Help! Somebody I love is transgender. Part 2: What should I say and do?
Welcome to the second part of my guide to being a good trans ally. As a trans woman, my goal with this guide was to provide a resource for cisgender (non-trans) people who have had a loved one come out to them as transgender and aren’t sure really what that means or what they should do about it.
In part one, we talked about what it means to be trans. Check that post out first if you haven’t seen it yet. Part two is going to be less theoretical and more practical — now that you understand what trans people mean when they talk to you about gender, we’re going to cover the best ways to show your love and support for your trans loved ones.
Before we get started, I’m going to repeat my disclaimer from part one. I’m just one trans woman, and I’m speaking primarily from personal experience. If something I say here differs from what your trans loved one told you about their experience, you should trust what they say over what I’ve written here.
Got it? Great. Let’s begin!
If someone comes out to you as trans, ask them what name and pronouns they’d like you to use.
Asking is always better than making an assumption and getting it wrong.
Many trans people change their name to better match their gender identity, but some don’t. A change in pronouns will also accompany transition in many cases, but you won’t know what pronouns someone wants to use until you ask. Most binary trans people use he/him or she/her, but there are all sorts of non-binary and gender fluid pronouns that folks can use if they want to. They/them is the most common one, but it’s far from the only option.
Point is, this is not a rude question to ask, especially if someone is coming out to you. A change in name and pronouns is often part of the expectation when coming out as trans, so it’s something you can feel comfortable discussing.
Avoid using someone’s deadname after they’ve come out to you.
The term “deadname” is a little more loaded than I’d prefer (I like “old name” myself), but the drama evoked by “deadname” does a good job of expressing just how much it can hurt to hear.
While some trans people are okay using their deadname to talk about the pre-transition part of their life, it’s best to err on the side of simply never using it. Some trans people have trauma associated with their deadname, and others simply don’t want to be reminded of that part of their past.
Definitely don’t say something like, “you’ll always be <deadname> to me!” As a trans woman, I can’t think of another seemingly innocent phrase that feels less validating. Your trans loved one is coming out to you because they aren’t <deadname> and don’t want you to treat them like <deadname>. If you want to support them, you have to be supportive of their chosen identity.
Try not to make a big deal about how hard it will be for you to use someone’s new name and pronouns.
Believe me, we get it. Thinking about someone you’ve loved for a long time in an entirely new way is difficult, and it’s hard for everybody to make name and pronoun switches. It will be somewhat difficult for you, and that’s okay.
Bemoaning this fact to your trans friend is a misstep, though. For one thing, it centers the narrative around your sense of feeling inconvenienced instead of on their journey. Your trans friend didn’t ask you to make a beer run in the middle of a blizzard — they’re trusting you with this exciting new chapter in their lives.
For another, it feels like you’re already pre-excusing yourself for all the times that you’re going to deadname and misgender them in the future. We get that the dead-naming and misgendering will happen — it always happens — but let’s at least pretend like it won’t?
Put your trans friend’s new name and pronouns into heavy use early on.
The easiest way to get someone’s name and pronouns right is to just practice using them a whole bunch. The more comfortable you get calling your old friend by their new name, the easier it’ll be for your brain to subconsciously call up the right name and pronouns later on.
Good news: your trans friend probably gets a little jolt of euphoria whenever they hear their new name and pronouns! So not only are you helping yourself, you’re doing a sweet thing for them, too.
Avoid the phrase “preferred pronouns.”
The word “preference” implies a choice — as in, her preferred side dish is a green salad, but she’ll be okay with the french fries if that’s all you’ve got.
My pronouns aren’t “preferred.” They’re just my pronouns. Same as yours. If you’re a woman who goes by she/her pronouns, then that’s not a preference — that’s just who you are.
If you deadname someone or use the wrong pronouns, quickly correct yourself and move on.
It happens. Heck, my own internal monologue will even get my name and pronouns wrong sometimes. That’s part of what happens when you’ve known someone as one gender for a long time and now you’re trying to get to know them as another.
If you quickly correct yourself “…so he — I mean she and I will go to the store together…”, we can all just move on with our lives. If you belabor the point “so he, OH GOSH I’M SO SORRY I MEAN SHE, SHE, THE LADY OVER THERE HAHA I CAN’T BELIEVE I DID THAT…,” it’s going to make your trans friend feel super self-conscious. It’s also going to put the onus on them to forgive you for your transgression and absolve you of your sins, which isn’t fair. Better to just get on with it and try to do better next time.
Try to avoid burdening your trans loved one with gender presentation expectations.
While some trans people will immediately start presenting as their true gender after coming out to you, many will not. Some trans folks feel like they can’t fully present at home or work for various social reasons, while others (like me) are still working through self-image hang-ups related to gender dysphoria. There are also plenty of trans folk whose personal style is always going to be gender-nonconforming.
Believe me, we’re aware that it would be easier for you to get our name and pronouns correctly if we dressed differently. Give us time, and let us discover ourselves on our own.
Avoid outing your trans friend.
Some trans people “pass” as their true gender, which means that random folks at a party or on the bus or whatever are most likely just going to assume that they are cisgender (non-trans). Other trans people don’t really pass or only pass at a glance. There are also plenty of trans people who don’t want to pass and think that the entire passing/not passing dichotomy is wrongheaded and inherently transphobic.
Regardless of whether you think your trans friend passes or not, however, please do not out them to everybody by saying something like, “Have you met Stacy, my transgender friend?” Just introduce them as your friend and use their correct name and pronouns. They may not want to discuss their gender transition with this particular group of people, or they may sense a threatening presence in that group that isn’t as obvious to you. No matter the reason, they should get to make that decision, not you.
Don’t assume that you have a better sense of who is “safe” for a trans person to come out to than they do.
If you’re a well-meaning ally who hasn’t waded too far into the world of online discourse, you might assume that all left-of-center people are full of love and support for the trans community. Unfortunately, that simply isn’t true. Transphobia exists everywhere, even within the queer community, and your trans friend probably has a better idea than you do of who might not be fully supportive of their transition.
It’s also important to be aware of TERFs. “TERF” stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist, and it’s a group of (mostly older, middle class, and white) women who feel as if the existence of trans women is somehow threatening to their womanhood — as if we’re going to hoard all the feminism for ourselves or something. There aren’t actually as many TERFs out there as it seems (they’re very loud in online spaces), but it definitely makes me pause before coming out to women who fit that potential demographic.
Even if you know for sure that your friend is not a TERF, be respectful of your trans friend’s feelings. Remember that the stakes are much higher for them, especially if they’re newly out. As with the trans friend who “passes,” the trans friend who is not publicly out yet should also get to choose who to discuss their transition with and when.
Learn the proper terminology.
It’s actually simpler than it seems. Here’s a handy guide to the adjectives:
- Trans is short, simple, and always okay to use.
- Transgender is also fine!
- Transsexual is a dated word that you should avoid using unless you’re singing along to The Rocky Horror Picture Show by yourself. Remember Part 1: being trans is about gender identity, not biological sex, so use the word with ‘gender’ in it instead of the word with ‘sex’ in it.
- Tr*nny is a slur. Do not ever use it in any context.
Another piece of language advice: try to avoid statements like “she identifies as a woman.” Just like with “preferred pronouns,” The use of “identifies as” implies that being trans is a choice. Try to use more direct language e.g.: “she is a woman,” or “his pronouns are he/him.”
Speaking of language, get comfortable with the term “cisgender.”
While some cis people are uncomfortable being called cisgender, it’s an important term to have access to. And it’s not derogatory — it’s just Latin for “not trans.”
Trans is an ancient Latin prefix that means “on the other side of,” while cis is an ancient Latin prefix that means “on this side of.” That’s all. Their twin uses in language go back hundreds of years, mostly in geography and organic chemistry. When we needed a term to talk about people who aren’t transgender, cisgender was the clear and obvious choice from a linguistic perspective.
In my experience, most of the folks who get worked up about the word “cis” are at least somewhat transphobic. (“I’m not a cis woman! I’m just a REGULAR woman!”) Normalizing the term in day-to-day language will go a long way toward helping normalize trans identities, too.
Don’t ask your trans loved one if they’re going to get “The Surgery” — at least not right away.
Here’s a pro tip: if you don’t have the kind of relationship with a trans person where you’d feel comfortable asking them about their genitals in some other context, you probably shouldn’t ask them about gender reassignment surgery (GRS) either.
Most of the trans people I know are tired of getting asked about their junk. It’s one of the first things that cis people ask about, and it tends to come up at inappropriate times and from inappropriate sources. Not only is this a boundary violation, but it feels like we’re being reduced to our anatomy; as if I can’t be “a real girl” without a vagina.
Many trans people either have had or are planning to have GRS, but it’s probably a smaller number of us than you think. Most trans men prioritize breast removal (top surgery), while a majority of trans women (at least according to a recent Twitter poll I saw) prioritize facial feminization surgery (FFS) over GRS.
Bottom line, it’s true that many trans people have genital dysphoria, and many others have a deep desire for genitals that conform to their gender identity. It’s not nearly as big a priority or as identity-defining a thing as cis people make it out to be, though. You should probably not be asking your trans loved one about their own personal feelings unless you’ve had a lot of deep conversations with them about other aspects of their identity first.
If you’re planning a gendered activity, don’t forget to include your trans friend.
If you’re planning a girls’ night, invite your trans gal friend.
If you’re having the boys over for a beer, invite your trans guy friend.
This is one of the kindest things you can do for a newly out trans person, and feeling like I could finally have honest and true female friendships with my girl friends was one of the things I was most excited about when I started my transition. If you treat your trans friend just like you would treat any of your other friends of that gender, they’ll thank you for it.
Avoid telling your trans friend how lucky they are to have avoided certain gendered experiences.
I can only speak to this from a transfeminine perspective, but yes, I am aware that periods are unpleasant. Shockingly enough, the fact that I’m incapable of ever getting pregnant has even crossed my mind once or twice!
It’s totally okay if you’d prefer not to have a uterus, but I never got to make that choice. Telling me that I’m lucky not to have one really feels crappy and invalidating.
(Also, many trans women actually do have periods. Seriously. There are articles about it and everything.)
Don’t mourn the loss of the person that your friend “used to be.” Celebrate the person they’re becoming.
Some cis folks react to transition like it’s a death in the family. They’ll talk at length about how they’re going to miss <deadname>, and they’ll mourn the loss of that person as if they’d literally passed away and been replaced by somebody else.
First of all, this has some weird implications about the importance of gender. Did you value your friend’s masculinity or femininity so much that their transition feels like a literal death? I assure you, your trans loved one will still like all the same things and engage with you on all the same topics after they transition. They’ll just be a happier, truer, and better version of themselves.
This line of thinking also places a burden of guilt on your trans friend for taking someone you love away from you. Your trans friend didn’t kill their closeted self, and getting to this place probably took a lot of inner strength and courage. Try to accept and celebrate that, if you can.
Try to engage respectfully instead of avoiding the topic.
After reading this giant list of things not to say and do, I understand the impulse to try and avoid the topic of transition entirely. It can be tempting to say something like, “your gender doesn’t matter to me, I love you no matter what,” and then simply go back to treating your trans loved one the same way you always have. After all, you wouldn’t want to risk offending them by saying the wrong thing.
This is certainly a better reaction than pestering your trans friend with questions about their genitals, and it’s not a bad tactic to take with someone you don’t know very well. But if your trans loved one is a close friend or family member, chances are they don’t just want to leave it at that.
When I come out to someone I really love, what I’m really looking for is an acknowledgement that they are going to make a real effort to see me as a woman from now on. I don’t expect it to happen right away, but I’d like to see the wheels of progress start to churn inside their mind. Often, this requires a conversation with true emotional engagement. I’m always amazed at how much better everyone’s hit rate is on my name and pronouns once we’ve had a real conversation about my transition.
As with everything, try to respect the wishes of your trans loved one above all. If it’s clear that they’re emotionally exhausted and don’t want to talk about their transition for the hundredth time, you should acknowledge that and avoid pestering them. But if a friend or family member takes you out to lunch to come out to you, chances are they want to talk about their transition, even if it’s only for a little while. Try to be as respectful as you can, but avoiding the topic because it makes you uncomfortable or you’re scared to say the wrong thing puts them in kind of an awkward situation.
Do your best to call out transphobia and act as a trans ally, even when your trans loved one isn’t around.
The world can be a scary place for trans people, and a lot of casual transphobia can occur just outside the peripheral vision of most visible trans people. Believe me, I know — everybody thought I was a cis guy for more than thirty years, and I was party to all sorts of awful casual transphobia.
If you really want to be an ally to your friend, you should do what you can to call this stuff out whenever you can. I know it can be uncomfortable, but it’s the only way to truly make the world a better, safer place. Support for trans people also includes political support, and you cannot call yourself a trans ally if you support bigoted politicians.
Lastly, I suggest bookmarking this post and sharing it with folks who are at a loss with what to say or do around trans people. It’s important to normalize transness and trans acceptance, and sending people toward accurate sources of information about trans people is one of the best ways to do that.
I’ll also work on assembling a page of links to other trans essayists so that their voices can be boosted, too. If you’re a trans person and you’ve got a favorite resource that you’d like to share, please add it in the comments.