I’ve had a few people lately mention, or ask about, someone in their life who’s come out as transgendered. People have a lot of questions, and not a lot of places to get answers. As both a trans woman and a person who’s been in the position of answering these questions before, I thought I’d offer a little advice.
First off, though, a disclaimer: there are no universal trans experiences. Every journey, personality and circumstances are different. All I can do is offer advice from my experiences.
So here we go. 10 simple tips to being the best partner/friend/parent/sibling/child/whatever you can be when someone in your life comes out as trans.
The absolute most important thing I can tell you, as obvious as it may sound, is that you need, need to be understanding. Coming out is one of the hardest things a person can do, and believe me when I tell you it’s the easiest part of the transition process. What follows can takes months, more likely years, and they will be some of the hardest months and years they will face. They will be exhausted, fragile, temperamental and frustrated pretty much all of the time. You’ll be off to a great start if you can understand that, and remember that as often as you can.
2. It’ll be hard on you, too
Depending on your level of closeness, you may find the transition a little difficult, or a lot. You’ll be inundated with more new information, emotions and language, and they’ll present you with a whole bevy of challenges that you won’t know how to deal with.
And that’s okay.
It would be unreasonable to expect you to to just glide through this transition, unaffected and prepared for everything. That’s fine. Just don’t try to compare your hard time to theirs, or blame them for the difficulty you’re having. Whether or not you think that’s fair, it’s just a shitty thing to do.
This should pretty much be number one, but I really wanted to get those other things out of the way first. Still, since it’s so important, I’m going to say it again.
Nobody knows what your trans friend needs more than they do. Your first source for what will help them, what will hurt them, and exactly how it is that they’re feeling, should always be them. I don’t care if some fancy textbook told you some fundamental truth about the transgender experience, if they tell you something else, that’s what’s true for them.
One warning, though. Just because they’re the best place to get your questions answered, doesn’t mean they automatically have your answers. Coming out as trans doesn’t immediately fill you with knowledge. It’s a terrifying, confusing and fluid process, and what they feel one day may not be true the next. They might not know what they want from you to make things easier. If they have something to say, listen. If they can’t tell you what you need to know, don’t push it.
4. When in doubt, ask
Seems so simple, doesn’t it? And yet, somehow, it seems to escape so many people. If you don’t know what to do, or say, or how to act, ask. Ask sincerely, and when appropriate, carefully, but do ask. Even if you fumble the question and accidentally offend them, they’ll appreciate the effort, and you’ll learn something, and probably still get your question answered.
Some questions are best asked in private. Some are better public. If in doubt, go for the former.
5. You are going to screw up
It’s just a fact of things. At some point, probably at several points, you’re going to say the wrong thing, or do the wrong thing, and you’re going to upset them. I’m sorry about that.
When it happens, deal with it respectfully. Don’t get defensive, don’t try to deflect or avoid blame. You screwed up. Deal with it. Maybe you didn’t know any better, maybe you just didn’t think. Doesn’t matter. If you want to be the best partner/friend/whatever you can be- Hell, if you want to be the best person you can be- just own up to it. Apologise, try to understand what you did wrong, and learn from it. It’s all a part of the process, and if they don’t understand that, they soon will.
Speaking from experience, when someone’s done something and it’s upset me, it is immediately lessened when they acknowledge that I’ve been hurt, and ask how to avoid it in the future. Conversely, people who got defensive (or worse, aggressive) have just made me want to either scream or crawl into a dark hole and cry until they go away.
6. They have a lot to learn, too
I mentioned this before, but being transgendered does not automatically fill you with knowledge about being transgendered. Actually, it really just leads to a whole lot of confusion. Being trans means becoming familiar with parts of yourself that nobody else ever has to think about. Have you ever had to navigate the relationship between your body and your gender, then layered on your sexuality and the way you present yourself? It gets really fucking complicated, and confusing, and nobody ever seems to understand.
As a thought experiment, stop and think about what gender means to you. How do you know you are what you are? What’s the difference between male and female, really? What does it mean when there are people who are neither male nor female, or both?
More than that, they probably don’t know a whole lot about their own gender, either. Growing up as what everyone thought was a boy, I was never taught to apply make-up, or how bra sizes work, or or even how to assemble an outfit composed of traditionally feminine clothing. I had to learn all that and more the hard way, and when I got things wrong, people were harsh.
So, maybe they don’t ‘do’ their gender very well at first, or ever. First of all, that doesn’t even fucking matter. Gender has nothing to do with how you do it. Second of all, don’t hold them to unreasonable standards. Be supportive, encouraging and where appropriate, help guide them. Lastly, if they feel good about how they look, or act, don’t you ever tell them otherwise, because that feeling is as hard to come by as the gold at the end of a rainbow, and if you take that away from them, well, you shouldn’t need me to explain what kind of a person that makes you.
7. They are more than just their transition
Here’s a thing that I felt, especially in the early stages. It was overwhelming, crushing, exhausting and humiliating. For months, all I felt like was a person transitioning. It was all anyone seemed to care about, all they wanted to talk about, all they wanted me to be. Everything else about me fell by the wayside, and I hated it.
Do not make their transition everything. It will be all-consuming enough as it is, don’t feed that feeling. Try to remind them that they have other aspects you are interested in, and care about. Try to make it through some encounters without ever even mentioning it. Distract them from the constant barrage of everything that’s on their mind, just for a little bit. And when they’re ready to bring it up, that’s when it’s time to listen.
8. Sometimes, you just won’t understand
You just won’t. So much of the transition process is not only unique to trans people, it’s unique to that particular individual. Everyone has a different relationship with their own gender identity and presentation, and no amount of talking or reading or researching will let you understand that. When that happens, just accept it, and offer your support and love in whatever fashion they need. You don’t have to understand to be there for them.
9. You’re not entitled to anything
They don’t owe you anything. Not information, or explanations, or time. They don’t owe you gratitude for being such a great support, or time spend with you because they’ve been too exhausted or busy or distracted to hang out with you lately. If you don’t understand something, it’s not their responsibility to make sure you do. If you don’t know something, they don’t have to teach you.
10. Final tips
Lastly, I want to leave you with just a few general tips to help you handle everything better. As always, when in doubt, ask.
- Pronouns – Use the appropriate ones. It seems so easy, but you may find it trickier than you think. If you find yourself slipping up, practice. Repeat it out loud when they’re not around, pick your friends up when they get it wrong and ask them to do the same. Speaking from experience, there’s nothing that takes the wind out of your sails faster than being misgendered, especially by a friend.
- Stereotypes – Avoid them. Don’t point out behaviour of theirs that is atypical of their identified gender. Don’t put expectations of them (regardless of gender, but you’ll find it worse when you expect gender specific behaviour of their non-identified gender). For instance, when people expect me to act in masculine ways, it makes me super mad. When people describe something I say or do as masculine, it makes me super mad. “That’s such a guy thing to do”/”You had a boy look, didn’t you?” Obviously, you don’t have to specifically point out a gender for that kind of phrase to sting, I just wanted to make my examples obvious.
- Gendered words – Try to be aware of the connotations of the language you use. Don’t call a trans woman a bastard, call her a bitch (if you must). Don’t call her ‘mate’ or ‘dude’ or ‘bro’. Don’t end sentences in ‘man’, even if it’s not directed at her. It’s too easy to be sensitive to those things, and even if they don’t seem bothered, don’t take the risk.
- Terms to avoid – These will vary from person to person, so I’ll just talk about my own personal preferences. I hate being described as a ‘woman trapped in a man’s body’ – it’s a lazy shorthand that completely misses the point of my experience, and I don’t have a man’s body. I’m a woman, and therefore my body is a woman’s body. It’s not the one I’d like it to be, or what might be typically recognised as a woman’s body, but it is, because I say it is. Try to avoid using MtF or FtM (male-to-female or female-to-male) unless you can’t think of a better way to express that. I was never male, even if I identified that way once. I have always been female, I just didn’t always realise that, because I was never told I could be something other than what everyone said I was. Some generally accepted alternatives are MAAB and FAAB (Male/Female Assigned At Birth). Definitely don’t ever say tranny. Just… don’t. Don’t describe a trans person as ‘bigender’ unless you specifically understand what that means. Bigender is closer to genderqueer or genderfluid, two wholly separate identities and not really appropriate to most trans men and women. Avoid ‘chicks with dicks’ and any euphemisms. And, honestly, it’s usually a safe bet to not talk about gender-specific body parts unless you’ve been told it’s okay. Don’t talk about a trans woman’s cock or a trans man’s pussy. I mean, really, don’t talk about anyone’s genitals without their approval, but it’s especially important here.
- Out but not ‘out’ – Not every trans person comes out to everyone at once. In fact, pretty much none do. They’ll start with a small circle, and expand bit by bit as they become more and more comfortable/confident/frustrated/any other number of reasons. You need to always be aware of this. If you’re with people that they haven’t yet come out to, do not out them. You may have to revert to the incorrect pronouns for a while, and neither of you will like it, but if they’re not out to those people, there’s a reason for that, and you need to respect that. Once again, the golden rule applies: when it doubt, ask. A question as simple as “Hey, what pronouns do you want me to use when we have lunch with your parents?” or “How do you want me to gender you when we go shopping?” can alleviate a whole lot of stress on both sides.
- Questions not to ask – This is getting long, so I’ll keep this short. Don’t ask about genitals, sex, sexuality, partners or anything similar unless it’s specifically been invited. Don’t ask questions that they might not want to answer, like “How are your parents taking it?” (also, that phrasing is particularly gross. Sounds like you gave them bad news, and becoming aware of your gender identity is never bad news). If, for whatever reason, you don’t know their birth name (many trans people change their names to a more gender appropriate one), don’t ask about it! They changed it for a reason.
And that’s pretty much it. Nothing else to mention. We’re all done here.
Nope. Look, this is barely even scraping the surface. Chances are, you have a bunch more questions, and that’s great. The fact that you’re taking the effort to learn already puts you ahead of a huge chunk of the population, so congratulations. If you want to know more, I’m happy to answer any questions I can. There will always be some questions only your trans friend/whatever can answer, and some that I just can’t. But if you need another source of information, I’m friendly, open and eager to help. Drop me an ask on tumblr or just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll do whatever I can to help, inform, and guide you.
And please, take care of your new trans friend. They need you.