When a friend or family member tells you they are transgender, or trans*, it can be hard to figure out the best way to show support. Trans* issues have recently become part of the mainstream conversation in the United States, from Bruce Jenner’s transition to Caitlyn Jenner to Laverne Cox’s appearance on the cover of Time. As more trans* people feel comfortable sharing their stories, their friends and families are growing and changing with them. The word “transgender” describes a gender identity that is different than the one someone is born into. Gender identity is the internal experience that we all have of our maleness or femaleness. For most people, this experience is aligned with their biological sex. People who identify as trans* or transgender have a different experience. “Trans*” is even more inclusive than transgender and recognizes the deep diversity of trans* people’s experiences. Many allies feel confused about how they can best support a friend or family member who tells them they are trans*. Such conflict can come about for any number of reasons, including feelings of embarrassment talking about trans* issues, not knowing what language or terminology to use, or not wanting to offend. With that in mind, here are five ways to support someone you love who identifies as trans*:
1. Listen Closely and Trust Their Experience Every trans* person has a different experience of gender and their gender transition. When a trans* person shares their story with you, it’s a gift. It means they trust you enough to share something so fundamentally important to them. And their experience might not be what you expect. There is no “right way” to be trans* and no “right way” to transition. Each story is unique. 2. Use Their Language Language is personal, and the only way to know how someone identifies is to listen to how they talk about themselves. You don’t necessarily need to know all the terms related to transgender to be supportive; you just need to respect and try to use the ones your friend or loved one prefers. Some trans* people have a word they closely identify with. For example, they might feel like the umbrella term trans* describes them best. Other terms they might use include transgender, transsexual, trans man, trans woman, female-to-male (FTM), male-to-female (MTF), or genderqueer, among others. There is no “right way” to be trans* and no “right way” to transition. Each story is unique. Trans* people may also have a preferred pronoun. Possible pronoun choices may include he/him, she/her, ze/hir, and they/them. Ze/hir and they/them (used to refer to an individual, not a group) are gender-neutral pronouns and are being used by more and more people who don’t feel like he/him or she/her adequately describe them. Your friend or family member might also have a new name that they prefer. They might even change it two or three times as they attempt to find a name that feels like a good fit. Using a trans* person’s chosen name shows love and respect and is important, even when change feels hard. 3. Do Some Research If you want to know more about trans* identities in general, the best way is to learn is to do some simple research. Just like it’s not your job to tell others what it’s like to be ______ (fill in your own gender identity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, race, etc.), your friend might not want to educate others about their experience. Unless specifically invited to do so, it’s never appropriate to ask anyone (including a trans* person) personal questions about their body or sexuality. This doesn’t mean it’s wrong to be curious or want to know more. Fortunately, we have a lot of great resources available at our fingertips. Many trans* activists post video blogs on YouTube both about their personal experiences and to answer questions for people who just want to know more. 4. Get the Supports You Need Learning that someone you know is transgender can bring up a lot of feelings, especially if it’s a close family member such as a child or parent. It’s OK to have all of the feelings, and it’s important that you find the supports you need to sort through them and understand your own experience. Your trans* family member or friend may not be able to be this support person for you. Many family members I’ve worked with have found support through working with their own therapist or connecting with groups such as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and TransYouth Family Allies (TYFA). Connecting with a therapist is a great place to start. 5. Practice Active Allyship Trans* family members and friends are counting on you to help them make this a safe and friendly world for people of all gender identities. Trans* people often face oppression and discrimination from their medical providers, schools, employers, housing, places of worship, and families. Being an ally means consistently noticing and challenging transphobia and ignorance both in yourself and the world around you. This can mean telling someone that a joke isn’t funny, asking a trans* friend what they need when someone uses the wrong name or pronoun, or participating in events and rallies in support of the rights of trans* people. What it looks like to support a trans* family member or friend can vary greatly from person to person. In many ways, it looks exactly the same as being a good friend or support to anyone who is going through a significant life change. What are some ways you can support trans* people in your own life and community? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.