If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting the Handbook by becoming a Patron. Just $1 helps to support the site and ensure we can keep adding new resources for trans women. Thank you!
Transitioning genders is complex, emotional process, especially at the beginning. Most trans people have a circle of friends and family that want to support them, but struggle to understand what and how to do it best. Certainly, transitioning is growing more common, but most people still don’t have direct experience supporting a trans person. And that’s ok – we’re all in this process together.
So I wanted to write a post for everyone who is looking for advice, particularly someone at the start of their journey. I’ll talk about both the “Dos” and the “Don’ts”, as often times meaningful support is as much about what you do not do as it is about affirmative actions or words.
Things you can say and do
Tell them you love them. This is the first and most important thing you can do. Specifically, tell them you love the person they have been, and you’ll love the person they are becoming.
Someone sharing their true gender identity with you is an amazing act of trust and vulnerability. This person, who has gone through a lifetime of shame, trauma and general unhappiness, is opening up to those they love, and your first job is to love them back. They are likely terrified of the response and rejection they’ll get from you and everyone they know, so affirming this first is the most important thing you can do.
Ask how you can help to support them. Transitioning genders is a really complicated, expensive and challenging process. There are a thousand things that need to be done, learned, processed and shared. Asking how you can help is a powerful act in of itself; even if there is nothing specific you can do, the simple act of asking means you embrace and support their decision. This is incredibly affirming, and there may be some specific things that you can help with.
Ask questions about their experience. Trans people have spent a lifetime hiding a large part of who they are. Taking the time to ask questions about how they’ve felt, what their hopes and goals are, and what they’re feeling right now is a powerful form of love and connection. This is your chance to learn about a whole new part of someone you care about, so take the time to explore with them.
Offer to guide them. Being newly trans means having to learn and do almost everything in a new way. From buying clothes, to getting a haircut, to going to the doctor; almost every single day-to-day experience is new and can be really stressful to have to figure out on your own. Just like a native guide in a foreign country, you can help navigate the unknowns and provide a sense of comfort.
Educate yourself. Last, and not least, you can take the time to read about trans experience and learn about things like pronouns, dysphoria and the process (HRT, FFS, GRS, so many terms to learn!) This will help you to understand and connect with, at least a little bit, the trans journey, and will probably help to allay some of the fears and concerns you have.
Things not to say or do
Don’t assume and apply a trans stereotype. Being trans means different things to different people. Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of great examples in society right now of what a happy, successful trans person looks like. Most cis people assume that transition means turning into a drag-queen, or at best an awkward mess of a person. Don’t assume you know what the end goal of transition will look like, or mean, because you are probably wrong. Most trans people don’t even know themselves – transitioning is as much about exploring as it is about reaching a particular destination.
Don’t ask whether they’ve thought about the impacts (to life, family, career, etc). This is such a demeaning question. Especially for someone coming out in adulthood, the obvious answer is: “yes, of course I have”. We’ve spent a lifetime thinking about the impacts, and being afraid to be our true selves precisely because of those imagined fears. The fact that this person has decided to be open with you about their gender identify means that they have already decided the pain of hiding themselves far outweighs any transient negative impact on the rest of their life.
Don’t talk about your own fears. Right now, this is not about you. You may be feeling a lot of things, maybe its fear for their safety, or fear that they’ll be unhappy, or fear that it will reflect badly on you as a parent, spouse, etc. These are all real feelings, but you need to recognize that sharing them, at this moment with this person, is not appropriate. Trans people have spent a lifetime being defined by other people’s fear, and there is nothing more frustrating than having a conversation about their experience and goals be turned into one about you. I highly recommend you seek out a therapist or counselor if you’re feeling like your fear is overwhelming.
Don’t compare them to a gender ideal. Look, transitioning genders is awkward. We know that better than you ever can. It takes years and can require hormones, surgeries and lots of practice with new skills. Sometimes, the most well-meaning compliment can actually be really demoralizing, like the dreaded “Wow! You look like a real woman!” Or “You’ve made so much progress, you hardly look like a man anymore!” Instead, try a simple “You look great!”
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope it helps to provide some general tips you find helpful. And finally, please remember that the most important thing a trans person wants to be seen and loved for who they are, and who they will become.
I’d love to hear if you have your own suggestions in the comments.