Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2010

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Communication Studies

First Advisor

Steve Duck

First Committee Member

Leslie A. Baxter

Second Committee Member

Julia T. Wood

Third Committee Member

Rachel McLaren

Fourth Committee Member

Laura Graham


A growing number of families include a member who is transgender or transsexual. A discovery or disclosure of trans-identity and a transition of sex/gender identity that might follow are not only monumental for the trans-identified person, but also for that person's relational partners. When one engages in such a fundamental change of expressed identity, the person's relational partners are faced with renegotiating who that person is as well as who that person is to them, as a relational partner. Often, this process leads to the experience of ambiguous loss in which family members feel grief over a person who is still living. The purpose of this study was to investigate this renegotiation of meaning. More specifically, I sought to discover what cultural discourses or meaning systems are used by family members of trans-people when faced with the task of creating new meanings for their relatives'/partners' identities and their relationships to them, and how those meanings systems might contribute to the experience of ambiguous loss.

Using Relational Dialectics Theory and Contrapuntal Analysis, I analyzed the communication of 37 family members and partners of trans-identified persons who had begun or completed a transition of sex/gender identity. I conducted in-depth interviews with each family member, asking them to both narrate their experiences and respond to particular questions. Family members' talk was characterized by four sites of discursive struggle, in which the meanings of four salient concepts were created: the self, sex/gender, trans-identity, and family. The meanings for these concepts were constructed through participants' invocation and positioning of competing discourses relevant to the concepts in question. Results showed that many family members do experience grief in response to a transgender transition and that grief is connected to the meanings they construct at these four sites. The findings show the fundamentality of sex and gender to understandings of personhood, and the centrality of communication to experience.


ambiguous loss, dialogism, family communication, relational dialectics, transgender


2, xiii, 230 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 220-230).


Copyright 2010 Kristen Michelle Norwood

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