can go a long way when working with the right therapist–whether it be exploring and expressing your gender identity, addressing any mental and emotional impacts resulting from stigma and discrimination, or even developing a plan to address any issues related to transitioning or coming out.

Family and societal rejection of someone’s gender identity are some of the strongest factors predicting mental health difficulties among people who are transgender. At A Space Between, we have a community of LGBTQ-affirming therapists and professional counsellors whom can walk alongside you during the toughest challenges as an ally (Check out our Therapist Directory here to learn more.)

For the rest of us, taking steps to increase our awareness and understanding of the LGBTQ community and showing that we accept and embrace all identities can make this world a better place for them. Here are some tips:

  • Don’t make any assumptions. The only way to tell for sure if someone is transgender is by having a conversation with them and them telling you.
  • Rethink the way you use gendered language. Consider changing your habits to avoid making assumptions about people’s gender or pronouns. In addition, if you happen to know the name someone was given at birth but no longer uses, don’t share it without their permission (the same goes for old photos).
  • Be patient with a person who is still exploring their gender identity. A person who is questioning or exploring their gender identity may take some time to figure out what’s true for them. While transgender individuals will not expect you to understand them and their journey completely, taking a non-judgemental stance, validating their emotions and experiences, and just being there for them can make a difference.

Lune: “Openness. It would be harmful if one were judgmental. I was at the now-defunct Peaches Club in 2018, and a drunk cis gay man told me that I should style my hair (I wore a curly wig back then) in a way that attracted men, despite the fact I told him after that I tended towards women (to which, he made a face at me). Absolutely do not make presumptions about what someone wants for themselves.

Give them the space to screw around and find out. Ask them what they might want or need in the process. Listen to them when they speak about the process. Provide resources if needed – makeup, logistics, gifts, etc. For example, my Aunt was happy to administratively help ship my first dresses I bought off Taobao to my home, without being too privy to why. Recognizing another’s boundaries apply, of course.

If you can be a safe person for someone transitioning to confide in, to experiment with their body without judgment or assumptions, it will help them a lot, and ease the process. Do not forget that we still live in a society that can be unforgiving, uncaring, and harmful to those who do not conform to standards or norms. This can even be the case across the LGBTQIA+ communities in Singapore.”

A final word

Transitioning is a conflicting time in transgender people’s lives; however, support from friends, family, employers and coworkers  can have a positive impact on the physical and emotional effects of transitioning.

Regardless, being transgender is not an illness, nor is it something that went wrong that needs to be ‘fixed’.

Lune: “Yes – as more younger people (I’m not old myself! But it’s been 8 years since I was 18) come out, as they explore being trans, non-binary, and queer, we will see more youths undergo social transitioning. I can see resources, spaces, and networks opening up in Singapore that will fuel that increase. Perhaps not merely for youths, but for older Singaporeans as well. People in their 40s to 60s transition all the time too. If the landscape becomes more open and conducive for transitioning, we will see more people beginning to question, to experiment with queerness and transness. Across age groups and demographics.

May the transitioning be on their own terms; on what’s the most contingent for them.”

At the end of the day, there is a common thread throughout all the personal accounts of transition: Life after transition is much happier and healthier when you are able to be who you truly are.

Lune: “I wish for the communities here to be safer. I wish for LGBTQIA+ people in Singapore to not live in constant fear of persecution. I want to continue manifesting that we can build more liveble spaces where we can thrive. This so especially for the most downtrodden and marginalized of us. Most Singaporeans, not even just trans and non-binary Singaporeans, are convinced that Singapore is unlivable. They are right – but this is not an acceptable state of affairs. Escape can only take the few who can afford it so far. We do have immense capacities and power to ensure what is otherwise.”

List of LGBTQ+ Terminologies

Assigned Sex/Sex Assigned At Birth– Traditional designation of a person as “female,” “male,” or “intersex” based on anatomy and/or other biological factors.

Cisgender: Adjective used to describe a person whose gender identity is congruent, in a traditional sense, with the sex assigned to them at birth.

Dead name: The birth name of somebody who has changed their name.  Most commonly attributed to transgender people, but can be attributed to any person who has changed their name. The best practice is to use the name the person has chosen.

Gender expression: How someone chooses to outwardly express their gender, which may or may not reflect their inner gender identity based on social norms and traditional expectations.

Gender identity: A person’s inner sense and knowledge of their gender. This may or may not correspond to one’s sex assigned at birth.

Non-binary: Indicates a person’s gender identity that falls outside of the traditional “male” or “female” labels.

Stealth: To be stealth is to live as the gender you identify as but to not be out as transgender. In other words, it means passing as cisgender.

Lune: “To “stealth” is to attempt to completely pass off as a gender one is comfortable with, without others in society realizing that one is transgender. It is always done for safety reasons, but it can be dangerous if the person going stealth is revealed to be transgender. Normative society usually construes this as a form of lying, even if it is not, given how it is a safety mechanism. It is also entirely valid that some people want to be completely seen as cisgender people, and not deal with the difficulty of being perceived as transgender.”

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